Just don’t make me get my truck driver’s license.
This is the phrase that Bruno would utter whenever, over the years, we’ve discussed our future overland vehicle and Totoyaya’s replacement. We’ve seen a huge variety of vehicles over our years on the road, from minivan-like Sprinters and VWs to monster overland trucks like MANs and Unimogs, and from converted 4WD trucks (like those of the overlanding friends I’ve written about on this blog) to standard camper vans (like the one my parents rented in Morocco). Whenever we admired a larger vehicle, our daydream would be abruptly halted by Bruno’s mantra: I’m not going to get my truck driver’s license.
In Europe, a standard driver’s license gives the driver the permission to drive a vehicle up to 3.5 tons in weight. Things are different in my country, where driver’s licenses authorize a certain class of vehicles, rather than a certain weight. So whenever Bruno and I dreamed big – bigger than 3.5 tons, or the approximate size of Totoyata – our dream would inevitably come crashing down by the limitations on his driver’s license.
Bruno’s aversion to obtaining his truck driver’s (or “C”) license was mystifying to me. Sure, he described the lengthy process, but I assumed he was exaggerating (as he is prone to do when he wants to make a point). As we continued our vehicle discussions, it became increasingly clear that we’d have a difficult time finding the vehicle we were looking for under that 3.5 ton limit.
What were we looking for? Well, for starters, I wanted a toilet and shower and a larger kitchen with an oven. Maybe a couple of bunk beds for future kids. We both wanted something that had high clearance (for decent off-roading), good fuel consumption, and a unique, rugged look. We wanted something whose interior we could design ourselves, and we both wanted more space and autonomy.
So basically, we didn’t want a traditional camper van. A few design sketches showed that a minivan would be too small, as would most converted 4WD trucks. Our ecological side didn’t want the giant overland truck, though, either. We finally set our sights on a decent compromise: an old Mercedes Vario 14 series.
The only problem was this: Bruno would need to get his truck driver’s license.
If only I had known what this dreaded driver’s test really involved, I’d have settled for the standard camper van.
As you’ll recall, once Bruno and I realized he’d need his C license, we raced from the south coast of Spain to our house in France so we could kick-start the process. Because, as we contacted driving schools in our area, we realized that the process would be lengthy.
First, there’s the medical appointment. You can only schedule one with a doctor that’s on the official government list, and this you must do several weeks in advance of the actual appointment.
Once the doctor has deemed you fit to drive, you send a file of papers to the prefecture to get the official go-ahead on the application. Because of the bureaucratic backlog, this can take up to a month. Thankfully, the prefecture had just hired a new staff member, so we only waited 15 days.
Once we got the OK, the painful part began – with a 1700 euro payment for the process of obtaining the permit! Ouch, that hurt.
Then, because Bruno hadn’t done a driver’s exam in over 5 years, he needed to pass the official Driver’s Code test. The code de la route is a series of 40 questions about anything and everything to do with driving. You’re shown a real photo of a road scenario and asked a multiple choice question which can have between 1-4 answers, and you have 10 seconds to answer it. You can only make 5 mistakes.
Bruno began by studying a road manual and trying out free online tests, but he quickly realized he wasn’t going to make much progress this way since the manual didn’t actually prepare for the application questions in the test. More than that, he needed to learn the technique of taking a test – of understanding the wording, developing time-management skills, and picking out trick questions. To do this, he needed to do practice tests – and lots of them. He began going to Sète (a town 45 minutes away where his chosen driving school was located) 3-4 afternoons a week and taking complementary practice tests through a paid website at home.
After almost 2 weeks of studying, a test date came up, and Bruno figured he might as well try the test – if he failed, another 40 euros would buy him a retake. We were VERY excited when we found out a few days after the test that he’d passed! Twenty-five years ago, when he’d gotten his motorcycle license, he’d failed the first go. A lot of people fail. The test is much trickier than our friendly Canadian written tests.
Now, almost 4 weeks after we’d started the process, Bruno could officially begin the process of passing his C driver’s license. First up was the multi-part nightmare exam, le plateau, a 5-part test that takes place entirely in a parking lot. The exam is out of 21 points, and you lose a point for each tiny mistake. A few years ago, you could make 8 mistakes and pass, and until a few months ago, you could make 6 mistakes, but now you can only make 3! You can begin to see why it’s such a dreaded exam, though a detailed description of its five parts will show the complete dreaded picture:
First up is a yes-no written test with 10 questions chosen out of a bank of 200 questions, all particular to truck driving. A lot of the questions assume you’re going to make a career out of this license and pertain to legal rest times per driving hours and rules according to different vehicle tonnage. Make an error and you lose a point (which would be a shame, since this is the easiest part of the exam); make 5 errors and you automatically fail.
Then, you approach the truck with the examiner and choose at random one theme out of a possible six – like brakes, lights, assistance, tires. You must perform a 5-minute safety check, orally describing what you’re checking for. Forget something and you lose a point.
Next, you choose at random one of twelve documents that you must recite orally by memory. Topics are things like arriving at the scene of an accident, insurance, and driving under difficult conditions. Bruno had to recite the document on driving in tunnels. You lose a point if you know two-thirds of the document, and two points if you know less than half.
Then, you do a physical check around the vehicle along with a safety and speech, a precise way of mounting the vehicle, and a ritual of last-minute checks from the driver’s seat before starting the vehicle. Each thing you forget is a point lost.
Lastly, you choose at random one of four manoeuvres in the parking lot – veering around cones and into parking spaces – which require precise manoeuvring of the vehicle. If you hit a cone or a painted line, you automatically fail.
Bruno stressed a lot about the plateau exam. In fact, I’d never seen him so stressed out. I’d also never seen him work with such dedication and focus. For 8 consecutive days, he left for Sète at 8am, studying and practicing there all day, returned home around 6pm, and studied another 2 hours at home.
Bruno was most stressed about the oral recitation of the twelve documents because it meant 24 pages of information to essentially memorize. You have to remember that Bruno hasn’t been to school in 35 years and hasn’t had to work in 18!
I’d heard about Bruno’s amazingly hard-working work ethic from his friends and family, but I’d never seen it with my own eyes. No one had exaggerated – Bruno’s focus and total commitment were absolutely awe-inspiring (he puts my own school-days’ work ethic to shame, and that’s saying something!). I was incredibly impressed and proud of him.
I was even more proud when Bruno passed the plateau exam on the first try! Once again, he decided to take the test before he felt ready because we’re a bit limited by time and the test is only offered 2-3 times a month. He decided to go into exam day as relaxed as possible, and it paid off. He was the first to take the test, and the examiner even noted to Bruno’s teacher that he wished every candidate were as competent! Go Bruno!
Now, only one part of the exam was left: the actual driving test! Unfortunately, the driving school only had one teacher for several students taking all sorts of different driving exams. For the plateau, Bruno did a lot of independent study, but for the driving test, he needed the teacher in order to go out and practice with their 12m-long truck. He had to schedule appointments with the teacher whenever the man was free, which wasn’t nearly often enough.
Top that off with the fact that May is a month full of holidays in France (4!!) and Bruno had only clocked in 4-5 hours of actual driving time before his driver’s test. On the one hand, he wanted to wait an extra two weeks before taking the test because he hadn’t gotten the hang of such a large vehicle on such narrow roads (not to mention roundabouts); but on the other hand, he realllllly wanted this whole C-license experience behind him. It had rotted away his life for 6 weeks now, and he really wanted to turn the page on the whole thing.
So, despite the fact that you only get three tries for the driver’s test before having to re-pass the plateau, he opted to try the driver’s test on May 18th.
He was gone all day long. Waiting nervously in Sète until the much-feared, ill-reputed examiner took him for his afternoon rush-hour drive through the nearby town of Mèze. The test lasted 45 sweaty, nerve-wracking minutes, and the examiner came and went poker-faced.
Bruno was left to wait and wonder. He actually spent a sleepless night, post-test, reliving the experience and noting every possible point he could have lost. He thought he’d failed.
When the secretary at the driving school called two mornings later to announce the good news – that Bruno had passed, with flying colors! – it seemed too good to be true. We both burst out laughing! After weeks of stress and work and absolute life-polluting hardship, Bruno had obtaining his truck driver’s license!
Almost a week has passed since Bruno received the good news, yet he’s still on Cloud 9. He’s smiling a lot more. Sometimes I’ll see him sitting and gazing out the window, just relaxing, just being in the moment. He went for a beach walk with me for the first time since we’ve been in France. And he’s stopped complaining about our social engagements and yoga classes. I’ve gotten my relaxed, happy Bruno back!
If I’d known that getting the truck driver’s license in France was going to be this much of a hurdle, I’d have chosen instead the standard camping car. But now that my hubby is officially a truck driver (gosh, I never thought I’d say that with such enthusiasm!), we’re both excitedly imagining our future beautifully-unique and wonderfully-big overland vehicle.
We’re going to buy the biggest truck we can!
(Not really, but that’s how we feel right now.)