Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Famous French Paperwork: Exchanging a Foreign Drivers Licence to a French One (and a Warning)

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."

"Of course."

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?"


"Four times?"


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."

Oh, joy.

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.

"Ah. Well, it's lucky for me that I don't own a car nor that I have driven in France with it."

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.

Bonne chance.

Barb the French Bean

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

High on Windmills and Benadryll (Visiting Zaanse Schans)

After my down-on-visiting-museums luck in Den Haag and Delft, I decided that my third day of visiting the Netherlands would consist of something a little bit closer to Amsterdam while being miles apart from what the city is known. I made plans to see the Zaanse Schans in the morning and then pay a visit to Volendam in the afternoon. (I have to thank my former high school English and French teacher for inspiring me to go to Volendam, and it was with my research that I was able to come across the famous Zaanse Schans.)

Zaanse Schans is a preserved village that has original houses and functioning windmills intact. Being a responsible Minister of Transport, I needed to test to see if the buses did a good job at connecting the capital to the surrounding cities and villages. 

It did. And it took me to the windmills. 

(TBoNTB fact: below is the first ever video I upload on the Internet. Clearly, I am not ready to quit my day job and become a cinematographer.)

Once I snapped a few pictures, I decided to first head into the Zaanse Schans museum to learn more about the village's history. I found it uncommon for a Dutch museum to be open on a Monday, but I wasn't going to complain! 

I went to the reception area, purchased my full-price ticket and...

...Discovered that HALF of the museum was under renovations. This only further fueled my belief that half of the Netherlands is always under construction and, in continuing to keep score with visiting museums, brought my total to 3,5 over 1,5. 

So while most of the relevant historical portions of the museum remained inaccessible, I did manage to see some neat-o (do people still say "neat-o?") machines once used by the Verkade chocolate makers in Zaandam.

The only word you really need to know in Dutch.

If I'm not mistaken, these are packaging that once held chocolate letters, which are eaten around Sinterklaas-time. Pictured on the white chocolate box is Sinterklaas himself. And for those of you wondering who the funky black dude on the milk chocolate box is, his name is Zwarte Piet and he's one of many of Sinterklaas's soot-covered busy helpers. (GO HERE and HERE to understand.)

Verkade built its reputation for having women working on the lines, hence the feminine jumpsuits. 

Klompen en fietsen. How much more Dutch can it get?

I quite liked this painting simply because of the juxtaposition of having traditional windmills with a backdrop of billowing industrial smokestacks. It's not something I see every day in art. 

Be careful when working around factory machines, kiddos. 

Just look at that untamed Dutch wilderness. 

I won't lie: going into Zaanse Schans set off some tourist trap vibes, and that was not just from all the tourists buzzing about. The sheer number of shops present were reminiscent of the times I would visit the very artificial Epcot with my family, and that feeling of familiarity brought upon by memories of Disney World felt odd. I normally don't experience this when I visit European cities and villages.

Still, I can't deny that the picturesque sights and the preservation of historic buildings were well worth the visit. 

For some reason, this dried mud reminded me of the turf I saw in Connemara

Chocolate moulds

And cookie moulds and cutters 

I adore the architecture here.

"Kaas" is another useful Dutch word to know.

I tried a very nice bacon and asparagus cheese. It sounds so wrong, but it was so right.

Only in the Netherlands have I been able to see a thatched windmill...

...That had its own mini-windmill. (Cue the Xzibit "Yo dawg" joke.)

Windmill with a billowing smokestack backdrop? Now, where have I seen this before..?

Nijntje really isn't doing a good job at hiding. 
 There was even an Albert Heijn museum! For one shining moment, I thought about visiting it...

"Koffie" is definitely worth knowing, too.
...Only to find that this museum clearly respected the "It's Monday, we're not open" rule.

Score: 4.5 to 1.5. Drats!

I also saw daffodils.

Or what was left of them.

Because they were dead.


 I also saw the disturbing remnants of decapitated tulips.

Since I don't want you all to feel bad about seeing deceased tulips, I did this to cheer you up:

If you squint at just the right angle, you can pretend they are still alive. Go on. Try it. 

I normally don't take pictures of other people's back yards, but I couldn't resist. This one had roaming chickens. 

I really do like how pimpin' Dutch bikes are. 

With my entrance to the museum, I was given a ticket that granted access to visit a functioning windmill of my choice. Even though there was a windmill that ground paint, I decided to go into the windmill that produced oil. Now, when I cook, my oil of choice by default is olive oil, so upon hearing there was an oil windmill, my brain decided to push aside any logic and associated olive oil with said windmill's production. 

Because, as we all know, the Netherlands is known for its balmy Mediterranean climate and olive trees. 


Imagine my shock when I walked into the windmill and discovered that the oil it produced was, in fact, peanut oil.  My brain reprimanded itself with a quick "oh, well, of course it's going to have peanut oil, you moron, DUH." Then, in an instantaneous moment, my brain had another realization that caused panic to sank in. 

You see, I am allergic to nuts and peanuts, and the room in which I had sauntered in absentminded fashion was currently CRUSHING THOUSANDS OF PEANUTS INTO A FINE POWDER. It seems that I had a bit of a death wish for myself.

Not wanting to miss the moment of having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of seeing a windmill churn, I risked my life and held my breath to film a very hasty video. Then I ran straight out before the floating peanut dust particles could ensure that my once-in-a-lifetime chances remained decidedly at a single stolid shot. 

(Forget filming nature documentaries about African wildlife in the savanna; peanuts are dangerous enough for me.)

Being cautious about my allergies and my desire to cling to life, I swallowed a couple of anti-histamine pills to settle any potential deadly reactions. 

The breath of life has a different meaning for me.

One of the unfortunate side effects of certain anti-histamine pills is the tendency to render the taker into a drowsy stupor. When I began to see double windmills dance before my eyes, I decided that it was time to leave the Zaanse Schans, fleeing far away from the evil peanut oil producing windmill, and take the bus back to Amsterdam so I could travel to Volendam. 

But before I did so, I sat down and ate a freshly-made stroopwafel with some coffee. You can't beat the simple pleasures in this life. 

Nodding on and off during the bus ride, the haze of having seen several windmills still fresh in my memory, my bleary vision gazed upon the landscape and transmitted a befuddled message to my mind: "there's a metallic windmill on the side of the road." 

Now, I am familiar with the occasional modern wind pumps that dot the French countryside, but I had never seen anything quite like that "metallic windmill." Rather than being confused, I blinked rapidly and was awed by such a spectacular feat of human ingenuity. 

They don't. (Yes, I genuinely thought this telephone tower was a windmill. That's how drugged up I was on Benadryll.)
Kids, when in the Netherlands, go easy on the anti-histamine pills. Those are dynamite.

Barb the French Bean


A discrepancy with the score on being able to visit museums/do certain activities has been noted. After the realization that the peanut windwill nearly killed me despite still being able to see it, the current score now stands at 5 to 2.