Margaret and Dick   


July '07: Stories from the A9 autoroute

In Atlanta, we think we know traffic jams.  Ha!  In France, vacationers carefully calculate the optimum departure time for their particular trajectory.  2am? 3:30am?  Highways become littered with items that have fallen from car roofs:  chairs, mattresses, bicycles, canoes, refrigerators...  Lost dogs, cats, chickens, and rabbits wander around the rest stops.

The south of France is mobbed with vacationers during July and August.  They invariably leave behind stories that leave locals shaking our heads.  The following is a translation of an article from our local Midi Libre newspaper of 7/27/07 about the coastal autoroute, the A9. 

The autoroute is a world in itself, a city in one dimension.  With its professions, its personnel, its rites, and its stories, a feeling of community emerges.  Highway patrolmen sit in cafés and exchange stories with gendarmes and service-station attendants, and it takes no time at all for a story to travel the length of the autoroute.  The best stories are remembered for educating next year’s newbies.  A good laugh helps everybody forget images of mangled cars and bodies, also a part of their daily experience.

On the autoroute, the story of the mother-in-law left behind at the rest stop is a grand classic.  Michel, a patrolman for the ASF (Autoroute of the South of France), remembers one case:  an older woman found wandering in her nightgown.  She took advantage of a pit-stop to step out of the RV where she had been sleeping.  The problem was that her son-in-law, returning from his pee-break, had driven off unawares.  Patrolmen caught up with him two hours up the road.

Employees of ASF retell this story in dozens of variations.  Sometimes without an RV, which makes the affair even more suspicious.  And when it’s not the mother-in-law, it’s the kids.  Last month, two tourists drove off without noticing that they had left one of their children, ten years old, at a rest stop 200km back.  Radio Trafic was making the announcement every five minutes”, remembers a cashier.  “They were finally stopped by the gendarmes just before the Spanish border.  The worst part was they were angry that they had to drive back to fetch him!”

Clueless.  Michel remembers a British couple from twenty years ago.  With their two children, they had taken out their camping table and set up a picnic on the median strip.  “We had to call the gendarmes for backup.  They wouldn’t budge.” 

Nicolas, another patrolman, has never been able to understand drivers who back up 200 meters to check a road sign, or who stop in the middle of the lane.  “Some of them break down and repair the car right where it sits, with the tool box in the left lane.  The emergency lane doesn’t even exist for them.”

Or rather it exists, but for other purposes.  Earlier this week, a Dutch couple set out for a leisurely bike ride.  Instead of the Canal du Midi, they preferred the A9 autoroute and its lovely emergency lane.  Last week a driver took advantage of a traffic jam to jog a few kilometers along the emergency lane.  All were surprised at the reprimand. 

Thierry and Gerard, owners of a Shell station, are full of stories that, fortunately, involve no personal danger.  The customer who tried to pay for gas with her health insurance card.  The young woman, dressed all in leather, leading two very docile men on leashes.  Their entry into the station, a lovely winter day at six in the morning, remains in everyone’s memory.  All employees have seen the videotape.

Michel, for his part, won’t soon forget the French national women’s team at the time of the Mediterranean games of 1994.  After completing their run at a rest stop, they jumped stark naked into the car wash.  “And me, I kept my eyes on the trees, obviously.”

                                                                                       --Richard BENGUIGUI

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