I almost started this entry by saying I’m not a big risk taker, but maybe that doesn’t ring totally true in a blog about how I left my life behind to live in a foreign country. So I guess what I mean is, I’m not a big risk taker when it comes to the small stuff. Like those times in New York when Charlotte begged to go on the roof of my apartment building and all I could do was worry about faulty fire escapes and superintendent scoldings. I don’t even feel great in the supermarket when I change my mind and shelve an item back where it doesn’t belong. A part of me always expects to get busted by an overzealous stock boy, which is silly because in reality I’ve never seen a supermarket employee pay attention to much of anything. But the point is I over-worry, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
When I first arrived in France we’d heard that my US driver’s license would be valid for one year, after which I’d need to exchange it for the French equivalent. So I had gradually eased behind the wheel from time to time as Charlotte taught me the ropes — the funky road signs, how to slip in and out of chaotic roundabouts without incident, and the ridiculous system of who has the right of way in suburban intersections (Just put a f***ing STOP sign there! is a suggestion I’ve made often). But then we learned my license is in fact not valid at all, and instead of a simple exchange I need to attend Drivers Ed and take a road test to get my French license (♫ I am thirty-four, going on seventeen…♫). So until that happens, I resolved to stay in the passenger seat at all costs to avoid any hassles with the law.
Recently while in the dead center of Paris our car’s cooling system busted, leading us on a harrowing two-hour adventure trying to drive it back home in the middle of the night. I won’t go into the full story but as we sat stuck in traffic along the Seine watching the engine temperature max out and praying it wouldn’t explode, I looked over at Notre Dame as the clock struck 12 am and groaned “Huh, so this is our Midnight In Paris, seriously?”
A few days later the car was fixed and ready to be picked up, just a two-minute drive from our apartment but requiring the use of a second car. I had avoided breaking the law up until then and wasn’t thrilled about having to follow Charlotte illegally from the garage back home, but sometimes life happens and what can you do. Let’s also not underestimate the hit a man’s ego can take when a 95-pound blonde tells you to get over it and grow a pair. So I convinced my wimpy prudent side that the chances of even seeing a cop, let alone having one catch you in an illegal act during the 120 seconds it takes to drive home, were literally nil. And I was right, for exactly as long as it took to drive from the mechanic’s to my first stop light.
Charlotte was stopped ahead of me with no idea that I was sweating a cop cruiser on the side street pointing right at me, poised to turn directly behind. I went through that calming mental pep talk where you remind yourself that you have a legit license plate, fully functioning brake lights, and all you gotta do is avoid any bonehead traffic blunders until the coast is clear. The good news is I didn’t do anything stupid after they saw me. The bad news is I’d already done the stupid thing, and was continuing to do it while they watched.
This is may be a good time to also mention that technically, um…my visa is expired.
Well, in truth my new one is hung up in administrative limbo while I wait on paperwork, but as I turned out of the intersection with blue lights flashing behind and Charlotte driving off unaware into the distance ahead, my uneasiness was quickly fueled by this major trifecta of things lacking – a license, proof of legal immigration, and enough schmooze-grade vocabulary to win over the three gendarmes that had just emptied out toward my car. The fingers that had been metaphorically crossed before were now shaking in a very real way, as I suddenly couldn’t remember what gear to park in or how to make electric windows go down. I was praying Charlotte saw me get pulled over and was on her way back to help out.
Now before I come across as a total wimp, let me say that I’ve always been quite calm and collected, thank you very much, when pulled over by American cops in my own country in my own language and with a God-given right to be there. But this time, what would normally be only a slightly uncomfortable moment waiting for them to approach the window was instead a frantic soul-searching of every possible polite word or phrase I could remember. Sure my brain was cranking out plenty of valuable suggestions, but in its frazzled fight-or-flight agitation it was giving them to me in the wrong language. My speech cortex was in the neurological equivalent of the fetal position, curled up and reverting back to all that is comfortable and safe, making it clear I’d have to ride this one out on pure instinctual linguistic fumes. Please Charlotte, tell me you saw me get pulled over…
In a quick shot of cool, brisk, rehearsed French the head cop asked for my driver’s license and my carte grise, which is their version of the car’s registration. I knew the license in my wallet was bunk so I focused on locating this “gray card” in the glove compartment. It was nowhere to be found. As I fumbled through the same pile of paper scraps over and over trying to mystically transform one of them through sheer alchemy, like an out-of-body experience I heard myself trying to defuse the situation in sadly inadequate rapid-fire bursts of nervous French. I swear if I’d been a girl I would’ve had no qualms about using my…um — other assets — to sway things in my favor, but being cursed with these uninteresting boy parts I instead just nervously handed over my license, playing dumb when he informed it wasn’t valid. Luckily feigning ignorance knows no gender.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet though – the other two cops were circling my car, looking in the back seats, and I still didn’t have this blasted gray registration card that was my only possible ticket out of there. Apparently they’d seen me brûler un feu (burn a red light), which even after returning to the scene of the crime I can’t quite understand. It was becoming clear that as things stood, my afternoon would probably involve at least a towed car, if not some uncomfortable time at the station trying to prove I’m a legal alien.
Then like a heavenly reprieve I heard one of them say “Qu’est-ce qu’elle fait, cette petite dame?” (What’s she doing, this little lady?). All four of us turned our heads as 95 pounds of sweet salvation came running down the middle of the opposite lane, her arm extended in the air brandishing my ticket out of this mess. In France the mechanic holds the gray registration card while he has your car, and Charlotte had popped it in her purse, where most folks keep it in case of the car getting stolen. Fortunately being the great wife she is, Charlotte had seen me in her rear view and managed to come back around in time.
This sudden materialization of the two fictional items I’d been promising the cops – the registration card and the French wife – seemed enough proof to them that my story was legit. The tension dissipated somewhat and now I just had to hope they were in a good enough mood to let me get away with a warning. What seemed to seal the deal was when they asked where I’d moved from. Coming from the New York that everyone here knows through TV and Hollywood seems to make me…not exactly cool, but at least interesting. This started a lively conversation about the US, with one cop claiming he preferred mee-amee! (Miami) to New York, which of course I was happy to agree with.
Finally, after they jokingly asked why the hell I’d move from New York to France, with the French part of my brain finally uncoiled and relaxed enough to offer assistance, I motioned over to my 95-pound savior and replied “A cause de cette jolie fille, bien sûr!” (Because of this beautiful girl, of course!). Which goes to show that a bit of humor, love – and of course valid documents – can get you far in this world. Almost as far as cleavage can.