There was something unusual happening at my driving school when I walked in one Wednesday afternoon. It was five o'clock and a written exam practice session was supposed to be starting in five minutes. Typically all is quiet in the classroom just behind the receptionist's desk; the students are taking their seats, teenage boys slumping backward in their sweatshirts, girls hunching over their cell phones to send text messages as they wait for the next forty-minute test to start on the flat screen television hanging on the wall. This time, however, I heard the booming voice of a driving instructor, with the characteristic tone of fatigued authority. Was the practice session canceled, and the classroom reserved for one of the useless théorie de la pratique classes that I'd seen advertised? I certainly wasn't sticking around for a lecture on proper tire pressure or insurance procedures and vehicle registration. Had I left le Petit with my mother-in-law and walked across town for nothing?
I looked inquiringly at the receptionist.
"Bonsoir. Is there a session now?"
"Oui, bien sûr. That's just a student who had a question about the last test, and asked for clarification from an instructor. They should be done soon."
So I grabbed an answer sheet and a clipboard, ducked into the room, and sat down. The screen showed a picture of a pedestrian just stepping out into a crosswalk. A student, with the look and demeanor of a sincere nerd, was arguing with the instructor about it. How should she know that she should stop in this situation? She needed the rule.
"But it is obvious," insisted the instructor. "Here the pedestrian is engaged in the intersection. No one is behind you [the photo showed the reflection in the rear view mirror], and common sense tells you to stop." The discussion had clearly been going on for some time. Shaking his head, the instructor turned to leave.
The "rule" the student was looking for was obvious enough to me, after sitting through innumerable practice tests. If the pedestrian in the photo is standing patiently in front of the crosswalk, you can keep going. If they have just one foot off the curb, you must stop. The photos are designed to be pretty clear on the matter. From months of iterating through question after question, I'm starting to learn a few test tricks, like how to pick out stop and yield lines painted at intersections to determine priority of passage or quickly judge if a situation is considered safe to pass. For some time now, I routinely get a passing score, and I can't believe I ever found the test so challenging at the beginning. I even have to admit that some of what I've learned may be useful in real life.
But the student was embarrassing herself, and I cringed. I could understand taking it seriously. But in front of the entire room? I didn't dare meet anyone's gaze, but I wasn't alone trying hard not to laugh out loud.
"I had the same question the other day, and the answer was the opposite! I don't understand! What if we get this on the test? What do I do then?"
The instructor had left, so a student mockingly stepped in to answer. "But Madame, there have to be trick questions. Someone's got to fall in the trap. This is France. There have to be winners and losers!"
The comment came from a twenty-something man with a two-day-old beard and a baseball cap, who was slouched in a corner against the wall.
"And here, it's easy," he continued. "It's just the written test. You're only in front of a television screen. Just wait for the driving test, when instead of a television screen, you have a dog in front of you..."
He used the word 'dog' -- chien -- with such derision, I remembered what I'd heard many times about the terrible reputation of French driving examiners. Ca ne rigole pas. But I already knew I wasn't taking my driver's exam for fun.
"But..." the first student responded, consternated, not sure if she was being teased or instead being offered practical advice.
"If I had a dog in front of me, I'd stop! I'd stop the car!"
I bit my tongue and stared out the window. The code de la route says nothing about dangers of credulity behind the wheel, fortunately enough. But I wondered if I should explain to her the "Danger: domestic animal crossing" sign just in case.