Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Of food, restaurants, monitors, inspectors, and a driving exam...

After successfully passing l'examen du code de la route I needed to get two hours practice behind the wheel and to schedule the driving exam.  The kind lady at the auto ecole scheduled the exam for two weeks from the moment I'd passed the written test.

This meant I had 2 weeks to get my 2 hours to I could brush up on my driving skills.  My only concern was that it'd been 2 years since I'd really driven anything motorized.  Sure, I'd driven myself crazy with le code de la route, but that was a different kind of driving, right?

The day of my driving practice found me face to face with The Full French Experience.  First I got to see how these Dual Control auto ecole cars are laid out.  The monitor sits in the passenger's seat and has a set of buttons and pedals on that side of the vehicle.  He (or she) can take over control of the car at any time.

Then there was the monitor himself.  He was a very nervous little fellow and quite the chatterbox.  He wanted to know all about America and the people and places there.  He wanted to tell me about the two Alfa Romeos he'd owned back when he was a salesman of some kind or other who criss-crossed the whole of Europe by auto.  He wanted to tell me about the high costs of retirement in France.  And he wanted to know what the costs of retirement were like in America.  So it went from the moment I sat down in the driver's seat.

We're heading up the road and he's telling me about what to watch for and where to pay attention and *wham!* he suddenly stops the car.  What? The?  Hell? Was? That? For?  I'm stunned.  You must not, never ever continue through an intersection when the light changes to yellow, monsieur.  The timing set for Green-Yellow-Red is very very short in France.  Mais, in the US when you're 2 meters away from a changing light you continue, otherwise you risk having someone up your tailpipe tout de suite.  Main non!  Nous sommes en France!!  Evidemment, I replied.

I settled down a bit and we continued up the road.  Keeping in mind that when the light changed I needed to stop immediately, we quickly encountered a second changing light, so I stopped at the crosswalk.  That's when all frigg'n hell broke loose.  The nervous little monitor man was yelling at me.  He's gesticulating wildly.  He's mad as h*ll. He immediately took control of the car and we were suddenly moving backward at a high rate of speed.  He continued to yell at me that he will NOT lose 4 points off his license because of me!

OK.  My heart is beating very fast and I'm really quite confused.  It turns out that the crosswalk is not where one must stop.  One must place the front bumper at the solid line on the pavement.  Only in this case there was no solid line.  None.  Zip.  Zero.  So where to stop?  One must stop, in situations where the pavement markings have not been repainted since the time of Napoleon and are completely missing, level with the stoplight.  Huh.  Not one bit of this was ever covered in le code de la route.  Oh alrighty then.

After having taken control of the car twice inside 30 seconds I was a very nervous wreck.  I had lost all confidence in my ability to read the situation and apply the correct actions.  My driving was now tentative and more than a little stilted.  He noted this and told me I had to improve my skills.  Thanks, Good Nervous Little French Buddy.  I've been driving for over 40 years and, besides, which country saved your ass?  Twice.

Things were most definitely not unfolding according to plan.

Not long later we came upon un rond-point (a traffic circle).  If you recall the prior two postings, you'll no doubt remember how la priorite a droite works and why it's important to pay attention to the subtlest of details so you don't get run over by traffic hurdling at you from the right.  Such was this situation.  I entered le rond-point and came to a stop to ceder le passage.  I knew I must do this because there were no markings of any kind anywhere that defined who had which priority.

As I stopped I looked carefully to the right.  The monitor asks me what I was doing.  I told him we needed to wait.  He says no we don't.  Continue, s'il vous plait.  I simply shake my head as three cars moving at a high rate of speed came blasting past a meter or so off my front bumpter.  The rond-point was situated at the end of an autoroute off ramp and traffic wasn't slowing down.   I turned to him and lifted an eyebrow.  That's when the apologies started arriving as fast and as furiously as the cars with la priorite a droite.

All I could think was we're even now, OK?  I've just saved your French *ss for the third time in a century.  D'accord?  Bon.  Blissfully the Little Nervous French Monitor said very little after that.  We returned to the auto ecole in relative peace.

I was really thrashed by the experience.  My confidence wasn't where I felt it needed to be, so I paid for two more hours behind the wheel.  My go at the Fabulous French Road System was scheduled for the day before la tache finale with the Highly Vaunted Much Feared French State Examiner.

Driving with the founder of the auto ecole during my second practice turned out to be a very pleasant experience.  He didn't talk much, was quite calm in fact, and the first hour passed quickly and easily.  I thanked him several times for his poise and considered approach to helping me understand the various details of driving in this Foreign Land.

At the beginning of the second hour the monitor said we were at the point where he was going to give me a practice exam.  He would act like the Highly Vaunted Much Feared French State Examiner and rate my skills.  OK.  Let's go.  I'm ready as my confidence has returned and I feel like I'm understanding how to move through the system fluidly and easily.

I came up to a stop sign.  The wheels stop.  I see no one is coming and we go.  That's when he tells me I just failed.  WHAT?  We're not even on the road yet and I've failed??  GawdsAlmight!  What is it with France?  Geez!

The monitor calmly explained what I should have done.  I should have come to the stop sign.  Stopped.  Counted to three (un, deux, trois).  Then proceed.  A full three seconds is required.  Well alrighty then.  There goes my confidence and I'm right back at Square One.  This, even as he rates me on the other parts of the test as if I'd not blown it on the very first opportunity, and I find out I would've passed with 25 out of 30 (or 31) points.

It's the night before the driving exam and I'm a mess.  *No sleep*Totally thrashed*Feeling pretty awful*Death warmed over*Reviewing, in detail, each and every step of the driving experience*

I worried that I'd make a mistake and be tossed out of the exam.  I was very worried that the window was closing on my ability to receive the French license before returning to the US.  I was very very worried about what I would then have to do once we reached State-Side to get us from one place to another.  You see, Jude lost her own license the last time we were there and the DMV requires you to show up in person with certain documents that prove you still live there before you can get your license back.

I was up and out to meet at the auto ecole at 06h45 (yes, you read that correctly - could they make this any more difficult?).  We then proceeded to take a 1 hour drive out of town - with one of the students practicing his technique behind the wheel before his exam.  There are four students in all, plus a monitor from the auto ecole sitting at the passenger side dual control mechanism. We arrived at the testing center which was little more than a vast empty parking lot with a cinder-block building on one end.

The auto ecole monitor explains a few things to "watch out for."  I ask for clarifications on a couple points.  In particular, I was trying to understand what the problem was with the rond-point that's just outside the test center entrance.  Bievre is this way and Centre Commerciale is that way, she explained.  There's a solid white line between Centre Commerciale and Autoroute86 which I MUST NOT cross if I get the directions wrong - otherwise the test is finished, failed, and I would have to redo the examen.  Anxiety mounts.  My hands shake a little.

I'm burnt.  I'm toast.  I'm feeling horrible.  I've not slept a wink.  I learn I'll follow the three youngsters - which means I get to cool my heels for another 1.5hours!  I'm utterly shattered.

Feeling like I was on a death march I finally head to the car to take my test.  The inspector seems nice enough.  The auto ecole monitor is sitting in the back seat and the two of them start talking amiably about one of my favorite topics, food.  Well alrighty then.

The instructor turns to me, asks a few questions, and off we go.  Only to learn later that her turning to me would cost me one point.  She was not properly installed.  You see, she should've been sitting facing forward and I failed to ask her to please turn around.  Ugh.  It's a minor point, right?  What else could go wrong?

I'm directed to the rond-point and am asked to take the first right, Monsieur.  I asked her do you mean toward Bievre? Tout a fait.  OK.  I relax a little and am very happy I'd asked for clarifications on how to treat that particular rond-point.

*Breathe*Drive*  Control les retroviseurs.  Accelerate swiftly.  Select correct vitesse from the boite aux vitesses.  Follow directions.  Listen carefully.  Ask questions if confused.  Feeling at the end of my rope.  Dangling, in fact.  But happy to be out doing something.  Anything.

Since the two ladies were on the topic, I suggested that Cahors goes rather well with sanglier.  Oui.  C'est vrai.  En fait... as Mme Inspector then explains her prefered Cahors to go with the perfect sanglier.  I wish I could remember which it was.  It sounded delicious.  Not only that, but her brother just happens to make a decent sanglier at his restaurant which is situated somewhere up in the 20eme.

*Continue*Following directions*Asking: Fait comme ca - you mean tout doit?  Oui.  Tout a fait.

Bicyclists on the road.  Merde.  OK.  *Breathe*Control les retroviseurs*Met les clignotants*Follow the car in front of me where I pass completely into the oncoming lane so as to give the required 1,5 meters safety zone around the cyclist.  *Pass nicely*Bon*

The two ladies talk lapin and ile flottante.  Listening to them I realize I'm getting hungry for lunch.  But I can't fully engage my hunger as I'm in the midst of a Rather Important Driving Test.  Yet I can't help but feel like I'm driving the three of us on a casual adventure.

*Control les retroviseurs*Accelere*Freigne*Doucement*Mais avec authority et...

A second bicyclist.  Merde! Pas encore!!  *Control les retroviseurs*  Verifier il n'y a personne qui vient, et, bon.  Without slowing, mit les clignotants, take the entire on-coming lane a second time, clignotants in the other direction and I slide back into my proper lane.

The chatter continues and I hear Mme Inspector say "Would you look at that.  He's an old guy on that bike."  What's an utterly shattered sleep deprived "student" driver currently taking his examen to do?  Why, wave your hand in the inspector's general direction and say "Hey!  Watch it. I'm old, too!!"  Which is true.  I've very recently crossed over 60 years of living on Planet Earth.

Laughs all around and we enter a restricted speed zone.  There were two zones, in fact.  The first is marked 30 km/hr.  The second is an indicated 50 km/hr.  In both zones we are passed by very fast movers (at at least 70 km/hr).  I remark on the speed difference and ask *sotto voce* if there are no laws in this beautiful country.

Without warning I'm directed to turn left and we're back into the parking lot of the Test Center.  My first thought was - I blew it.  I did something wrong.  We hadn't gone through a heavily populated city center (with all it's complex signage and crazy situations).  We hadn't gone down a 130 km/hr autoroute.  We hadn't encountered any situation where I need to carefully sort out la priorite a droite thing.  Ack!  I exit la voiture and return to the cinderblock building to wait.  Anxiety returns.

Not long after the other students and I are motioned back to the car.  Standing behind the car I encounter my monitor from the auto ecole.  She tells me quietly that I've passed.

On our way back into town the auto ecole monitor described, for everyone's benefit, the details of how well I'd driven.  Controler correctement.  Accelere correctement.  Depasser correctement.  Tout est parfait.  Impeccable.

The Myth Making seems to continue to grow.  It's hard to impress the French.  I'm the foreigner.  I'm the Old Man.  I'm so far outside their Complex Heavily Administrated Very Legally Scrutinized System that the French appear to have a hard time believing I could figure out how to succeed where others are still waiting even after two years to get their chance at a driver's licenses.

Some of the auto ecole's monitors stopped me the other day and asked what my score was on the driving test.  I told them. "Wow!  That's really good!!"  They are impressed.  Very impressed.  Damn!

It was Ralph, one of my best friends, who sent me a video of Icelandic Vikings celebrating this success.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Analyzing the situation - possible answers

In the last post I proposed a driving situation that generated a number of questions that I would like now to attempt to answer.

Photo 1.

Regarding Photo 1...

Is the street one way or two way?  How do we know, with certainty?  - From the angle of the photo and from the way cars block our view, there is no way of knowing. Certainly there are cars parked in the on-coming direction, but as we've learned from living here, people park in all sorts of directions, regardless of the sense of direction of the roads in question.

If we could see signs on the opposite side of the street, they could give us a hint.  That is, if signs on the opposite side of the street faced us, then we could safely assume (and assume is indeed the operative word here) that we are on a road direction sens unique.  If we see the backs of signs, then it's likely a two direction road.  Since I know this road, I can say that's what it is, two directions.

When do we know the 30km/hour speed limit has ended and we can return to blasting up the road? - Unless otherwise noted, the speed restriction ends at the next intersection.  Now this is tricky.  I learned the "next intersection" to mean at a four way intersection.  But there may be other nuanced definitions of "intersection" which apply.

It can be noted that the 30km/hr restriction is ended by a sign placed ahead of the next intersection that shows the 30km/hr speed limit in black and white (most of the time) where an angled bar crosses the number.

At what speed do we get to blast up the road at after the speed restriction ends?  How do we know this? - The French system of understanding speed restrictions is very different than in the US where speed limits are clearly posted.  In France speed restrictions must be memorized.  There are minimally three levels of speed depending on if you are a driver in or outside a probationary period (new drivers typically, but not always, are classified in this way for three years), the type of road you are on, and the condition of the weather.

So here you go [and memorise]. Unless otherwise posted -

Urban areas - normal drivers, probatoire drivers, even in rain: 50km/hr - this is allowed on the narrowest and most heavily congested streets.

Undivided roads outside urban areas - normal drivers: 90km/hr, probatoire drivers: 80km/hr, rain: 80km/hr

Divided roads (roads with center medians or barriers) outside urban areas (many times, but not always, classified as routes) - normal drivers: 110km/hr, probatoire drivers: 100km/hr, rain: 100km/hr

Autoroute outside urban areas - normal drivers: 130km/hr, probatoire drivers: 110km/hr, rain: 110km/hr

Autoroute through urban areas - normal drivers: 110km/hr, probatoire drivers: 100km/hr, rain: 100km/hr

Exceptions to this (this being France, there are often exceptions) - le peripherique around Paris - normal drivers: 90km/hr, probatoire drivers: 80km/hr, rain: 80km/hr - though this changes.  I've seen le peripherique speeds limited to 70km/hr.  There are two other areas in France where Autoroute in urban areas are less than "normal" and you need to know where they are before driving in those areas.

Things get tricky in foggy conditions.  The rule is this - For as many metres as you can see, that translated into km/hr is your speed.  For instance, if you can see 50 metres, then your speed would be 50km/hr.  This applies on routes and autoroutes.

How do we know if a sign is permanent or temporary? - Temporary signs are identical to all other signs in shape and content, with the exception that temporary signs have yellow backgrounds.

With the construction zone signs in this situation, are they permanent or temporary? - In Photo 1 above we can see the construction zone signs have yellow backgrounds, therefore they are temporary.  
However, the speed restriction of 30km/hr has a normal background.  So, is it temporary or permanent?  Here's how you go about trying to sort it all out.  Since the speed restriction is on the same pole as the temporary sign and placed above the speed limit you can assume (perhaps wrongly, but we'll have to wait to see) that it too is temporary.  If the speed restriction was posted on a separate pole or above the construction sign, then the speed limit could indeed be permanent.

As a driver of a automobile, can you normally drive in the right hand lane in Photo 1?  If so, why? - This is rather tricky.  In Photo 1 above we see an arrow directing traffic around the barrier.  The dashed line that delineates a lane looks "normal", but it's not.  It's hard to see but... the width of dashed line is thicker than "normal".  This indicates une voie reservee - a lane reserved, in this case, for buses and bicycles (though it's not obvious since the lane interior is well worn and markings are largely missing).  To answer the question - non, "normal" automobiles cannot drive in this lane.  Neither can any motorized form of two wheeled transportation.  Though everyone does emprunter (borrow - or in this case to drive in) the reserved lane, technically it's not allowed and you can receive une amende.

Photo 2.
Regarding Photo 2...

Regardless of how the cars are parked alongside the narrow side-street, how do we know this really is direction sens-unique? - As noted in the discussion of Photo 1 above, the way the signs are facing is the clue as to whether you're on a one way street or not.  In this case, signs on the left side of the street are facing your direction.  Therefore this is a one way/sens unique road.

What is the speed limit?  How do we know this? - As previously outlined for memorization (you did memorize this, right?), since we are in an urban area and unless otherwise posted this would be a 50km/hr street.  Narrow?  Yes.  Lots of pedestrian traffic?  Potentially.  Children kicking a soccer ball?  You betcha.  50km/hr it is.

Unless... and this is also a little tricky... a few streets earlier you came across a square sign with a smaller/small-ish red circle with 30 or 20 displayed on the inside of the circle.  This would mean you are entering a "zone" of 30km/hr or 20km/hr.  Which is to say, all streets you drive on until you come to a sign that explicitly cancels the speed restriction shall be under-taken at the limit indicated on the square sign.  This is not to be confused with the circular speed limit sign we saw in Photo 1 where the restriction pertains to just the road the sign is found on.

Regarding the two streets (photos 1 and 2) considered together...

If you are traveling on the major crosstown street in Photo 1, when you encounter an intersection, who has priority?  From which direction is priority given?  How do we know this? - I'm quite sure this situation is exactly the kind that get so many French into trouble.  So here it goes ->

If a street is entering from the right and there are no other indications of any kind, the driver entering from the right has priority.  This is the dreaded priorite a droite.  That is to say, if you happen to be on a three lane wide major cross town road and a small one-way street happens to T-bone into your major cross-town road, you, who may be trying to make time to get across the aforementioned town, have to yield to any and all vehicles coming out from the right.  This applies whether you can see them clearly or not (see Photo 1).

If a street is entering from the right and you see a triangular sign with an "X" in the middle, it's a warning that at the next intersection you must yield to the right.  In principle this is a Good Thing(tm) as it takes away any doubt as to who should do what and when.  In practice things can, how shall we say, become "interesting" should someone be sitting on your tailpipe trying to get across town on the aforementioned etc etc etc.

Drivers coming from the right may or may not encounter any signage (see Photo 2) that alerts them to a droite (legal right) about to be gifted them.  Normally there is no indication of your State Granted droite.  So you can imagine the glee with which some motorists dash pall mall into the midst of cross-town traffic moving at 30km/hr or 50km/hr.  On a blind intersection.  With a construction zone to further hide your presence.  Whereby a barrier hides all but your roofline.  But with the added "benefit" of a silver painted fence perched on top of the aforementioned barrier which acts as yet more camouflage, thereby protecting you from, well, speeding on-comers view.  This tends to set a trap for the unpracticed and unwary driver.

Do you keep your present speed?  If not, what do you do? - If you are the driver with la droite a priorite a droite you can plunge hood-long into the fray protected with the knowledge that anyone who might touch you will be held as the responsible party.  It's like a huge Get Out of Jail Free card somewhat randomly granted, and visited upon the French citizenry.

If you are the driver whose view may be blocked to the street situated on the right and who may not be warned of a trap, er, opportunity to practice Serious Accident Avoidance Technique, you learn to, and this is very very important, 1) check your rearview mirrors to check the make and model of la voiture sitting on your tail-pipe (so you can fill out the accident report accurately), 2) retrograde slightly, 3) cover your brakes as you pass into the aforementioned (ah, I do repeat myself, don't I?) intersection, which means that 4) any advantage of using a major crosstown street to reach your destination in a Timely Manner will be dashed at Each and Every intersection you stumble upon.

*breathe*deep breaths*

Thus ends this segment of what I learned about driving in France.  There are many many more pages of reading to do before a novice driver can cover perhaps 70 percent of the topic of driving in France.  The other 30 percent of what I needed to know and understand was presented only when I sat down to take the Bloody Gawed Foresaken code de la route Test.

And now a musical interlude before we pass on, ahem, to talking about the driving portion of the test.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Analyzing the situation...

Before describing l'examen de conduite I thought I'd take a moment and see how much of the previous information has sunk in.  This is a test.  It's a Real World situation.  This represents a simple single situation from two perspectives.

Prior to answering the question(s), here is what is immediately apparent.  Photo 1 shows a major cross-town thoroughfare.  There are at least three lanes, perhaps four.  We see there is a construction zone along the right side of the road.  We also note that the speed is reduced to 30km/hour.  It looks like there might be a side street coming in from the right.

Photo 2 shows a minor street.  From the way the cars are parked we might surmise this may be a road of sens unique (one way).

Questions -

Regarding Photo 1...

Is the street one way or two way?  How do we know, with certainty?

When do we know the 30km/hour speed limit has ended and we can return to blasting up the road?

At what speed do we get to blast up the road at after the speed restriction ends?  How do we know this?

How do we know if a sign is permanent or temporary?  With the construction zone signs, which is it in this situation - permanent or temporary?

As a driver of a normal automobile, can you normally drive in the right hand lane?  If so, why?

Regarding Photo 2...

Regardless of how the cars are parked alongside the narrow side-street, how do we know this really is direction sens-unique?

What is the speed limit?  How do we know this?

Regarding the two streets (photos 1 and 2) considered together...

If you are traveling on the major crosstown street, when you encounter an intersection, who has priority?  How do we know this?

Do you keep your present speed?  If not, what do you do?

Photo 1.

Photo 2.

Now try assessing this at speed.

Thank you.  We hope you've enjoyed this little tutorial/test as much as we have.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

An encounter with le code de la route...

I hoped going to an Auto Ecole would be a simple, easy thing to do and that I'd have my French driver's license tout de suite.

During January and February I was taking things easy, thinking I could "nail this thing", no sweat.  In fact, I felt it'd be a Tip Toe Through the Tulips (see a prior post for the Tiny Tim ditty).  I lightly read the guide and passed the on-line exams that the school provided.  This was going to be Easy Peezy as one of Jude's friends likes to say.  Straight-forward and, well, I've been driving for nearly 45 years.  So just how hard could this be?

Each Wednesday and Saturday the Ecole would host a practice exam and one of the school's owners would review the correct answers and respond to any questions we might have.  Once I started this process I realized I was really struggling to pass these exams.  I could miss no more than 5 questions to pass and too many times I would miss between 8 and 11 questions out 40.

Discouraged by my lack of progress, March arrived just in time to provide a welcome distraction and a much needed vacation. You might ask "... you live where?? and still feel you need a vacation?..."  Well, yes, actually.  With the stress of two major attacks on Paris (the Charlie Hebdo murders and the attacks of November 13) we were taking a break, getting out of dodge.  We needed to clear our minds, relax, enjoy the sun, and have a good time.  The Auto Ecole would have to wait.

While in Lisbon I resolved to read le code carefully, thoroughly, and with an eye to seemingly small details, facts, and figures.  Returning to a yet again depressed Paris (the attacks on Brussels occurred while we were away) I knew that the Real Thrash was about to begin.  I needed to "get serious."  Here is a little of what I discovered.

Les panneaux (signs) come in all manner of size, shape, and color.  Each of these elements (size, color, shape) are critical to understanding what information is being conveyed.  Taken individually signs seem easy to understand.  But, what about when two or more signs occupy the same post?  Which takes priority?  Which indicate a restriction of one class of vehicle and not others?  What do the measurements for height or length restrictions mean if you are exactly the length indicated?  All of these details are important and the combinations and the effects of their combining, their exact placement along the road and the distances they are legible must be understood.  Completely.

Like many western nations, alcohol and stupefiant (drug) laws are rigorously enforced here.  I understand the importance of watching what you do to yourself before you drive, but do I really need to know the biology of how much alcohol passes into the bloodstream?  How long it takes to be absorbed - on an empty stomach or with food on board?  Under which circumstances can the police immobilize your car?  Where can you store the required alcohol test?  Under which certification system are alcohol tests issued?  When and where can drug or alcohol test be given?  By whom?  To pass an examen de code de la route I need to know the answers to all of these, and much more.  Oh, and don't forget to learn exactly how many points you lose, for how long you lose them, and under what conditions you can add lost points back (periode probatoire ou apres - the processes are rather different).

Understanding la priorite a droite drove me (ahem) nearly insane.  This little "benefit" of driving in France has to be experienced to be believed. Simply put, under many circumstances drivers entering an intersection on the right can do just about anything they like.  Including cutting you off.  Driving across major cross-town four lanes of traffic.  From blind corners.  From out from behind well-meaning vehicle hiding hedges and vegetation.  You have this right from the right and it is granted with or without markings on the street and with or without any panneaux (signs).  Depending.  On what?  Well, that's what understanding le code is all about.  Got it?  Good.  Now try being the driver on the left and sort this all out while you're in motion.

Intersection three light systems are like in the US, er, but not really. Yellow flashing lights can be found in the middle or bottom positions and can indicate a broken green/yellow/red light (wierd, I know) or it can indicate (more normally) priority for two wheeled users or pedestrians if the panneaux stacking is in their favor.  Clear as mud.  Oh, and add to a three color intersection light standards little panneaux that indicate you have priority over cross traffic and, well, I was quickly confused as to what any of that might help "clarify."  If I sorted it all out correctly, it had something to do with the Dreaded Priorite a Droite.

More details.  Important details.  Things that, no doubt, will save one's precious life. These abound.  Including having to know how many people die a year on les routes and where (en ville ou hors agglomeration) and under what circumstances.  What time of the week are we asking the question of traffic accidents about?  How many drivers drink what and when?  How old are you?  What percentage of accidents involve 2 wheelers?  4 wheelers?  Les poids lourds?  Details one can no doubt recite to presiding officers at the scene of an accident.  Impressive stuff, this.

The structure of the examen de la code de la route was presaged earlier in this missive.  More completely and to aid those who have fallen asleep by now, there a total of 40 questions devoted to the various areas of le code.  A question can be multiple response.  Some questions have two possible responses, some three, and still others can show four possible responses.  All correct responses must be selected to count as a correctly answered question.  If all 40 questions came with 4 possible correct responses (which the don't) there would be up to 120 responses to correctly select.  You must correctly answer at least 35 questions to pass.

After acquiring a complete understanding of the entire driving environment, the signage, and the laws and rights granted to the various interested and uninterested parties to be found, literally everywhere around France, it was time to take the examen.  Or not.

Enter the implementation of the Macron Law.

The instructor suggested I should try and pass the examen before everything changed.  She said the old system would be much easier.  Except for the fact I did not feel I was _that_ ready and I wanted another week of practice test taking before I dove into the Next Phase of the effort.  In retrospect I should have simply tried to pass the test when I was urged to do so.  There are things we know.  There are things we don't know.  And then there are things we don't know that we don't know.  Thank 'ew Donald Rumsfeld.  This, it turned out, was one of those DRumsfeld Times.

My first test was scheduled for the first part of May.  This coincided with the first steps at implementation of the Macron law.  There were 1,000 new questions and special emphasis was placed on on accident scenes and giving first aid, alcohol consumption, and new regulations.

I was one of the 593 out of 600 test takers around the isle de France to fail the new test sequence.  What would you expect?  I'm a foreigner and am learning a whole new language, right?  Well, the French weren't any better off.  The failures were so vast and unexpected that the situation made the evening news.  Not that this little piece of information helped me feel any better.

A failure was a failure, and I knew the correct answers to the two questions that would've put me over the top.  Air conditioning can auto-regulate the temperature of the cabin, and les feux de la route show much farther than les feux de croisement.  I _knew_ the correct answers and stupidly selected the wrong responses.  Ack!  I could have been one of the Magic Few who passed the Impossible Test.

It was a little surprising how quickly we were able to reschedule the second attempt.  Normally the average wait time was up to three months between tests.  Um, yes, it could take that long and I didn't have that kind of time, so I was happy for the quickly scheduled re-try.

Regrettably, I failed the second examen, too!  To be fair, the Prefecture de Police had removed 600 of the most difficult questions and reduced the opportunities for failure to a pool of just 400 questions.  Still, it bothered me that I failed this second time as well.  I missed passing the examen by one lousy question and I knew which one I missed!  Again!!

I was beginning to feel stupid and depressed.  I would need to wait a much longer time before trying a third time to pass this silly/exacting/detailed/extensive examen.  I would miss my Window of Opportunity to acquire the driver's license prior to leaving for the US and might need to turn to Plan B, which included finding a way to renew my State-side permit shortly after we arrived.  I didn't like what we were facing.

Except that...

The second part of the implementation of the Macron Law included privatizing the test taking system.  La Poste, SGS, and Dakra had contracted with the French State to provide le code de la route test taking services.  The Prefecture de Police was thereby freed up to put more driving inspectors into the field.  It was a way of speeding the entire driver's license process (some driving students were two years into the process and they still did not have their license).  While this can be considered a Good Thing(tm) for those wishing to get through the system more quickly, I found myself smack in the middle of massive system changes.

How to proceed was not entirely clear.  The Auto Ecoles were sent into a tailspin.  The system was changing rapidly and no one from the government had explained to les ecoles how they were integrated into the new processes.  Confusion reigned and, it turns out, I was the first person at my school to attempt to pass through the new processes.

The day the new test taking system was to start there was a thrash with the websites, start dates of the program, and scheduling.  SGS' test scheduling system had obvious database integration problems.  Dakra's scheduling system was non-existent.  And in the morning of the first day I could schedule a test la Poste's web-based system was yet to "go live."

What to do?  Looking up SGS' address I jumped the metro and paid a visit to the location where the tests were to be given.  I asked the people at the front desk if I could talk with SGS to let them know their website wasn't working correctly and to see if I could schedule a test in person.  After a few minutes and several telephone calls I was told "non", there was no one there who could help me.  So I returned home and looked to see if anything had changed with la Poste.  Glorious Days! their system was "live" and in 30 seconds I had a test scheduled at a post office in our very own arrondissement.  No need to get up excruciatingly early to fight with commuter traffic on the metro just to arrive at a distant location to wait 2 hours to take a test.

Within two weeks of my Second Failed Attempt at passing l'examen du code de la route found me at the scheduled time and place at la Poste.  I had selected that I would take the test individually.  This was different than my prior experiences at la Prefecture de Police where there were perhaps 30 or 40 people in the same room at the same time taking the same test.

There I was all alone, face to face with a Samsung 10inch tablet.  The kind postman examiner explained the rules and expectations.  We fiddled with the sound a bit.  A prior test-taker had complained the audio wasn't as loud as it could be, but we found a setting where the volume was acceptable.  He turned off the overhead lights so I could see the screen without glare and left.  The test started and, er, wot's all this then?  There's no sound.  None.  I can't hear the questions nor the possible responses.  There was no resetting the system as it would screw everything up.  It was proceed or die.  I'm left to read each question and possible response, to make my selection, all within very limited span of time (after the last response is read, you have 10 seconds before the next question is presented), and hope for the best.

The day of my la Poste test, the daughter of the school owner called me on the telephone and asked me many detailed questions.  I walked her through the entire process from test site selection through the website layout to possible selections in the scheduling system.  I'm the foreigner, right?  I can't speak their language very well.  And yet I'm explaining to them how the French driver's license system was changing and what they could expect.  Using this knowledge representatives from the ecole spent hours explaining changes to the test taking system to their other students that they themselves did not yet fully understand the implications of.

All that night I worried that I'd failed the test.  I wasn't sure my French language skills were up to the task.  The tests felt to me as a non-native speaker to be filled with language traps from which I had no way out.  The entire experience had been increasingly harrowing.  There were always new things to learn, new regulations to understand, new processes to try, new language situations to interpret, and new challenges encountered.

When the Prefecture de Police gave the tests, they issued the results by mail to the Auto Ecole 48 hours later.  I wasn't sure how the new Macron Law process worked, so I went online the next morning to la Poste to see if there were instructions on "next steps."  Et voila, voila!  Inside 12 hours the test results had been posted.  I was extremely nervous when I saw the posting.   I opened the pdf and it said "Acceptable."  I'd passed.  Finally.  And I passed the examen by reading every single question and every possible response.  In French.  Damn!!  I was like a little puppy as I ran to Jude to share the good news.

Et voila! voila! (yes, I repeat myself) the beginning of a New Myth.  News quickly spread throughout the Auto Ecole that the first person from the school to run through the new privatized test taking system, an American in fact, and an American who had to read every single question and every single response, in their non-native tongue, he had passed.  Even now, weeks later when I see someone from the Auto Ecole they stop and ask, is it true there was no sound when you took the test?  The owners and monitors at the auto-school are thoroughly impressed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Learning a new language...

I signed up with an Auto Ecole and started to read the booklet with all the details of le code de la route.

It was quickly evident that part of learning how to drive in France was the experience of learning a whole new language.  My thinking I had a fairly solid pre-intermediate level French comprehension ability proved incorrect.  I encountered many of the words and phrases commonly used in negotiating the highways and byways of this country and none of them were yet part of my lexicon.

To properly illustrate what I was up against, here's my vocabulary list.  I leave translation to the reader.  Good luck.

a jeun
ses abords
fair le loup
un delit
delite de fuite
dans les cadre
creneau de depassement
passages a niveau
une mis en fouriere

Easy Peezy, right?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Going back to school...

Where have we been all these months?   I returned to school.  I had no time for silly things like sleep, food, drink, or blog posts.

We realized I needed to become a student again when we agreed to return to the US for a few late summer weeks this year to help my father organize some of my late mother's things.  Being our usual selves, we set about to plan, plan, plan ahead.  In this case, we started planning nearly a year ahead and our plans would cover some of the complexities of family life and include an opportunity to attend a wedding in the US.  There was, however, a slight wrinkle to be ironed out.

The way I understand French law if you are a permanent resident my US issued driver's license is no longer valid in France after 12 months of living here.  This wasn't originally a problem as we'd made a conscious decision to lead a Car Free Life.  The problem was my American driver's license was set to expire and we'd want to rent a car to drive to my father's house in the US.

It seemed like such simple thing.  Jude suggestion was let's get our French driver's license, shall we?We'd be able to use it around the world, the license is good forever, and, besides, the French drive on the right side of the road, just like certain English speaking countries (but by no means all - some English speaking countries drive on what's clearly the Wrong Side of the Road).  The whole thing should be easy and quick.  How hard could it be, right?

Dear Google - "How to get French Driver's License"

OK.  Lesson #OhSomeLargeNumber - As is always the case, things are a little different in France.  They seem to be shunting all prospective drivers toward les Auto Ecoles.  I wondered why.

Couldn't I just do this myself?  Simply get a booklet or something?  Do a little light reading.  Take a few practice tests somewhere.  Go down to, well, wherever the h*ll one goes to take such things and pass the test.  Dance on over the the check-out window and pay a few fees, wait a few weeks, et voila! un permis de conduire.  Right?

Huh.  Look at this.  They're shunting everyone through these silly auto ecoles because it's the only path on offer.  Well, alrighty then.  Let's see what this might cost... and... KERPOW! Sticker shock.  It's expensive.  2000Euros just to take a silly driving exam?  You've got to be kidding.

By this point I very much regretted not having lived in a State that had a reciprocity agreement with France.  If we had one, all I'd need to do is translate the US driver's license and present a few papers to la Prefecture de Police and walk away with a license to blast les routes et les autoroutes de la France.  During our month in Portugal I learned the entire country runs on this principle regardless of which American state you're from.  As I waded into the traditional French System, many were the days I agitated to move to a more civilized, reasonable country.

Back to Square One.  More Basic Research... and... ugh.  They don't have DMVs as I would know it.  Everything points to la prefecture de Police.  That's where you go to take the written portion of the driver's exam.  Further, and this being France where EVERYTHING is ALWAYS different, to take the driving portion of the test, you need a special car where a driving monitor or inspector can take control of the vehicle.  What??  Are they freak'n in-Gawd-D*mned-sane?  Why would they require that?

Such a slippery slope, all this.  Yes.  We do things rather differently here in France.  Yes.  I'm having to learn quickly how the system works so I can set my expectations correctly.  Yes.  It's our choice to be here.  But, really, is all this Monkey Motion necessary just to get a driver's permit?  Well, you know the obvious answer, right?  The answer is Oui, monsieur, c'est vraiment necessaire.

Only much later do I learn that the French and German driver's licensing systems are amongst the most rigorous in the world.  Of course they are.  We'd have it no other way.  Nope.  Anything that would make the acquisition of a Sacred Divine Driving License easy can not be allowed.  Non!  Non!!  Non!!!  But I repeat myself.

Time to Ask for Native French Guidance, me-thought.

Perchance we put the question to our apartment's proprietaire and she pointed me to a school just down the street.  She'd never taken a course there, but she said they'd been in business for a long time.  Taking her advice I dropped by one morning and asked a few questions and got the *schpeel* on what's what.

Being an Old Man and holder of a many years old driver's license I qualified for the Short Course.  This included a booklet (what I'd expected) that described le code de la route, three months of on-line practice test taking (a nice modernizing convenience), in-class practice tests (for those who really needed it I imagined), a written test with the dreaded Prefecture de Police (with costs folded into the price of the school's program for Old Men and Holders of Many Years Old Driver's Licenses), two hours behind the wheel in one of those silly leetle dual control cars, and a final driving exam with an inspector.

I very much needed a valid driver's license and had no opportunity to return to the US to renew my old one.  I was stuck.  My best option seemed to be to act like a grownup and to Gird My Loins to Dive Into The Deep Deep Very Deep End of things and hope for the best.

Thus began a very long 5 months where my lovely wife Judith experienced everything I experienced.  Where she watched me struggle, bitch, moan, complain, and lose far too many hours of sleep.  Where Jude could do little more than support me as best she could as I passed unprepared through the Gates of French System Hell.