The Long Gear-Grinding Road: Getting a Driver's License in France, Part Two
- Published on Tuesday, 26 March 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
On the Highway to Hell
(Or the Suburbs)
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.
Some years ago a Kafkaesque set of circumstances arose, the end result of which was that I had to go to school to learn how to do something that I had already been doing for 30 years: operate a motor vehicle.
As I explained in part one of this series, I needed to get a French driver’s license, and to do that I needed to pass a two-part (written and road) test, and to do that I needed to go to driving school. Having already had a taste of the Andy Kaufman-esque mindset required to pass the written test on the French traffic code (and signs — see part one-B), I was expecting the on-the-road instruction to be, maybe not Kafka- or Kaufman-, but perhaps Johnny Knoxville-esque.
I was not disappointed. Over the course of several months, I went out several times a week for hour-long sessions with, in more or less random rotation, my school’s four instructors. I learned a lot from them.
First, I learned that I was not going to learn the one thing that I actually wanted to learn.
Besides getting the license, one of the reasons I signed up for this program in the first place was that I was (and am still) not very experienced in city driving. I grew up and learned to drive in the American Midwest, in a place where there are more cows than cars, traffic is so sparse that there are no four-lane roads, and even having two lanes is largely a waste of asphalt.
So I’m not used to being surrounded by speeding cabs, scofflaw motorcyclists and pushy, inconsiderate ambulances like we have here in Paris, and I was eager to get some practice on the streets of the metropolis.
I was disappointed. My driving school was in more-or-less-central Paris, but the first thing we did during every lesson was take the quickest, shortest route out of town, like houseguests who just stole the silverware.
All of my lessons took place in a quiet suburb that, in terms of traffic density, if not cattle population, markedly resembled my hometown. I can’t blame the instructors — if I had to sit in the passenger seat next to novice drivers shifting to the wrong gear, drifting into oncoming traffic and asking what all those flashing lights in the rearview mean, I, too, would want to be in a place with as few moving obstacles as possible.
So the suburbs it was. And there I learned that a large part of the time would be devoted to pursuits other than driving instruction. These were, depending on which teacher I happened to draw on a given day:
Instructor 1) Offering endless and unencouraged critiques of the hair, clothes, faces and figures of the women we passed.
Instructor 2) Reminiscing about how much better life had been before he had to take a goddamn job as a goddamn driving instructor.
Instructor 3) Trying to impress and if possible intimidate me with his knowledge of driving techniques and, interestingly, investment management. This from a guy in his late fifties who was working part-time at just over the minimum wage.
Instructor 4) Staring silently out the windshield, without blinking, for as long as 10 minutes at a time.
My favorite, of course, was Number 4. During his extended reveries, he was probably thinking about getting lucky, a better job and some credit default swap protection for his bond portfolio, but at least I never had to hear about it.
Lastly, I learned that what I was going to learn would fall into four categories:
Category 1: Things that I already knew about and had been doing for 30 years
I had had a driver’s license for decades and my instructors knew it, but they were, after all, instructors, so they did their bit by reminding me of platitudinous rudiments like “Hands at ten and two,” “Keep a safe following distance,” “Let the clutch out slowly” and “Objects in the mirror (like those legs!) are closer (get closer to me, Baby!) than they appear.”
Category 2: Things that I knew about but had not been doing because no experienced driver ever does them
My teachers were very adamant about me not keeping my eyes on the road. According to them, I had to keep my head constantly swiveling like Chubby Checker on a Tilt-a-Whirl — checking the side mirrors, checking my speed, checking if I needed to yield to the right, checking out that blonde’s hairdo and, most importantly, checking over my shoulder to check that no one was in my blind spot before a lane change.
I remember being told the latter in American driver’s ed years ago, but since then I have never seen anyone rely on anything but mirrors to switch lanes, including cab drivers, Formula One drivers, space shuttle pilots, my mother and my French driving instructors. But I had to play along, so I decided to feign compliance for only as long as necessary and then to hell with it. This is also how I became an Eagle Scout.
Category 3: Things that I did not know about and had not been doing for the simple reason that they made no sense to any sane person
I never did figure this out: all of my French driving teachers insisted that while I was stopped at a stop sign, I had to keep the front wheels pointed in the direction that I was about to turn.
There was some Timothy Leary-esque explanation for this, which I have now mercifully forgotten: it shaved a hundredth of a second off the turning time, or a thousandth of a percentage point off the probability of getting pushed into another car’s path if I happened to get rear-ended — something like that. I decided to file that information away in the same remote storage sector of my brain that holds the Boy Scout Law (all I remember is “thrifty” and “reverent” and I’m neither of those).
Category 4: Things that were outright illegal
I swear this is true. One day, after some parking practice out in Stillville, Instructor Number 1 (the Simon Cowell of Parisian pulchritude) and I were returning to town during rush hour, and I found myself driving on a crowded one-way two-lane that was marked at frequent intervals with 70-kilometer-per-hour speed limit signs. (For readers who, like me until I moved to France, would rather have daily root canals than learn the metric system, it’s about 45 mph.)
Since I was in a school car preparing for an official driving test, I dutifully kept the speedometer right at 70. Meanwhile, every single other vehicle on the road, including mopeds, trucks, and trucks hauling other trucks, was passing me as though — well, as though I were dutifully keeping the speedometer right at 70. In reverse.
After a while my instructor piped up and said, “Il faut aller un bon soixante-dix” — “You need to go a good 70.” I interpreted this to mean that traffic was heavy, so I should be sure not to dip below 70, but after another minute he said, “A good 70 means 77 or 78, around in there.”
In other words, my instructor had instructed me to violate the speed laws. It’s true that if everyone is speeding, it’s safer to go along with the herd, but if I had followed his instructions during the actual exam I never would have gotten my license.
Nonetheless, I don’t think he did it on purpose to make me fail, keep me in school and get his mitts on more of my money. He was a positive-thinking guy at heart. After all, he rated virtually every woman he saw “a good 10.”
Next week, in The Long Gear-Grinding Road, Part Three, I take the actual examinations! And pass! And nearly pass out from relief!
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© 2013 Paris Update