I was scheduled to take the written driver's license exam on May 27th. For the record, the written test is anything but simple: forty slides of real-life driving situations, forty associated multiple-choice questions, each of which may have multiple correct answers, all of which must be identified correctly to get the question right. A passing score is 35 out of 40. It isn't rocket science, but it still requires months of preparation.
As the date grew closer, I was alternately stressed and nonchalant. Although I still regularly missed a question or two or three (oh, those obscure questions! "How many backup lights are required on a car?" How should I know?), I figured I could manage a passing score. Getting a test date scheduled with the préfecture proved a challenge in itself: I asked my driving school to present me back in March, and the earliest date they could propose was late May. Come May, I was thoroughly fed up and ready to put it behind me.
The test session was at ten o'clock on a Thursday morning, in the lovely post-industrial suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, inaccessible by public transportation except for a bus that winds its slow way between the RER C and La Défense. The driving school offered to take me, perhaps, or then again maybe not, to be confirmed at the last minute. (Clearly they were well worth the 750€ fee.) I arranged to take the day off, and started to worry. A general strike was announced for the 27th. The RER might not be running. My husband had a meeting and couldn't escape from work to drive me. I noted the number for several Parisian taxi companies and slipped the paper in my purse.
The day before, the driving school confirmed that they could take me, but only if I left from their office near the Anvers Métro station at the foot of Montmartre, 30 minutes from our apartment. I accepted gratefully. What I didn't realize was that the ride would be part of a practice driving session.
Along with two other students, I squeezed into the back of a Peugeot 207 with an "Auto-école" sign on top and "Savoir vivre, c'est savoir conduire" prominently scrolled across the side. A young girl sat confidently behind the wheel, and a bored, middle-aged driving instructor took his place in the passenger's seat. With barely a passing glance at the traffic, the girl jerkily pulled out into the street.
She crossed the entire 18th arrondissement -- narrow streets, steep slopes, speeding scooters, oblivious pedestrians -- without a care in the world, and certainly no fear of the priorité à droite.* The instructor, who thankfully had a brake pedal on his side, kept his cool but was occasionally compelled to grab the steering wheel. His advice was clear and calm, albeit largely unheeded or unnoticed, "Slow down! That truck is stopped ahead!" or "Merge to the left, the bus is pulling out. No, the left..."
We got out of Paris alive and intact, miraculously enough. "Now turn, slowly, into the parking on the right," the instructor announced. We were thrown an inch or two into the air as the car bumped off the road into a dirt parking lot. "Slowly..." the instructor repeated wearily. We parked in front of the Salle des fêtes, a 1970s windowless architectural marvel that didn't exactly put me in the mood to celebrate.
We extracted ourselves from the car and noticed a crowd milling outside. Something was wrong. We walked up to the building and read a handwritten note which was conspicuously taped to the metal side door:
"Test inspector on strike.”
My nerves were so shot by then by the anticipatory stress of the exam and the nail-biting ride I'd taken to get there that I started laughing hysterically.
The driving instructor shortly abandoned us with a vague promise that someone else from the school would be back to pick us up later.
I waited a half an hour outside in the parking lot until it started to drizzle, SMS-ing the details of my ridiculous situation to everyone and arranging with my boss to come in to work in the afternoon. Then there was a search for the bus stop, a forty-five minute bus ride to La Défense, a twenty minute wait for the RER, and of course, no bus when I arrived, so I had to walk another twenty minutes to the office. All in all, it took me two hours to get to work from Villeneuve. At least it didn't rain (hard), and at least I arrived in time for lunch.
The driving school called me a day later.
"We've contacted the préfecture, and it looks like it will be difficult to get you a new date in June."
It looks like it will be difficult. Il semble que ça va être difficile. Code for "absolutely no one is interested in your predicament."
I put off getting my French license for almost seven years out of laziness, but also because everyone had warned me that it would be a long, expensive and frustrating ordeal. When I finally signed up, I was almost worried that everyone would be proven wrong, that the process would be relatively simple and that I'd kick myself for having waited. It turns out, no, actually, it's even worse than I expected.
At least I can indulge in the classic French pastime of insulting the civil service. It's some consolation.
*The priorité à droite is the rule that governs the order of passage at intersections where there are no yield or stop signs or traffic lights (of which there are many in France). Regardless of who arrives in which order, a driver arriving from the right always passes before a driver arriving from the left. This rule is so ingrained in the psyche of the French driver that they see it as a divine right, and thus cross intersections at great speeds with barely a sidelong glance to the left. Seasoned French drivers also have a second sense when it comes to detecting cars arriving on the right so they can brake in time. To an American observer, it puts the "uncontrolled" in "uncontrolled intersection."