THE call came in late one night as the moon rose in a dark sky.
“8:30 am,” the raspy voice on the other end of the line said. “Meet at the port.”
Despite a disturbed and restless sleep, I woke up before my alarm went off, my gut churning with anxiety.
I drove my car silently around the twists and turns of the coastal road as first light crept up from behind Mulhacen, the highest peak on mainland Spain.
An hour later I would find myself behind the wheel of a different car, barreling down a pot-holed, dirt road through a sugar cane field to a deserted beach on the Mediterranean Sea, with two strange men as my passengers.
The dark man in the backseat instructed me to park the car in the rutted, dusty lot, and to wait. He and the other man walked up into the dunes, studying the features of the coastline and observing the fishing boats out at sea, deep in conversation.
I waited ten minutes, heart pounding. Was it a drug deal gone bad? A kidnapping? No. It was my Spanish driving test.
The ludicrousy of this experience began six months earlier when I purchased a car as a new expat in Spain.
The insurance company informed me that I would have to get my Spanish driving license if I wanted to drive in Spain as a resident.
I quickly learned that since Spain and the United States don’t have a reciprocal agreement allowing for the exchange of licenses, I’d have to go through the entire process as if I’d never driven before.
I had been driving for 23 years. And with a perfect record. It can’t be so bad, I thought. How bad could it be?
First I would have to pass the theoretical test, a 30-question computer-based exam with a reputation akin to conquering Everest – without oxygen.
So, I prepared to study. I could take the test in English, but there weren’t any driving schools in my area that taught the course in English.
I discovered an online, self-study program called Practicatest. I sat down to try it out. I thought why not just take an old test and see how I do right off the bat?
Well. I got 16 wrong out of 30. In order to pass, you are only allowed to make three mistakes. I knew then I had a lot of studying to do.
I was told that 75% of people fail the test the first time. Challenge accepted. Despite Spain’s fairly straightforward driving culture, the theory test seemed to be designed to purposely trick you into making mistakes with intricate wording and vague multiple choice answer options.
I decided that studying the official manual would get me nowhere, and the only way to go about this was to just take exam after exam, memorizing the questions and their answers.
The test questions are drawn randomly from a bank of more than 2,000 possibilities, and Practicatest holds a massive database of thousands of old tests.
I kept plugging away, and somewhere around the 60th test, about two weeks into my studying, something began to click in my brain.
I was finally comprehending the deluded language of the test questions, and could pretty much figure out what the correct answer was every time.
It was time to register for the real exam.
First I made an appointment at a local medical clinic where I had to pay €40 euros to have my vision tested, then made to sit with a couple of computer joysticks to prove I could make a ball on the screen stay between the lines with my hand-eye coordination.
Somehow passing despite my awful hangover from the night before, I made my way onto the DGT website and booked my appointment at their office in Granada, the big city of the province in which I live.
I drove the hour to get there, going through my flashcards one last time in the car before I headed in. I was ready.
The man at the desk checked all my paperwork and collected my €92 fee. Then he pointed at the calendar hanging on the wall and told me to return a month later to take the exam. WHAT. I couldn’t believe my non-Spanish ears.
Had I heard him correctly?
This appointment I made was not to take the exam. It was simply to REGISTER for the exam. I had just studied harder than I did for any exam in university for two weeks, just to be told I still have to wait another whole month?
So like any self-respecting person would do, I went on with my life, driving my car daily, and forgot about it for a while.
As the test date began to creep back up, I started with the old tests again. I made my way up to 120 tests in total and felt more than ready, now after a full six weeks of studying.
An early morning drive back into Granada brought me to a giant queue in front of the DGT building, mostly teenagers fidgeting nervously, or immigrants looking absolutely bewildered and holding superfluous amounts of paperwork in nice plastic folders. We were led solemnly into a computer lab and told not to talk.
They checked our identification and the clock started ticking. I blasted through those 30 questions as fast as I could, and was the first to leave.
I knew every single answer by heart. The next day it was made official – I had passed with zero mistakes.
Time to move on to the practical exam. Now I was forced to register with a driving school, also known as an autoescuela.
I decided it would be wise to choose a school in Motril rather than the town where I lived. The actual exam would be in Motril, so if I was being forced to take driving lessons, it’d be better to do them on the actual roads the exam would take place on.
I began writing emails and texts to the driving schools. It took about a week to get a lucid response from one of them, and then another week for them to tell me that I couldn’t start my mandatory lessons for another couple of months because there was no space for me.
Then they stopped answering my texts completely. Knowing my car insurance company would not be too happy about this being delayed any longer, I drove into Motril one morning and marched into the autoescuela with a hundred euro bill, explaining I needed to register immediately.
Finally some movement. They told me I could register for the test in September, still two months away, and not before. “I’ll take it,” I said.
August 20th arrived. A reminder popped up on my phone. I texted the autoescuela about when to start my lessons.
No answer. Again the next day. Still no answer.
Then suddenly on the 2nd of September, a call comes in. “It’s time for your driving lessons. Your exam is in one week. Please come for your first lesson tomorrow.” I had about twelve hours notice, which scarcely allowed me time to move my work appointments around the next day.
But I made it. My elderly driving instructor didn’t speak a single word of English. I was going to have to prepare for this exam with no English explanations whatsoever. Maybe for the best though, since the practical exam can only be taken in Spanish. I had better get used to it.
Most students take 10-15 classes at 30 bucks a pop.
I was determined to prepare with as few classes as possible, because you know, I had a job and a kid and life. My instructor and I began a routine of me driving him around the area for 90 minutes at a time, him barking simple commands at me in Spanish and looking rather unconcerned about me.
He taught me the precise number of seconds I must stop at a stop sign and familiarized me with the roads the examiner would likely bring me down during my pending 30 minute exam.
After four classes, I looked my instructor dead in the eye and said, “No mas.”
He nodded and laughed.
I obsessed for days about whether his laugh meant I had figured out I was ready all along and he managed to get €120 out of me, or that I was completely stupid and was definitely going to fail.
As I headed off, I asked what time the exam would be starting on the scheduled date. He told me he had no idea.
That someone would call. Keep the whole day free he said. So much for that job. That kid. That life.
And then finally that late night call came.
When I arrived at the port, I found that I was just one of about 50 other driving students waiting to take their exam that day.
I settled into my smartphone, dead set that I’d be sitting there in the hot sun for the next three hours. Somehow I got lucky.
After one or two exams, the examinador approached me and my instructor and said I was next. I climbed into the driver’s seat, making a big show out of adjusting my mirrors and checking my seatbelt. No one seemed to notice.
The examinador asked me to put on the emergency lights. No issues there.
Then, “Vamos!” We were off. I was expecting thirty minutes of scrutiny, a clipboard recording my every move, just like the urban myths warned.
But instead, the examinador simply told me to head to the next town, and then started up a rapid-fire Spanish conversation with my instructor during which they discussed the local real estate market and the Granada football club. I felt invisible.
As we approached the next town, I was shocked when he asked me to take a right down a rutted, dirt road overgrown with floppy sugar cane stalks. The road seemed to stretch on forever.
I did my best to avoid puddled potholes as the sugarcane leaves flapped continuously off the windshield.
Was this real? There were no pedestrians. No zebra crossings. No traffic circles to navigate and definitely no parallel parking. As the two buddies wandered up onto the beach, I laughed through my face mask.
My instructor was gesturing wildly up and down the coast, pointing out good spots to potentially buy a beach apartment and recalling what typical local catches the fishing boats brought in this time of year.
After about ten minutes of enjoying their stroll on the beach, they finally returned to the car, and I was instructed to drive back to the start point. Test over.
My instructor gave me no indication of whether I had passed or not. But I figured since I had been the sole witness to their on-the-clock beach excursion, they’d probably let me off to not risk any reports to the management.
Anyway, I think I really excelled at sugar-cane field driving, so no reason to fail. Sure enough, the next day I hopped on the DGT website to find out I had passed.
After six months, it was finally over. My Spanish driver’s license would (hopefully) arrive in the post a few weeks later. In the end I spent about €472, not including petrol for two trips to Granada and four trips to Motril, and wasted approximately 80 hours of my life.
I missed four mornings getting my toddler out of bed and ready for nursery, and feel like I literally learned nothing despite all the studying and driving classes.
Perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of this experience is a genuine European driving license, and the peace of mind that I will most likely never have to take another driving test in my life.
For the sake of future expats’ sanity, I hope Spain makes some effort to arrange more reciprocal agreements with non-EU countries so new residents can simply exchange their old license for a Spanish one.
But something tells me the autoescuelas might not like that.
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