Permis de conduire: Getting a French driving license

Only certain states in the U.S. have a reciprocal driving license agreement with France, where you automatically can exchange one for the other — as luck would have it, MY license was NOT one of them! That meant, my American license was valid to drive in France for only one year, as a new resident. Tant pis!

Living in the 5th largest city in France, with its excellent bus service and all that the city has to offer within walking distance from my apartment, I debated long and hard whether I really NEEDED a French license — especially seeing how crazy the driving is here!

Just out of curiosity though, I walked over to one of the local “Auto Ecole” to get some information, just in case, so I could claim a more intelligent decision for NOT doing it! It turned out that this particular driving school is very reputable for being the first one established in Nice (link to historical photos). The French owner’s wife was very reassuring that it would be simple comme bonjour (a piece of cake), since I already had many driving years behind me in both countries! Even the owner said I would only need to do a few hours of driving lessons (much less than the obligatory 20 hours for beginners) — maybe 5 or 6, but only after studying and passing the road code – the first part of the whole testing process to obtain a license. Even so, this whole endeavor would be expensive:  860€ for the registration, including DVD road code practice sessions, + 80€ driving lesson registration & 38€ per hour for the actual lessons with an instructor — not to mention the time it would take to do all this!

Now, I was even more sure it wasn’t worth it, in all aspects, but with the road code booklet in hand, I spent days looking over car, traffic, and driving vocabulary. Who knew how to say ‘clutch’ and ‘high beam lights’ in French? – not exactly a point of everyday conversation! My husband encouraged me to continue, saying it would be something I would regret not having later on… hmmm, maybe…..  I still wasn’t convinced, but not liking the feeling of defeat, the gauntlet was thrown, and so, I signed up! My learning curve would be much longer than the road curve signs in the book, as there were over 200 new road signs added since the past year — Huh?  How is that even possible?

You could only register to take the real test when you were missing around five answers in the practice sessions, which ran all day long, everyday, non-stop. After months of ‘study’, I took the code test in a classroom with about 50 other younger drivers, who were as nervous and afraid as I was (you could only miss a maximum of 5 out of 40 to pass) — we all waited outside afterwards to hear whether we passed or failed (actual scores not given, and really who cares?  I was so relieved at having passed, I actually cried!

I thought the hard part was over, but then came the actual driving lessons – no problem for me, as I had driven a stick shift car in the U.S. ‘forever.’ No deal — you had to ‘caress the brakes’ 30 meters before a green light, just in case it turned orange (ah, don’t you mean yellow?) – and how far is 30 meters anyway? There were many other little idiosyncrasies that I had to do while driving, like moving your hands on the wheel in a certain way, while going around a sharp curve; staying to the right, so scooters could pass, even in a no passing zone where they don’t legally have the right, keeping my heel on the floor while letting out the clutch — WHAT, REALLY? I finally became so annoyed at the ridiculousness of it all, including inside the car and under the hood French vocabulary, that I decided to quit – it seemed like they were just trying to nitpick and/or get more money from lessons — both were happening and  I had enough!

After taking two weeks off, and not wanting to lose all that I had invested: money, time and sheer determination, I took a few more lessons and then took the real test with an official and my instructor in the backseat – I was nervous beyond belief, but followed his verbal instructions of where to drive, parallel park, etc., and answered car/motor questions in French. Out of the maximum 30 points, I scored 30! What a relief (no, I didn’t cry), and in hindsight, yes – I’m glad I stuck with it, and yes – it drove me crazy (yes, pun intended)!

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