Chapter Five: How to Feel Like a Child Again
And not in a good way: the French driver’s license
There was no way I could move to rural France without a car. This meant getting a French driver’s license. Mention this rite of passage to any French person and you will learn colorful new swear words.
The French government makes it mind-bendingly hard. In the 17 years I’ve lived in France, I’ve waited out in the rain in blocks-long lines to renew my residency permit more than once—a visa, then called “skills and talents,” that I had to practically undergo a gynecological exam to get. Nothing was more infuriating than the license. The only good thing I can say about it is that as long as I don’t fuck up behind the wheel, I’ve got it for life. (No retesting in France. At least it’s one and done.)
NB: some of you have probably heard that select American states have an exchange program with France, where you can just swap licenses within a year of your arrival. I had by then moved my US address to Las Vegas, where I have lovely cousins who help me with American admin bullshit, and where my vote actually counts. Nevada has no such exchange, though, so I was SOL.
My memory of getting my California license as a tender 16-year-old was that the process was smooth as silk, because the state has a vested interest in licensing drivers to move shit along their roads and make the economy purr. Six hours of training with a certified teacher, another 50 with any adult with a driver’s license who will vouch for you (i.e., mom signs the paper without even looking at it), a very easy written test for which I don’t recall ever cracking a book, an almost perfunctory behind-the-wheel test with a nice lady from the DMV, a check for $50 or so. (I think today it's $85.) Boom. Done.
In France, apparently no one is interested in adding drivers. Now, from what I’ve seen of French drivers, who are the most aggressive, honking, speeding, tailgating assholes this side of Italy, perhaps it’s understandable. But when you need a license, they make it an avalanche of pain.
It’s 20 hours behind the wheel with a licensed instructor. The written test has questions like, “What is the name of the European authorization code for child safety seats? CR21? R44? R129?” You can only get four out of 40 questions wrong, and sometimes you are even right, but judged wrong because the question was compounded and there is no partial credit. You are required to understand basic physics and calculate how much time, traveling at a certain speed, you have to react before hitting a pedestrian. You are required to know things about brand new cars that you likely will never have, like lane guidance systems and parking cameras. I am convinced this is the work of the French automobile lobby. (Good luck, bitches. From what I know of your cars, I will never be buying one.) Even after Macron reformed the process, it still costs around €2000.
Most people fail the behind-the-wheel test several times, which requires going back and paying for additional hours of training each time. Rumors run rampant that this is due to a handshake arrangement between test administrators and driving schools to pump up their fees. I believe it. My friend Sasha failed her driving test four times, accompanied by multiple nervous breakdowns due to terroristic test instructors. The whole endeavor is basically fucked.
Of course I went into the process thinking I’d ace it because I am a Californian with decades of experience which means I am indomitable and have magnificent road skills. Ha ha ha, friends. Ha.
I enrolled in a school around the corner from the house and thus began the infantilizing. Their written test prep materials require 60 hours of sample testing and you cannot skip one hour. Let’s not even get into how I spent New Year’s Eve of 2020 screaming at my computer—though at this point I was such a shut-in I was kind of glad for the excuse not to go out.
The in-person lessons were absolutely brutal. The minute you get behind the wheel the barrage of persnickety micro-managerial critique begins. Everything from your angle of attack at a roundabout to whether you’re looking in the rear view mirror enough to why you can’t put your hand inside the wheel to steer, but only outside, to the rhythm with which you shift gears. (They were always wrong on that one, preferring me to be in such a low gear, I was practically sputtering to a stall.) “No policeman will ever give me a ticket for this,” I’d say about my parallel parking, which was actually too precise in a small space. “That’s not the point,” they’d say. Why isn’t that the point? Apparently the point is to flatter the petty bureaucrat on the day of your test by making a musical theater-level spectacle of how cowed and intimidated you are. Every hour with these guys was an exercise in me not screaming, GET OFF MY TITS.
I had to cram in the lessons at the end, so imagine two straight hours of this twice and three times a week. At least it was for a good reason. Suddenly, in December, we got a good offer on the house. We were going to have to vacate it in early March.
For this I must always thank Jean-Pierre, the mystic psychic chiropractor. I told you all I had called him for help. A week after my plea went out, I called back to get his read. I was thinking I was going to have to have another talk with the cats but this time it was a different story.
“You have a lot of entities in and around the house who are very attached to it,” he said. “They don’t want you to leave.”
“Entities,” for those of you who aren’t from California or other astral planes, means disembodied spirits. Angels? Fairies? Garden gnomes? Aliens? All of the above, potentially. My head space at the time was, if you love me, get the fuck out of my house. They saw it another way I guess.
“So what do I do?” I entreated. I had already been smudging the place with sage and sending mental rainbows to buyers and all the other feeble New Age shit that makes you feel like you’re in control when you’re totally not in control.
“First I vacuumed them all up and sent them from the house,” Jean-Pierre said, matter of factly as always. “Then I told them they could only come back if they brought a buyer. Let me know how it goes.”
A month later, after almost two years of bupkis, we had a stream of visitors, each more interested than the last. Finally we said yes to a cash offer at asking. They were an adorable family with three kids, aged 11, 9 and 6 if memory serves. They all came over for a coffee to celebrate the conclusion of our completely breezy negotiation. They hadn’t yet told their kids they were moving, so we got to see their surprise when they got the news at our place. Jumping for joy. This was a nice thing after months and months of sniffing disinterest. We told the kids to free range it. Go check out your new house! In every room where the littlest went, he shrieked, “There’s a bass guitar! There are two cats! There’s a barbecue!”
I was unclear on why he was undertaking this inventory until his parents later told us that he didn’t understand that when you move, the people who leave the house don’t usually leave you all their stuff. You may be cute, kid, but you are not getting my cats.
So anyway, this is why I spent the next few months power-cramming driving lessons with intensely critical young men I was not supposed to contradict. Good vibes. Every time they’d weigh in on some other minor non-infraction, I’d say, “That’s a matter of opinion,” and they’d say, “I’m just preparing you for the test.” When the time finally came to take the test, they were right, but that’s a story for another chapter, so please do come back.
Meanwhile, for those of you wise and discerning enough to have paid subscriptions, KITTEN UPDATE INCOMING.
The girls are now three and a half months old. We’re eight days in and here’s how it’s shaking out: