Friday, November 21, 2008


I went to driving school the other day to take a practice test. When I got there a few minutes before the hour--the practice tests are given on the hour--Madame le sécretaire and the teenagers who were also there to take the test were all standing outside smoking. I went in and took my place in the front row of red plastic chairs (once a good girl, always a good girl).

In a few minutes--after the hour, but really, what's time when you're the secretary of the driving school or 17?--they finished their cigarettes and came in. Madame started the test dvd. We rolled along through questions: speed limit here? pass in this instance? how many points off your license for smoking pot before driving?

I circled my answers and was coming along fairly well. No language difficulties, and I was remembering all the rules of priority, and whether a white arrow on a blue ground in a square meant the same thing as a white arrow on a blue ground in a circle. (It doesn't.) Then we got to this question:

I was at the wheel of the car, and through the pare-brise I could see that I was about to enter a curve. At the side of a road was a triangular sign, the danger shape. The pictogram on the sign was of a car with swerving lines of tire tracks, the universal sign for slippery surface. So far, so good. The pannonceau, the smaller sign under the main sign, that gives specifics of the situation, was what brought me up short. It read: betteraves.

And what, dear reader, is a betterave?

It is a sugar beet.

The sign was warning me that the road ahead might be slippery on account of sugar beets.

Now, there's another sign in the French répertoire for bumps in the road, and those bumps in the road are called dos d'ane, donkey's backs. A dip in the road is called a cassis, which means a black currant. So I wondered if perhaps there was another type of bump or dip that was called a betterave.

The next time we saw 'Arry, our driving instructor, I asked him about it. Ah yes, he said, I remember that question, absolutely. Betteraves. Did you answer it correctly?

I had, actually. The question itself had asked whether the sign applied to me only when it was raining. The answer to that type of question is always: No, the sign applies always, not just when it is raining. Unless of course the question is phrased: Does the sign apply to you if it is not raining? Then the answer is, Yes, the sign always applies. Lesson: slow down and check the grammar.

Yes, I replied. But what did the sign mean about betteraves? Is a betterave like a cassis?

Harry frowned a little, puzzled. Then: No, it is a vegetable, not a fruit. It is, what you call it?

A beet, I said.

Yes, it is a beet. And it can be very slippery if it falls out of a truck onto the road.

So my question is: are there signs for all fruits and vegetables? Or are beets particularly dangerous? What about cabbages? They could get a little slippery. Artichokes: now, you'd notice if you were driving over a spilled truckload of those. And then, what about bananas? I know they're not grown in France, but they do come off of boats and get loaded onto trucks, and what if, what if, they fell off?

At the wheel of my imaginary car, I could look into the rétroviseur and see the sublime receding rapidly into the distance while I drove on into the ridiculous.


  1. 'Boue'(mud) is always the one that makes me laugh.
    It's usually followed by an exclamation mark which makes me think someone is shouting 'Boo'

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  3. We actually heard about this while in France (the phenomenon, not the signage, which I dearly wish I had seen). Apparently, during sugar beet season in the north (we were near Arras when we heard this) so many beets roll off the trucks that the roads are as dangerous as after a good sleet. There was a name for this, which I no longer remember, much to my dismay.