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?