Thursday, December 2, 2010

Road rage I

I haven’t driven a car in over a decade. In Paris, you really don’t need one. The public transportation system, while far from perfect, is efficient enough to allow the city’s inhabitants to get around with relative ease. If you ask me, owning a car here is more a liability than a necessity; the streets are overcrowded, the parking cher et rare, and the security highly dubious (unless your car is made of some kind of un-keyable, un-bashable, un-burnable space material). So why bother?

Well, because cars are quite handy when one wants to travel beyond the city without having to rely on the train. And they’re good for professional purposes. And for those with young children, public transportation is not so convenient. I’m well aware of all these things. Truth be told, I’d have obtained a French driver’s license years ago if I could have. But alas, one of the (many) things that no one tells you when you move to France is that you have exactly one year from the issuing of your first residence permit in which to freely exchange your foreign driver's license for a French one. After that, it’s all over; you have to go through French driving school, complete with coursework, road lessons and a final driving test that is notoriously difficult to pass or even schedule, all for the peccadillo of €1,300 or so.

But that’s not all. You have to learn standard shift. In France, automatics are considered wimpy cars created for wimpy people who don’t know how to handle the road (Americans, in other words). Granted, plenty of my countrymen (my parents included) thumb their noses at such vicious stereotypes and embrace the stick shift. Not me. All through high school I happily zipped about in my late grandfather’s 2-door hatchback, an automatic that really hadn’t been conceived for the twisting, narrow roads of my native mountain town and thus struggled quite a bit with the steeper inclines. That didn’t matter; I was—and remain—incapable of maneuvering a stick shift. My dad courageously tried to teach me once.... I’ll leave it at that. Three pedals, three mirrors and five gears are just too many things to deal with simultaneously, even for a multi-tasker such as myself. In all honesty, I do tend to go through life with my head in the clouds—ask my 10th grade driver’s ed teacher—and one simply cannot have one’s head in the clouds while trying to drive stick. That’s why God invented the automatic.

But again, the French don’t do automatics (taxi drivers notwithstanding), or at least they’ll never admit to it. And so, if I ever intend on once more embracing the freedom of the open road, leaning into the wind at the helm of my mighty steed ... er ... whatever, then I am just going to have to grin and bear the humiliation of French driving school. Sigh. I hate being made fun of, and I will DEFINITELY be made fun of when I show up to class, a 30-something American amidst a bunch of snickering French teenagers, and proceed to demonstrate precisely how clueless I am when faced with a stick shift. “Ha ha! The old lady with the funny accent stalled the car again! Ha ha!”

But let’s just entertain the impossible for a moment and imagine that I somehow master the stick. I’d still have to face the sadistic free for all that is French motor law. Coming to a dead stop in the middle of an intersection if there’s a series of dashes running through it, for example. And whatever sick fool dreamt up the whole priorité à droite thing should be given the same sentence as Edmond Dantès. But my least favorite of all is probably the roundabout. I began calling them “death circles” the minute I arrived here and have remained true to my prejudice ever since. Those things were not meant to be negotiated by people like me.

Place de l'Etoile: where mediocre drivers go to die.
Incidentally, I’ve lived outside the Motherland long enough to no longer detain a valid US license, either. That’s right; I lack what is essentially the ID card of the average American citizen, a fact that never fails to get me into trouble when I’m home for a visit. Whether it’s writing a check (contrary to popular belief, one’s passport is not a universally accepted form of ID) or trying to buy booze, having an expired driver’s license is just a recipe for disappointment, extreme irritation and uncontrolled outbursts of anti-American sentiment quite ill befitting my generally easy-going (American) nature. I should really look into renewal one of these days, but with all the administrative hoop-jumping I already have to do as a French resident, I simply cannot accept the notion of also having to stand in line at the DMV. I’ve paid at the proverbial office, non? They should just SEND me a new one as a token of goodwill between fellow Americans. But in the meantime, I cannot legally get behind the wheel of a car in America or France, or for that matter any country requiring a (valid) driver’s license.

Which brings me to my next point. I discovered a few years back that having a French permit is not necessarily the sine qua non of legal vehicular operation in France. As early as the 1970s, European lawmakers went and approved the circulation of 2-person, permit-free cars. That’s right, cars that any idiot can cruise around in without ever having set foot in driver’s ed. Bizarrely, none of my French friends finds this blatantly criminal at all. “But the cars can only go 45 kilometers per hour!” they laugh. Right. Quick math quiz: A permit-free car traveling at 45 km per hour is heading south on la rue du Piéton mort. At the same time, another permit-free car moving at the same speed is heading north on the same road. A few seconds before the moment when the two cars meet, a small child goes running into the street between them, chasing after his ballon rouge.... What are the chances that anybody will walk away unharmed? I say, people without permits should limit their driving pleasure to Disneyland's Autopia and not go careening about on real roads, risking multiple lives behind the wheel of permit-free cars. I mean, just look at these things:

Just this side of a rickshaw.
I seem to recall having seen a similar contraption in a long-ago episode of Family Matters. And while at the time it appeared perfectly appropriate for the iconic nerd Steven Urkel to be driving one, today plenty of perfectly normal French men and women zip about in them without a second thought. On the other hand, in a country that fully embraces the Smart car as a credible—nay, even somewhat fashionable!—form of transportation, I suppose the permit-free car’s relative popularity should come as a shock to no one.

Thus, it appears that the only remaining option to my driving conundrum is to win the lottery and hire a personal chauffeur. I rather like this approach, which would offer the additional benefit of freeing me forever from early morning/late night dependence on Parisian taxis, whose dubious reputation is worthy of an entirely separate blog entry. A chauffeur it is, then. I shall leave driving school to the peons.