Xan & Bob

Bob’s Spanish Driver’s License Adventure

Today I have a special treat for you. Bob is taking over today’s blog to share with you his adventure in obtaining a Spanish Driver’s License. It has been an interesting road to get it. (pun intended)

Here is his story:

Driving in Spain

I obtained my first driving license in England in about 1964. Since then I have driven on both sides of the road, in outback Australia, dense traffic in London, Paris, Barcelona, Sydney, San Francisco and L.A., and everything in between on three continents. One accident in about 1968 in the snow in London. Touch wood, nothing since, on the road anyway. I’ve raced in Australia and the U.S., owned supercars like a Cosworth Sierra RS, Brock Commodore and three Morgans.

Moving around as I do, I have had to change licenses often. Usually this is a straight swap, and in California a straightforward theory test, passed 100%, and in North Carolina a very funky theory test that is only passed by buying a “cheat sheet” off the internet. “What is the average speed of a piece of agricultural equipment” being one memorable question. Answer required, 15 mph. Etc.

I have driven in Spain before. In 1992 when working for Kenny Roberts I drove around on two and four wheels happily on my Australian license. Since then I have vacationed around Spain with a rental car which Hertz and Avis had no problem letting me drive on my U.S. license.

So, we move to Spain to live. We know there will be lots of challenges, but we are up for it. This is where we plan to stay, so we know we will need to obtain Spanish licenses. No rush, we have 6 months they say, and we have a lot of other immediate problems, like Residency, and getting our belongings through customs. My U.S. passport, and Xan’s Irish passport.

Then we start to hear of the horror stories of passing the tests. Yes, tests. Friends tell us of how they tried and gave up. The Director of the hotel we usually stayed at, a Spaniard, is driving on a Belgian license. Our lawyer who is helping with the residency attended three classes and told the instructor it was all stupid, walked out and has not bothered since. OK if you live in Barcelona, but a hilltop village is a bit of a problem.

After a couple of months of driving we go off early one Sunday morning to see the preparations for the Corpus, the flower carpets in the streets of Sitges. 6 a.m., yes, I can get up if I have to. See what we need and head home about 9 a.m. Almost there, at the rotunda, roundabout, at the bottom of the hill to home the Mossos, local heavy mob (police force of Catalonia), have set up a road block to conduct breath tests on people driving home after a late Saturday night. No problem with that, but he wants our documents. Car is all OK, but my US license is a big problem. Not valid in Spain. Seems Spain and the US do not get along with respect to driving licenses. Lots of other countries are OK, even outside the EU, especially South American. I did not arrange an International Driving License, haven’t done that for years, but that would have been OK. I told him that the rental car guys are OK with it, but he blew that off as just them making money.

So, now what? Big fine of 500€ ($618), which if I pay straight away at the bank will be halved to 250€ ($309). Still ouch! Big problem is now what do we do with the car, and do we walk home? They were actually nice guys and escorted us home, once they worked out where Viladellops was, only a mile away, but very firmly tell us to now park it until you get the license. We are very fortunate in having great neighbors who helped us for the next few days. Xan got hold of the AAA office in Cary where we lived, and a friend picked up two International Drivers Licenses for us and shipped them, so a week later we are “legal” again.

But now there is no time to waste to take the test. The examiners are on strike, earliest will be September. Oh well, time to study. Our landlord, Marcello, has a friend who runs a driving school in Sitges. The schools are the “gatekeepers” of the test system, you can’t go around them. Usually classes cost about 850€ ($1050)! The owner, a lovely lady who speaks no English, gives me a book of 600 sample questions. These make the North Carolina test seem simple. Three alternative answers to each one, some obvious, and others not so. Questions can be similar, and seem to want a different answer, but after much study for the answer they want I can ace 600 questions, I am ready.

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First is the medical. For everyone, not just us old guys. 90€ ($111) more. My local doctor’s office does it. I heard that it was a bit funky with an aptitude test. All the usual stuff, what drugs are you on, eye test, vital signs, but also a full-on hearing test. Then the screen is pulled aside, and there is something out of an amusement arcade. Screen with two white strips and two black bars in them. Two T-bar handles to get hold of. Then the screen moves. You have to manipulate the handles to keep the black strips inside the white. OK at the start, both move together vertically, then they start to move sideways like a road, still all good, and then each does its own thing, so now you are trying to watch two roads and two black strips! Mostly stayed in the white but had a few “wheels off” and started to think I am going to fail this, but all good at the end. If people can pass this I think there should be a lot less accidents in Spain. Walk out with the stamped doctors certificate and take to the school. Now we can book the test.

Early October the examiners are back and I meet the “professor,” driving instructor, with three other students, all in their teens, and head to Vilafranca to the test site, run by the schools of course. Another 90€ ($111). I can do the test in English, but sometimes lost in translation. Classroom of 50 or so, pass out the papers, feeling ready. Big Mistake!! None of the 600 questions are on this 30-question test paper! Totally threw me. Some looked similar, but most are a wild guess. Walk out totally pissed off and sure I failed. Guess what, I did. Seven errors when you could only have three. Not used to failing tests, so very unhappy. Should not be, no one passes first time it seems. The good thing is for the  90 Euros I can have another test for free. They obviously expect you to need more than one. The lovely guy in our bank took nine times. But this is me, I do not fail.

So, back to the school. This time I buy the Highway Code in English, 260 pages on how to drive, how a car works, how to drive in snow, and a lot of other unrelated stuff, but read it cover to cover six times. Now I understand the questions better. So, book the test again. Thanksgiving Morning the only date left in 2017 and we have an 11 kilo turkey to cook and eight guests coming to lunch. Just have to do it and do it I did. Still a few questions not obvious, but aced it, no errors. Still not sure how that happened, but on to the practical test. Yes, even though I have driven for 53 years I need a driving test.

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Just as with the theory test it is what they are looking for that is the key to passing. Friends say no one passes the first time, but here goes. Book three hours of “instruction” of how to drive to pass, at 47€ ($58) an hour. As someone said, just drive your age! Actually, what they want is a nervous learner. Very slow and cautious and stop at stop signs for three seconds. Slow for pedestrian crossings and stop if anyone even near, and be sure to slow right down at rotundas, look obviously left and give way if anything near. Oh, and keep both hands on the wheel at all times.

Last Friday the test day arrives, and after paying another 90€ ($111) for this test we again drive over to Vilafranca. Instructor sits beside me and the examiner sits in the back. Some rules before we start, the hardest one is that at the beginning I am free to go wherever I want, just drive. He said he will later tell me when to turn etc. This was not what I expected, so a bit lost as to where to go. Vilafranca is a reasonable size town with a lot of small back streets and one-way roads. The instructor sees I am a bit lost here, so he says let’s just go back to Sitges. Good idea, but that is right through the town and I have not done that often, but thought I could find the way, and did. Heading out of town we are on the highway heading towards Vilanova and passing our village when they say go up to the Castille Olerdola, which I knew well as it is on the next hill. Surprised that when we got there and parked they said I was finished. Swapped places with another student to drive back, so only drove 20 minutes, and the examiner never did tell me where he wanted to go. All seemed too easy and was not sure what was going on when we returned to the test base. Lots of smiles, handshakes, queries about how long I have been driving, where, and about my racing. Thumbs up from the “professor” so I presumed I passed.

Still not willing to jinx this so waiting for the official notice before celebrating, and Monday the result arrives, no errors, no deficiencies. Now waiting on the actual license which will be provisional, and despite my previous experience I think I will be treated as a newbie and have to display an “L” plate in the rear window, and my alcohol level is limited, not that I drink and drive these days.

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Now Xan’s turn.

With all this you would think that Spanish driver would be perfect, but if you have driven here you know that’s not true. Perhaps they all drive without a license as it is too hard to get one!

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