On Tuesday morning, after months of preparation and less-than-patient waiting, it was time for me to go back to Villeneuve la Garenne to take the written part of the French driver's license exam.
I feel I must explain to my American readers this is, in fact, a big deal. Or at least a big pain. Back when I took the written driver's license exam in Washington State, more years ago than I care to calculate, it was trivial: a few questions about drunk driving, a question about stopping for school buses, and a picture of a big red octagonal sign ("When you see this sign, what do you do?"). I was nervous, sure, because I was 16 years old, but I passed easily.
The French written driver's exam is a different matter. Forty pictures of "real world" driving situations that you must analyze and, applying the often arcane rules of the code de la route, use to answer forty multi-part multiple choice questions. The only way to prepare is to plow through as many practice questions as possible, spending hour upon dull, humiliating hour at the driving school watching DVDs and checking A, B, C and/or D on endless pieces of paper.
I'd been at it since December. And I hated it. And by March, I was beginning to get the hang of determining the priority of passage at intersections, so I asked for a date to take the exam. The French bureaucracy being what it is, I was eventually assigned a date in May. That was the first time I'd gone to Villeneuve la Garenne, only to discover that the test inspector was on strike.
Three months later, I was back, confident that no strike would stand in my way, for in the middle of August, everyone is too busy taking vacation to be bothered with labor movements. My husband dropped me off and I joined a growing crowd of anxious adolescents who were milling about, paging through dog-eared copies of driver's manuals. I sat down on a bench in the dimly-lit basement hallway of the less-than-festive Salle des fêtes and waited. It was quarter to ten, and the last crop of hopeful drivers were just coming out of the exam room with their test results.
Three young girls excitedly hugged and congratulated each other before flocking together to the restroom. A kid in baggy pants and a scruffy sweatshirt carefully avoided smiling at his friend, who called out, "Did you get it?"
"Uh, yeah," he replied nonchalantly. "On the third try, it's easy, you know."
I felt old. And tired. And hugely pregnant. And nervous. What if I failed? What if these teenagers were smarter than me at picking out half-hidden yield signs? It was only the night before that I'd finally managed to get a perfect score on a practice exam. I was relatively confident I could get at least 35 correct out of 40, the requisite passing score, but it was far from a sure thing and I couldn't shake an ancient, adolescent fear of humiliation that was welling up inside me.
The test inspector, a gruff, stout woman in her 50s with short gray hair, came out into the hall at ten o'clock and collected stacks of manila folders from our accompanying driving school instructors. She then disappeared back into the exam room, loudly shut the door, and spent the next half an hour alone, presumably entering our personal information into her computer by hand.
The French bureaucracy isn't known for its mastery of modern technology.
Meanwhile my heart pounded, my back hurt, and I tried to look wise and relaxed while I struggled to overhear other students last-minute poring over their books and berated myself for forgetting to bring my own copy.
The test inspector reappeared at ten-thirty and began summoning us in in groups by driving school. My school was second, and among its candidates, I was first. She called out my name, which I failed to recognize. To the French bureaucracy, I am still identified by my maiden name, which is systematically mispronounced and transformed into an guttural monosyllable. The driving instructor nudged me forward, and I picked up a remote-control-like pad with six buttons and a small LCD display.
"Second row, middle seat."
I dutifully sat down and nervously examined the small room. The dim flourescent lights in the low ceiling and the dull beige paint brought back fond memories of 1980s classrooms. Two folding tables were lined up together at the front of the room, where the inspector sat behind a laptop computer, a stack of the remote-control thingys, and a odd, antiquated machine with a thick roll of what looked like cash register paper. A projector screen was deployed behind her.
Once she finished distributing the controls and barking out seating instructions, she stood up in front of us all grimly.
"You each have your response units. You will be presented with 40 questions on the screen behind me. Respond to each question on your unit, then click "validate" to save your response and move on to the next question. Make sure that the number on the display corresponds to the number on the screen. If you get behind, you'll have to catch up, and if you skip ahead, you'll have to wait. It is useless to indicate your problem to me, because I can't help you."
I was suddenly nostalgic for the low-tech pieces of paper.
"Turn off your cell phones. It is unnecessary to remind you, I'm sure, that this is an individual exam. Do not try to share your answers with those seated next to you. Anyone seen violating these rules will be asked to leave the room."
I felt like pinching myself, worried I'd fallen asleep and was trapped in a nightmare of tenth grade.
She started the DVD. The questions appeared one by one and I answered them carefully, obsessively verifying that I was on the right number. They were mostly questions that I was prepared for, not easy but reassuringly similar to the endless practice questions I'd digested over the past eight months. Some were simple: you're at a railroad crossing, the red light is blinking; do you pass? A couple were bizarre, abstract, and (I later verified) utterly absent from my textbook. I answered with an educated guess, shook my head and pressed "validate", hoping I was still afloat.
When the fortieth question faded from the screen and was replaced by the profile of Marianne, emblem of the French Republic (the words liberté, égalité, fraternité and sécurité routière got equal billing below), a collective sigh of relief was heard. The inspector solemnly began to call us individually to the front for our results. She plugged each control into the cryptic machine, which beeped with satisfaction and spit out its verdict on the reel of paper.
"C'est bon," she said to the first few candidates, pasting the results into their manila folder which she then handed to them without ceremony.
"Trop de fautes," she said to several unlucky candidates, whose faces fell. One clutched her folder and left in tears.
She called my name, which once again I didn't immediately recognize.
I scrambled to get up, and handed over my control with a lump in my throat.
"C'est bon." She offered me my folder. I wondered if I'd heard her correctly.
There was no indication of the number of mistakes I'd made, which remains a mystery, the inspector explained, in the event of a passing grade. Only those that fail know the truth. I stared at the printed label with a dot-matrix "VAL" next to my name, the big payback after months of wasted time.
Or maybe not so wasted. One of my husband's colleagues, a medieval history buff and connoisseur of esoteric ritual, claims that the French driver's exam is an rite of initiation. Arcane, seemingly useless, it nevertheless marks a passage into full membership in society; it confers a deeper understanding the rights, responsibilities, and petty annoyances of adulthood -- and of French citizenship.
I spent a few minutes mulling this over in the car as we drove away from charming Villeneuve la Garenne. I've now got twenty hours of practice driving to spend with an instructor before I can take the driving exam. An exam that will likely be easier to pass, but just as difficult to schedule with the préfecture as the written exam. And all of this could have been avoided if, instead of Massachusetts or Washington, my US license had been issued by Florida or New Hampshire. Rite of initiation, lesson one: the arbitrariness of fate at the hands of civil servants, perhaps?
I sighed and admitted one thing: at least with twenty of hours of mandatory driving practice, I might finally master parallel parking.