Friday, 16 March 2007

Flashback I : The Scarlet Letter

It was in my former life as an English teacher at that language school (insert explitive), when my boss (insert explitive) wanted me to drive to Dunkirk that I discovered I wasn't legally allowed to drive in France. As an au pair my first year in France, I drove around all the time using my Jersey licence (without a picture - is that a real licence?). Then 5 years later, when I would have really wanted to drive from time to time but NOT for that woman, I did some research.
Basically, I was no longer a tourist, a student and you can't exchange a NJ licence for a French one ( I wonder why?!) so an international permit wouldn't be valid either since my NJ wasn't so...too bad, I can't drive to Dunkirk or anywhere else for that matter. I decided it was time to look into getting my French licence.

Now getting your licence in France is not like it was in NJ. We had driver's ed instead of gym one semester in high school and then on your 17th birthday, you skipped school in the morning to take your test on a closed parking lot and show up at school a few hours later with a shiny new licence.

After paying my 1000€ for prep classes for the written exam, the dossier for the Préfecture and the 21 hours of practical classes (I obviously wouldn't need them all since I already knew how to drive!), I was ready. So here I am, naive little American thinking that getting your driver's licence is something to celebrate. You have to understand that when someone in France talks about their licence, the first question is "how many times did you take it before you passed?"

After a few months of prep classes, I felt ready enough to take the written exam. Jerome had given up by thispoint. The exam was so very French. After we answered the 40+ multiple choice questions, the inspector called our names one by one and said "c'est bon" or "c'est pas bon". And that's that. Leave it to a good French public shaming to put you in your place.

After 22 hours of driving classes, I was given the date of my driving test. I showed up at the driving school where another student and I were dropped off at a random traffic circle in a Lille suburb where we waited for the driving school's car to show up. A driving teacher and an inspector got out of the car and said, "sir, you will go first. Madame, you are second." so I got into the back seat of the car with the driving instructor and tried not to shake. The guy had to do a series of manoeuvers, get on the on ramp of the high way, etc. And then the light in front of the fire house started flashing and the guy went through it. Everyone knew he had failed, but nothing was said. The inspector asked him to stop the car, and told me to get in the driver's seat.

I stalled. Then I pulled out of the space and drove scarred of parallel parking and priorité à droite*. When I slammed on my brakes at the stop light, I was sure I'd failed. And when the inspector told me to take my foot off the clutch, I knew I had. After a few minutes of driving that seemed worse than being on the Garden State Parkway atrushhour, we were back at the traffic circle where the inspector took out his notebook and said, as he scribbled on his yellow cerfa* papers, "Sir, you were unsuccessful. Madame, you were successful. but there is no need to be so nervous behind the wheel." Nervous my cul! If you were taking a test with 3 people watching over your shoulder and a guy blatantly failing 15 minutes before, wouldn't you be nervous?

And so, I am a beginner driver. I petitioned the préfecture to let me have a real licence, instead of a permis provisoire*, seeing as I've had my NJ licence for more than half my life, but to no avail. They agreed to lift the speed limit (young drivers have a slower speed limit) but they still make me put the huge red "A" on my car.
And so I am branded for another year by the French driving code...

*Cerfa : who knew that the people who make all of the administrative forms in France had a higher goal!
* Priorité à droite - French right-of-way: infamous the world over
*permis provisoire - a first licence is valid for 3 years after which time, if you haven't lost all your points, you can get your permanent licence.


Reb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reb said...

OOPs. I turned off the comments by accident. poor papadesdeux had to comment on my petals

Reb said...

Papadelesdeux said...

OK, I really don't want to get into all this "pétales" stuff... way out of my field of expertise... but you seem to have turned off the comments on your driver's license post.

The stories everyone can tell... I flew back to the US, made the agonizing trip to my old state of Kentucky, humbled myself before my Mother to use her address, and exchanged my California license for a Kentucky license, just to be able to exchange the same for the French license. Why you can exchange Kentucky and not California - go figure.

Frankly the thought of taking the driving test here just scared the shit out me. Parden my French. When I arrived in France I had a vocabulary of about 3 French words and after the first year I could ALMOST use them in a sentance. Driver's Test - no f..g way.

You have the right to be EXTRA PROUD!

Thanks for stopping by deuxbydeux.

Oh, the baby stories you are going to be able to tell. :))))

Samantha said...

Hey, I'm currently studying for my permit now, though luckily it's only going to cost me about 300€ - if you already have a driver's license, you don't have to do the mandatory 20 heures with your driving school. I keep putting off taking the damn exam though, as it's so hard and they only set you up to fail. Right now, I'm shooting for May though. And the fact that we have to put that damn A on my car annoys me too - seriously, how ridiculous is that?

Reb said...

I thought I wwouldn't have to do the 20 hours but I had such bad habits, apparently, and was so nervous by the whole thing and the bitchy instructor that I lost about 10 hours before I changed teachers.

Once you get the licence, you should petition the prefecture to at least get the speed limit restriction lifted. I can even email you my letter ;)

I think the whole driving licence thing was the most utterly french experience I've ever had. Be warned!

wcs said...

Bonjour, reb ! I went through this license thing in 2005. France will only exchange licenses with US states that don't require French people to take the driver's test in that state to get a license there. It's tit-for-tat, or something like that.

Also, the préfecture (Centre) here told me that I didn't have the speed limit restriction AND I didn't need the "A" sticker. They said to carry my old California license in the car and show it to the gendarmes if ever I'm stopped. I had no luck asking for a "real" permit, either. Got the provisoire.

I am happy to say that I passed the first time, too, and that I only took 2 hours of practical, and passed the driving test. My inspector failed the person taking it with me, and he cut my session short once he saw that I could drive just fine.

Still made me nervous as hell...

PS - I'm enjoying your blog !

Reb said...

wcs, seems lots of stuff here is tit for tat...Lucky you avoiding the huge red A like that!

Deb said...

Ahhhh....too much pressure! That sucks that you had to go through all of that. Luckily for me, Florida had an agreement with France (you would think NJ would too!), so I was just able to make the exchange.

Now if I could only drive stick shift....

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