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.

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