I finally bit the bullet.
After ten years of resistance, I have finally given in, submitted to the system, surrendered.
I finally enrolled in a French driving school.
I'll explain. If your US state does not have a bi-lateral agreement with France for driver's license exchange, (as is the case with Geoooorgia, Geooooorrrrgia) you have to start from square one and enroll in a French driving school. No matter if you have been driving since the age of 15. You must go through a licensed school to pass the written and driving exam. (Well, technically, you can go it alone and rent a car with specially equipped double rear-view mirrors for the driving training, and show up to the exam all by yourselfy-poo, but methinks the state inspector would be muuuuuch more inclined to fail your American system-flouting ass. I'll pass. Ha! Get it?)
So why has it taken me 10 years to finally get my ass in gear? (See what I did there? I kill myself).
Because the absolute minimum of class hours for both the written and driving tests costs a whopping €1,500 (that's $2,046.37 using today's exchange rate).
So I had the money saved up (miraculously) and finally enrolled. Thing is, most driving schools are a little perplexed at the idea that you would want less than 20 hours of driving practice, and I didn't want to face the unpleasant combination of incomprehension and bureaucracy. So I found a school that specializes in helping foreigners pass the French tests. In English. I established beforehand that they had the materials in French and I could both take classes and the exam in French too. But for the first time, it would be in English.
I went to my first lesson a few weeks ago. At 8:15 in the morning on a Saturday. In the suburbs. I couldn't quite believe it myself.
After filling out numerous forms and writing 5 checks for an amount that broke my heart, the first class of the morning was ready to start. I was warned not to be surprised if I got a lot of questions wrong at first, and that it would get easier with practice.
As the students filed in - Bangladeshis, Chinese, Thai, Senegalese, Sri Lankans and a smattering of Americans -I took a seat in the front row. I asked my African neighbor how to use the remote control where you punched in your answers and got your score, which he was all too happy to show me. The "teacher" then walked in. Obviously the owner of the school, he could have been in his 60's and looked very bad for his age, or he could have been in his 70's and looked like all he wanted was a drink. It was 9AM. His boozy eyes swept over us with resignation and with a world-weary gait he made his way over to the orange plastic chair and sat down facing us. He let out an audible sigh.
The projector was turned on, the DVD loaded, and the adventure began! The slides on the screen were in French, which I thought would be an advantage for me, but oh Lord it was not. The questions are phrased in a way to trip you up. On purpose. Each question has a photo with a situation from the driver's perspective. I already knew that one of the tricks was to hope you wouldn't check out what was going on in the rearview mirror. But I wasn't prepared for just how sneaky they would actually be. Plus, matters were compounded by the absolutely appalling English of the instructor. I have no idea how the others were following along. I don't think I understood a word he said.
As an example, for the question (with its accompanying photo):
"La circulation devant moi est ralentie, je:
- laisse passer le véhicule gris
His English "translation" was something akin to :
"Zee circulation in front ees slowing, I
-leave zee gray car to pass
Those poor Chinese/Thai/Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan people.
But you know what? I, who understood both English and French, had the lowest score out of everybody.
On the official written exam, you can only get a maximum of 5 answers wrong. The first test I took, I got 18 wrong. Out of 40. The next two, 16 wrong and the last 13. At least there was progress. After each test, the weary instructor would go over the answers.
That was the best part.
If you could get his attention, you might be able to get him to explain why your answer was wrong. The African guy next to me held up his hand.
"Excuse me, can you go back to the last question?" It was a picture of a car on a snowy road. "I don't understand why the answer is not "B: I can use my back fog lights" and "A: I can use my high beams".
I winced. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.
A slow and slightly malicious smile crept across the instructor's ruddy face. He fixed his droopy eyes on my neighbor and said,
"I know zey do not have snow een Africa, but zee answer ees A." He was thrilled with his joke. It was the happiest I had seen him all morning.
A Chinese student raised his hand for the next question. About passing a truck in front of you if you are in the middle lane and going faster than him, and some other situation I don't remember. But let's just say there were several possibilities and it was really difficult to decide between all the answers. The instructor smiled again.
"I know you Chinese people are very smart. But don't be smart. Zey don't care you are smart. Just answer zee question. Ni hao?"
At this point, I was no longer paying much attention to the class, I was riveted by the total character this guy was. I quickly started imagining the skit I could write and who would play whom. When the awkward girl from Chicago with thick glasses raised her hand about a question having to do with making an emergency stop on the side of the road, I knew it would be the pièce de resistance.
"I got the question wrong because I was thinking, if my car broke down and I stopped at the side of the road, I know to put out the safety triangle and put on the reflector vest, but what if my emergency lights didn't work? Maybe I'm thinking too much?"
He coughed and slowly stood up. He looked around at his captive audience and said,
"You know what you do eef your car breaks down by zee side of zee road and your lights don't work?"
"No," she said, hesitantly.
Oh god, I thought, here it comes.
"You get out of zee car, you take your skirt like zees," he mimed lifting it up to her mid thigh "and you wave it around and go, whoooo hooooo!!!!" He swished his hips, patted his thinning hair and batted his eyelashes, then broke into a croupy cackle.
It will probably take me at least six months before I get my license. (Nothing is fast here. You have to wait a month between the written and the driving test. There is a shortage of inspectors. La France, quoi.)
It might be expensive, and it might be long, but at least it will be entertaining.