Sunday, January 31, 2010

Driven to distraction

The most humiliating moment of my week comes on Wednesday evening at around six o'clock.

I walk out onto the sidewalk with my head hanging low, cursing, as I rarely do, my country of adoption, barely paying attention to the traffic lights as I cross the street.

I've just taken another practice driving exam.

On Wednesday evening, my mother-in-law kindly takes care of le Petit while I go to sit in a room with a small group of other students, the majority of them apathetic adolescents, and fill out a forty-question multiple choice exam shown on a video screen. A still image of a real-life driving situation is displayed with each question, and below four possible responses are proposed, A, B, C and D. I puzzle over the question briefly, then fill out the bubbles on a piece of paper. Multiple correct responses are the rule of the game, and no partial credit is given if you do not select them all. After forty seconds, a short video and voice-over explains exactly what the correct responses are and why.

I'd studied the big drivers' ed book, memorized all the traffic signs (which, though logical, are almost entirely different from signs in the US), but I still got 14 questions wrong on my first practice exam. This, when the minimum passing score is 35. My husband and mother-in-law barely managed to talk me back from my despair. It was normal to do so badly at first, they claimed. The test required brute-force memorization and a certain familiarity with potential trick questions. Logic and intelligence would get me nowhere by themselves.

I fondly remember my Washington State drivers' exam, where most of the questions either concerned alcohol consumption (=BAD) or proper behavior when crossing school buses (=STOP WHEN THE RED LIGHTS FLASH, STUPID). There was nothing earth-shatteringly complicated that an hour of flipping through the state's free drivers' manual couldn't answer. One question I got on my exam displayed a stop sign and asked, "When encountering this sign, you should: A) Stop B) Yield C) Keep going." The mandatory eye exam seemed difficult in comparison.

The French drivers' exam is a whole other ordeal. Students are expected to calculate stopping distances at different speeds and under different conditions, memorize the penalties for various infractions, and quickly determine if it is possible to pass another car in a pictured situation. And it is harder than it sounds.

For example, a typical question shows an intersection and asks to apply the rules in effect governing the order of passage. These rules are capital in France, where uncontrolled intersections are frequent. In most situations the car on the right has priority and is likely to take it, sometimes self-righteously, often at an unreasonable speed. In real life, driving becomes a game of chicken, where the person arriving most aggressively at an intersection "wins." Of course, this is never pictured in the still images shown on the practice exam. Instead you must notice the subtle details of the photograph: a curb indicating the intersection is a parking exit and thus not prioritaire, or the back of a yield sign that applies to cross-street traffic. One could argue that this kind of mental gymnastics has its usefulness behind the wheel, of course, but it is frustrating to learn.

Of much more dubious utility are questions about the subtleties of signage. You are expected to know, for example, that you're on a freeway simply because the background color of the rest area sign is blue instead of white. You should also know that a sign with a brown background indicates a site that is both touristic and cultural. I got that one wrong a few weeks ago, and I'm still bitter about it. White posts indicate dangerous curves. White posts with black stripes indicate the edge of the road. According to another question I got wrong, the white posts without black stripes do not also indicate the edge of the road, just the edge of the curve. Don't ask for logic, I'm told, just memorize it and move on.

After weeks of working through practice exams, I'm becoming paranoid. When I see a question that seems too simple, I start to sweat. In a recent question, a picture showed the car approaching an intersection in a lane with an arrow on the pavement indicating straight ahead only. The lane to the left showed an arrow turning left. The question was, can I turn right? Turn left? Go straight? I was so sure of myself, I barely hesitated before filling in only "go straight." Wrong! I could also turn left, I just had to change lanes. Of course.

With a sigh, I tally up another losing score (my personal best so far is still -6), painfully aware that I'm likely the oldest person in the room by a good fifteen years. My husband assures me that it is just a matter of time before I have the test down. Just a question of adding another practice session or two on Saturdays. I don't know if I should believe him. The French, subjected to frequent humiliating exams from a tender age, are much more resistant to this kind of hazing ritual than I am.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vivre ensemble

Last night, Sarkozy appeared on television. This isn't unusual, of course, and I usually don't watch. I mean to -- patriotic duty of the newly naturalized, you see -- but his addresses and interviews fall inconveniently during prime time, otherwise known as bath time chez Petit, and since we don't watch much television anyway, I forget. If I'm motivated enough, which is rarely, I read the political analysis in Le Monde online the next day.

But last night was different. Sarkozy was staging a "town hall" style interview, a format which is all too familiar to Americans from our marathon presidential campaigns. A panel of "ordinary" French, hand-picked by the TF1 network, would sit across from Sarkozy, air their personal grievances and express their concerns about the direction in which France is headed. My reason to tune in was simple: I was curious what panelists had to say and how Sarkozy would respond, but mostly I wanted to know what a group of ordinary French was supposed to look like.

The question of what makes someone an "ordinary" citizen has been on the front pages of the papers for months. By launching a Great Debate on National Identity, Sarkozy's government has decided that it is time to ask the French what it means to be French and I, as a somewhat-newly-minted French citizen, am nervous. I worry because I can't fathom the point of the debate and suspect the worst. The web site makes vague statements about globalization, the global financial crisis and the burqa; I sense a lightning rod for racism and xenophobia, or at best an ill-conceived political distraction.

Not that I think that I'll be driven out or excluded, flown home on the next plane or even criticized for not being sufficiently française. But if not me, why not, and what does that say about my right to claim French nationality? Because the debate about identity is a thinly-disguised debate about immigration, and about who has the right to come here and on what terms.

Its questions are hidden between lines in the newspapers or in whispered half-words spoken between colleagues at the coffee machine, behind concerns about what's happening in "difficult" neighborhoods, about crime, unemployment, education, and assimilation. I'm often shocked at the candor of the debate, for political correctness is not as valued in France as it is in the US. At the worst extreme, on the far-right political fringe of the National Front party, the rhetoric is worthy of Vichy: their tracts juxtapose words like "foreigner" and "ethnic" with "crime" and "instability," and their posters announce "Being French: it's merited, it's inherited." At the same time, many more French proclaim far and wide that France is a country that incarnates human rights, with a duty to defend equality and to combat injustice.

It clear to me that even among the politically moderate, cultural diversity is widely seen simply as a hurdle to overcome. The consensus is that it divides, it doesn't unite, and the Republic at its best and most just is simply blind to it. At the same time, over half of my friends and colleagues here are, like me, first- or second- generation immigrants to France. Many are from France's former colonies: Algeria, Morocco, Madagascar, the Republic of Congo, Vietnam, to name just a few. Our personal stories start elsewhere, but we are not any less French. The reality of diversity is very different from the imagined perils.

Sarkozy barely talked about national identity last night, and I was relieved, although one of the panelists, a black thirty-something father of five, broached the subject. He lived in one of Paris' toughest suburbs, one blighted by violence, unemployment and exclusion. I didn't tune in until the middle of the program, but of all of the panelists I heard, he was one that stated his questions with the most calm and reflection, when his frustration was arguably among the most justified.

He told the president that in the debate we were asking ourselves the wrong question. Asking what makes someone French is not so different from simply asking who to exclude. He proposed a different question: Comment vivre ensemble? How do we live together? Sarkozy, ever the the habile politician, superficially agreed and then pivoted to the next panelist. A quick skim of Le Monde online today revealed no commentary. The question apparently passed below the radar of political analysts.

Yet the question is deceptively simple. When the debate is just the who, when and how of being French, the answers are all for others: memorize the words to the Marseillaise, abandon the Islamic veil, study French history, learn French grammar, adopt the values of the Republic. When the question is "comment vivre ensemble" everyone must answer. To me, that's a real debate worthy of the national stage, although one, alas, that not everyone seems to be ready for just yet.

Friday, January 15, 2010


1942. I can't get the year out of my mind, although I turned the last page of Suite française over a month ago. I was in the Métro, coming home from work, on my way to meet a friend for dinner, when I read and re-read the short notes in the appendix. There were plans for the next volume, the lives of the characters traced out and annotated with question marks. Thoughts on the state of France. It was history, yes, but there I was: I couldn't shut it and come back to the present.

Suite française was published posthumously. Its author, Irène Némirovsky, was an important literary figure in pre-war France, and in her short career, she wrote sixteen novels and numerous novellas. Born in Kiev in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family, she moved as a child to Saint Petersburg, then fled Bolshevik Russia as an adolescent, in exile first in Finland, then in Paris. And here, she had in many ways arrived home. Like much of the Russian economic elite of the time, she had lived her childhood in the cultural orbit of France, vacationing each year with her parents in Paris, Nice and Biarritz. Mothered by a French nanny and educated in French, French was her second mother tongue. She wrote fluently and brilliantly in it, and most likely dreamed in it.

France was le pays de son coeur, a home she wasn't born to, but to which she was ferociously loyal. Like me, I think. But I met a Frenchman at age 21, then tardily learned French from scratch, disentangling the vestiges of my Spanish pronunciation from the les and un that first felt so foreign in my mouth. When I write in French, it is with the help of Microsoft Word's grammar checker and not without a certain inferiority complex. I chose my home, but I chose late, freely, and by accident; there's no exile in my story, no immersion in French culture from the cradle. My ties here aren't as strong as hers, and yet I can hardly imagine leaving my adoptive home.

Irène Némirovsky was deported to Auschwitz in July 1942, part of a convoy of foreign-born Jews who were among the first France sent to the concentration camps under the Occupation. She never returned. Her husband was deported and perished a few months later.

Until the very end, she thought that her country of adoption would somehow protect her, that it would never cross a line that couldn't bear contemplation.

Her two daughters, 12 and 5 years old, fled, crossing France, hiding under assumed names, and always carrying with them their mothers' final manuscript, which wouldn't be opened and read until the end of the century. The manuscript was Suite française, a two-part novel chronicling France in the beginning of the war. I imagine her daughters kept the manuscript as a talisman, more memory of their mother than real words, and they had no idea what was contained inside. I imagine that if I held the last pages my mother had written, I wouldn't want to read them. As long as they were closed, there'd still be one last message from her; once opened and read, she would be gone forever.

Although the novel is complete, the story is unfinished. The characters were supposed to continue to live through another volume, perhaps three. It was 1942, and predicting the fate of a such a novel was no easier than predicting the course of history. There's an exhilaration in the notes Némirovsky writes and the questions she poses to herself. I can't shake the feeling that the unabridged version must end mid-sentence, as if in surprise.

When I closed the book, I felt trapped in 1942. I thought to myself obsessively that it wasn't just Irène Némirovsky who was killed, but all of her characters as well, knowing it was shallow and stupid to think this, but unable to chase it from my mind. Then came an avalanche of whys as I imagined myself in her place. Why not leave? Why trust a country? Why trust this country? Her portrait of France was too perceptive and cruel to let me doubt that she knew exactly where she found herself, and yet, she stayed. So I stay in 1942, too.

I've almost finished reading an excellent biography by Olivier Philipponannat and Patrick Lienhardt, where some of my whys are answered. And this weekend we will be going to Troyes, where my husband's aunt remembers 1940 and the exodus of Suite française. She turned 10 in September 1939 on the day the war was declared. I want to ask her to share with me what she remembers, again, because this time I'm ready to hear.

"I find it funny that you're discovering World War II only now," my husband mused, after listening to me wonder aloud over dinner about what I'd just read.

"It just seemed, as they say, 'a long time ago in a country far, far away,'" I told him, somewhat ashamed to be admitting the truth.

Monday, January 04, 2010


I know how to drive.

Really, I do.

Just ask my dad. Or the state of Massachusetts. Or Washington State, for that matter, which must still have in some database somewhere a baby-faced photo of me at 16 years old, staring deer-in-headlight-like at the camera. Except that was before they had digitized IDs, when drivers' licenses looked like laminated video club memberships. Anyway.

The point is, I got behind the wheel every day of every week for years. I learned to drive seventeen years ago, in an old Honda Accord with a manual transmission and a terribly temperamental clutch. And six years ago, when I first arrived in France and could still legally drive with my American license, I drove on my own in Paris, even once braving the chaotic Etoile roundabout that rings the Arc de Triomphe. So why does the idea of finally taking the French drivers test have me shaking in my boots?

When I signed up at the auto-école several weeks ago, I had to submit to an evaluation in a simulator. The simulator, conveniently placed in the street-level window in the corner of the school waiting room to provide a maximum of embarrassment from all sides, consisted of three computer screens placed in front of a carnival-ride-like seat and steering wheel. There was also a trackball mouse anchored to the left of the seat. I put on the headphones, adjusted the seat, and was ready to go nowhere, slow.

First, there were a series of questions to evaluate my attitude toward the serious business of learning the rules of the road. Alas, I answered the questions about previous driving experience honestly. Yes, I had driven previously and yes, I had driven alone. How many hours? Many, many hours. Result: failure. According to the simulator program, I was an unlicensed menace to public security.

Then, there was the sign recognition test. Since I began studying for my license, I've learned lots of new vocabulary, like feu tricolore (a fancy term for traffic light) and panonceau (the little rectangular sign that modifies the meaning of a larger sign, like No Entry - Except Buses). I also learned that the signs are classified by meaning, indicated by shape and color: danger, interdiction, obligation, indication, direction. So Cartesian. So French. I had to honk the horn when I saw a sign of each shape, except I couldn't remember: was obligation a blue square, or a blue circle? Who knew it was this complicated?

Next, the simulator tested my memory. It explained that to correctly install myself in the driver's seat, I must first adjust the seat bottom, then the seat back, then the head rest, then the rear view mirrors, and finally buckle my seat belt. Remember this order precisely, for it will be asked again at the end of the test.

The intellectual portion over, I then had to begin the practical test. I had to start the imaginary car, first pressing down on the brake and the imaginary clutch, which turned out to be far more temperamental than that of my old Honda, then turn the imaginary ignition, release the brake and let up on the clutch while pressing gently on the gas. I stalled out three times in a row.

Finally, the driving began. I had to slalom between cones, then speed up and slow down through curves in a simulated landscape that looked vaguely like a 256-color version of the countryside off the A-71 near Clermont-Ferrand. I realized that I was anxious despite myself, and was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. I sped up and slowed down on cue, grateful not to have to stop and fuss again with the clutch. My head started to ache. I always have hated video games. One last test, the Visual Acuity Test, and the ordeal would be over.

"In this test, random shapes will appear in your field of vision," the simulator explained. "Honk the horn as soon as you identify a shape, and then click on the sector where you saw it. You do not have to use the controls."

"Vous n'avez pas à intervenir sur les contrôles."

"OK," I thought to myself, "At last I can finally let go of the steering wheel." Except that I didn't understand that by "contrôles" the simulator meant only the gas and the clutch. I kept my eyes peeled for random shapes as the car veered off past the pixelated white line at the edge of the road and into the kelly green scenery beyond.

The simulator flashed an equivalent of "Game Over," and I meekly got up to announce my failure to the auto-école secretary. She printed out the results: I was recommended to take 15 practice written tests and spend 35 hours driving with an instructor.

"I didn't understand the instructions on the last part," I explained lamely.

"Don't worry, in your situation, the instructor will most likely adjust the recommendation. It isn't contractual, anyway."

Thank goodness, because I know how to drive. Right?