Ray Massey
9 min readAug 18, 2023



Around the end of the last Millennium my stunningly significant other half and I enjoyed taking early summer holidays, driving around France. This was back when we were unembarrassedly aspiring Yuppies. We both had interesting jobs which paid fairly well and offered generous leave entitlements. In addition, as befitted our growing status as a refreshingly sophisticated and soundly sensible London couple, we were buying our first house in a rural Essex village.

As for going to France, well firstly, it’s next door so it was quite handy. And secondly, there was the fun of driving on the wrong side of the road. Initially it just meant us starting off with a couple of hours ferry ride to Le Havre or Cherbourg. Much later it became only a 40 minute trundle through the Tunnel to Calais. This decants you straight into the French Motorway network — good luck with that!

But we really went to France because we liked the food — oh yeah! We also enjoyed French weather in early June, which was almost guaranteed to be far sunnier than England. And we very much liked the wine — particularly after our discovery that they made a dry sparkling wine which was much much cheaper than Champagne. As it turned out, we had uncovered Methode Champenoise and Cremant De Loire for ourselves. Way before Cava or Prosecco had even surfaced in anyone else’s Continental Consciousness.

Driving off the car ferry at a French port immediately reveals challenges for the innocent British motorist. At Dieppe for instance, provided you have paid attention to the very tiny embarkation sign — a small yellow circle on a stick pointing to the right — you will find yourself properly positioned on the correctly wrong side of the road. This means you will drive straight on to a charming sea front Boulevard which is quite picturesque. But you also find that this road is crammed with parked cars on both sides and has several pedestrian crossings spaced about 100 metres apart along its whole length.

The politely alert British driver then stops at each of the crossings if people are seen to be waiting there — even though these folk may well be French! Disappointingly this action is greeted with both derision and a comically inept pantomime from the French pedestrians, as they play the age old game of pretending not to understand why the English motorist has stopped at the crossing.

If you persevere, and wait patiently, then these folk will eventually saunter across the road in front of you. Because people in France actually do have the same rights of way at pedestrian crossings as we do in England — but no one in France believes that French drivers know this.

Having eventually got the hang of some minor motoring etiquettes on your way out of the Port. You will inevitably begin to find signs for the nearest Autoroute. Well, that is you will see lots of signs announcing a thing called Peage. Plus, a continuum of exit signs which you obviously ignore because they are clearly meant as information for French motorists who are going somewhere else, and therefore are not for you.

Further along this wide road you begin to notice the huge funnel-like surface markings. These direct you to the pay station booths which are spread right across your horizon. There is now no escape, all the other cars and vans close in around you as it becomes obvious that the French road authorities have a charming predilection for suddenly narrowing 12 lanes into 3, so that all traffic comes to a complete standstill.

As you are being channelled towards the pay booths — you can only think of all those exit signs that you copiously ignored back down the road. Worse, you realise you are inexorably edging towards an eerily uninhabited pay booth. It is of course quite properly ‘unattended’. Because the French are very Equal Opportunities minded when it comes to making everyone use “Automatically Unhelpful Technology”. Which can only be navigated successfully if you were either; born here or, if you have recently gained your Baccalaureate in 20th Century French Literature from the Sorbonne.

At the pay booth, a half sized red and white pole boings rapidly up and down and then shudders to a rest, blocking your only way out — as if you needed forcefully reminding that you that you are stuck here. That WE are stuck here.

As we bring the car to a stop we look automatically to our right for some useful help/advice/sanctuary ? But No — this is the Continent, so any assistance is now likely to be through the window on the other side of the car.

There looming above us on the left, is the very large window of the Pay Booth. It has a mirrored finish so we cannot see if anyone is inside ready to leap out and offer help — but then the maxim ‘don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen’ comes to mind.

Also to our left is an enormous wire basket attached to the booth. Maybe it’s something to be used at break times — has Basketball taken hold here far more than we thought? On reflection this is unlikely because the basket has been attached suspiciously low down on the front of the booth.

We look up to our left again and see a small electric sign with ‘2e’ flashing in its window. It’s a message from the motoring gods which even we can easily interpret.

Obviously 2 means 2 in anyone’s language, so ‘e’ must mean Euros because we are Sur la Continent. So we are required to pay them 2 Euros — Q. E. D.

Well, this is no problemo because we have been to our own Bank and so have lots of Continental money. But do we have 2 Euros — it seems not. It’s also clear that we cannot stuff a 50 Euro note in the hole at the bottom of the wire basket. So we knowingly sacrifice the only coinage we have — a whole 5 Euro piece. The wire basket is not going to give change, even we can work that out. The Boinging Barrier lifts, and we screech away in a Le Mans style start.

As we speed on along the brand new empty motorway, we both begin to ponder two issues. Firstly, where is everyone else? There was all that other traffic at the barriers. Secondly, we have just paid 2 euros to get ‘on’ a toll road/motorway — but isn’t it normally the case that you pay when you get ‘off’ a toll road? How will they know how far we have been driving along it?

The answer arrives rapidly. After 2 Kilometres the motorway ends and quite suddenly morphs into a normal French ’N’ road which everyone uses because it does not charge you money to drive on it. With similar rapidity, all the other traffic re-appears and the road is now quite crowded. To this day we have no idea where all the other traffic went or, how it so easily got back onto the main road with us again.

The next time we see Peage signs on the road ahead of us we are ready., Sue checks through our holiday money whilst we are still some distance away, as I pick a pay booth to aim at. Not surprisingly the French are again, ahead of the game — well it is their Country and their road network.

So, we approach this booth ready for another anonymous transaction through the left side window. But, just as we come to a halt a Female human person/ ‘Attendant’ leans out of the booth window. We are shocked into silence but Sue recovers quickly and queries the costs in our joint best Holiday French.

In response the Pay Booth Attendant charmingly indicates that she does not speak Anglaise and points to an area of the booth facia below her window. There we see a paper ticket poking out of a slot. She eventually, and quite reluctantly, gestures for us to take the ticket. As we do this the Magic Boinging Barrier lifts and we are freed again to drive onto another empty motorway.

Unattended Motorway booths with machines that require you to feed them with the set amount they demand and offer no escape if you haven’t got the coinage — might benefit from having an attendant. Attended Booths which automatically issue tickets for the next section of the Autoroute and therefore need no input from their attendant — might not. It seems all very French to me.

It turns out that there is a simple way round this Mendaciously Monetised Autoroute dilemma. And it involves becoming part of the Excitingly Exclusive world of TelePeage Automatique.

It is mostly Exciting because it is, or it was then, cutting edge technology. It was also Exclusive because it enabled discerning Autoroute Aristocrats to whizz past the queues of grumpy Gallics at the pay booths, by swanning along in their own privatised and queue less techno-lane.

In Cultural Terms this exemplifies the finely honed aspirations of every French person in their lifelong struggle to ‘Get one Over’ on the neighbours. Especially when this involves scoring points over Foreign Tourists — and more especially over Les Touriste Anglaise.

After having offered your very soul to the Peage Automatique Autoroute Company you then demonstrate your exclusivity by having a small box of electrical gubbins attached inside your vehicle, somewhere near the front windscreen. This then enables you to swan straight into the exclusively empty TelePeage lane and watch the wonky Boinging Barrier lift up as you approach. Triggering a green lighted ‘Tick’ box to smile at you from a nearby screen as an acknowledgement that you are an important customer who cannot be kept waiting.

But more importantly it has automatically recognised that you are now in debt for the Peage Fee. Consequently, it has issued automatic instructions for this fee to be taken straight from your bank account and transferred into its own coffers. This process is irreversible. You wont ever see that money again either in Euros or in Sterling, not even if this payment was eventually found to be ‘inaccurately charged’.

I used to have a ‘Dart Tag’ in my car for some years, which automatically dealt with payments for crossing the Dartford Bridge between Essex and Kent. It required only a £10 deposit which I got back when they upgraded to online payments; it cost nothing to install and it never went wrong.

Currently the equivalent option for a bit of basic French Tele Peage kit starts at 40 Euros, plus a minimum monthly fee of 5+ euro, plus VAT @ 20%, plus another 2% on top of the ‘average’ (?) exchange rate if you pay off your monthly bill with a credit card. And they then have the Gallic cheek to suggest you could purchase a ‘warranty’ in case of ‘Equipment Failure’. WTF.

But we have to accept that Automatic technology is like Life and Death to the French. It’s how they winnow down the populace. Not for them the Darwin driven self-inflicted technical foolishness exhibited by the Ignoble Awards.

Their automatic technology is purposefully designed to be complex and to fail at maximally opportune times. I think it’s their equivalent of the Hunger Games.

And, as we are all too aware, such design induced failures’ can often be fatal.

Especially when it is very late on a rainy night along an empty Autoroute using a foreign credit card at an unattended and eerily unlit Automatic pay booth. I am surprised that no one has used this scenario to create a Horror/Who Dunnit best seller, before now. It would obviously be ripe for turning into major film or a multi part TV series. But maybe they have and it turns out to be way too scary to watch.

But the French like it this way, they enjoy having automatic technology which can be used to quietly dispose of anyone who is not outwardly French enough to drive a Citroen aggressively or to wear tailored Blue Workwear with aplomb.

Otherwise their country would simply become overwhelmed with people who are just not able to smoke Gauloise and create an existential discussion on any given subject. Or, more worryingly in gastronomic terms, it will be full of those uneducated folk who eat fast food but don’t know why.

As someone who greatly appreciates French Cooking — I can understand how they would want to avoid such an awkward situation.

Maybe the end justifies the means ?

Be Well.



Ray Massey

Intelligent, sensitive, humorous writer — new to this stuff. Offering life comments and observations from a Grumpy Old Man.