Those who are fortunate enough to lead blissful lives of never having to encounter French documentation are probably unaware that any paperwork procedure over here requires a growing pile of photocopies, passport-sized photographs, several envelopes, stamps, blood, urine and stool samples, digital eye scans, swearing over your first-born child (with multiple passport-sized photos of said child), even, on occasion, selling your soul to the Devil. All of this documentation will take a minimum of six to eight weeks to process, if not longer.
I've been here nearly four years now and have the worker visas and medical visits to prove it. In those four years, I've also lived a very car-less existence, relying on public transportation, trains or even my own two feet to travel anywhere. I can certainly expound on the pros of not owning a car: not having to make any monthly payments on a loan, not having to worry about it breaking down and taking it to a mechanic for maintenance or repairs, and not having to pay for gas/petrol.
That being said, as a 27-year-old craving some more independence to be able to travel, I am beginning to seriously consider burdening myself with owning a car in France. I still have my old car in Miami, which I use whenever I visit my mother for a few weeks every year, and truth be told, I relish those days when I have my own car.
It all started when I went to my bank to see if I could be approved for a loan to purchase my own car. I figured that with my American (Floridian) drivers licence and the International Drivers Permit, I could at least be able to invest in a vehicle of my own. My bank approved the car loan which also included insurance on any vehicle I wanted to own.
But then came the hitch: "Do you have a French drivers licence?" I answered that I did not have the infamous pink paper known as the permis de conduire, only my Floridian one with the International Drivers Permit.
"We can only provide insurance on the car if you have a French drivers licence."
"And if your car doesn't have insurance, you might as well not have the car at all."
Slightly deflated, I then asked my bank clerk what I would have to do to obtain a French drivers licence and was informed that any questions regarding exchanging a foreign licence to a French one would require visiting the Préfecture. I'm perfectly familiar with having to visit the Préfecture. I even did so last summer when I had to renew my working permit visa in Le Mans.
However, for me, going to the Préfecture in Le Mans means taking a train. So, I took a train, went to Le Mans, made a beeline for the Préfecture and took a number. Once it was my turn to be attended, I walked to the friendly Préfecture worker who asked me questions about my licence.
"What country does it come from?"
"The United States."
"Ah, which state in the United States?"
"Okay. I have to verify if Floridian licences are valid for the exchange. Some states are allowed and others are not."
Uh-oh, I thought. Could they know that I passed my drivers exam with a car with automatic transmission instead of stick shift? Would that discredit my licence? My heart thumped harder in my chest. The clerk typed the information on the keyboard and I held my breath for the verdict.
"Okay, it's good. Florida qualifies for the exchange."
I sighed with relief. The interview continued.
"Are you a student here in France?"
"No, actually, I work here."
"Have you been here for at least six months?"
"More than that. I've been here for almost four years."
The smile fell from her face.
"So, you've renewed your visa in the past?"
That's when the first bad news came.
"I see. You were supposed to have made the drivers licence exchange within your first year of living in France. After that, your licence is no longer valid."
I only wish I could have had a camera capture the stunned look on my face.
"You needed to have made the transfer during your first year in France. You've been living here too long as a worker to have the process be done."
"A couple of exceptions would have been that you were here as a student or that you were a French person with a foreign licence. But you've been working here for more than a year. Therefore, the exchange cannot be done."
"Didn't anybody tell you this?"
OBVIOUSLY FUCKIN' NOT, my brain screamed. Because when you first arrive to France in CDG-Roissy Airport, the first question you're asked by the passport control officer isn't "Are you planning to remain in France for more than a year and, if so, are you going to drive a car?"
I figured a sardonic remark would have worked against me in the situation and instead replied with "No, no one told me of this. I didn't know about this!"
"Well, in order to get a French licence, first you'll have to pass the code and eventually the road test. The good thing is that since you have a previous licence, you don't have to do the compulsory twenty hours of driving school."
As an added note of irony, I have to point out that I have always been curious to see what it must be like to go through the whole process of getting a French drivers licence and learning the exam questions. Now I've got no choice but to do so.
I wasn't going to let this bad news get me down.
"I see. Well, at least I have the International Permit with me, so in case I need to drive--"
"Oh, no," the clerk cut. "Your licence became invalid after the first year. That means that you cannot drive in France with it. At all."
"And if you were to do so, you'd be breaking the law."
I died a little inside after being informed that my perfectly good forty-eight dollar rectangular piece of plastic acquired from the DMV had been rendered absolutely useless. I may not have had the opportunity to use it, but I liked at least knowing that I could count on it when the time to drive with it came.
As it is, no thanks to sheer ignorance, I am faced with having to do the whole process from scratch. Looking at the bright side, at least this means that I will be very well-versed in French driving rules and will become even more integrated into the culture once I obtain my licence.
In the meantime, my dreams of getting a car are on hold and I will have to keep using the buses, trains and my own two feet.
Or maybe I should just get a pimpin' Dutch bike and call it a day.
So, to any recently-arrived foreigners who plan to remain in France for more than a year, think about getting your drivers licence exchanged within the first year of your stay. Don't let the same thing that happened to me happen to you.
Barb the French Bean