American Car and Driver, French License

AS ADULTS, IT’S helpful to be reminded at regular intervals that we know almost nothing. My latest ineptitude prompt came as I faced—again, and in a foreign language­—questions like these:

You are approaching a blind curve on a two-lane road. Do you:

  1. honk
  2. pull over
  3. downshift
  4. flash your headlights

I had to answer all that apply. I assumed there was a trick somewhere mainly because this process was doomed to be accompanied by my own internal multiple choice queries, asked in nagging tandem.

Your US driver’s license has expired, after years of two-timing renewals with the California DMV. In order to drive the streets of your adopted country of France legally, do you:

  1. suck it up and proceed through the expensive and notoriously convoluted French driver’s license procedure like you should have years ago
  2. continue to assume the rules don’t quite apply to you
  3. leave the country
  4. keep honking

I’d have to suck this one up. I had to get a new license to drive a motor vehicle in France where I lived and loved. I wasn’t above or beside the law as I’d convinced myself I might be. I couldn’t opt for any temporary, partial fix.

My particular comeuppance began last year when an over-geared municipal cop pulled me over for crossing left over a white line.

“Excusez moi, je n’ai pas compris,” I dumbed down my French and my wherewithal.

“You have traversed the white line,” the officer replied to me in English, not helping, while motioning with gloved-fingers for my papers.

“I’m not from around here,” I added.

“The white line does not permit a turn.”

“I wouldn’t have normally, but my children are waiting for me.”

“It says here that your American license has expired too.”

“I’m in between places.”

“You must come with me to the commissariat.”

Referring to the police station as the commissariat only reinforces how frightening the paperwork gets. There, within the coma-gray walls, I helped the officer fill out forms all afternoon. It was unclear who was bored stiffer. He gradually booked me. I was in a little bit of trouble. But if I was caught driving again, the penalty would involve more than mere paperwork.

I was lucky. I was also something of an idiot. I would walk home.

A yellow triangle-shaped road sign with a red border indicates construction workers and cautions 150m. You must:

  1. slow down at 150 meters
  2. slow down for 150 meters
  3. slow down immediately
  4. check the day of the week

Most of your time in front of the auto-école practice tests slideshow is spent daydreaming. Which moment from your personal history behind the wheel do you remember most vividly:

  1. learning stick on a Volkswagen Rabbit
  2. French kissing a girl from church youth group in a Plymouth Voyager
  3. getting later dumped in a Hyundai Elantra
  4. touring the Southeastern US in a customized Ford Econoline—knobs and switches only, no pedals—with a quadriplegic friend

More than once, I’ve been told that I’m distracted behind the wheel. Any claims I’ve ever made of being a good driver may have been exaggerated. But I’ve always focused on where I’m going and not the object I wanted to avoid. It’s worked for me. The alliance between a machine I’ll never fully understand, my proficiency as a motorist and the road has always been steady.

But twenty-five years after my first license, I found myself in France as a candidate for driving. I was a teenager again but without the curiosity or vitality. At the local Dijon driving school, I slumped into the chair of a dark room to practice written test questions with other hapless newbies. I figured I understood the code de la route, the so-called French rules of the road. This wasn’t left-sided Britain or hair-raising autobahn Germany. But, like many other aspects of the abroad experience, the deceit of its sameness tilted the learning curve toward steep. And like much of the hike into my middle-age years, my common sense wasn’t as reliable as I’d hoped. 

In the event of light rain while on a highway, do you:

  1. turn on your headlights
  2. turn on your front fog lights
  3. turn on your rear fog lights
  4. honk politely on occasion

As you take stock of your accumulated years of driving experience, which of the following moments do you believe posed the biggest risk:

  1. blowing a head gasket in northern Ontario and then asking a local mechanic if that was bad
  2. getting broadsided turning right onto Sunset Boulevard by a movie stuntman on his day off
  3. rear-ending a Yahoo! executive during a morning commute down the San Francisco peninsula
  4. outrunning a shepherd attempting to block the road with his sheep in the Moroccan desert

I was still distracted. My practice tests came back just shy of the 35 of out 40 that the written exam required. I desperately missed the road. I never knew how much the shift and acceleration out of a curve meant to me. Impatient and still overconfident, I inquired with the woman who ran the auto-école about when I could take the written exam.

“Unfortunately, there are no available time slots for another three months,” she explained in French.

“Then can I take the driving test first?”

“Of course not. You will also need an evaluation with one of our instructors followed by some driving practice hours.”

“You know I’ve been driving for twenty-five years.”

“Yes, you have said that.”

“I mean…merde.”

“It’s good that you have a few months before your test. Based on your practice sessions here, you wouldn’t pass the written exam. You should extend your contract with us.”

I paid more money. I thought about investing in a shiny new bike. I sat for another round of test questions.

The process became demoralizing and emasculating. I was reluctant to admit it, but I’d tied the ability to drive a car to two unwieldy ideas whose universal value was already up for serious debate: masculinity and America.

I’d been a stay-at-home dad expat for the past ten years. As a way to balance the non-traditional roles I’d assumed, I have a tendency to sentimentalize the traditional, red-blooded categories I’ve left behind. I’d done this with driving. The car is the storied object of desire and chief prized possession of so many Americans, and so many men. I’m not interested in being Matthew McConaughey in a Lincoln or on a NASCAR leaderboard, but I still like to pretend this one helm belongs to me. Because what else can an American male offer if not the ability to drive someone home? Yet I’d been stripped of even this. And like so many quandaries both men and Americans have landed themselves in, this was, once again, and nothing but, my own fault.

Keep walking.

In the event of a fire in a tunnel, do you:

  1. drive to the nearest emergency exit, turn off your engine and leave your keys in the ignition
  2. turn off your engine immediately, remain in your car and call emergency services on a mobile phone
  3. turn off your engine as soon as possible, leave your keys in the ignition and find the nearest emergency call box
  4. turn on your hazard lights, take your keys with you and make a mobile phone call to emergency services once you’ve reached safety

The moment you became a fully-qualified adult motorist likely occurred during which of the following experiences:

  1. circling the roundabout of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe with French in-laws in the backseat
  2. driving sleeping wife and newborn daughter home from the hospital across Boulevard de Clichy at rush hour
  3. embarking on a full coast-to-coast loop around the continental United States with wife and car-seated daughters in a Dodge campervan
  4. winning the breath-holding contest with my daughters through the Mont Blanc tunnel, the world’s very deepest

There will be tests for the rest of my life. I am, somehow, just learning this. I thought I’d reached a point where I knew what I was doing. I assumed I was by now an authority on most adult matters, driving being elemental among them. I thought I was at a point were I could gently coast in neutral from here.

We all think this. We’re convinced we’ve mastered something we’re only partially done with. What we counted on as good enough or solid experience under our belt, sooner or later, reveals itself to be a convenient illusion. Life gives us more tests to point out where we’re wrong. Those things that we never predicted to be a struggle turn out to reduce us to a hot pile of humiliated tears. The test proctors and the institutions win. Particularly in this place where I’m come to learn that the institutions and the bureaucracy seep into every aspect of a citoyen’s life. Do I need to relearn everything? Yes. Also I’ve filled the form out incorrectly. The struggle is nowhere near from over. I’m nowhere near mature. The learning curve gets steeper and you’ll have to start to adjust for your crooked wheel alignment if you want to hug the road like you used to.

The driving school suggested several practice driving lessons with an instructor, a humorless woman with her foot hovering centimeters over the passenger seat brake. I endured the lessons. I received red checks on my file for not looking good and hard at the blind spot on the lane changes. And for cutting too tight on left turns. And for rolling ever so slightly through a stop.

After the third session, she did congratulate me on a jolie highway merge. I was almost proud.

However, there was still the issue of my coasting in neutral, an obvious terrible idea on the open road that is rife with peril, barreling toward you whenever you’ve decided to make yourself comfortable.

A solid white line indicates:

  1. two-way traffic
  2. crossing forbidden
  3. turning forbidden
  4. priority to the right 

The first thing you will do when you can drive again is:

  1. haul general ass
  2. join furious Charlize Theron on a blood and fire rescue mission through a post-apocalyptic desert
  3. road trip to Outer Mongolia
  4. road trip down California 1

I passed the tests. I vanquished the written exam first and then licked the driving, both tests significantly easier than the auto-école led me to believe.

So I had a permis de conduire. A license to drive. Again. At last.

For the last question, the correct answer for this summer is D) California 1. I’ve never been more ready for the postmiles and the switchbacks. Even if my valid license will be a foreign one in the state of my birth.

I will stay out of neutral. I will continue to look ahead and not at the things to avoid. I will turn the ignition, with the accomplishments so minor they’re laughable, but still count for something because it’s the road and because it never stops becoming.


About Nathaniel Missildine

Nathaniel Missildine lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. His travel memoir, Save for Fireflies, chronicles his family road trip across the U.S. as a kind of native tourist. For more, visit
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