Le jour du Souvenir


Cruisin' through the Tuscan Vauclusian countryside yesterday... My husband still gives me driving lessons (from the passenger seat). I tell him I've been behind the wheel for 23 years. Apparently, says he, it's time to learn to shift gears.




to drive


In the winter of 2001, I left work at the vineyard each night to drive myself to driving school, careful to take the back roads and to park several blocks from the Auto-École Rivière. Though I had driven for ten years in the States, and another six in France, I had failed to exchange my Arizona driver's license for a French one, having had two years to do so. Time and again, Jean-Marc assured me that I had the right to drive in France (convinced that my AAA International Driving Permit was enough, never mind the expiration date), until one day he realized that his wife was driving without insurance (!!!); that is, should she get into an accident, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) without her having a French permis de conduire.

Having spent weeknights at driving school, attending class with would-be motorists half my age, and having finally passed l'épreuve théorique, or written exam, in the town of Fréjus, I would soon be navigating the streets of Draguignan... with a stone-faced inspecteur seated beside me.

On exam day, I shared the test vehicle with a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old who had just been ordered to pull over and get out. "Out! You are a danger to yourself and to others!" the inspecteur shouted. Seated in the back of the car, waiting my turn, I tried to understand just what my unfortunate classmate had done wrong, but was jolted out of my pensées when the inspector resumed his tirade.

"FAILED!" the inspecteur barked. He shouted a few more insults before the French kid got into the back of the car, at which point I was ordered into the driver's seat: "A vous, madame!"

"Allez-y!" the inspecteur commanded, checking his watch. I said a prayer to Saint Christopher, patron saint of safe travel (not knowing who the saint was for driver's-exam scoring), put on the left-turn signal, and drove out of the quiet neighborhood into the chaotic streets of Draguignan at rush hour.

"You don't need to be so obvious!" the inspector snapped when I threw my chin left after turn-signaling. Moments ago I'd signaled a right turn and thrown my chin over my right shoulder for good measure. We had been warned in driving school to exaggerate our gestures during testing to show the inspecteur that we were aware of those dangerous "angles morts" or blind spots. "Et les vitesses!" the inspector grumbled after I'd ground the gears once again. "Oh, but aren't cars automatic in America?!" he snickered.

Though I had been stick-shifting for sixteen years, seated next to the inspecteur I felt like I was operating a vehicle for the first time. Having completed the twenty-minute parcours through the center of Draguignan, where the unpredictable French pedestrian is king and capable of jumping from sidewalk to street center in the blink of an eye, I followed the inspecteur's instructions, pulling up in front of the American cemetery, which seemed like a bad omen to me. The inspecteur sat silently, filling out paperwork, before announcing it was time to check my vision. He ordered me to read the sign across the street. Squinting my eyes, I began:

"World War II Rhone American Cemetery and Memor...".

Before I had even finished reading, the inspector scribbled something across the page, tore off the sheet, and mumbled "Félicitations."

Ornery as he was, I had the urge to throw my arms around the inspecteur and plant a kiss beside his angry brow; only, the commandant was no longer facing me, but looking out over the quiet green fields dotted white with courage, lost in another place and time.

*     *     *

Comments, corrections, and suggestions welcome here.

French Vocabulary

Auto-École Rivière = Riviera Driving School
le permis (m) de conduire = driver's license
l'inspecteur (l'inspectrice) = inspector
la pensée = thought
A vous, madame = Your turn, Madam
Et les vitesses! = And the gears!
le parcours = driving route
les félicitations (fpl) = congratulations
le commandant = captain

Un critique, c'est un homme qui connaît la route, mais qui ne sait pas conduire.
A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.
 --Kenneth Tynan

:: Audio File ::
Listen to my daughter (9-years-old at the time of this recording) pronounce the French word for "to drive" in today's quote: Download conduire.wav

Un critique, c'est un homme qui connaît la route, mais qui ne sait pas conduire.

Terms & Expressions:
un permis de conduire (m) = driver's license
conduire un orchestre = to conduct an orchestra
conduire une affaire = to manage a business
se conduire = to behave
se conduire bien / mal = to behave well / badly
se conduire comme un âne = to make an ass of oneself


FYI: A remembrance poem was posted yesterday, "Poppy Day", don't miss it. Also: a reminder to UK readers: Jean-Marc and I will be at Barbican Centre in London, next week. We would love to meet you there. Click here for more information about this event.

New book:
I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany
Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language
French Demystified...simple enough for a beginner but challenging enough for a more advanced student.
French Country Diary 2009
Voici is a French magazine of popular culture.

French Verb Conjugation: conduire
je conduis, tu conduis, il/elle conduit, nous conduisons, vous conduisez, ils/elles conduisent ; past participle: conduit

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Clay Edwards

As the commandant surely remembers, and why he was turned that way in silence, those Crosses and Stars of David at Draguinan are from another time, but they are from THAT place. From the beaches of St Raphael and St. Tropez, to the drop zones of Le Muy, to the airfield of Le Cannet, and in the gap at Montelimar, those American boys died there for freedom, and for France.

As the American Liaison Officer at the French Aviation Center at Le Cannet for three plus years in the early 90s, I had the opportunity to walk those rows many times and to visit "les monuments" of so many little villages in the area on le Onze Novembre.

The French remember, at least the old folks and the military do. But their young are no worse than our own. It is our job to make sure they remember experiences they never had, and hopefully never will have. Thanks for doing your part by sharing this story.

COL Clay Edwards, US Army (retired)


Oh the memories! I too remember begin terrified at my French driving road test even though I had years of driving experience. When I was 16, the Pennsylvania officer who (jokingly?) approved my original license said "I'll pass you this time!" I was terrified his words would come back to haunt me. I went first and did pretty well. I only felt disappointed in backing into a parking spot at Auchan. Then it was the turn of the 18-year old. He almost drove us head-on into a garbage truck. I knew then and there that I was going to pass =)


I took my driver's test in London at the age of 17, failing the first time. I could never figure out what I did wrong and for some reason (in those days anyway) the examiner was not permitted to tell you! Really helps you improve and not do it again, whatever it was, right? Later someone told me that almost all teenagers are failed the first time to keep them humble. Probably not a bad idea.

When I came to live in the U.S., I took an American test in Detroit. I'd been driving at that point for seven or eight years, but my British test was still fresh enough in my mind, and I was quite anxious at the prospect. The British test included parallel parking, doing a hill start, backing around a corner, and doing a three-point turn. Although I could perform all those maneuvers in my sleep, I doubted I could still achieve the mathematical precision that the unsmiling British examiner had required.

As it turned out, I drove once around the block, and traffic being quite heavy, I never got above third gear. Then I was directed to pull into a space that would have comfortably accommodated a bus, and the examiner (pleasant and actually able to smile) told me I'd passed. "That's it?" I asked incredulously. Like you, Kristin, I had to resist the impulse to kiss the man.


Conduire...Reminds me the slogan that was posted everywhere during a campaing to prevent drunk driving:
"Boire ou conduire...Il faut choisir".
Observation of an international driver. In most of the countries the driving is on the right handside of the road. Some countries like England have the driving is on the left handside...In France they drive on the middle .


In 1993, my two sisters and I went to France for two weeks. We had decided that we would include in our journey a stop at the beaches in Normandy because we knew our dad had landed on Omaha Beach a few days after D-Day. I will never forget the powerful emotions that overcame me as we walked through the American cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer: the perfectly-aligned white crosses and Stars of David, the monument overlooking the beach where we knew so many had given their lives,the hushed tones in which the visitors spoke and then, as we were leaving the cemetery, our National Anthem being played by chimes: all sent shivers up and down my spine. When "Saving Private Ryan" came out, my husband and I went. He said he knew he was in trouble when in the first few minutes of the movie when we see an older man at this very same cemetery and I began to weep. It brought back to me the feelings of sadness and gratitude that I had experienced there several years before. One can only think of the fear and the bravery of these young people storming those beaches below.

Christopher Ross

Thank you for your service to our country, Colonel Edwards.

San Diego is a military town. Most children raised here either have family in the service or know someone who does. They're keenly aware of the sacrifices made by those that serve and by their families. Let us hope that those loved ones all return safely from their tours of duty.

I salute all the men and women who have worn(and are wearing) our country's uniform.

Christopher Ross


This is a link to the National Cemetery in my corner of the world. It commands sweeping vistas of my "city by the bay." (No, not SF)


Beautifully written vignette, Kristin.
Merci beaucoup!


One of my dearest friends is a Frenchman I met more than fifty years ago, when he was receiving flight training for the French Air Force with the American Air Force here in Arizona as part of a NATO exchange. He has loved the USA since he was a young boy and saw the Americans fighting for France. His most vivid memory was of a B-29 which was shot down by a machine gun nest on the hills outside of Paris near his home of Champigny sur Marne. He was so close to the the descending plane that he actually looked into the eyes of the doomed pilot..who with most of his crew, gave his life to save my friend and his country! The people of the neighborhood helped hide the surviving crew member and buried the others in their rose gardens to hide them until family could later retrieve them. You think that didn't impress this twelve year old boy?! He has remained a loyal Air Force member(now retired and very active for them) and has taken his granddaughters to the Normandy cemeteries with many roses to place on the American graves..and to teach them what he has long known..that the Americans and the French are brothers. Let's hope that others pass down that legacy


“bien se conduire” / bien se comporter... se conduire de manière exemplaire!...
C'est tout un programme!...

Getting the “permis de conduire” was agony for me, in France as well as in England – something to do with me and the dreadful inspectors (?)
Kristin, I never had the chance to read your story about it. Thanks for the “re-print”. What an ending!

WWI and WWII affected my family, as it affected so many other families. Remembrance Day is of great importance to me and to all of us. Some reports I saw recently on BBC, ITV and Channel IV, about people retracing the steps of their father, great uncle, grandfather... were extremely moving. They didn't die in vain and we shall not forget. My own children will understand even better when they are older.
Thank you for posting the famous Remembrance poem. First time I read a translation in French.

Mary Pace

Just what is Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veteran's Day called in French --onze novembre? I don't think I've ever known for sure, even though it's observance is dutifully and solemnly marked. Thank you. I await anyone's insight.
Mary Catherine
Tumwater, WA


Rhone American Military Cemetery, and links to all the others run by the American Battle Monuments Commission


Claire Fontaine

I loved that post the first time and love it just as much the second time around. How typically French to seem stern and arrogant when inside he's really sentimental and caring. I hope Sarkozy and Obama bring our two nations close once again.

All my best wishes for making a big wine-colored splash in England! much love - Claire (and Mia, too!)


How nice. I was (luckily) able to just get a French license, without even having to give up my US one! (mainly because I begged). It ONLY took me 10 months and 4 trips to the Prefecture.


Don't know how I missed this post before but I'm glad I had a chance to read it now. Very moving, especially to an old vet.

By the way, your photography is stunning! I'm jealous!!

Karen Reyna

I had to get a French driver's license too. They do not except your Californian license, once you become a resident. I knew about the insurance, and began lesson to pass "the code". I felt the same way with all the young 18 year olds. I sat there with my dictionary looking up words like, Crampon, and thinking, I am going to fail. Knowing that I would be moving back to the states eventually, I dropped out. I am driver's school drop out :( Loved your story.

Lisa A., CA

I was wondering about this when I was in France last Summer. I only drove around our neighborhood, but it did cross my mind if I should be driving without a French permit. Is it OK if you're only visiting?

nancy Rial

I appreciate it when you mention the military cemeteries in France. My uncle, a Sergeant in the 10th Regiment, (3rd Army) reposes in St. Avold. Although the largest WWII one in France, it is also one of the quietest. I invite anyone who has not visited to stop next time they are in the vicinity. A visit would make anyone appreciative of the life we lead.

Tim Averill

One edit of punctuation:
AAA International Driving Permit was enough, never mind the expiration date), until one day he realized that his wife was driving without insurance (!!!); that is, should she get into an accident, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) without her having a French permis de conduire.*

A comma instead of a colon after "that is."


I've made a few small changes to the paragraph below:

"Allez-y!" the [lower-case t] inspecteur commanded, checking his watch. I said a prayer to Saint Christopher, patron saint of safe travel (not knowing who the saint was for driver's-exam [apostrophe and hyphen] scoring), put on the left-turn [hyphen] signal, and drove out of the quiet neighborhood [no comma] into the chaotic streets of Draguignan at rush hour.

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you Linda and Tim! 

Bill in St. Paul

For consistency, I'd change the asterisked phrases to italic phrases. I like the sneakiness of driving to driving class!


Center/space to match?

conduire (kohn-dweer)
to drive, conduct, escort, lead; guide, steer
to run, manage
to take

Sushil Dawka

a suggestion:
"pulling up in front of the American cemetery"

Sarah LaBelle

This story has one asterisk after a French word that is in the vocabulary list. I thought you normally put the French word in italics, use no asterisk, and we find the words below the story with their English equivalents.
Really a small point!

Great story about driving tests, driving school, with the end at a place that links France and the USA so tightly.

I only recently learned of a grand uncle who is buried in the northeast of France in another bit of America dedicated to a war cemetery. Made the link between our nations stronger to me.

Sandy Maberly

Just a couple of little suggestions :-)

In the winter of 2001, I left work at the vineyard each night to drive myself to driving school......

During the winter of 2001, I left my work at the vineyard each evening and carefully navigated the back roads to the Auto-École Riviere. I always managed to park my car several blocks away from the school where I was taking my French driving lessons.

"that is, should she get into an accident, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) without her having a French permis de conduire.*"

In other words, without having a French permis de conduire, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) should she get into an accident.

"Having completed the twenty minute parcours* through the center of Draguignan, where the unpredictable French pedestrian is king and capable of jumping from sidewalk to street center in the blink of an eye, I followed the inspecteur's instructions. I pulled over to park in front of the American cemetery, which at the time, seemed like a bad omen to me. " (The one sentence seemed to run on a bit so I cut it into two :-)

The inspecteur sat, silently filling out paperwork, before announcing it was time to check my vision. (just added a comma and "ly" to silent)

Just my thoughts, Kristi. Take what you can use and let the rest go to that great novel in the clouds!

Suzanne Dunaway

Take out italics for "unpredictable French pedestrian is king and capable of jumping from sidewalk to street center in the blink of an eye"

The sentence is good without them.

(By the way, Don and I cried when we passed our Italian exam--3 months of classes--harrowing, even if the teacher was a stand up comic..)


I like this one, "Conduire", and "Petite Amie". Although "Louper" is a sweet story, I feel that it lacks the punch or zing that "Conduire" and "Petite Amie" have. However, perhaps you need a softer story to couch between the stronger ones.

"Coquille" doesn't have the strong conclusion that "Conduire" and "Petite Amie" possess. Please forgive me, but as a former writing tutor, I have to say that "Coquille" doesn't seem to go anywhere. I hate saying that because I like to encourage people.

Blessings, Mary

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you for these latest edits. I may not have put every suggestion in--but all of your notes are helpful.


Another good one. Sandra

Olga Brown

When I read the story, I felt every your movement as though it was happening with me.
I remembered the driving test I took in the U.S. years ago.
But I DID jump on that inspecteur's neck and plant my kiss on his cheek!!

Have a great day!

Charles Orr in Flat Rock, NC

Excellent story, Kristin, with a zinger ending.

I would reword "after I'd grinded gears" as "after I'd ground the gears".

"Rivière" has an accent in the text but not in the Vocab list.

Betty Gleason

After his snide comment,I think the "Felicitations" as you were reading the memorial plaque was also a thank you for the Americans liberating France in WWII. Is that how you see it?

Susan LaTour

This a great story.
I suggest changing "without her having" to "because she didn't have" in the first paragraph.
In the 3rd paragraph you could put a comma after "wrong" - "wrong, but was jolted" -

These are only suggestions to consider. The story is funny, true and fresh. It has depth and will appeal tons of readers.

Gillian Michell

Three copyediting details:
1. Draguignan... with [remove extra space before“with”]
2. turn-signaling [not a word! Could be “after signaling a turn”]
3. grinded [should be “ground”] gears

Bruce T. Paddock

Hey, Kristin –

This was before you opened Rouge-Bleu. Did you work at another vineyard in 2001?

Removing all the flashbacks and parentheticals, I get:
In the winter of 2001, I left work at the vineyard each night to drive myself to driving school. Having spent weeknights at driving school, and having finally passed the written exam, I would soon be taking the driving test. On exam day….
In other words, you’re starting out adrift in time.
After spending a month [or whatever] of weeknights at driving school, in a class full of would-be motorists half my age, and passing l'épreuve théorique, or written exam, in the town of Fréjus, the final step was navigating the streets of Draguignan... with a stone-faced inspecteur seated beside me.

Is there a reason why you mention Fréjus and Draguignan? Are they important somehow?

The start of the next paragraph has the same “timeless” quality — We think we’re joining you at the beginning of the test, but the other testee is already being ordered out of the driver’s seat. I’d suggest
On exam day, the wide-eyed eighteen-year-old with whom I shared the test vehicle had just been ordered to pull over.
(“…ordered to pull over and get out.” made me think the poor kid was being abandoned on the side of the road.)

You continue using the French word — inspecteur — but you don’t italicize it. Is that deliberate?

You need a comma between “had done wrong” and “but was jolted.”

It’s very hard for a person to bark and shout at the same time. If I may be presumptuous enough to make yet another suggestion:
“…the inspecteur barked, then shouted a few more insults before the…”
“…the inspecteur barked. He shouted a few more insults before the…”

You should delete the comma between “snapped” and “when I threw.”

The past tense of “grind” is “ground.” And I think there should be a “the” between “ground” and “gears.”

“Twenty-minute” is a compound adjective that modifies “parcours,” so it should be hyphenated.

re: the vocab list — In the U.S., we call it a driver’s license, not a driving license.

My favorite parts of this one — other than the ending — are the neo- and non-linguistic constructions you invented. (!!!) and ($$$) are delightful, as is the saint for driver’s-exam scoring, not to mention “turn-signaling” and “stick-shifting.”

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you very much for these latest edits!

Bruce, most of your edits made it in. I did leave alone the flashbacks and parentheticals. I know I might mix things up again in the editing. 

I should have mentioned that I worked for a Swedish state-owned vineyard, in Draguignan... but Ill leave  as is (unless anyone is reading, now, and highly suggests adding this info!

Bruce T. Paddock

No no no! Of course you should leave them in. I just took them out temporarily to make it easier to see the structure of the piece.

Sorry, I should have been clearer.

Dawn Bouchard

As a driving instructor, I just LOVE this one!
You have captured the nervousness - no, sheer terror! - that examiners seem to bring out of everyone, young and 'mature' :)

So many good edits already, but in the vocab list, a better 'American' term for l'inspecteur would be 'examiner':

l'inspecteur (l'inspectrice) = examiner

edith schmidt


In the sentence where the "pedestrian is king" do you need the "and" after that? The last sentence "only, the commandant" I wonder if there's a better word that "only" for that one. Maybe you don't need "only" at all?
Enjoyed re-reading that one.I could really identify with the story.

Edie from Savannah

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