As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go through the dreadful process of becoming a certified private driver in this country at the cost of hours of classes and dents in my wallet. Law and the lawmakers would change that no long afterwards, but when I was still a stripling in this town, you could mosey on down to places like the RACE offices, which used to be on Bravo Murillo I believe, and fork over 5,000 pesetas for someone in the office to give you one. They just assumed you knew how to drive.
But first, and there always is a “but first” in this country, you had to locate a nearby medical center where you could undergo a test known as a psicotécnico, which sounded to me at first like they wanted to hook me up to a bunch of wires, show me blot images while playing Tom Jones’ songs in the background and ask how I was feeling.
It turned out to be just a fancy name for a physical.
And not a very physical one at that. I didn’t have to sprint a hundred yards in under 12 seconds, but they did look into certain fairly important sensorial qualities like eyesight and eye-hand coordination. In other words, could I see and just how much or if a train were coming as I crossed the tracks, would I know what to do.
But first, because there always had to be a first, I had to pay for this. This cost me in the neighborhood of about 5,000 pesetas, or what amounted to about a day’s work for me.
The eye test was complete but not the end of everything. Essentially they told me everything I already knew. They wrote on a paper that I needed glasses, which I knew since that was the feeling I always got about myself when I took off my specs. They added that I should I have a replacement pair available at all times, which is true, but I don’t.
Up to that point, the test had proceeded without serious challenge, but the good people at the clinic had a trick up their sleeve which they had failed to inform me of. It was time for the eye-hand coordination game to see how good the rest of my reflexes were. For some reason I figured tat this would amount to little more that a rubber hammer being thudded below my kneecap, but the office had something slightly more sophisticated in mind. They were video games.
There exist a number of tests, and on this occasion I got to face one. It consisted of watching a ball appear from the left side of the screen, then disappear beneath a kind of block. I was supposed to judge when the right time would be for the ball to stop before crashing into a wall on the right side. To do this I was supposed to press a button at the moment I felt was right. Graphically speaking it had all of the appeal of one of those 1970s prototype video games, but that didn’t matter because the reality was it had the power to determine my future as a driver.
I had always assumed that my hours of Friday timewasting at the local arcade in my hometown would somehow come in handy later on in life, and this seemed like the moment had presented itself. The best place was in the bowling lanes. Yes, Greenwich had both a bowling lane and an arcade. They happened to be in the same place. This may have been a concerted effort to confine all cheesiness to one place, but we knew where the cheesiness was. So, instead of making the most of my weekend to get a little studying in, I generally waned away my youth before a video screen uselessly making imaginary spaceships disappear until they did the same to me.
I figured this bit of early training should have been enough to ease me through the test and probably contributed to my nonchalant attitude at the clinic. That was until the inspector looked at my results and said, “Please take this seriously.”
“You’ve crashed your balls into the wall at least three times. According to this you’re not fit to ride a tricycle.”
So, I did, and after some further concentration managed to pass.
Then I went back and requested the new driver’s license. But first, and there always is a “but first”, I had to fork over another 5,000 pesetas as a general fee for no particular reason. It’s supply and demand. I wanted to drive, and only they could get make that happen. So, it was another 5,000 pesetas for the system.
A few days later, my friend back at RACE handed me my pink foldable driver’s license and said that I now had permission to drive amongst the other 38 million Spaniards, which I felt was a reasonable offer for just a few buckaroos.
All I needed to do was learn.
The biggest obstacle facing you as you intend to renew your driver’s license is passing the prueba psicotécnica, which is a dreadfully long-sounding term which seems like a test to see your potential of going postal out in the middle of traffic jam, but is none other than a mild medical check-up to ensure your senses are more or less doing what they are supposed to.
Things looked a little shaky at first. I tried calling the clinic nearest my apartment but the number had been disconnected, which was not encouraging. So, I walked over noticed a big “For Rent” sign on the window where the place should have been. That was an even less encouraging. The doorman gave a calling card of a place not far from there where I could get everything done.
I gave them a ring and they told me I could stop by and do the test whenever I wanted and that no appointment was necessary, so I went over in the evening and found I was the only client there. It was nearly closing time, but they said that was not an issue.
The woman at the desk took down my information as well as a digital photo and then the doctor, or medical assistant of some kind, I really don’t know what her position was, sent me down to the end of the hall for the physical.
She was a sweet elderly woman. Ii was a little like having my kindergarten teacher revise my vision. She was so constructive and reinforced all of my correct answers with near applause. I sat down at a chair on the far end of the room and she directed my attention to one of those vision charts with letters used for these things. She told me to close my left eye and pointed to a letter the size of a billboard and said, “Now, read this one for me.”
“H” I responded firmly.
“Muuuy bien!” Muy bien?? What was she talking about? I would have been deemed legally blind if I got that one wrong. She continued. “And this one?” It was slightly smaller in size but still pretty close to a plate.
“Muy bien!!! You are doing a very good job.” And so on. She moved on to the other eye and we had the same results. I was half-expecting a lollipop at the end.
Then she stepped to the right and made me focus on three circles that went from up to down on the wall in a way that even the dimmest of patients could identify as a traffic light. She explained that she was going to check if I could distinguish colors. I said all right she had my permission. Then she commenced.
The first circle to light up was at the bottom. It appeared green, the way you would expect. I said, “verde.”
“Muy bien!” She responded with a thrill. “Now, this one.”
It was the top one, and the color that came on was consistent with the set up of your standard traffic light. “Rojo” I called out.
“Muy bien! There’s only one left. Here it goes.” I was tempted to yell out the color before it showed, but I didn’t want to spoil the fun her. When it did, I said, “yellow” in Spanish and was greeted with another cheer for my success.
We had completed the eye test.
I then moved to another desk where they took my blood pressure and mentioned that it was nice and low. That indicated that I would not go berserk on the highway.
So far, so good.
The woman led me back down the hall and into another final room where a machine awaited me to try my eye-hand coordination. I remembered this one from the first time I had to be subjected to this exam. It was tricky and I knew it. Would ten years of aging make it only trickier or would my recent sessions with Ninja Fruit prove I was fine tuned to take on the challenge?
The activity is called the “Bimanual Test” and it consists of holding onto two handles which can be turned from left to right to control the movement of a two balls that move on a screen. The balls are supposed to stay within the boundaries of two paths. The paths can curve inward and then outward. The combinations are endless. One path on the right can stay steady while the one on the left can begin to curve. Or vice-versa. Or both at the same time. Any time the ball touches the edge of the path is buzzes. Loudly. If any of you can recall the classic board game “Operation”, it is something along those lines. The only difference is that the future of your driving for the next ten years is on the line. So there is some added pressure.
They give you a little practice session to get a feel for the machine, which helps, but I can assure you it hardly measures up to the real thing. The paths slide here and there a little, but it’s all fairly reasonable. Once the official test begins, however, they start going all over the place. It was nuts. My muscles tensed up making matters worse. I was jerking the machine around. There was buzzing ringing out all over the place. I could sense failure looming.
On top of that, the nice old medical assistant wasn’t saying anything and I was getting discouraged. That is, of course, the problem with too much positive reinforcement. Before you know it, you can’t get enough, and I kept saying in my head, “Lady, tell me I’m doing a good job! Tell me I’m doing a good job! Where’s the old ‘muy bien!’?”
Well, it never came. But eventually the test came to an end. That was when she approached, looked over my shoulder and said, “Let’s see how you did.”
“Horribly,” I replied dejectedly.
The figure came up on the screen. It read “58 errors”.
“That is wonderful! You did a really good job!”
What, are you kidding me? I hit the side 58 times? I ran over the side of the road and killed dozens of pedestrians and she was saying I had done well?
“But it says 58 errors.”
“Oh, you can have up to 8,000, don’t worry.”
8,000?!!! Was that a true scientifically-based figure? You could have 8,000 errors and then be allowed to get behind the wheel and take it through a city? That would have been like driving those balls off the path for the entire time. Just what were they testing here? I didn’t want t know. If she said so, I wasn’t going to worry.
I said, “Thanks, mom.” Got my coat and walked back to the reception desk. She informed the other woman that I needed eyewear, but since I have been wearing glasses since I was twelve, I hardly found that as a critical discovery. Plus, I was wearing them throughout the test, so I can’t give her that much credit. But she was such a nice woman, such a very nice woman. I just wished she had painted a star on the top of my hand for me to show my family when I got home.
The rest of the procedure was pretty straight-forward. I paid.
Then they gave me a piece of paper that served as a temporary permit until the real license arrived. It could take up to two months, but probably a lot less. And in the meantime, I could drive.
I was off the hook for another ten years.
Americans tend to view Spanish bureaucracy with a measurable degree of suspicion, and if you have ever tried to work through certain channels, the sentiment is entirely understandable. One friend of mine just had her request for a new visa rejected because the application was not handed in on time. Here’s the thing:
1) No time limit was ever given
2) The reason her application could have been considered late at all, if that is what they say, was that they sent her on a wild goose chase for about two weeks to three different offices, the last of which just accepted the chunk of papers in her hands without even looking at them and said, “We’ll write you.”
They did. To say no.
I can also attest to this feeling of frustration when I got my teacher’s degree here. Three and a half years of ahhhhhh! It has merited its own book, which I am still working on. It’s turning into something as long and painful as the process itself.
In any event, there are examples of how the inner-workings of dealing with Spanish red tape can turn out to be delightfully efficient. I had made a promise to myself never to use the word “delightful” as a description of anything related to a ministerial procedure, but I guess everyone has their weaknesses.
Effective service has become especially true if you are a Spaniard and are trying to obtain some kind of legal document. In those cases, this country is topnotch. Getting your passport, for example, can be done on the spot, in fifteen minutes flat. Please take note of that American Embassy. The same goes for the national ID card.
Before, renewing a driver’s license was a real drag because you had to go all the way up to Arturo Soria Street, nearly on the outskirts of town, and camp out for a few days while you slowly approached the window. You had to have the usual papers and copies in triplicate to present, as well as a handful of those all-important ID photos you had to have taken at the local automated photo machine. And, of course, there was the medical check-up, which I will get to. The process was so cumbersome that you came to understand why the license was good for ten years, as it was just about the time needed to recover psychologically from post-traumatic syndrome.
But even in this category, things have brightened considerably. I could detect something was up last year when I had to ask for a duplicate of my license thinking I had lost the original (it showed up in some hidden chamber of forgotten and forsaken objects which I had buried in my apartment), and I noticed that I was basically the only person there. Let me explain: I was basically the only STUPID person there. In a sense, it was a good thing because I didn’t have to wait in any lines, but the humongous deserted, almost soviet-atmosphered, room made me wonder that something was up that I hadn’t been clued in on.
Now I know why. You see, the government, in an apparent attempt to expedite all the motions, has, since 2010, relegated and delegated the responsibility to the medical centers where you have your check-ups, the rationale being that it can all be done online.
And you know what? They are right. Who needs to have an office filled with pissed-off customers unless you enjoy watching others suffer? Through the system, you don’t have to deal with them and they don’t have to deal with you. A win-win situation.
That’s how it was expressed in the letter that the Spanish DMV sent to me days before. I could go to their offices, Lol, but I could also get it all done in the comfort of nearly my living room. I checked online and found one clinic located just down the street. It wasn’t my couch, but it was the next best thing.