Saturday, April 11, 2015

The biggest news we've had in a while

involves this piece of paper.

In February of this year, after 16 years ... well, 13, if you want to get technical... of driving illegally in France on my American license, I finally signed up for driving school so I could take my theory and driving tests and be street-legal.

Driving school is not exactly required by law, but I never figured out how you manage to take the test without it, since according to the law you have to have a certain number of hours of driving in a dual-command car. You can rent these types of vehicles, but the person teaching you has to have a certain number of hours of training as well, which is also not free... we figured by the time you pay all of that, you might as well just go through the driving school.

The driving school in town initially quoted me 1230 € for the entire program. That included registration fees, the driving book, a year's access to their theory "lessons," internet access to the practice tests, presentation for the theory and driving test, and 20 hours of driving lessons.

What are theory lessons, anyway?

There are actually no lessons or instructors involved. The driving school employee pushes "play" on a DVD player. The practice test is projected on a screen, you enter the answers on your electronic box, and after the 40 questions have finished, it runs through again, this time giving you the answers and a brief explanation. Each question has an accompanying image, and questions can cover anything from "what liquid should you put in this recipient?" (oil, windshield wiper fluid, coolant, etc) to "which lane should you be in?" to "How many points do you lose / what do you risk for [x behavior]?" You can miss no more than 5 questions to pass the test.

I started theory "lessons" just before we left on vacation, without having read the driving book, and was missing about 10 questions each time. I took advantage of our 12.5-hour traffic jam to read the driving book they gave me (out loud, to Frédéric's great joy), and did some of the online tests while we were on vacation. By then, I was only making 3-6 mistakes each time.

Less than a month after I signed up for the theory lessons, the driving school secretary called me on evening. She asked if I could take the theory test... the next morning. Now, it costs 80 € each time you take the test... I hadn't been signed up very long, so I wasn't sure I was *quite* ready to take that risk. It wouldn't cost me anything to wait a bit longer and be certain I would pass on the first try. I hemmed and hawed, saying that perhaps it was a bit soon - so she offered to let me take it again for free if I didn't pass the first time. Well, in that case...! So I went along with the seven other students the next morning, and took the test in a freezing auditorium.

Why would she want you to take it so soon?

The thing is, apparently, that driving schools get "slots" for students to take their test based on various criteria, like their pass rate, number of no-shows, etc. And the driving school had a cancellation for this test, so they were trying to fill the slot, but didn't want to fill it with someone who was unlikely to pass. She looked up my test scores on the online version and the driving school version (the electronic box allows them to keep a record of your scores), and figured I was a safe bet.

How did you do?

They called a couple of days later to let me know that I passed! Hooray, part one, finished! I don't know how many mistakes I made, because they only pass that information along if you fail.

Next, on to driving lessons...

I had a first hour of "evaluation" with one of the driving instructors. It's amazing how nervous it can make you - 20 years after you got your first driver's license - when you know the person next to you is critiquing you. AND you're driving a car you're unfamiliar with. And it's a stick shift. Fortunately, I did learn how to drive a stick a few years after I got my license in the US.

Normally when you sign up at driving school (at 18 years old), you sign up for a minimum of 20 hours of driving lessons. The average is around 33 before taking the test; some take as many as 50. Fortunately for me, once I passed the theory test, the driving school secretary learned that I didn't have to take the legally required minimum of 20 hours since I already had a license. So they decided to sign me up for a few lessons and see how it went.

What's this about stick shifts?

Well, in France, you either take your test on a stick shift, and get a license that authorizes you to drive both manual and automatic transmissions, or you take your test on an automatic, and get a license that authorizes you to drive automatics ONLY. Given that 90% of the cars in France are manual transmission (I just made that number up, but it's probably close to that), it didn't make sense to get a license that would limit me to automatics only.

(I agree, that rule makes absolutely no sense; but it's the law...)

Anyway - the driving instructor didn't like when I shifted gears (too early for her taste), and didn't like that I didn't look in my mirrors before putting on a turn signal. I told her she might have twenty years of bad habits to fix. But in the end, I only took six hours of lessons (including the first "evaluation" hour) with two different instructors before my test.

One of the most difficult parts was looking out for jumping pedestrians - these old women seem to hide behind parked cars in town, waiting for an "auto-école" car to come by, before leaping out on the crosswalk in front of the car. The other was "priorité à droite." This means, "right of way to the person coming from the right." Now, this law does exist in the US. However, we don't have many situations where it actually comes into play, because smaller roads coming out onto a larger road typically have a stop or yield sign. In France, not so. Smaller roads coming out onto a larger road may well have the right of way over people on the larger road. So if you are driving on the main road, you have to slow down and check out Every. Single. Street. to your right to be sure that it has a stop sign, or a yield sign, or if they don't, to be sure you don't cut someone off.

After my six hours of lessons, just three weeks after I took the theory test, they decided I could take my driving test.

How was the test?

Less stressful than I expected! I went to Soissons with another driving student, who was taking the test for the second time. Another person from the same driving school was already taking the test, so we waited for her to come back. Then it was the other student's turn. And finally, mine. The inspector was in the front passenger seat (the side with the extra set of pedals), and the driving school instructor - one I hadn't even met - was in the back seat.

Several of my hours of lessons were spent driving around the test routes, so I was already familiar with the area. The inspector told me where to go, and I went, keeping my eagle-eye out for pedestrians and priorité à droite, both of which are eliminatory mistakes if you fail to grant the right-of-way. The test lasts about thirty minutes, and includes a "manoeuver" (in my case, parallel parking, which I happen to be pretty great at) and technical questions about the car (mine were: "where is the battery?" - so I had to open the hood and show him, and explain what to do if the battery died - and "Move the sun visor to its side position" - which is actually not possible in a Peugeot 106 if you have the seat moved all the way forward. Fortunately he didn't penalize me for that.) The test also includes city driving, highway driving, and testing the student's ability to follow directional signs.

The test actually went by quickly and felt like less than thirty minutes. I parked the car on the side of the street, and got out to let the inspector finish the paperwork. They no longer tell you immediately whether or not you've passed, so I had to wait for the letter in the mail. The instructor who was along for the ride thought I did ok; and I'm sure he would have mentioned any terrible mistakes. And the inspector didn't use the brakes on his side - it's pretty much a guaranteed fail if that happens.

Which brings us to the picture at the top of this post. That is the paper that I got in the mail. The "favorable" means that I passed! I got 28 points out of 31 possible (29 "normal" points and 2 bonus points) - which is a much higher score than I got when I was 16.

So I'm legal now! I'm still waiting for my actual license to come in the mail; this temporary paper is valid for up to four months, so I expect the license will arrive some time before four months are up. The best part of all of this is that while it did cost a pretty penny (692 € to be exact), I made it out for much less than what we thought it would be.

And the funniest part is that Frédéric was outside when the mailman brought the letter. The mailman knew exactly what it was. He asked Frédéric, "She took her driving test, huh?" Frédéric said yes, and the mailman told him I passed. He could tell because the envelope was thin - a thin envelope means you passed, and a thick one means you didn't. But that's not the funny part - the funny part is that the mailman has seen me driving here for the past 8 1/2 years. And it didn't phase him to hear I just now took my driving test.

Vive la France!

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