Most of us know the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken, and more or less understand its meaning. Forks in the road and the choice we each make when we are forced to plump for just one is a kind of metaphor for the randomness of life, the nail-biting decisions we sometimes have to reach, not knowing whether we are making a silly mistake or choosing a wise and life-enhancing option. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, writes the poet, going on to tell us that he chose the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.
It certainly made a difference to us. Three days ago, we chose the silly mistake option. We selected the road more travelled by, instead of taking the right hand fork. We had just disembarked the ferry bringing us from Dover to Calais, and were at the beginning of the long trek down to south-west France via the auto-routes. At the best of times, it’s an eight-hour slog plus two or three twenty-minute stops to turn it into a nine-hour marathon. Okay, we told ourselves comfortably, once we’d realized we had made a bad judgement call. We’ll just get off at the next turn-off. We’ll have wasted maybe twenty minutes getting back to the road we wanted, but that’s all.
Trouble was, there weren’t any turn-offs. We drove east for what seemed like several thousand kilometres, though in all probability it was only fifty or so. But driving even a minimal distance in a direction you don’t want to go is peculiarly unnerving. We were finally able to take a road south, but not via the safety of the auto-route. We were flung into the unknown territory of northern France, forced to abandon the Via Michelin directions we had printed out, and to make our way purely by the map. Yes, we do have a GPS, have had for some time, actually, but my husband has never satisfactorily worked out how to use it. So we pounded along, constantly looking for town names that we would recognize and which would reassure us that we were on the right road. Or the road that we were inadvertently driving along to a hoped-for destination.
It has often been said that the French are a logical nation. This is evinced in a number of ways, particularly in their perfectly logical assumption that if they tell you the route you are on is going to, say, Amiens, there is no logical point in repeating the fact time after time. So the spoon-fed English traveller starts to panic at the next green road-sign which mentions various destinations, but not Amiens. Are we still on the right road? we kept asking ourselves, in the absence of any further indications of the way to Amiens. Of course you are, a logical Frenchman might have said. If it were not so, I would have told you. Unfortunately there wasn’t one of these reassuring people in the car.
On and on we pressed. Bemused and agitated as we were, it was still possible to find aesthetic solace in the charming towns we passed through, with their exotic architecture, their Gothic churches, their sleepy streets. The countryside was beautiful, too: orchards of trees laden with red apples, white cows browsing, wide flat rivers barely moving beneath overhanging trees. Here and there in the distance were thatched farms, church-spires, glimpses of towered chateaux hidden behind long stone walls. As always with French roads, there was almost no traffic. And absolutely no litter.
At (very) long last, we spotted a sign to Poitiers and the south-bound toll road from which we had diverged aeons ago. Thankfully we took our ticket and got back onto the auto-route. If they had told us that just for this afternoon they were quadrupling the rates, we would have paid up without a murmur. Especially as in our meanderings, we had by-passed Rouen, a notorious black spot for motorists heading north or south. In Rouen, French logic appears to break down. You might see a sign announcing that Poitiers is in this direction, but there are three roads just beyond it, on none of which is the word Poitiers mentioned. The roads not taken assume an importance exacerbated by hooting drivers, sudden barriers, confusing signs which you can’t follow because you’ve been swept in a direction which might be taking you anywhere. Short of memorising the entire map of France (or working out how to use the sat-nav) it comes down in the end to intuition.
Driving along our finally regained toll-road, we were cheered enough to play various CDs to which we could sing along. No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe! we yelled, tapping out the beat on knee or steering wheel. Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes, we warned. Don’t take your guns to town, son, we begged. And finally, we were nearing Angoulême, while on either side of us the huge sky grew darker and dozens of criss-crossed vapour-trails turned crimson, like a psychedelic tartan.
Off the motorway, travelling familiar by-ways at last, it didn’t seem to matter so much that we had taken the wrong road. We had been driving for over fourteen hours, with sometimes only the prospect of a stiff drink at journey’s end keeping us going. Had we taken the road not taken, we would have been where we wanted to go literally hours before.
But in the end, we are safely back, and taking the wrong road has not made all that much difference.