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.