The driving exam, European style

In order to be able to drive off the base it was necessary for one to obtain an International Drivers License.  This is actually a small book roughly the size of a passport and contains pages of information about you printed in many different languages.  Since I was able to drive on base I thought that adding the ability to drive off base would be pretty easy.  Not so.

First off, driving anywhere in Germany at sixteen just isn’t done.  A German kid has to be at least eighteen and take a three week course in driving just to be able to take the written test for his license.  It was offered to Americans as courtesy since we had differing laws.

I ended up downtown in the city hall facing the stern visage of a bespectacled matron of indeterminate age who gave me a tight-lipped smile meant, I can only guess, to make me feel welcome – about as much as much as a crowd of foosball rowdies.  I explained my purpose in disturbing her morning coffee to which she responded by slapping a couple dozen forms on the counter and pointing to a small table fixed to the wall.  I suppressed a grunt as I lifted the paperwork and carried it over to the table.

As you might not know, Germans are very fond of paperwork.  You must have all your papers in order to do anything so I began sweating through the answers to all the boxes on the forms.  For all I knew, I could be enlisting in the German army as I painfully translated German officialese into English.  Finally, I was finished and returned to the counter only to be told that now I had to go to another counter with my completed paperwork.

I loaded the wheelbarrow with the forms and trundled them over to the other counter and dumped them in front of a pleasant-faced guy bordering on the “Onkel Otto” persona.  He took his time scanning all my papers and finally pronounced “Ve vill calling you when made the decision” is all he said to me then turned to his desk.  Decision?  What decision was that pray tell?  Somewhat deflated, I left the building and headed home to await The Decision.

Several days passed until I received a phone call from, I think, Onkel Otto who informed me that I was to be at city hall in two days for the written test.  This is a test that is more visual that any other test I have ever taken.  Most traffic signs in Germany, or, for that matter anywhere else in Europe, are visual.  For example, a train engine with a gate in front of it, followed below by three red stripes means a railroad crossing in three hundred meters.  The striped diminish one at time until you are facing either a clear track or a gate.

Hundreds of other signs, mostly round with red borders, depicting almost anything from numbers (speed limits) to ducks (ducks) can be found.  If there is a red slash through it that means the opposite.  Parking, for instance, can be very confusing.  Parking areas are marked with a square blue sign with a “P” in it but No Parking is depicted by a round blue sign with a red border and a slash through it.  One sign one gets used to is the square yellow “Umleitung” (Detour), the end of the detour is marked by the very same sign, but with a red slash through it.  Simple, no?

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In any case, I was ready for the test when I arrived at the appointed place and time.  I was not ready for the huge booklet with hundreds of questions in it.  When told to start, I plowed manfully through the tome checking boxes and scratching my head.  By the time I was finished, only slightly before getting the fisheye from Onkel Otto, I was bathed in sweat.

Without a word, he pointed to a chair, fittingly in a corner, where I was to await the verdict.  He sat at his desk and scanned my answers a page at a time and, when done, I swear, he pulled out a stamp pad and a big stamp and clonked each page in rapid succession – Bam, Bam, Bam.  That the ink was red didn’t help my apprehension at all.  With great care Onkel Otto put away his stamping materials and smiled.  I hoped this was a good thing.

“Zweiundneunzig” he announced – ninety-two – and I exhaled slowly. “Now must come the driving test.  Ve vill calling you when made the decision”.  He and Stern-faced matron must have studied the same English text.  I once more left to await the calling.

This time, it only took a week to get the call.  Since I had to bring a car for the test (naturally) my dad drove me down to city hall in my Volkswagen.  There were several people ahead of me this time so I had to wait until an examiner was free for me.  While I waited, I chatted with some of the other perspirees ready to meet the examiner.  The one right next to me explained that he needed his license so he could go on the road to sell his wares – he was a salesman of work clothing.  That sounded very interesting to me.

Finally, my turn came and I was marched out into the courtyard for my exam.  First I had to demonstrate that I knew where all the safety equipment was – horn, emergency brake, ‘mox nix’.  The last item was, at that time, almost universally known to everyone in Germany.  It was actually two little lighted ‘flippers’ that appeared from each side of the car that indicated which way you were planning on turning.  The ‘mox nix’ moniker appeared from the corruption of the German ‘machts nichts’ which means ‘never mind’ or ‘makes no difference’ (take your pick) since whichever side the flipper popped out of was not necessarily the direction the car would eventually turn.  The flippers had a strong tendency to stick in the ‘out’ position.  But I digress.

In keeping with the flavor of this entertaining story, I will keep the comments made by the examiner in their German context and provide translations parenthetically.  Some things don’t translate well – like screams of terror – so I will keep these to a minimum.

We pulled out of the parking lot into the main stream of traffic in the middle of a town in the middle of the noon hour.  The first louder-than-normal words out of his mouth were “Bremson!  Bremson!” (Brakes! Brakes!) as we approached a rather primitive stop mechanism.  I say this because the stop “light” consisted of a clock-like dial with an arrow that rotated around the “face” which was marked with alternating quarters of red and green.  As the arrow approached the red portion drivers would speed up to try and get through before the arrow hit red.  When I attempted the same this prompted the response.  There was no yellow portion.

Cars around me began revving their engines as the arrow approached green and, slightly before it actually arrived, they were off like a shot – except me, I wasn’t ready until at least twelve microseconds later.  Off down the street we went, with the examiner pointing the way for me.  I missed one point and as I approached a “Y” intersection he began murmuring “Links!” (Left!) with increasing fervor and finally hit me with “Nein, dein Anderen Links!” (No, you OTHER left).  I eased into the adjacent lane with a minimum of horn-blatting and took the left as indicated; accompanied with my indignant mox nix pointing the way.

One of the more colorful comments was given after we had launched ourselves over a railroad crossing: “Gleise müssen viel langsamer warden” (tracks must be taken much slower).  Thanks, and I’ll be happy to have your hat re-blocked after mashing it into the roof.

Finally, came the parallel parking part.  We searched for some place we could do this, but noontime traffic had taken up most of the really good places.  I headed towards a narrow street and, as I prepared to enter it, I glanced at the sign: totally red, with a white bar horizontally across it.  I was about to enter a “no entry” road.  As I dodged nimbly to one side, the examiner hit me with “Dass eine Einbahnstrasse ist!” (That is a one-way street).  Yeah, I know, I just dodged it; weren’t you with me?

At long last, we ended our trip in and about town and headed back to city hall.  I committed no more noticeable infractions, but spent a bit of time watching out my peripheral vision at him as he started ticking boxes on his paperwork.  Uh oh, this could spell disaster.  As we parked and got out, he pumped my hand once, announced (are you ready for this?) “Ve vill calling you when made the decision”.

A week later I received my brand new International Drivers License in the mail.  I was the first among my peers to receive one and that made me very happy.  My first off-base drive found my girlfriend Virginia and I tooling along the river we used to ride our bikes along.  It was much better this way instead of puffing up hills.  Whole new vistas of travel opened to us.  And, at forty-two miles to the gallon, pretty inexpensive also.




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One Response to “The driving exam, European style”

  1. Parent Says:

    Make German driven license is just piece of cake try to get DL in Poland.

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