Culture Crash

To really appreciate Hawai'i drivers, try navigating the streets of Paris.

As the car in the next lane along the Place de la Republique edged inches in front of us, and mon ami, Eric, laid on the horn, raised his hand in insult and let loose a colorful French word that needed no translation, I realized once again how much foreign travel teaches us about home.

In Honolulu, we like the "Live Aloha" bumper sticker. In Paris, the typical driver’s sentiment runs more to the tune of "Screwez-vous!" (pardon my French). This is a city where drivers consider it a personal affront if anyone passes them, and where two pedestrians in a crosswalk are seen as gates on a slalom course.

"Parisians drive with a hand on the horn and a foot on the accelerator," says Jennifer Kaku, a Hawai’i girl who has lived in Paris for 15 years. She recalls getting her driver’s license in Hawai’i by "driving around the block with a nice old lady."

Kaku’s friend from California tells a similar tale. "In Paris, I never seem to drive fast enough," says Therese Multz, who’s lived there for 20 years. But when she visits Hawai’i, she wonders, "How could anyone drive that slow?"

She’s right, yeah? In Paris traffic, if you show the slightest sign of weakness, cars will nudge in front of you. But in Honolulu, don’t most of us give way to common sense even when that jerk in the right lane on Beretania Street suddenly decides to hang a Louie onto Pensacola?

illustration: Michael Austin

We do this because we live aloha—and because we don’t want to get shot by some ice-head with a 9mm pistol under the seat. But in France, road rage is generally limited to blaring horns, gestures that are decidedly not the shaka sign, and shouted curse words that send out sprays of spit.

Another way to see the difference between the Frenchies and us (aside from them being right about the WMDs) is by contemplating that traffic control device they call a rond-point. When O’ahu’s first roundabout was constructed on Ke’eaumoku six years ago, some people reacted as if a flying saucer had landed in the middle of Makiki. Though another name for a roundabout is a "traffic-calming circle," a letter to the editor in the Star-Bulletin recommended none too calmly that, "If your neighborhood is scheduled to get one of these jokes, fight it. Order up four stop signs … and tell the mayor and the neighborhood board to go away."

Last year in Foster Village, after protesters turned out to shout down the roundabout under construction there, the Star-Bulletin’s "Kokua Line" columnist, June Watanabe, offered a "tutorial" on negotiating the circles. To the French, this would have been like instructing them on how to eat cheese.

"France est le pays du rond-point," Eric told me with equal parts pride and self-ridicule one day as centrifugal force pushed me against the car door.

The French love the rond-point, because they get to make their own existential choice whether to brake or play poulet with the approaching truck. It’s that liberté thing. In the United States we prefer a stop sign, because it’s very clear what we’re supposed to do, and gives us a chance to download a new ring-tone.

The monster of all rond-points in France is the Etoile (Star) around the Arc de Triomphe. From atop the Arc, this giant circle of six or seven lanes (none marked, of course) is a miraculous ballet teeming with a hundred cars sliding counterclockwise inward or outward until they fling themselves off onto one of 12 radiating boulevards.

But a driver from Hawai’i sitting behind the wheel at one of those busy streets feeding into this huge swirling mass could be stuck there forever waiting for everyone else to go first. So if you’re ever there, and you see an abandoned car with a "Live Aloha" bumper sticker, you might want to bow your head and share a shaka. Just make sure you’re not standing in the street.