Saturday, June 22, 2019

Old World New World Roads

There was a week back in April where we drove back and forth between two houses in Baltimore, Maryland. The starting point was on the edge of town set in fence-lined fields of the Hunt Country. The arrival point was in a tree-lined turn of the century neighborhood in Baltimore proper. Both locations being quintessential examples of quiet mid-Atlantic America neighborhoods. 
It only took a couple of back and forths to learn the route by heart. Pretty much a straight shot with a few exits and a couple of turns to remember. They were wide, get up and go roads, well marked, and busy at all hours. An everyday sort of commute for most American drivers.
After the second trip into the city house I commented on how on making our final turn we were quietly settled in a family neighborhood, but just up the street we had turned the corner from a four lane road. Strange to us because from our home in France it takes 50 minutes to get to the closest four lane road —and it’s a major interstate.

Now I know this is a funny thing to write about -an every day activity you don’t notice until you are thrown into a different situation. We all just hop in our cars and go. Roads are just there. You don’t think about them. Heck, most of them were established and paved well before you were old enough to drive.

It had been a year since we had been brain-jostled by driving on the American scale. Scale in the Old World is determined by how much room there is between the castle tower and the shops tucked under its base. Navigating through a village is determined by where the cart paths used to go—800 years ago! Even some of Europe’s largest cities have ancient narrow passages winding through the old quarters. If you are driving on a boulevard, you’ll know that they’ve taken down entire neighborhoods to make this modern road. Having four lanes and parking in a city was an early 20th century idea. Village “streets” were established well before the turn of the century. Here in Bourdeilles there is an impressive passage between a home and the bakery. The passage is one way, your mirrors scrape the walls if you drift a little to the left or right, and you can’t see if someone is entering the passage until you are in it. You just hope a logging truck isn’t headed towards you!

After Baltimore I flew down the east coast and into Richmond, Virginia. The sky was clear and the flight stayed low so I had a birds-eye view of suburban houses laid out just so along wide roads winding through organized neighborhoods. I was impressed by how many four lane roads connected the neighborhoods and headed into the city. Richmond has a grid of streets often with four lanes of traffic and parking on each side. I haven’t flown over cities in France, but I have climbed a tall tower or two and the streetscape beneath always meanders around, never following a rigid grid.
When we first moved to the Dordogne there were country roads between villages that were so narrow that I refused to ride my bike on them more or less drive down them in a car. Lanes so narrow I thought they must be private. My driveway in Vermont had been twice as wide as some of the local roads. These are lanes where you have to pull onto the shoulder if another car comes along. They have to pull over too because even with half a car off the road the other car wont fit.
We do indeed have wider two lane roads to get from here to there. However, there is seldom a center line, there is very little shoulder, there is a deep drainage ditch right along the edge, and the engineers made the roads just as wide as they had to be, not an extra centimeter more. You have to stay focused driving these roads. Forget coffee to go or sipping from water bottles. Forget passing the slow cars or pulling over to let the car on your bumper go around you.

On the plus side for the Old World there are round-a-bouts. It’s amazing how much time is spent at stop lights in the good ole U.S. of A. So inefficient. I guess that’s how Americans feel about the tiny, curvy roads here.

Don’t get me wrong the interstate system here is amazing, but  as Vermonters say “you can’t get there from here”. Visitors think they can get from Paris to here lickety split - growing up on New World road you just can’t envision the slowness of Old World travel.  Fortunately, the view is very nice.