evin Barry, our friend who wrote Beatlebone, remarked recently in an interview with the Paris Review that he was going to take his driver’s test at the age of 50, and that it was touch and go. He saw himself as a late starter in swimming and bike riding but then took those things on with the zeal of a convert. It’s hard to be a late bloomer, though, as a driver.
An expat is something like a convert, with one foot in a new country, and the other foot on the pedal of old driving habit. (It helps if you can find gorgeous old cars to drive.)
Some of my French friends looked at me blankly when I avowed, I didn’t relish driving in France. They toodle around in vehicles that could also serve them well in the Sahara, or, Yes, one says with a shrug, I work off the Champs d’ Elysées (where Place de l’Etoile lurks every day! (Emphasis mine). Other friends, meanwhile, don’t even have a driver’s license. Walk with them anywhere in Paris. Need public transport advice? Ask them.
Why are we still talking about driving? Well, I am so glad you asked.
DRIVING, REASON NUMBER 1
Getting around in Paris is not just a one-time thing (or two time etc.) Train strikes, bus strikes, permits for your car, designating when, (according to the year and type of vehicle,) you are permitted to drive in Paris. Train transport delays, often disguised as a problem with the signaling at a station, can actually mean attempted suicide, or an ill person who needs medical attention. And so you wait.
Available parking at my school was on top of a steep hill, and this hill could be unexpectedly blocked if the weather were icy. Then you are faced with, wait for it, PARKING. Forget it. People don’t drive so they don’t have to try and park. One time I drove to visit a friend on the far east of Paris, travelling from Versailles on the far west. Parking? Hmmm. I turned here, I went there, I returned, I branched out. By the time I’d found a place to park, I had to haul out the GPS to find her. I had no idea where I was. Like the experience of the hobos in Godot, traveling is fraught. It is repetitive. Every damn day we are trying to get someplace, literally and figuratively.
And this effort is not benign. One week I was poised to get the train at Versailles going to Sevres, where I worked. (That would have been an icy week, so probably best not to drive.). Well, train repair was taking place at night, and the trains were to resume at 7 a.m. I was good to go, because the train I needed was at 7h31. (Always check the computer before you leave home. I did. It was coming.) The clocked ticked on. No train at 7 or 7h31 or in between. If you can bring a note saying the trains were suspended, that can help when you are late for teaching an 8h class. But the attendant could find no indication of the 7h31 train. No train had been suspended, evidently because they hadn’t started up their morning run. This is highly unusual, the attendant assured me. Unusual or not, it happened three times that week, and I was hauled into the director’s office. She promised me it was a faute grave to be late for the 8h classes. Faute grave, meaning a firing offence. Happily, the ice melted and off I went, crossing my fingers that no traffic jams or road work would impede me on my (merry) way.
DRIVING, REASON 2 (NOT REALLY)
Never mind that if someone has a neurosis, it tends to recur. Plus, driving is deliciously metaphorical. We ask, for example, What is driving the marketing strategy? We offer our opinion that someone was driven to, say, drink. I love this idea because it has that passive connotation of being, like, in the Uber on the way to a bar. Or at least it implies a lessening of responsibility, as if without the driving involved, presumably by somebody else, the drinking would not have happened. However, none of these is reason number 2.
DRIVING, REASON NUMBER 2
Fear of driving does not belong to me alone. I was reading along in a book called, So you want to talk about race, by Ijeoma Oluo. It’s a fascinating book, written before George Floyd was murdered. The author, a well-known writer and speaker, includes chapters such as, “Is it really about race?” and “What if I talk about race wrong?” And here is what I read: “Like myself, most people of color I know do not enjoy driving,” (p.88). Not enjoy driving? In America? The threat and the anxiety this community feels when they hear a siren behind them was really brought home to me. Imagine, something we consider so all-American, is such a different experience to other Americans. If I felt that way, really, we wouldn’t even have this blog, which at this point could be called driving4godot.
More about her book to follow.
BTW, Did Kevin Barry pass his driving test?