Everywhere a sign
As a student now of French language, French driving permit, and French culture in the everyday all at the same time, I am learning much lately about ordinary public signage which I have until now taken for granted.
Some of what I am learning makes me less dangerous to my fellow citizens. One example is the yellow diamond that, despite being near-ubiquitous on all roadways at very regular short intervals, is so nondescript that I had completely overlooked it.
If you had pointed out these yellow diamond signs to me before my driving test, I would have sworn never to have seen one in my life, and if you had asked me to guess what it meant, I would have said that it was probably a highway boundary reflector to keep you from running absently off-road into the ditch while fussing with the radio.
Incorrect. The yellow diamond actually means that the route you are on is NOT subject to the dreaded priorité à droite.
Fine. An assurance of the negative of an unnatural thing. I wasn’t expecting priorité à droite anyway. Call me an optimist. So the French government keeps a bunch of people employed to put up signs to say that the normal way of doing things still applies – each and every kilometer. Also, your car must stay bottom-side down.
But! Unfortunately there also occurs at times the much more crucially important and mercifully very rare opposite of this sign, the black sash across the yellow diamond. This means – horribly – that priorité à droite actually applies on that route, except where otherwise specifically noted.
I could have been killed. That I could have killed others bothers me less, as those others would necessarily have been on the driver’s side of the vehicle while practicing their right to priorité à droite, which, as any expat can tell you, is the worst, most nonsensical thing in the world, the singularly unfortunate legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, and as unintuitive as skating backwards or sticking your head in an alligator’s mouth.
What this little black-sash diamond means is that traffic entering a route from your right has the right of way, and does not have to stop, must not stop, though you are the one barreling straight sally-forth forward with no warning sign at all – especially not a stop sign.
You, the oncoming traffic, have the responsibility of stopping and yielding potential passage, sometimes out of sheer intuition. As in farmers lurching out of their driveways at full speed on tractors to hang a right on the road you are driving on. As in buses coming through the center of a village without stopping at the big central intersection to turn right, but just careening around the corner at full speed with the “default” right of way over everyone else. As in factory exits which function as right-angled trumps over main roads. As in if you actually do stop when you yourself have the rare priorité à droite, then you are in the wrong and holding up the oncoming straight-ahead traffic that has already stopped for you!
This explains much about why so many more horns have been blown at me in the country than in the city. I had thought that the rural French were just that much more vibrant.
I must also point out that there seems to me to be a generational difference in the delight that one takes in claiming the rare priorité à droite. The older generations – particularly the very aged, those who perhaps remember Napoleon personally (you never have to renew your driver’s license in France, it’s good til death and some say beyond) – seem to relish this holdout and will actually attempt purposefully to smash into you from the right, with attendant antique hand signage (another post) and colorful curses, etc., when pre-empted. This is their legal right, and I suppose the older you get the less as a percentage you have to lose on the risk.
I am in any case glad that I can now see the yellow diamonds for what they are, though now I cuss every kilometer when I see the next one, because now, even on the majority of roads naturally not subject to that ancient holdout law from the days of wagons and swordfights, I am reminded constantly that, yes, it still can happen in France.
Act very surprised
Another common sign that I had noticed but which had hitherto only made me laugh is the exclamation point in a triangle. I have variously considered this to mean Act Surprised!, Wax Emphatic!, Interesting!, Yell!, Yay!, Really Wow! and You’ll Never Guess What Comes Next!
And that last interpretation is not far from the truth. This sign actually signals that some type of danger lies ahead. I want it changed to skull and crossbones or something a little more universally precise in dire semiotic warning than what in my own language’s syntax amounts to a cheery emoticon.
Another kind of sign that is everywhere in daily life that I had failed to notice is the Entrée Libre sign on most shop doors. Not just Entrée, but Entré LIBRE.
I had just assumed that meant Free Admittance, which it does, but I had not questioned why admittance should not be free, or granted. These are retail establishments, after all.
While it is true in France that a retail vendor will routinely refuse to sell you his or her goods for any number of reasons (nothing to sell, already sold out, reserved [either me or the goods], you didn’t make an appointment, one of the three official coffee breaks, having a smoke, World Cup, vacation starting tomorrow, too close to closing time, I’m tired, I’m agitated, I’m excited, you don’t speak French well enough to qualify, worthy people don’t need to shop, we don’t need the money… because Socialism, I’m only watching the shop for my daughter but don’t actually know how to work the cash register, you should not even be here, I don’t feel like it, angst, etc.), the sign on the door does not actually any longer have an opposite, Entrée Pas Libre.
It turns out that Entrée just marks the entry to a shop, but in olden times not all shops were licensed or willing to sell to the public in any case at all. Today that Entrée Libre amounts to a Welcome sign. But its roots lie in another era when both wholesalers to the trade and by-appointment better-than-thou aristocratic snoots alike (even the Ancien Régime needed house slippers) would insist than an entrant into their places of business be there to actually exchange money – or get out. The right to enter at all came by way of an appointment or at least belonging to the club allowed to buy. Just hanging a shingle out on the street did not imply in any way that you welcomed all comers holding any promissory note.
In fairness, the refusal to sell has today been inversely democratized, no sign needed.
So from now on I will smile when I see Entrée Libre, knowing that, unlike my predecessors, I have the right not only to enter, but to waste my time inside, and possibly even that of the shopkeeper, when possible.
What I will not do is turn right without looking.