Monday, October 13, 2008

Dans le pétrin

Since July, C and I have been studying the code de la route in order to get our French permis de conduire. We've been driving, both of us, for several decades. But under French law an American driving license is only valid for driving in France for a certain period of time, after which the driver must have a French license. Unless, of course, the American license happens to have been issued in one of the 14 states with which France has a special driver's license treaty, in which case the licenses can just be swapped.

I sometimes ponder how this treaty was drawn up. Did the directors of the national Sécurité routière in Paris write to all 50 Departments of Motor Vehicles and invite them to join in negotiations? Why did only 14 states send their representatives? Were the negotiations held in France or in the States, in a dingy back room of a préfecture or in the banquet room of the Holiday Inn outside Scranton? And why, oh why, didn't the other 36 states show up?

When I have these thoughts it is usually because I have just answered a question like this incorrectly:

Q: Is it ever permissible for a child under 10 years of age to travel in the front seat of a fourgonnette?

What's a fourgonnette, and how are the seats arranged in it? I don't know; neither did the editors of my Larousse French-English dictionary.

A: Yes. A fourgonnette only ever has a driver's seat and a front passenger seat.


There are two tests that would-be holders of the French permis must pass: a theory test (that's what it's called, really) and a half-hour driving test. The theory test has 40 questions, of which the postulant must answer 35 correctly. You cannot just show up of a Wednesday afternoon to take the test. You have to apply at the Préfecture; you have to have documentation of your age and qualifications; you have to have a set of mug shots. Then you are assigned a test date. If you fail the theory test, the rumor is that you must wait three or four months before you get a second try. So a fair amount of anxiety surrounds the event.

There is a cottage industry in France of driving schools and online driving test prep courses; you sign up and you take practice tests. A lot of them. My online test prep course doesn't just give me the number of questions I answered correctly after each test. It offers a slightly bullying judgment. When I do well, I get: That's not too bad, Madame Marron! Less well and it's: You haven't got it yet, Madame Marron! Not for the faint of self-esteem, this is.

The questions are un peu compliqué, like the one above, if French is not your first language. But the questions are complicated even if it is: every French person I have told about having to take the test has assured me, unequivocally, that if he had to take the test today he could not pass it. Every one of them, too, has done the hot pot lid gesture, holding his hand in front of and facing his hips and shaking it up and down rapidly. Olivier went so far as to add an Ooh la la.

The questions on the test are multiple choice, and there is generally more than one correct answer. If you do not give every correct answer, then the entire answer is wrong. For instance:

The painted lines at the edge of a two-way street and at the edge of a highway are identical:
--on the left side
A. Oui.
B. Non.

--on the right side
A. Oui.
B. Non.

and non, if you're interested. And, by the way, without looking, what do those lines look like in your country? And, while we're on the subject, if the line is a broken one, how far apart are the breaks? Is the line broken in the same way on a state road as on an interstate? And could you tell me, please, based on the way the lines are painted, what is the speed limit?

Just asking.

So now we take practice tests. We talk about the practice tests. And when C and I are in the car together, we parse signs.

Can you park here?
No, has to be the other side of the sign. Who has right of way?
You do; we've got the yellow diamond.
But I thought I saw a yellow diamond with a slash through it.

No, that was before we turned left.

E complained about it one day. All you guys ever talk about is driving.

We know. We bore ourselves, too. But here's the thing: we can't figure out a way around taking these tests. Believe me, we've tried. Thanks to those representatives of the other 36 states, we are,as the French would say, dans le pétrin. A pétrin is a giant kneading machine, standard equipment in a boulangerie. My friends at Larousse suggest that being in the kneading machine translates idiomatically as being in a pickle, but I've been in a pickle before. Being in a pickle is leaving your lunch on the kitchen counter. It's getting stuck in traffic and running late for an appointment. It's having a meeting at school the same night as a conference call at work.

Taking driving tests in a foreign language, country, and culture? That's more like being in a pétrin.