Driving in France
If ever I was to be in a crowded room and asked the question, “Tell us a little-known fact about yourself,” I would reply, embarrassingly, "I don't have a driver’s license." I am very aware that many people would say, “Oh, but you live in Paris and don't need one,” or, “It's probably expired and it's just a simple case of some formal paperwork.” The polite response on my part would be, “Heck no, bro, I've never had a full driver’s license in my life!”
In order to expound on this rite-of-passage aberration, I feel I need to paint a picture of how this came into being. The fact is my father never drove so we never had that father-son bond of him teaching me. This had important ramifications in my trajectory to independently navigating anything with four wheels, seats, and a steering wheel.
As I moved into my late teens, I decided to become a rockstar and some of my older buddies that I played in bands with had wheels. This of course was a time for heavy experimentation with alcohol and drugs and who wants to drive on that stuff, right? Actually turns out a lot of my friends did but this post is not about them, it's about me, poor neglected me. Any-who, as our years progressed it was soon evident and unanimously voted that I was the best at skinning-up (Irish Midlands parlance for rolling a carrot-shaped joint that had enough marijuana in it to take down your average sized African rhino—a larger rhino may require a stronger dose and my testing is not conclusive enough to state that as fact). Of course with great power comes great responsibility and as a legalized weed pharmacy today dispenses dosage and advice, I, too, took my job of riding shotgun and delivering herbal potency with the same level of concern for my stoned brethren. Looking back I was definitely ahead of my time.
Given this dexterous gift of sealing together Rizla papers like an origami master, my friends knew that if a steering wheel occupied my hands, then the sweet smell of Mary Jane would no longer be emanating from the smoky, half-rolled-down windows of my buddy's VW as we rolled through the hood (read bog roads). Hence their lack of concern for me to occupy the driver’s side and thus relegating me to years of destroying our collective brain cells.
Moving to Australia in 1999 meant that I drove a handful of times in the outback where pretty much anything goes. Oh the stories I could tell ya. I spent 6 months in Melbourne and lived beside the train station. The other 6 months, I spent traveling on a Greyhound bus to places of postcard-esque magnificence.
After that, I moved to London and decided I would nail this driving shizzle once and for all. Only problem this time around was my raging alcohol. I forged on and found a driving school and a cool instructor. It's pretty straight forward in the UK, at least it was back then. You do X amount of lessons with a guy whilst studying for the theory test at the same time. Now when I say study, what I really mean is looking through the book once, completely drunk. The next step was taking the theory test itself, completely hungover. How I walked out of the test center with a pass under my belt is still the greatest unanswered question I have after which armrest is mine at a movie theater. I completed my 20 hours of supervised lessons with about as much gusto as a kid at the dentist. I just had zero motivation. No interest in being independent and wanting to drive places and explore. I worked in a bar, drank like a water buffalo, and had one of the best public transport systems in the world on my door step. Why would I need to drive? Needless to say, I abandoned it and ended up moving to Paris in 2007.
Before this post gets into another hilarious tale on the Life of Mally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fundamental differences between driving here and driving in the rest of the world. I might not know the specifics but I do know this: in the USA, UK, and Ireland, it is all pretty similar. You get a provisional license at roughly the same age (16-18) and have to take a minimum of 5-8 lessons with an instructor. Now, to get this license, one simply has to fill out the form and Bob's your uncle. You have a fresh new ID and are ready to tear up road. Once you've done your 5-8 lessons, you can then test your parent’s nerves to the max and have them take you out. Pretty simple. The cost is not exorbitant (£100 should cover the license and theory test, another £200-300 for the lessons) but get this, you choose when you want to take the test. This is important in the bigger picture, which I will get to.
In France, the driving school, or auto école, has the whole system sown up with a big bow on top. Never in my life have I seen a systematic rip-off be so unopposed or profitable. The first step is a computer evaluation. This involves staring at a circle on a computer screen and following it around with a mouse to deduce reflex times. A cat chasing a ball of yarn on YouTube is the only thing I can think of to equal this type of entertainment. After this futuristic, highly technological evaluation, you are then told you have to drive with an instructor for a minimum of 20 hours, 30-40 if your mouse-moving game is not totally dialed in. What I got from it was the knowledge that if you are good at video games you will slay. I, however, am not a fan of staring a screen unless Pearl Jam are rocking out on it.
Now that I have been deemed officially brain dead by this test, I have to learn the theory—which hence forth will be known as the code. You can say it in a French accent from here on in if you are gripped by my story and are willing to go the distance with me on this one. The French code is staggering in its legalism. I understand that road safety is paramount and applaud people who implement it and make our roads safer, but, as you will read, I came across some belters in the study classes that had me looking around the room like I was in The Truman Show. As in, This is a joke right? Y'all are in on this and the stupid Paddy in the big city is being made good-hearted fun of? Right guys? RIGHT? Wrong. The instructors of the code are on par with Navy SEALS. You will read your code and pass and will not sleep till you do! All this is done before it is even mentioned that you will get behind the wheel. In order to do so you must pass the examen blanc which translates to mock test. The score has to be at least 35/40 or no rear-view mirror dice for you. They give you a site to practice on, a book to read, and insist you come daily to the auto école to practice actual tests and then wait to see how much you suck, or not. My first few trips were mortifying. Picture me, the beard master, walking into a room of acne-covered adolescents with a wisp or two of baby beard strands struggling to sprout from their chins like Matt Damon's potatoes trying to break the soil of Mars in The Martian. The girls giggled in the corner and compared Nike's. Talk about humbling.
Back to the questions. Boy, I really think there is a comedy book in this someday if my career as a deep thinking memoirist doesn't pan out. You are saying to yourself, Really, c'mon Mally, it can't be that bad. You can stop your internal dialogue right now, because it is. The sheer insanity of some of the questions makes you wonder how anyone is actually driving here. And it's not because French is not my mother tongue, it's because some masochist is sitting in a smoke-filled room with a Gitanes clenched between his lips making up stuff that belongs in a sci-fi book. It is designed to trick you. Let me ask you this. You buy a second-hand car, should it have A) two wing mirrors B) one wing mirror, or C) a rear-view mirror? Note, many questions have a choice of A,B,C or D with either 1, 2 or 3 responses. So, what is your answer? Me being logical says A&C, cause driving your newly purchased car with one wing mirror is going to get you nailed by some cheese-eating cop on the way home, right? Well, turns out that I of the slow-mouse-moving skills was wrong. The correct response is actually B&C, it only has to have one wing mirror. This is only the tip of a Titanic-sinking iceberg here. As you go through this you have no license, nothing. You cannot even learn to drive until you pass these very frustrating questions. Furthermore, when you sign on with an auto école in your region, they own you. You cannot transfer your file should you have a disagreement with them (read punch them in the face). Only when you pass the examen blanc can you take the real test and if you pass the real test, then you can start driving. The minimum is 20 hours, and if they deem you not good enough (which statistically I believe is 80% of the time) you have to sign up for another 5-10 hours. Breaking it down financially, it costs a minimum of €1,200 to €1,500 to get to the point of taking the test. If you fail the first time, which is great for business, you shell out another €500 to €700 to go back and have supervision. Also, it can take up to a year to retake the exam again. Most parents I speak to have spent an average of €2,500 getting their kid behind the wheel. In the same time since I registered—May of last year—my wife's 17 year-old niece in Wisconsin learned to drive, passed her test, and made enough money working at a burger joint to buy her own car! When you are part of the French system, you are a prisoner. No exaggeration.
For the past two months, I have been going to the auto école 5 days a week. Some days I hit the jackpot and bounded out of there like I won the lottery. Other days I slumped out wondering if anyone had ever died by code-related stress. I eventually got to the point where I passed the mock exam and signed up for the actual test, which I took on Wednesday of this week.
Taking the test is very different than being in the room at the auto école. Going to the test centre is like seeing the characters of the Pixar movie, Inside Out, walking around chewing their nails. Except whereas Inside Out has joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust, the test center has only nerves. It's quite a sight. Each person there is looking at each other and thinking the same thing, PLEASE let this be the last one of these I ever have to do! After 20 minutes of stomach-churning waiting, a French official comes and calls us into the room. With the manner of a doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis, he informs us that if our phones go off during the test we will be ejected immediately. If we copy from our neighbor (not likely, since one of my neighbors looks like he just stepped out of a bar and the others knees are knocking together so hard I can barely hear the instructor’s droning voice—which, incidentally, could cure constipation, such is its monotone rumble), we will likely be brought straight to the guillotine. The 40 questions come and go and they are much easier than the tests at the Navy SEAL school. Much easier. After the test is finished a collective exhalation almost lifts the roof off the place. Students file out and light cigarettes as if they have been submerged under water and nicotine is their oxygen. I hear them babble in French, “Merde, I thought the speed limit was 100 km in the rain!” As for me, I think I did OK. The thing that frustrates me the most is that with all the advances in technology they do not give you the results right there. Instead, they go through the formal process of collating the scores and then sending them by snail mail to the auto école who may or may not receive them today thus prolonging my agony for another day or two. And so I wait, my character of nerves perched on my shoulder.
I think that in all the frustration I have at least committed to something I feared doing for a long time. There is no right time to do something, there is only now. Once you get the ball rolling—car in this case—then it will come together. People drive every day and have done so for decades of their life and it may feel mundane at times. I feel privileged to be getting to experience this later in life. If there's anything you won't commit to because you are waiting for the right moment, don't. It's all just a bunch of steps you take and the smallest, most important one, is the first one. Take it today.
Oh, and I'll let you know when the test results arrive :)