French Friday: Driving in the USA

Travel guides should mention that driving is one of the best ways to catch a genuine glimpse of what a country really is.

In the early 1990s, I found driving in the San Francisco Bay Area an extraordinary lesson.

“Look!” my husband exclaimed whenever we drove on highway One-O-One or Two- Eighty.

For a man who loved cars he was spoiled. No French Renault, Citroen or Peugeot but lots of BMWs, Mercedes. We had not seen as many in Europe, except in Germany. And of course lots of mythic American cars. They had filled my husband’s imagination when he was a little boy growing up in the Parisian suburbs. These cars, however fancier, shinier and faster than most French vehicles, ambled along highways.

“Why do they stay in the same lanes?” I asked when I noticed that the drivers kept the same speed, oblivious of fast and slow lanes. In comparison to French roads, American roads were in poor condition. Could it explain why the vast majority of people drove within the speed limit, which was lower than it was in France?

“I cannot believe it,” my husband said, as he passed once a red Corvette from the right lane, something forbidden in France but apparently okay in California.

“Your hands on the wheel!” I said, glancing at the Corvette still inching its way in the fast lane. A woman in her fifties was applying mascara while holding a mug. “Unbelievable” I added, caught between disbelief and awe.

“You know,” my husband said, a smile growing on his lips. “It’s cool here! Honestly I was tired of the morning race on the périph.”

“Agree, the beltway was crazy, but I don’t think it’s cool to see them putting on makeup while driving.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Like it or not, you are going to learn how to drive here, remember?”

No, I would not be able to bail out. We were lucky to live downtown Palo Alto, but I knew that I would have to get my driver’s license to live a true American life.

I really got a perfect score on my driving written test.

My husband had a point: Driving in the USA was more relaxing than in France but the rules were strange.

People waited patiently at stop signs, respecting the first-come-first-served-American-principle like a Bible commandment – no, it would never work in France. Unlike the French who never spoke to strangers in the street but cursed at each other from their cars, the Americans talked a lot everywhere except when they drove. Behind the wheel, they seemed blind and deaf. Most of the time, they didn’t use their blinker and they hogged the passing lane, while eating, drinking, or even reading the paper. No wonder the American drove cars with automatic gearshifts. In France, drivers needed their two hands and two feet.


We drove a similar car in our early years in California.

Even more than cars themselves, their customized license plates puzzled us when we first arrived. In France, at that time, all cars were registered in the driver’s département of residence –similar to an American state, only much, much smaller.

Map of France with the départements. I’ve lived in the 61, 14 and 75.

When we drove in California, plates such as: BCHDYZ, ZUUUMZM, BZ OMA, or ET 4 EVR triggered our immediate interest. We spent lots of time deciphering them. It was satisfying when we understood they actually meant something and amusing when we could read them as well as natives. Well, what we understood didn’t mean that we exactly got the meaning. Customized license plates are similar to jokes. The best ones don’t easily translate and some customized American plates sometimes fall flat when read by a French person. Years later when our children could read they would sometimes laugh at some license plates that their parents didn’t find especially funny.

Besides license plates, their frames fascinated me. They hinted at many interesting American character traits. This country, I discovered with amazement, is full of alumni, sports fans, bragging dogs’ owners, proud parents, even prouder grandparents, bigheaded guys, people who’d rather do something else (preferably something expensive or gutsy), be somewhere else (preferably a posh location), and lots of people with strong beliefs.

Years later, “I’d rather be” makes more sense than in the 1990s. After all, a country that pursues a permanent quest toward eternal youth and a shinier future can only wish to be somewhere else or to do something else.

More than two decades have passed since these early discoveries. All over the country people drive much faster than they did when I first drive in the US. Yet American drivers remain much more courteous than anywhere in the world. And yes, their cars are still their second homes where they phone and text rather than read the paper. Applying makeup, shaving and brushing teeth still occur.

And what about those bumper stickers that triggered my curiosity and my father’s remarks when he visited us in our early days in the US?

Like me, he immediately observed that American cars voiced political views. His surprise came from the fact that no one seemed to mind, even when people passed each other and shared drastically different beliefs.

Personne ne klaxonne et ne fait de queue de poisson, my father said.

He was right: Nobody honked or cut somebody up. It wouldn’t work in France, my father concluded.

What he meant is that it would have triggered heated debate, something that I sometimes missed in California where everyone respected everyone so much that people preferred to agree rather than starting an argument. On the other side, the French openly voiced their political opinions but wouldn’t display them on bumper stickers, respecting the infamous French privacy but perhaps (I started to wonder) fearing possible confrontation.

During the last presidential campaign I quickly noticed the relative absence of bumper stickers throughout the United States. Clearly the most unpleasant campaign since my arrival in the US, I wondered if we had reached the moment where we feared our fellow citizens’ opinions so much that we were no longer able to agree to disagree.

Then I spotted aggressive statements. Which could only make any reasonable person’s blood pressure skyrocket and much worse deepen the divide between us. Maybe, I thought, it would be better to go sans bumper stickers.

In the 1990s I missed the meaning of some statements, something that I can no longer pretend. Soon I will be driving through our big country again. So I’ve decided to simply ignore the mean and ugly and pay attention to the heartfelt.

Peace messages have made a huge comeback. Yeah, they hint to another era, but peace is never old-fashioned, right?  Earth and environment stickers are also a big hit. Animals make great bumper stickers. Whether tamed or wild, they remind us that we are companions on this one planet.

And of course there is always the So-Many-Sticker-Car we always pass at some point on one these road trips.

This kind of car suggests a country that remains so unselfconscious it can be funny.

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  1. There’s a so-many-stickers car in our little town. Stickers ALL OVER! They’re all stickers with which I agree, so I’m always happy to see it. One day, I was reading the car when the owner came out. She and I were delighted to meet someone else with the same peace-and-love sensibility, in a community where the majority, while kind in person, are aggressive in their bumper sticker opinions.

    • This is so cool, Maria. Love this kind of stories. I used to have a bumper sticker from a Maine beach. One morning a father stopped me at the kids’ school. He was from Maine and never thought someone living in California could know this small beach where he had been so often as a child. Thank you for visiting me!

  2. hmmm…maybe I’m in the minority but I can’t stand bumper stickers. I prefer my car to be plain. I do laugh at a few of them, though. Especially those sporting “peace-loving” stickers but who drive like complete jerks…

    • I go sans bumper stickers too. As soon as President Obama became the Democrat candidate for the 2008 election I proudly displayed a sticker supporting him. I was cut, honked at and worse. In California. My son who was eleven noticed and I removed the sticker, fearing an incident. So as much as I loved the American boldness in the 1990s I agree that now…
      And yes, I’ve also noticed that some people advertising strong principles don’t apply them to their own driving 🙂
      Hope all is well for you!

  3. I drive fairly often from Connecticut to Boston. That’s a different kind of driver. I’ve driven in the south, up and down the west coast and in the middle of America. The northeast seems to have the most challenging people, but Pittsburgh, western PA and West Virginia have always been the most challenging combination of terrain and people.

    • You sum it up pretty well, Dan 🙂
      Boston and New England are quite similar to France: fast but not necessary agressive. Any place closer to a major city and suburbs get more challenging in terms of driving. The SF Bay area and the DC area are the worst for me. Be careful out there 🙂

  4. I imagine some of the driving was quite hair-raising for you Evelyn. But you made a delightful post about it. 😀 One of the most frightening drives (segments of a drive from NM to DC) was leaving the mountains of Knoxville, TN during morning rush hour. Multiple lanes of traffic, steeply downhill (it was a mountain after all) and curving, bumper-to-bumper traffic at 70 miles an hour. Yikes!
    Have a great weekend. Hugs.

  5. A lovely article, bumper stickers are a true part of American folklore. One of the things I hate about France is how stressful and aggressive some drivers can be.

    • Thank you, Miss Trouvailles. That’s why I hope stickers will remain, without being agressive. Some amuse me when stuck in traffic. As for France, yes, driving is more stressful there. Depends also where you live. My mother lives in a quiet part of Normandy where it’s fairly cool. The only thing that I hate is how people tailgate so much 🙂

  6. 😊❤
    Maybe these type of stickers would help make the world a better place?!

  7. I’m french, I live in France and I have some stickers on a car with automatic gearbox. And sometimes I eat in the car …wow, am I American ? :p
    In France, i noticed that we have more SUV than ever, like in the US but that’s all. There are still manual gearboxes, drivers with no education, no respect for speedlimits and Stop. Yesterday someone hit my wing mirror, because he didn’t care of priority.
    So, welcome in France… take the train!

    • Yes, I’ve noticed that more French cars bear stickers now. Don’t forget, I wrote about the 1990s. Back then nobody I knew drove an automatic and the biggest car was the Espace Renault:)
      I’ve also noticed the big SUVs which seem way too large in comparison to the size of France.
      In general I find French drivers better drivers than the average American, but far more agressive.
      But, like you say, you get public transportation. So challenging in the US. It would help traffic a lot, though.
      Wish you well on the roads or … train 🙂

  8. That was interesting, because the part where you find us the most … how did you put it, Courteous? baffles me and makes me fearful of driving elsewhere! Hah!
    I’ve just told my husband about it and he said, “Oh dear God.” lol

    • Oh yeah, Americans are more courteous in any aspect of life. Really, believe me. Of course, there are the occasional j—. But all together, whether on the road or at the supermarket, courtesy remains an American way of life.
      Let’s make sure we remain respectful toward each other and united.

  9. So interesting to learn about the differences Evelyne, I see exactly what you mean by learning a lot about a country from driving, the way you draw conclusions about the two cultures is fascinating.

    • I never had to drive in France and once in a while I wonder if I would have ever learned. This sudden move to the US changed this fact. And I love driving 🙂
      Mundane things tell often much more of a country than any book or travel guide can tell.
      So nice to see you again, Andrea.

  10. I always thought that people who learn on manual transmission cars are always better drivers. We understand how the car works. What the gears do. What it means to change gears.

    We noticed both the lack of bumper stickers AND a lack of lawn signs through the entire process. I think everyone felt it was too hot a subject to get into it. I think they were — and are — right. It’s not the way it should be, but that’s the way it is. At least right now.

    • Agree on both of your points.
      I learned how to drive with a shift but the car kept stalling and I missed my first behind-the-wheels test. I was too focused on the car and not enough on the road:)
      Now I drive an automatic.
      This last campaign was ugly-hot and I am the first one to admit that I feared reactions and avoided the risk. Even through conversations it felt sometimes possible to start an argument.
      I saw once two houses next to each other with two lawn signs supporting the two candidates. Always wondered how these neighbors acted together. Was it a sign for all of us to show that we could disagree and yet share the same neighborhood?
      Never rang the bell to ask:)

  11. Behind the Story says:

    When we moved to the Philippines, I learned a new way of driving. There seemed to be no rules besides try your best to get away with whatever you can. If you pretend not to see the other driver, then you don’t have to stop for him. I got used to it. It was more intuitive than rule-based. When we returned to the US, I had to remind myself to follow rules and be polite.

    In this past election period, I was afraid to put a bumper sticker for Hillary on my car. A friend with a Hillary sticker was chased and forced off the road by Trump supporters in two separate episodes. I wasn’t prepared to fight at 70 MPH.

    • Your driving experience in the Philippines makes me smile. Yes we get used to pretty much everything. Which is a terrific human asset.
      I get your reluctance about your bumper sticker. Someone I know had a magnetic one that he would remove when he felt it necessary.
      Too bad that it seems so hard to remain civil despite our different opinions.
      Best to you.

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