Friday, September 25, 2015

The scarlet letter

For those of you who are wondering (all five of you), YES, over the summer I did indeed pass the super scary, totally intimidating, much-loathed practical portion of the French driving exam. In fact, I more than passed it: I got 31 points, which is like 107%. To be honest, I feel kind of silly now for making such a big deal out of it. I mean, I’ve been whining, complaining and generally freaking out over this thing for years now. YEARS! I’ve already written about it here, here and here, and I could easily write more. Way more.

Semi-obsessive tendencies? Absolutely. But that’s how I made it to France to begin with, so let’s keep things in perspective. In any case, according to Google Analytics, most of you reading this are not actually human, but are instead robots. Ukrainian ones especially. Therefore, if I go off on yet another driving-in-France tangent, will you care? Probably not. You’ll keep circling back and screwing with my stats regardless, so I may as well tangent away!

All right, so I have my permit. Actually, I have a piece of paper that is standing in for my permit until the real thing comes in the mail—in something like four months. The Man had better be hand-crafting that thing using some secret ancestral technique, because damn. And, réglementation oblige, I now have my very own, extremely visible “A” sticker (signifying apprenti) emblazoned on the back of our car. Now why go and stigmatize new drivers à la Hester Prynne? Because adultery in France may be no biggie, but learning to drive is serious business. Newbies have to sport the scarlet A for three years. Awesome.

At least it’s discreet.

So, equipped with the requisite paraphernalia, I am totally legit to take to the open road without anyone telling me to slow down/speed up/check my mirrors more often/sit farther back in my seat/quit driving like a Corsican granny. Only here’s the thing: my zany-but-loveable instructor may be gone, but the act of driving hasn’t become any less stressful. I thought it would instantly morph into a source of pleasure once I no longer had a sidekick commenting on my every move, but in reality solo driving is actually kind of a pain in the ass! No matter—I have been forcing myself to get out there and face the ugly traffic, negotiate the sickeningly narrow “2-way” roads, avoid the randomly parked cars, make sense of the surreal pavement markings and deal with the chronic tailgating (I have a big “A,” people! So would you please get off it?).

Here’s an amusing bit of French driving trivia: as opposed to the US, where license plates can be customized to form compelling personal statements such as TOPDAWG or LUV2SK8, France doesn’t allow any (intentional) funny business to creep into its vehicle registration. Cars are issued plates marked with a two letter-three number-two letter combination like this:

The attribution is automatic, so you have close to no say in what combination your car receives. You could end up with your own initials, or something cute like BB, or even a fun smiley like XD. But you could just as easily get stuck with something totally atrocious and thus become an object of highway ridicule. You see, as is the case with English, certain letters when pronounced in French sound a lot like whole words. Q is a perennial favorite, because it sounds just like cul, which is French for ass. See where I’m going with this?

Here are some classics, all of which I have seen while living here, alongside their US would-be equivalent (which may actually exist as well, but the DMV would have to be asleep at the wheel. Har har). Being awarded any of the following on one’s plates demands a seriously self-deprecating sense of humor or else it’s going to be a long ride, especially for the poor schmucks who find themselves stuck with two of them. Since most of this is bathroom humor, let’s begin with:

Letter combo French signification US equivalent
WC toilettes
DQ des culs
PQ papier cul
KK caca
QQ cul cul
PT péter

Yes it’s all completely sophomoric, but as car games go, one could do worse. Interestingly, France draws the line at certain potentially offensive combinations, such as SS (better late than never), meaning they cannot be issued. PD, on the other hand, which is a well-known derogatory term for homosexual, is definitely a possibility.

Here’s another tidbit: prior to 2009, the last two figures on French plates indicated the vehicle’s département. Paris is 75, for example, so cars registered in Paris had license plate numbers ending in 75. But this led to road rage being directed at specific départements: “Did you see that 62 cut me off? Typical...” Things tended to get particularly nasty between 75ers and 13ers, 13 being Marseille. Car vandalism, theft, even assault. When we bought our first car we actually had it labeled 92 instead of 75, just to be prudent (you can do that—69 is an especially popular choice).

Admit it: driving in France is a good topic.