Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I passed my driving test.

It took me two tries. The first time, two months ago, I prepared for days--months, actually--and was in a state of grim panic for the test itself. Then I failed. You're allowed to mix up to five out of 40 questions; I missed six. As 'Arry said when I saw him afterward, It's like that sometimes.

This time, I spent the morning taking practice tests. And failing them. 32, 34, 33 out of 40. The practice tests I was taking--from the new dvd of practice tests that the School of French Driving has issued--had questions like:

If I am driving in heavy traffic and my car is approaching an intersection at which the cars entering from the right have priority, and there is a car sitting in the road to my right (where it would normallement have priority), but the driver looks for all the world like he has come to a complete stop and is even reading a map--do I: A. stop (and yield to the driver on my right, who's stopped his car and is reading his map, and, in stopping, run the risk of the car that is immediately behind me rear-ending me) or B. keep going (since the car to my right is practically parked, I mean, he's reading a map at the wheel, for god's sake)?

Yep. A.

So after lunch I walked the dogs and then drove over to Charm City, the depressed market town where the driving test is given, to take the test. I parked in the garage where, when I leave the car there, I feel marginally less likely to be mugged, and which smells less like urine, than the other parking garage in the centre ville. I walked up the hill and through the unmarked doors that lead to the corridor and the staircase to the Salle des Augustins, where the test is given.

It's called the Salle des Augustins because the building it's in stands on the site of a former Augustinian monastery. The room is miserable in the way that bureaucratic rooms the world over are miserable: it's dirty, it smells like anxiety and cigarette smoke (and French teenager), the dropped ceiling has large water stains, the curtains are askew and don't close properly. In a weird nod to Provence, the walls are yellow and the curtains are blue. It's like provençal hell.

Augustin, the church father who gave his name to the Augustinian order, had particular theories about humanity and salvation. He believed that there was nothing that we could do on our own initiative to be saved. The only route toward salvation, toward living a holy life, lay through divine grace. We could read, write, struggle, study for days and weeks--but only if God reached out to us, extended grace to us, could we hope to be saved.

Thirty or so teenagers and I filed into the exam room. The proctor explained how the test would be administered, and warned us that if he caught us cheating, or appearing to cheat, we would be forbidden to take the test for five years. Then he turned out the lights and turned on the computer, and the questions were projected on the screen.

These were easier questions than those in my practice tests. If it was a question about yielding to traffic entering from the right, for instance, then it showed the driver of the car on the right leaning forward, making eye contact, poised to enter the roadway. I answered each question, inhaled, exhaled, pressed the key to validate my answer, and then answered the next question. Forty times.

And then it was over. The woman from the School of French Driving met our cohort (me and six teenagers) outside in the equally grimy hallway and gave us our results. Two of us had failed. The rest had passed. This time, I was in the second group.

After I failed the test the first time, I had thought about the Salle des Augustins, and about the bizarre theological cum bureaucratic appropriateness of taking the épreuve théoretique in a room named for Saint Augustin. 'Arry had told us, several times, that he would count himself lucky to find 35 questions that he could answer correctly on any given test. We could prepare and prepare, he said, and still there could be one question too many that we got wrong.

I took the inverse of that advice for my guide, the second time around: I had prepared for months, and it didn't matter if I prepared any more. Either I would find 35 questions I could answer or I wouldn't. It was, to a disorienting degree, out of my control. But the Augustinian god of French bureaucracy smiled on me this time, extended his ball point pen of grace in my direction, and I passed.

This time. Now I have to take the road test.


  1. this entire experience is only administered in french right? every question is in french?

  2. Mais, bien sûr! There is an official translator who will repeat the questions to you in English, but it takes an extra six months or more to schedule the translator. So...yes, I took it in French.