Friday, October 17, 2008


When we learned the sad truth about our need for French permis de conduire, we enrolled in the local School of French Driving. It's possible to get the permis without signing up with a school, but it means that you have to manage your paperwork and the préfecture on your own and, faithful readers, I'm sure you know the answer to that question.

So we called around to all the driving schools in the neighborhood and found the only one within 40 kilometers that has an instructor who speaks enough English to work with people like us. We made an appointment.

Our branch of the School of French Driving--it's a national chain--is two villages and one hill away, about a 15 minute semi-legal drive. The office occupies the street level of a building that dates, I imagine, from about 1650, on a side street in a village that routinely wins nationally-coveted charm awards. The office consists of a reception room, where Madame le sécretaire has her desk; a room behind that with a coffee maker, a counter, and a small refrigerator; and, to the left of the reception room, a classroom. Plastic chairs are lined up in rows facing the back wall, on which hangs a flat-screen television with a dvd player on a shelf just below. The ceiling is low, one of the only reminders that you are in a building that is more than four centuries old; for the rest, the office is tricked out in the latest white laminate and oak veneer, with red plastic accents.

'Arry, our instructor, was waiting for us when we arrived. His long graying hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He wore small rectangular sunglasses. He was leaning hard in the direction of portly, with a grey t-shirt stretching across his midriff, dark shorts, dark tennis shoes with dark socks, and decidedly not dark legs. His t-shirt showed a parrot perched under a palm tree next to a thatched beach hut, and it said "Bird's Paradise Jungle Motel.''

We all shook hands, and 'Arry explained how the process worked. Our enrollment fees would cover a copy of the Code de la Route, unlimited practice tests at the school, driving lessons behind the wheel, administrative costs, and additional sessions in English with him. The practice tests were the central component of the process: it was through those that we would learn the code, learn how questions were phrased, where were the traps and pitfalls, and thus be prepared, when the time came, to take our épreuve théoretique at the préfecture. We could come and take the practice tests any time, any day, he assured us. Madame le sécretaire started a different test dvd every hour on the hour.

So we can come any time to practice? we asked, wanting to clarify.

Yes, absolutely. You can come at any time, all day, between 10 and 12 and then between 2 and 7.

Ah. That sounded more like the France we knew. Open all day, except when it wasn't.

How long, we asked, would the process take? We were un peu pressés, for various reasons having to do with our cartes de séjour and the company cars.

'Arry nodded. The process normally takes at least four months, he said. But it can sometimes go a little faster, if you are studying a lot and learning quickly.

We gasped. Four months seemed an awfully long time to hang suspended in a semi-legal state, and, also, there was the not insignificant fact that we both knew how to drive. At least it did not seem insignificant to us. We suggested as much.

Yes, absolutely, I understand, said 'Arry. But--he held his palms out and upwards, never a good sign--what can we do? That is the process. Bienvenue en France! It's like that. 'Arry speaks a very French English; sometimes to understand what he means, it's best to translate his English back into French. When the French want to express exasperation and resignation with the constraints of the situation, they say: C'est comme ça. So 'Arry says, It's like that. And, he says, absolutely. Absolument, a common enough word in spoken French, expresses something closer to well, of course than to the dead certainty of an English absolutely.

So we made an appointment with 'Arry for the following week, and paid our registration fees. It seemed bizarre to be going to driving school again after 25 years--absurd, even--but, what could we do? We shrugged and held our palms out and upwards. It's like that. Welcome to France.