It has been a long and tortuous road getting French driver’s licenses. In an absolutely unfair twist of fate, I now have the right to drive (in the form of a temporary license), and Mark does not. See, we’re allowed to exchange our US licenses, given that they’re issued by Illinois, one of 17 states that have reciprocity with France. (I don’t know why, I’ve learned it’s best not to ask. To try to understand the logic is a recipe for madness.) You must make your exchange request before the end of your first year of residency. As fate would have it, the end of our first year coincided with the bureaucratic untangling that is Brexit, resulting in hundreds of thousands of resident Brits now needing French driver’s licenses, and the simultaneous centralizing of the exchange process, causing a backlog that increased every time I dared check on it. Ultimately, mine came 18 months after submission, arriving right before confinement. The next step, post-confinement, was to mail in my original Illinois license, and in return I got my temporary French one while they confirm its validity. Mark’s on the other hand is nowhere to be found. Occasionally we get cryptic messages from the government saying that his inquiry has been forwarded to yet another sub-agency. (Don’t bother telling me about AAA international licenses, or I’ll be forced to explain once again that it’s simply a translation of your license, and if the underlying license is not valid, say if you’re a resident of France who has been here more than a year, it’s worthless.)
Because the exchange process was taking so long, last October Mark started crawling through glass, aka undertaking the licensing procedure from scratch. He passed the written exam 2 months later, after many hours studying. The test is much more arduous here, not to mention the added barrier of taking the test in one’s second language. The final step, taking the driving portion, was delayed by our winter in Spain, then the covid confinement, and now a snafu with his application to take the practical test. So we wait. Again. Expattery requires a vast reserve of patience. It may even be the most important coping skill to have.
So now I can drive, but the truth is, I hate it. Mark likes driving. He’s a car guy. So how unfair is it that he is denied a pleasure while I will only grudgingly get behind the wheel? Driving is not carefree and relaxing for me. Carfree on the other hand is. I moved to France for its walkability and marvelous public transportation. That plus cheese defines the good life for me. In the US, the car is a symbol of freedom. But I never feel less free than when I’m tethered to a car. You always have to go back to where you’re parked. Via public transportation, or on foot or bicycle, you can just keep going. A car forces every journey to be circular. Return to the mothership, and hurry up before your parking expires.
My definition of the good life does include occasional trips to Belle-Île-en-Mer to hike and soak up the quiet and the sea. it’s where we are right now, but the trade-off is that it requires driving or being driven to the grocery store. Island life is pretty laid-back, and our friend Michel keeps his keys in the ignition. So this morning it was time to get back in the saddle if we wanted to eat. I was pretty nervous. I realized it had been a couple of years since I’d last driven (since Mark is happy to drive, I was only too happy to let him on our return trips to the US), and it has been well over 20 years since I’d driven a stick-shift. Not to mention that I’d never driven in France. Thankfully the muscle memory of driving stick kicked right back in. Just like riding a bicycle.
The Côte Sauvage, or wild coast. Car not required.