This highly coveted piece of paper will soon be an artefact. The French government has announced the phasing out of the old pink ‘permis de conduire’, fondly referred to as ‘le carton rose’. It will be replaced by a standard credit-card sized piece of plastic. But I’m not giving up mine just yet. Here’s why.
“You’ll have to get a new driver’s license.” Those words didn’t mean much at the time. I’d figured moving to France would mean turning in my old Ontario driver’s license for a French one. I didn’t bargain on having to learn to drive all over again.
“It means you have to pass a test,” my husband explained. I hesitated for a moment over the grammar (it’s ‘passer un test’ in French rather than to take a test as we say in English, which translates somehow as if success were a requirement.) Then I realized. Merde.
“But I already know how to drive!” I wailed. “Standard or just automatic?” My heart sank. I’d learned how to drive in the U.S. on one of those big boats of a car that had automatic everything. No one but hippies drove sticks.
In France, however, the standard is still standard. Automatic transmissions are something of a novelty, generally reserved for little old ladies. The only way to get your driver’s license here is to take the test on a standard.
So I had to learn how to use a stick shift. It is a testament to our marriage that my husband was able to teach me this skill.
For one thing, I am not the world’s most coordinated person. To put it in the words of my dear old dad, I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Any form of driving involves a certain amount of multitasking: eyes on the road, checking your rear- and side-view mirrors, knowing when to step on the gas or the brakes, signalling and turning. Add a clutch and stick-shift into that equation and it’s like learning to juggle.
Second handicap, mine: I’m not a good student. When I can’t do something perfectly right away, I get mad. I don’t give up, mind you, but being around me through the learning process is not for the faint of heart.
Third handicap, his: a tendency to confuse left and right. Frustrating, but no biggie most of the time. As a driving instructor, however, it’s a problem.
If anyone witnessed those early scenes, I am not proud. But I learned to shift with the best of them (although I wore out the clutch on our first car pretty fast).
I also had to learn the ins and outs of the ‘Code de la route’ and take a written test – no small challenge for my then-fledgling French. The rules of the road in France are almost as complex as the grammar. Along the way I learned a lot of new vocabulary: la chaussée (road surface), la roue de secours (spare tire), un céder le passage (yield sign). As for the driving itself, the biggest difference is a little concept called ‘la priorité à droite’. It means you must yield to drivers who arrive on the right. This concept also exists in North America but as uncontrolled intersections are few and far between, it’s rarely an issue.
The French road test is no joke – it’s not uncommon to fail several times. I got it on my first try, perhaps because of my experience as a driver, perhaps because I was visibly pregnant. Most likely because I took the test through a driving school (it was faster and cheaper than applying on my own) and the inspector knew my teacher – they gossiped throughout the ten minutes of my road test.
When I finally got my new driver’s license it felt like a mere formality. I’d been driving for almost a year with my Canadian license anyway and had learned the real rules of the road: watch your rear and always pull over for anyone going faster than you. If in doubt, let the person on the right go first. And no matter how mad you get, don’t flip the birdie, especially at men (see my earlier post on gestures).
Now let me share a deep, dark secret: I have two French driver’s licenses. It happened a few years ago when I’d thought my original license was lost, and had it replaced. Then I found the old one lurking in the corner of a disused wallet. So even if I have to hand over the more recent one in exchange for a laminated card, I’ll keep the old carton rose as a souvenir.
But I’m in no rush to make the switch. This being the old world, we have until 2033. By then, I’m not even sure I’ll need a driver’s license. And in the meantime, I look a lot younger.