Most of the traffic swung to the left, from moving at 120 kilometres per hour, we were suddenly reduced to twenty. It became apparent that the traffic on the motorway we sought to join was at a virtual standstill; hundreds of metres distant, trucks were visible moving at a snail’s pace. There were two lanes on the slip road, but no-one on the motorway was going to make space for someone who had decided to bore their way down outside lane. Signalling to move over, a truck driver flashed headlights to signal he would allow our manoeuvre. The move made space for a young man who accelerated down the outside lane, passing all those who had been waiting patiently, and upon realizing only the inside lane was merging into the traffic, attempted to force his way over. The articulated trucks ignored his presence, rolling forward in an inexorable progress. Eventually, he cut in behind the truck in front of us; his exertions had gained him a single vehicle’s length. The delay was caused by the coning off of the outside lane of the motorway to allow men with strimmers to cut the grass of the central reservation. It seemed an extraordinary amount of congestion to allow for something that might have been done in the late evening or early morning.
A brief spell of speed was followed by a branching off the motorway to go through the town. The progress was even slower. The traffic seemed tailed back for a long way, rolling forward no more than a few yards at a time. Unattended road works near the town centre seemed the problem, all the inbound traffic merging into a single lane, its progress further hindered by traffic lights that allowed no more than two or three vehicles to pass through on each green. The rain fell heavier and the town that looks well in summer sunshine had about it a dreary drabness.
Leaning forward on the steering wheel of the Ford Transit minibus, I thought that automatic transmission might have been convenient at such a moment, instead of the constant manual shifts through low gears, more than that though, there was a feeling that it all felt very familiar.
Calling into the back, I said, ‘Please take note, French traffic jams are as bad as ours and the road works are just as frustrating’. Upon which, the lights changed and we were one of the two vehicles to progress to the next queue.
Looking out the window at the buildings across the street, there seemed little that marked the town as any different from most in Europe. Perhaps the odd architectural feature, but otherwise, we could have been anywhere.
Something became lost along the way; features that left you in no doubt as to in which country you might be seem slowly to have faded. Yet unity seems sometimes to have come not in the good things, but in the negative things, like traffic jams. Looking for the completely different now demands a journey far longer than the fields of Picardy.