When I was a child, I was driven down France each summer holiday. From the back seat I had little comment to make about the quality of French driving, but occasionally my father would cause general mortification amongst his children when, in response to some particularly egregious example of continental motoring, he would wind down the window and roar “you stupid French wally” at the hapless owner of the offending vehicle.
It is perhaps because of these childhood experiences that I am predisposed to feeling a mixture of contempt and shame whenever I find myself driving in this country. This discomfort has not been alleviated by the tendency of many French drivers to rest their left elbows on their car horns. No sooner have I begun to relax behind the wheel than a car horn will blare and I sit bolt upright, checking my rear view mirrors in a frenzied attempt to locate the source of the noise and desperately reflecting on which of my many driving failures could have occasioned such a loud and public reprimand. The rest of my drive is invariably conducted in a state of nervous bafflement.
This problem was at its very worst when we first arrived in Lyon, still driving our conspicuously British car. Not only did entire families of pedestrians turn to gawp at us as we puttered past, but word had clearly got out that some sport could be had in beeping at the foreigners who had materialised on the mean streets of our village. We were papped almost every day, in the act of waiting at junctions, of turning left, and, most frequently, in turning into the gates of our house, where we risked being beeped at by several cars at once for the heinous crime of going home. At first we were cowed by this apparent criticism of our earnest attempts to manoeuvre our car through a tight gap without depriving it of a wing mirror or adorning its bodywork with a large cavity. However, after about two weeks of feeling insulted and cowed behind the wheel we adapted to local custom and started to reduce our speed to the point of insolence with every fresh beep, and to gesticulate and swear with abandon at those daring to pap us.
Since that time we have become the proud owners of no less than two strikingly Gallic vehicles (a Peugeot and a Citroen) and we are beeped far less frequently. Coming, however, as we do, from a country where the car horn is used almost solely to alert others to danger, and conforming, as we try to do, to every single letter of the Highway Code, being beeped at all is difficult to accept. In an attempt to lessen bruising to my ego, I have decided to get to grips with the causes of my humiliation by conducting a study of the psychology of beeping in and around Lyon.
My first discovery has been that car horns are most commonly used to compensate for the deficiencies of French traffic lights, which, unlike their UK counterparts, are frequently placed to the side of the waiting car (rather than ahead of it) and are thus rendered invisible to the driver of that car in the event of even the slightest overshoot of the junction. This flaw, combined with the lack of a red-and-amber signal to prepare waiting traffic for the arrival of a green light, means that French drivers have to resort to beeping their horns to let the car at the head of the queue know that it is permitted to go. Rather than wait to see whether the car at the head of the queue is in need of any such prompt, many drivers pap their horns pre-emptively.
I have also discovered that car horns serve as a useful alert when drivers are in the process of breaking the speed limit. It is a means of announcing to pedestrians and fellow motorists that the transgressor is coming down the road far too fast but that, nonetheless, they do not wish to kill anybody, thereby allowing potential victims to leap out of the way. Car horns are thus the ethical face of speeding. On our stretch of road, this tactic has the added bonus of serving as an occasional alarm clock during the night.
My third observation has been that car horns substitute nicely for conversation in heavy traffic. So it is that when one finds oneself in the middle of a tedious standstill on the motorway, it is possible to complain about it with fellow drivers without ever leaving the comfort of one’s own car. One car will beep “oh merde, zis embouteillage is insupportable”. To this a car two rows back will respond, “mais oui, my wife, she is waiting chez moi with a tasty coq au vin”. A furious red number further up in the queue will interject with a loud pap that translates as “you back zere have seen nuzzin yet: I have been in zis abomination for trois whole minutes now”. In this way, much like the accordion, the car horns which at first sounded like a terrible cacophony to English ears take on a sort of rustic charm and help you to pass the time. I think that even I could learn to like them.