Chapter Ten: Failure Is an Option
Albeit an inconvenient and embarrassing one.
Having lots of things come easily to you is a distinct advantage in life, but it doesn’t prepare you well for when things don’t just glide into place. Growing up, I was the apple of my mother’s eye. I learned how to read spontaneously at 18 months. Being born double-jointed almost everywhere, I cut an impressive figure in ballet class. I had writing talent and foreign languages came easily to me. My parents paid for my education up until the end of college so my only real worries until acquiring my BA were finding part time work at a low-stakes café and trying unsuccessfully to find a boyfriend. Compared to my friends working full time and paying down college loans, I was in absolute clover. I am not going to pretend to complain about any of this. I was born on third base, and the view from there is great.
Where I have gone wrong has been in too often sticking with the things that come easily, rather than jumping onto a lot of high learning curves. I love Protestant-style self-improvement, and confronting the limits of the ego, in theory. But as I learned from moving to a foreign country with no real plan, and then moving to the middle of nowhere with no safety net, I do not thrive emotionally in beginner’s mind. I’ve only gotten worse as I’ve entered middle age, a time when people frequently double down on the world as they know it, rather than seek out new adventure.
This makes me difficult to teach as an adult, because some part of my brain thinks I already know everything that’s worth knowing. So I didn’t envy my driving instructors for the 20 hours we spent together. (There were two, both guys in their 30s, and I’d get one or the other depending on the day or the hour of the lesson.) I had been driving since forever, and most people considered me pretty good at it. I showed up essentially expecting to be complimented.
Regardless of my actual skill level, how I managed to live 15 years in France by then and still thought that any first or second transaction would be a lovefest is proof that I’m not actually as smart as I think I am. This is the world capital of no before yes, a barely verbalized gesture of acceptance rather than full-throated agreement. I should have expected negativity bordering on harassment on principle, let alone as a reflection of my driving, which fit for Los Angeles purpose: I grew up among wide roads, no roundabouts, generally well-behaved fellow motorists, and no tailgating. And yet their admonishment continued to make my blood boil.
My protestations to the guys weren’t always technically wrong—I usually was inside the lines even if a little close to one of them; when to shift gears is more of an art than a science—but I made the mistake of thinking that the point of their observations was to teach me how to drive so I wouldn’t get a ticket, and that they were going above and beyond for the simple joy of mansplaining. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, their job was to teach me how to bend over to the petty bureaucrat who would judge my performance, and whose entire mission was to find ways to give me a failing grade. They were operating according to the military, or cult, logic of breaking me to remake me, except I was second-act Judy Benjamin with zero chance of ending up a Thornbird. As driving instructors, they knew the test-givers personally. I suspected they were being French dicks, but they understood only too well what I was up against.
According to the logic of French driving school, anything that causes another driver inconvenience is an infraction. This is how you know the whole thing is disconnected from reality. Even under ideal conditions, the French are the dickiest drivers I’ve ever known. Why pull into a free driveway to say hi to a passing friend when there’s an entire intersection to block, and an entire line of angry drivers behind you to receive your middle finger when they quite understandably honk? Motorists in Bobigny had often arrived there after sitting for hours in shitty Paris traffic, and they were not exactly generous to their fellows. Horns got leaned on all the time.
Still, I memorized the course well enough that the guys said I was finally ready for the test. My slot was programmed for the crack of dawn the day after I was supposed to review a hotel in Montmartre. So I was quite far away from the driving school, where I was supposed to meet one of the guys, who would take me over to Bobigny and stay in the car with me while I performed like a cranky monkey for the test administrator. I rode my scooter halfway across town on a freezing morning, which meant my hands were still numb by the time we got from the 20th arrondissement to our destination. (I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, which means I lose feeling in my extremities from the slightest chill and it can take hours to get it back.) Not confidence-inspiring, but whatever.
Prospective students were expected to stand in a line outside, with no available shelter—it rains an average of 170 days a year in the Paris area—and wait to be called upon. I stood around jumping on one foot to stay warm for an hour-ish, my hands re-numbing, until a gnomish woman with a pale moon-shaped face and listless, shoulder-length mousy brown hair showed up with a clipboard and grunted me towards her waiting economy two-door. I smiled at her goofily—she probably already deducted a point for general Americanness—and got behind the wheel.
I had been instructed to first push back my seat and then adjust all mirrors as a gesture, even if it wasn’t needed. I did the necessary. Well look at me. Moonface asked me gravely if I minded if she and my driving school instructor chatted while I drove. I forgot that eavesdropping is my favorite sport and told her no, of course I didn’t mind. She launched into a long conversation about plantation-style rum, something I knew way too much about. I couldn’t not listen as she went in deep. It took everything I had not to interject my feelings on Trois Rivières, my cheap-as-chips favorite, on the lowest of the shelves at the grocery story. (It is weirdly good.) I didn’t think it’d be a good look to be whooping it up on the subject of booze at that particular moment.
We got to driving. It went well enough at first until she asked me to parallel park, which has been one of my greatest flexes since high school, when I drove a 1966 Thunderbird and went to a lot of clubs in Hollywood. As I was creeping in to my first position, I came within 10 centimeters of the car in front and she slammed her supplemental set of brakes. I wasn’t even remotely in danger of hitting it. But if the instructor hits the brakes on you, it usually means you’ve failed the test already. She sternly told me I should take a minute to get my composure back even though I didn’t think I was giving signs of distress. (How about a shot?) I told her I was fine and we got back to it. I telegraphed everything I was doing in advance, explaining to her why I was waiting to change lanes when I was. She assented every time. I thought maybe it was going OK after all. And then came the priorité à droit.
Here’s a thing about France, my fellow non-French: their sense of exceptionalism is every bit as bad as Americans’ except they have less money and (current) cultural hegemony to back it up. They are the only people in the world with their own special text keyboard because AZERTY works better with their language than QWERTY. Never mind that their language is really similar to Portuguese, and the Portuguese never felt the need to make their own, individual, special, God damned keyboard. (Nor the Spanish, except for a more available tilde, nor the Italians.)
Same thing with priorité à droit. It means that the person coming at you from the right has priority in case there is no signage. France is the country with the most number of roundabouts precisely because priorité à droit is impossible even for their own citizens to master. Rather than make a change to go with the way the rest of the world does things, they hold fast and pay billions to refit their roads. (It’s also a great way for small town political grandees to spread favors around to their friends in construction.)
So I came upon an intersection and didn’t slow down for the nonexistent person who wasn’t coming at me from the right and once again, the brakes seized. This time, it pains me to admit, she was right. You are always supposed to slow down and look, because it’s really easy to miss someone coming. So she was docking me for an instinct, not a result, but that didn’t matter. If she might have, maybe, let the parallel parking non-infraction go, this was an automatic fail. I looked back in the rear view mirror at my instructor and his face told me everything I needed to know. I would be bounced back to school for supplemental hours. Getting the official notice was a cherry on top of the shit sundae. I hoisted myself out of that tin can knowing already I was done.
I had new rental apartments out in Le Perche already booked, and it wasn’t an option to extend the place where I was staying in Montreuil. It served me right to assume success when every single French person I know has failed the test the first time around. Why was I special? Because I went to gifted classes and finished written tests before most everyone else in the room? So what?
One thing you learn when you actually pay attention to the local driving code, as I finally did when studying for the test, is that you can’t actually drive on a foreign license inside the European Union if you live in the EU. Rental agencies don’t typically ask for residency papers when Americans show up in highly touristic locations speaking with American accents and using American licenses to book their cars. So I rented with seeming impunity, or so I thought. I was just lucky I never got into an accident because if I had, I’d have been uninsured and liable.
You also can’t buy and register a car in France unless you have a French license. So I’d be shuttling off to the countryside with my temporary life—I was down to bare bones but with the cats and their shit it was still enough to pack a two-door rental to the rafters—in an illegal rental car for an indeterminate amount of time until I was able to register with a driving school out in Le Perche and retake the test out there. When not behind the wheel, I drowned my anxiety in plantation-style rum and figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it, which was in one week.
Please check back in next week when we finally take up residency in the overdetermined land beyond Paris.