Traffic tickets can be existential

Last week, we found two traffic tickets in the mail. One was for going through an intersection when we weren’t supposed to; the other was for speeding. They felt like a blow to the face.

We remembered passing through an intersection in Carcassonne near our house on the yellow light and seeing a flash of light. We thought that, since the light was yellow, we were OK. Turns out that you must stop on yellow, not just slow down or try to get through the intersection before the red. Despite being in denial about it, that infraction wasn’t a complete surprise. The speeding ticket was, however. We always drive along with the flow of the rest of the traffic, even trying to be a little slower than most where that makes sense. On the toll highways, we always stay at or below the speed limit. The information on the notice of violation said that we were spotted speeding on a stretch of road between Carcassonne and Limoux. While I didn’t notice at first on the ticket, it stated that we were going 96 km/hr in a 90 km/hr zone. That was on the day when we visited the carnivale celebration in Limoux. I remember the day as being cool and overcast. There was a steady if not heavy stream of traffic along with us. At first glance, the payment required seemed to be 375€ for the intersection and 180€ for the speeding, and a loss of 5 out of 12 allotted points.

My immediate feeling was of precariousness and hopelessness. The facts of our apparently speeding without knowing it and the invisible enforcement eyes made me feel vulnerable. Not just about mysterious traffic rules, this feeling connected with lots of underlying uncertainty and fragility. In our quest to gain long-term residency in France, we still need to pass inspection with the Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration (OFII) about health and other requirements. Until that hurdle is passed, my fear that somehow we will be rejected and need to leave France at the end of the year so wants to take hold of me.

Day to day here is really quite easy. We already know our way around most of the town, and have started to establish preferred shopping venues and routines. We get our hair cut, buy flowers as gifts, order food and drink in cafés, get an iPhone fixed, reach out to figure out how to get screens added to our house — all the little daily tasks of life. We live also in an English language and American bubble with our friends, emails, Netflix, and internet. We can finish an afternoon in the privacy and comfort of our sunny terrace. And still, the newness of what we have chosen, this life without daily work routine and with French bureaucracy — while in the mind is fascinating and positive — disconcerts.

We have so far always managed to figure out ways through and around obstacles to achieve our goal of living here in France. Some of the issues have been difficult, taking quite a while to resolve. But we have overcome them all. I know this intellectually. But fear is like mold in the walls: you can’t quite get rid of it, and it pops out wherever it finds an opening. Fear still prods with “maybe this time the French authorities will turn a deaf ear and reject you two.” Our local Franco-British advisor, Rachel, is upbeat, saying that since we have health insurance coverage, the authorities probably won’t have a problem with our situation. Still, until we go through the process, we won’t really know.

Back to the traffic tickets: We had already bought the manual of all the traffic rules (Le code de la route), and on our recent trip to Portugal, I used the time on the plane to read as much of the book as I could. Mike and I will go through all the pages so that we both are aware of the specific French nuances. For example: You must stop if the light is yellow; unlike in the US, it isn’t an invitation to slow down before the red light. For speed limits, we have noticed that there aren’t many speed limit signs other than on the toll highways. It turns out that unless otherwise noted, the speed limit in a town — between the sign that announces arrival in the town and the sign that says we have left the town — is 50 km/hr. On roads outside of towns, that aren’t divided highways, it is 90 km/hr. On divided highways that aren’t the main toll highways, it is 110 km/hr. There are different limits if it is raining. So, when driving, you have to notice when arriving and leaving a town. We had always thought that it was quaint that each village announced itself and then let you know that you were leaving (with the name of the town crossed out on the sign). Instead, these are very serious signs. If you happen to have your attention on something else, such as the car in front of you, and you miss one of these signs, you get into trouble.

Last weekend, we drove with Diana, Mike’s niece, up into the Haute Vallée de l’Aude (the high valley of the Aude river). The route includes the infamous (to us!) road to Limoux. Mike discovered that the traffic and navigation app Waze shows the speed limits where you are at the moment. We tested our understanding of the rules, finding that they are consistent and clear — as long as you notice those town signs. Waze also indicates Zones of Enforcement, presumably where the automatic speed detectors are located. After our test run, we regained some confidence. The traffic rules and enforcement are hardly arbitrary; in fact, as is the case in so many things in France (but not all!), there is a rigid logical structure underneath — even if it looks like the French generally ignore the structure! That realization, plus the Waze tool, calmed me down. I had the feeling of having overcome what at first seemed inscrutable. We took some of the power back that we had let the system take away.

When I sat down to pay the tickets, I realized that I had noted the highest values on the complicated form, having assumed that it was the sum of the numbers above it. Instead, the highest values were in case we didn’t pay the ticket within a certain period of time. The actual fines were 45€ and 90€. We don’t know about those points yet.

I take all this as reinforcement that (a) fear makes a situation seem much worse than in really it is, and that (b) we will find ways through and around whatever the next obstacles are. On reste positif! (We stay positive!)

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