“A Driving Test Defrosted”
“Monsieur, could you please turn on the rear window defroster?”
I nervously looked around the dashboard of a strange Citroën for a squiggly-lined symbol and turned the dial until I heard a fan start.
“But Monsieur, that is not the rear defroster – it is the front defroster…do you know where the rear defroster is?”
I looked for more squiggly-line symbols. Nothing in sight. European symbols in European cars are much more complicated than the ones in European-made cars in America. What intended to be a great idea years ago by some minimalist European industrial designer turned out to be nothing more helpful than a dashboard full of hieroglyphics.
” Desole. Je ne sais pas ou est il est.” I shrugged my shoulders and felt like an idiot.
And so went the first question on my driving test ! I was not off to a good start. Actually, it was really the second question. The first question was when I was still in the back seat ready to switch seats with my fellow driving student, Brian, an American missionary who looked like a young Clint Eastwood with a crewcut. In fact, he looked more like a CIA operative than a man spreading the good word… The examining fonctionnaire in the passenger seat asked him to read a license plate 30 yards away. The examiner then turned to me and asked the same question. I read off a long series of letters and numbers in French. It was a bit of a struggle. I require eyeglasses for distance but can usually get away without them. But today, I needed them. A ‘ 1’ looked like it could have been a capital ‘ i ‘ or a ‘ t ‘ . As I got out of the car to get into the driver’s seat, I heard the two examiners whisper quickly back and forth.
“Fucking Americans! No wonder they can’t find Weapons Of Mass Destruction – they can’t even find the fucking rear defrost! Hey Jean-Pierre, should I fail this son-of-a-bitch right here and now – or should we have some more fun with him?”
I stopped at the driver’s side and squinted at the license plate on the red car. Beats me….
I got in the car. The examiner was reviewing my papers and probably noticing that I was a Conducteur prudent – a joke for all of you who are aware of that story – and also that I was a donneur d’organes : Yes, Monsieur Capone is shivering in his grave that my jar will eventually replace his in The Smithsonian…
The examiner smiled at me and said, “OK, Monsieur Leedy, if you will proceed on out of the parking lot and head towards the Autoroute…
“These guys were actually really nice. I’m not just saying that because they passed me – they seemed much more friendly than how you would expect a typical French fonctionnaire to behave. There were two because the guy in the passenger seat was a trainee (I know…Oh SHIT! ) – But he was very objective and seemed to harbor no quotas on failing foreigners. In fact, the guy seemed very well-educated and actually the kind of person you wouldn’t think twice about spending an afternoon drinking beer with. His boss in the back seat was even friendlier. I got that signal early on when Susan, my driving instructor, gave him her portable cup of hot tea when he asked for a sip. He was very convivial and seemed to smile more than what you would expect from a government worker. Susan explained that because this guy was training the younger guy, she would not be able to ride in the car and translate. She confirmed that he was a very nice gentleman and that this was on our side.
We were lucky because this was the home of – as my driving school buddy Albert calls her – The Soup Lady – a very cranky masculine woman that seems to always wish she were someplace else and NOT here evaluating your driving skills… The driving tests are held at different locations throughout Paris et environs – and this was my second time back at this location. Yes, I remembered The Soup Lady well: she fussed at our group as we took the code test a few months earlier. Well, The Soup Lady was not grading American drivers today….
Regardless of how nice these two guys were, I was very nervous pulling out of the parking lot. I did fairly well except when the guy asked me to get on the Autoroute and go in the direction of Genneveliers; I was in the wrong lane and he had to ask me again. The two instructors chatted away and even Brian started speaking to them in French. He began chumming up and asking them about various traffic rules. I later scolded him after the exam: ” Jesus! – excuse me – Gee whiz! You were actually asking these guys what you are supposed to already know! This is definitely a bad reflection on your driving skills – you should have been aware of that…” He gave me a pitiful look and I felt guilty for bringing it up…
No problems for me. You can usually tell this when the examiner doesn’t have to slam on the brakes from his set of brakes on the passenger side. And I have heard that when they have the occasion to do so, they usually ask you to give up the driver’s seat. I was glad that I opted for second place – I was able to learn from Brian’s mistakes and get a feel as to how these examiners operated. Brian had some difficulties with a bus lane and they actually told him to slow down at one point…
I drove like a grandmother. And every pedestrian anywhere near me got a free ticket to cross the street….
As I approached the parking lot of the examiner’s office, I stopped for a red light.
” Monsieur, you do not have to stop for this light – it is for bicycles only.”
” Ah OUI!”
My French is not good enough to translate English quickly – otherwise I would have said:
” Oh yes, I am aware of that but the reason I am stopped is that I hear a slight hissing of air escaping from the left front tire; I did not want to put your life in danger by chancing a blow-out, so I stopped to see if it was a serious condition and thankfully, it was not.”
I pulled into the parking lot, put the car in neutral, pulled the emergency brake on, and cut the motor off. We all shook hands as if we had been drinking beers together at happy hour somewhere. The other two Americans were next and I was so glad it was over for me.
Now, I have learned one important lesson should you ever wish to take the French driver’s test:
1. If you need to pee before the exam, PLEASE do so! I didn’t and just about exploded before I got home.
Due to all of the hostile beatings of fonctionnaires in past history, the driving test results are now mailed to your address. This is a true fact. I took the test on Wednesday and the results arrived Friday. It really was an exciting moment – I felt like I was opening up the envelope for The Best Foreign Film Driver’s Award…
And the winner IS! ………Robert LEEDY! …….For “Driving Madomoiselle Daizzee!”
[cut to Beatles’ song, “Drive My Car” while Monsieur Leedy finds his way to the stage.]
” Ladies & Gentlemen of The Academy: I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful people who made this happen: To my wife, Vicky, for not complaining about the bedside light being on at all hours of the night while I studied; Also to Vicky for the practice – she LOVES to be chauffeured; To Susan and Monsieur et Madame Fehrenbach of the Fehrenbach Driving School – they are the BEST at what they do! To my friend, Albert Graham, who went through this ordeal with me and helped me laugh my way through it; For Dan Pieczonka, who suggested I have a few martinis before the actual driving test; And finally to my beloved parents who created the situations for me to learn how to drive at an early age – like those summers at the lake when I was nine and ten years old:
” Robert, do you want to go out in the boat?”
” No thanks, folks, I’m gonna chill and watch Soul Train, have a good time without me, ya hear?”
I was The King Of The Road on those dirt roads in that ’65 Buick – my friends were all so envious and impressed! Maybe I wasn’t the fastest at kickball – but I WAS in the 9-to-12-year-old category on the back roads of Little Lake Brooklyn!
I feel a little tear coming on.. (yeah, and I have to pee, so I’ll make it quick…)
So I get my yellow slip. Now I have to send it off and wait 2 months for my actual driver’s license.
It probably will never get any use but it will make for one helluva French souvenir!
From now on, I think I will list ” Holder Of A French Driver’s License” after any mention of my collegiate degrees. For all of you Hollywood directors out there seeking handsome American actors with a FDL (French Driver’s License), I AM available for work…”
Happy Trails, Love You Baby,