In Europe, the journey on the motorway to a major city is usually quiet and monotonous. We set our cruise control to one hundred and twenty, one hundred and thirty, one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour possibly, depending on our personal preferences, but still, we progress imperceptibly in the direction of the big city. Michel Houellebecq expresses it very well when he evokes in alexandrines his journey in an Alstom wagon:
Dans la géométrie des parcelles de la Terre,
Nous roulons protégés par les cristaux liquides
Par les cloisons parfaites, par le métal, le verre,
Nous roulons lentement et nous rêvons du vide.
Nevertheless this comparison stops on the edge of the big city. Indeed, whereas, seen from the train, industrial zones and wastelands are gradually replacing the countryside, the situation is quite different when travelling by car.
By car, whether the landscape is formed until the last moment by trees modestly arranged on the edge of the car, or whether, on the contrary, one feels it gradually conglomerate under the attraction of the big city, there is in the extreme majority of cases a moment of rupture, that of the arrival on the ring road.
Every road approach to a large European city has its own charm, but this particular moment has enough similarities from one large city to another to represent a genre in itself.
The arrival on the ring road is a moment of great emotional power for those who, no doubt in a neurotic way, find Great Beauty in urban planning and the layout of traffic lanes and road signs.
Depending on the case, it will provoke in the subject an ecstasy such as that provoked by the vision of a painting of Van Eyck by a lover of the Flemish masters, not to mention the one experienced by Saint Theresa during her transverbration.
On arrival on the ring road, a rupture occurs. Whereas until a minute ago, the addition of one or two traffic lanes to the road was seen as a curiosity, one enters in an instant the quivering of the big city.
On the ring road the codes change. Cars drive tighter, motorists are in a hurry. Their license plates all bear the mark of the big city or its close suburbs and intruders are rare, because once you enter the big city there is no more talk of a touring vehicle, no more talk of provinces or foreigners, or rather exotic destinations located at least a day’s drive away.
The big city is no longer mentioned, because the big city is obvious. Neighbourhoods form a new granularity. Subway stops a new toponymy.
Speed limits change. Signs change. Colours change. Smells change. Directions become more cryptic, the horizon more mysterious.
At that moment, some people push their Robert Armani tape into the player, downshift one gear, shift one lane to the left, and give a quick throttle, casually shouting, “Oua-ho! “yours truly is one of those.
Featured Image: The Craeybeckxtunnel, between the Antwerp ring road and the E19.
Photo credits: Ilias Katsouras