The port city of Le Havre is a masterpiece of vague navigation aids. Roundabouts point to places that people really don’t want to go to, especially the British tourists who drive tiredly off the ferry, yawning after a rolling night on the English Channel. Long stretches of road also exist without a roundabout, so if you take the wrong turn you’ll have to drive for kilometres (and get even more lost) before you find your way out again. For those without a satnav in their car, or those unwilling to use their smartphone data to navigate, it’s a rude introduction to la belle France.
One of the architects of this bewildering and frustrating road system was a man we shall call Armand. Armand was a misanthrope. In fact, he was the misanthrope’s misanthrope, an utter bastard who made it his life’s work to create misery for others. He fitted perfectly into the French public service.
There was nothing Armand liked better than to drive around his town and the local environs, including Honfleur and the magnificent Pont de Normandie. He knew his way around every street without even having to glance at the masterpieces of misdirection he’d created, and he’d drive with the window down, Gauloise in his mouth, smiling at each sign of frustration from motorists. Each wail of horror from a car with GB plates which was going around a roundabout for the third time. Each angry scream of air brakes from articulated lorry drivers who suddenly realised that the port sign they thought was the one they wanted, wasn’t. It was all music to Armand’s ears.
Armand, as you may have guessed, lived alone. He had, when he was younger and slightly more handsome, had relationships with women, but never considered settling down with one. He had almost come close, twenty five years before, with a secretary in his department who intrigued him enough for him to ask her out. Her love of maps almost equalled his own. She was enthralled by the walls of his apartment, covered in maps of Normandy, with little red dots marking the signs Armand had had erected, or red lines showing the routes he was responsible for changing or implementing. She pored over the atlases which lined his bookshelves, and he enjoyed tracing routes with his hand over her delicate pale one.
But, ah, it was not to be. The thought of having to be forever polite, of having to hold in his farts when he was in her company, even in bed (because she was attractive and deserved such respect), of having his masculine apartment slowly feminised, of having to be sociable with her and meet her friends (of course Armand had none of his own to speak of), of having to make conversation over the dinner table every single night for years to come, and worst of all, the thought that she may want children. Children! Non et non et non!
Armand was happy in his single life. From the window of his apartment he saw the port of Le Havre, an ugly sight in a country known for its beauty and architecture. Wide treeless roads made for massive trucks carrying containers. Cranes. Utilitarian buildings. Ships built for containers which looked like nothing more than floating, ugly blocks. You can safely surmise that for Armand this view was perfection. Had he not had a major hand in designing those roads and ordering every sign? Every night as the lights of the port gleamed a garish orange, he sat at his window with a glass of red wine and a Gauloise and admired the scenery.
It was a pleasure for Armand to head into the office every day. Weekends left him slightly bereft and at a loose end; he usually spent the weekends driving around Normandy and considering where a new and possibly (if not definitely) confusing sign could be erected. The camaraderie of his fellow workers didn’t extend to him; they had long learned not to bother inviting him for a drink after work on a Friday. He was the last out of the office anyway, always staying back to review plans. Alone in the office, without the constant noise and interruptions, he was able to devise schemes and plans for new roads and signage. Oh, the beauty of font L2, used on the autoroutes and routes nationale! The sweetness of L1 and L4, used for local roads and of course L5, able to provide the most confusion in its rounded, slightly Frutiger way when apparently directing people to points of local interest.
Armand would have said he was a very happy and fulfilled man, if anyone had dared to ask him.
And then the blow fell, on a nondescript Wednesday. As Armand was happily planning a diabolical set of roundabouts on the outskirts of Montivilliers, one that would send the unwary into the smokestack hell of Le Havre no matter which exit they took, his boss came and perched on one corner of Armand’s desk. Armand frowned and pointedly moved a map.
“I am sorry, Armand,” the boss said. “We have been told we have to make retrenchments, as the budget has been cut. It is my sad duty to tell you that you will be finishing up in a fortnight’s time. Your payout, ah, my friend, it will eat quite a hole in the budget we have left, as you have worked here for so long. Ha ha,” he laughed nervously. And took a deep breath. “Just think, you can retire.”
Armand was stunned and shocked. Retire? What would he do? He would sooner die than become one of those sorry old souls hanging around the tabac every day, marking time with coffee in the morning and wine in the afternoon, bemoaning politics or worse, sport.
“And you have left a wonderful legacy,” his boss continued. “The Le Havre region is proud of you. You are a perfect example of the people we want in the roads development and signage department. Your signs will live on, Armand, and continue to frustrate motorists for years to come.”
The kind words didn’t soften the blow. Secretly, the boss was as scared of Armand as the rest of the department was. He had been trembling before walking into Armand’s den. He knew it was silly to be frightened of an employee, but Armand ran the department in all but name and heaven help anyone who challenged that miserable bastard’s decisions. But now it was done, and what a relief. The boss slipped outside and smoked three cigarettes in a row, and by then his hands had stopped shaking.
Armand drove home in a daze. He couldn’t remember stopping to buy Gauloises and red wine, but when he pulled into the parking space he had created in front of his apartment block (the masses of contradictory signs confused even the gendarmerie), they were sitting on the passenger seat.
He went inside and for the first time in his very controlled, cool life got deliberately drunk.
He was only just 62. In his prime. He had expected to work until and possibly after the official retirement age of 67. Despite the haze of red wine – had he really drunk almost a bottle and half? – he felt a rage building inside him. 62 was the earliest age at which one could take retirement. His boss had been planning this and waiting for the budget cuts to use as the perfect excuse.
What would he do? He had no real interest in travel outside Normandy, because he couldn’t have any input into improving the signage in a different region or country. His drives through Normandy itself would be tainted and worthless if he no longer had the power to make change. His joy in maps would fade. His raison d’être had been forcibly removed.
Armand, already drunk, became drunk and angry, and started to plot his revenge.
He had two weeks to make one final, unforgettable gesture before he would leave the department for the last time, undoubtedly with some unsuitable present bought for him by ‘the team’. It would be something cheap and tacky, as he knew full well few of them would subscribe many euros towards it. There would be a card signed by everyone, but few would write more than their name; not many would wish him well. There would, at the end of the day, be a glass of wine and a cake. He imagined he would hear a loud cheer as the door shut behind him.
It had been a long time since he’d actually put a sign up himself; that was how he’d started in the department as a very young man, cheerfully up a ladder or cherry picker, feeling a pride in seeing a new sign come to life. Now, forty years later, he had a team to do it. However, this time, he would definitely be doing it on his own, for his revenge would be a sign to cause delectable confusion.
Nursing a terrible hangover the next morning – nobody noticed as he was inevitably taciturn – he logged onto his terminal and opened his software. The sign he designed wasn’t remarkable. It looked like any other he would order the sign manufacturing team to produce. There was no profanity or anything which would raise alarm bells.
He put the order through to have the sign made within a fortnight, and with the order coming from Armand, the sign manufacturing team worked feverishly to have it ready; they didn’t want to fall foul of his notorious temper.
The sign arrived in the receiving dock with a day to spare. Armand checked and approved it at lunchtime, when everyone else had headed out or home to enjoy that precious hour devoted to food. Sweating slightly, he lugged it into a hiding place behind a rack of signs which would be going back to the manufacturers next week because of minor errors such as incorrect spacing in a word or two.
It was the night before Armand’s last day, and he had chosen the final location of his new sign very well.
There’s a toll booth not far out of Le Havre on the A29, a road which indirectly links Caen and Amiens. Because the people who run and install the péage (toll booths) share Armand’s black sense of humour, one particular toll booth is the perfect trap for first time drivers on the A29 heading east to Amiens. With the toll roads, it’s rather a mystery when you pull up to a booth as to whether you simply take a ticket and pay when you exit the road later, or whether you have to pay for a section on the spot. Small sections with no exits in between cost a minimum.
This particular toll booth has plenty of signs for those people who have a tag in their vehicle and can just drive through, and there is one toll booth on the far right which accepts credit cards and apparently cash. The tourist or first timer will play it safe and take the right hand booth.
Which exits you off the A29. Loop the loop! Around you go in a tight circular curve, and suddenly you’re faced with roundabouts that bear no resemblance to anything on your map – they are for local, very local environs, a true example of the French love of terroir. You can, eventually, find a sign leading back to the A29, when your blood pressure is up and you are on the brink of despair. Already, Armand has done well, but his big triumph was still to come in the new sign he’d had made which would fit perfectly at this very location.
Armand waited until everyone had left the office, and headed down to the Vehicles depot. Having worked in the department all his life he knew where every key was kept and what every key safe combination was.
It had been a long time since he’d driven one of the cherry picker vehicles, and it took him a little while to get used to the gears. He cursed as the thing bunny-hopped out through the gate but once he was on the A29 muscle memory had returned and he was filled with a sense of excitement, one he knew he would never feel again.
Finally, he was at his location. He placed lights and witches hats and roadwork signs in place, to make his task look as official as possible. Huffing and puffing, he cursed being out of touch with the cherry picker as he tried to move it into the precise positions he needed to mount the sign. It took him an hour, longer than he expected.
The sign clearly and simply stated Rouen and Amiens, with a helpful arrow, and was mounted over the right hand exit lane. It was perfect.
And Armand knew that anyone taking the Rouen and Amiens exit would find themselves driving in the direction of Caen – precisely the opposite direction to where they want to go – with no option but to take an exit to Le Havre if they want to turn around. And they’d drive for kilometres before finding a roundabout as Le Havre is the natural habitat of the articulated lorry, that hater of roundabouts.
It was perfection. Armand almost cried. It was the best thing he had ever done. It was so diabolical even the department would be horrified at the audacity of it.
As he packed up the witches hats, signs and lights, he looked lovingly at his new, final sign. How long would it be before someone reported it and it was removed? It would never achieve the longevity of most of his work.
He started up the cherry picker and trundled it back to the depot, putting the keys back in their correct place. If he had been any other sort of man, he would have given the vehicle a friendly pat, as a co-conspirator in a job well done. But he simply turned all the lights out, locked up and headed for his own car.
Armand drove for hours that night, firstly around the port of Le Havre then Le Harve itself and Harfleur, through pretty Honfleur, then further afield, the car filling with a fug of Gauloise smoke. He drove up to his new sign and admired the way the headlights of his car made it glow and reflect in its shiny newness. It was well after midnight but he wasn’t tired. He was buoyed by the confusion his sign would create, and saddened that he wouldn’t be in the department when the sign was discovered.
It was time for one last Gauloise as he headed back towards the A29 and Le Havre, choosing the lane he had marked Rouen and Amiens.
The next morning the gendarmerie found his car in the emergency lane of the majestic Pont de Normandie, but the Seine was running too fast for them to find his body.
Author’s note: This sign exists. I know, because in 2016 my husband and I followed this very sign and ended up heading west on the A29 instead of east. We thought it would be easy to simply take the first roundabout we got to in Le Havre and get back on the A29 for Amiens, but the lack of roundabouts and the Le Havre road system saw us driving through the town fruitlessly for an hour. I think Armand – or someone very like him – is real. French road signs can be real horreurs. Especially if you are armed only with a smallish Michelin map because the satnav in your rental car is très foutou.
Feast your eyes on this beast:
And here’s the Pont de Normandie, taken from inside the car. To compound the misery, it was raining.
And finally, a little delight or two. These are from much further east than Armand’s territory, but I’m sure his work ethic had an impact on their design.