by Tiffany Jarman Jansen
On July 22, 2009 at 9:55 am I took the train to Amsterdam Sloterdijk. I waited 10 minutes outside a bus waiting for the driver to finish his pause. I took the bus to the CBR building. The whole trip, I had my eyes glued to the Driving Theory Manual I had borrowed a few days before. As I flipped pages, I ran through theory rules and statistics.
The past several weeks, I’ve been preparing for my Rijbewijs Theorie Examen or my Driving Theory Exam. Because I’m not a member of the European Union, I had to get a Dutch driver’s license. The part I really love about this is that Brits and Irishfolk and the like belong to the EU and so are able to skip this fun sequence of events and money suckling I have to go through. EVEN THOUGH THEY DRIVE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE ROAD AND CAR! Yes, the Dutch drive the same way we do in America, France, Germany, Belgium, etc. Left side of the car, right side of the road. Yet, after 6 months my American license is no longer valid here and I suddenly don’t know how to drive anymore? Now, to be fair, since learning all these theory tidbits, I have felt loads safer on the road. Not to mention there were a few things I was doing that aren’t so much legal here…In the past month, I have read 2 editions of the Theory Manual, answered 800 questions in the accompanying practice test questions booklet, and taken countless hours of online and CD ROM practice tests and theory lessons (all in Dutch, I might add). I have gone over sign names and meanings, where one can or cannot park, load or unload, let passengers in or out, what lights to use in tunnels, when parked within city limits, when parked without city limits, when it is permitted to use fog lights, Police hand signals, priority rules, what kind of tires are best for what situations, which driving techniques save or use the most fuel, etc. I recalled what I was learning as I drove and cycled, watching what others did as well as myself. It didn’t take long before I knew more about rules and theory practices than Bram or most of his friends. We found out together what a plusstrook is, for example.
All this studying would decide my fate on July 22nd. The day of my theory test. To take the test in English is not quite 40 Euro, but pushing it pretty hard. They only schedule English exams every 2 weeks or so, so failing would mean trekking to The Hague or Rotterdam and paying another 40 Euro not including travel fare to take the test again. Not the end of the world, but something I was looking forward to avoiding, nonetheless. I had taken 2 practice tests before leaving the apartment and had passed them both, so I was feeling pretty good about it.
The bus dropped me off right in front of the CBR building and I packed my books away in my purse and headed out the bus and into the building. When I stepped up to the reception desk, it was 11am. The test wasn’t due to start until 11:30, so I had plenty of time. I handed the woman my passport, a separate passport photo, my reservation printout, and my residence permit. She took one look at my passport photo and said “This is not the right size. You need a passport photo.” I tried to explain that the photo was a special passport photo, filling all the requirements. As it had been used for my passport and my residence permit, I saw no reason why it all of a sudden didn’t work for the CBR. She told me she would cut the photo down to a smaller size in a tone that was meant to make me feel like I owed her for going to all this trouble and cheating for me.
Then she asked for my BSN number. That’s the Dutch Social Security number. The same one that I have yet to commit to memory. She needed something that showed my BSN number. I started to sweat. The confirmation letter said I needed to bring my residence permit, passport photo, and confirmation letter. It said nothing about documentation with your BSN number. I figured this was because the BSN number was already on the confirmation sheet. This woman had me completely empty my wallet in search of something bearing my BSN number. The whole while, I was in explanation mode “The confirmation letter said nothing about making sure I had documentation with my BSN number. I figured it wasn’t needed as it’s on the confirmation letter that I just gave you.” She looked at me and was about to tell me I had handed her no such paper, when I pointed to the spot on the desk where it lay. “Oh, yes! Good thing you saw that.”
So she types in my name. Nothing. “Did you make the reservation?” No, Bram did. I told her we had the same last name and gave his initials in the hopes of speeding things up (there was quite a line formulating behind me at this point). Still nothing. She tried my BSN number. “You’re not in the system,” she said, “because you cancelled your reservation.” I knew I did no such thing and was equally positive that Bram had not cancelled the reservation either. I told her we paid for the test already and that they had not given us a refund. Neither myself nor my husband cancelled the reservation, so if it is, in fact, cancelled, it was done by someone in this building without our knowledge. She turned to her colleague behind her and explained, in Dutch my situation and asked what to do. Her colleague came over and immediately got on the phone to the help desk. I heard the story explained once again followed my a series of “Ja”, “‘turlijk”, “oke”, “ja.” Finally she gets off the phone and tells the first woman that there’s an extra seat for me. So I got my number – 39 – and sat down to do some more cramming. Miraculously enough, it was only 11:15.
I sat, studying, when the girl sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you taking the English exam?” she asked. Come to find out, her name is Alifia, originally from India, who moved to the Netherlands with her family for her father’s work. She was currently pursuing a PhD in cancer research and working as a medical assistant in a cancer ward or a hospital. This was her first time taking the test. Then we had the typical conversation of 2 people in a situation such as this one: “Do you know what the test will be like?,” “What kinds of questions do they ask?,” “Have you driven before this?” Obviously having a better gist of the contents of the theory exam, I handed her my question booklet. This was a bad idea. Instead of looking over the things I was unsure of or weak in, I ended up tutoring her. Explaining why the answers made sense and how I knew, even though there’s a key with an explanation in the back of the booklet for each answer. But it was, nevertheless, good practice for me.
Finally I looked at my watch: 11:40. Then 11:45. No one had been called, no announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the door in the corner of the room burst open! “Alleen 2 fouten!” a large Dutch girl yelled, beaming as she ran to her parents. Behind her was a stream of young Dutchies who had obviously just gotten their test scores. And boy could you tell at a single glance who had passed and who hadn’t. Just as an excited student would bubble out of the room proving to us that it could be done, another gloomy, teary-eyed teen followed, reminding us that not everyone leaves an exam room happy. Once the room had cleared, we made our way in and found our seats.
In the room were several rows of long, thin tables, each with 5-6 chairs. Each station was numbered and we took the seats coinciding with the numbers we were given by the receptionist. Underneath each of the numbers was a control panel, sunk into the table so that if the person beside you decided to take a peek at what you were punching in, all they would see was the edge of your little control panel ditch. The panel was set up much like the ones on the computer programs but without the “Next” button. At the very top was a screen that would later show the number of the current question as well as what kind of answer was being looked for (entering a number, ABC, or “Yes” or “No”). Under the screen was a series of buttons. On the top 3 rows were numbers 1-9 and a comma. The next row down had A, B, and C buttons and the last row were the “Yes” and “No” buttons separated by a “Clear” button should you feel the need to change an answer.
We watched a short intro video and did 3 practice questions just to make sure everything was working. I got all 3 right and was feeling really good. Nervous, but good. Then, the exam began. The first 25 questions are “What do you do?” questions. You’re shown a picture as though you’re looking through the windshield of a car. Wheel, a pair of hands, rear view mirror, speedometer, and turn signals are all visible. Outside the window, you see 25 different situations. For each situation you choose whether you would brake, let up on the gas, or do nothing. This seems relatively simple and straightforward, but it’s deceptively impossible. The question becomes not “What would you do?” but “What do we think you should do?”. In questions where Bram and I were 100% positive the only option was to brake, the answer they were looking for was let off the gas. Or vice versa. The same for do nothing. Some pictures will be almost identical with extremely close speeds. In one you are expected to brake but in the other you are expected to let off the gas. Luckily, one only needs to answer 12 of these questions correctly to pass this section.
Unfortunately, to pass the test, you must pass both sections. The second section contains 40 questions. They can ask anything: what kind of tires are best for hydroplaning, identifying different police-given traffic signals, the meaning of certain signs, how much can you carry in a trailer without having to have a trailer license, where can you park, what lights do you need in certain situations. To pass, you have to answer 35 of these questions correctly. Unlike the computer tests I had been taking, the real test doesn’t keep track of how many you miss. So I had no way of knowing how I was doing. But the questions and pictures were different and I ended up doubting and second guessing myself quite a bit. By the time the test was over, I figured I’d missed about 8.
After the test was over, the moderator announced that we were to wait here for the five minutes it would take to get the test results. There was an awkward silence while the moderator walked out of the room. As soon as she was gone, the room erupted. Everyone turned to the person in front of, next to, or behind them and began talking about the test. As I listened, it became clear that many of these people knew each other from previous tests and that this was most certainly not their first time. As they talked about the questions and answers, I got this sinking feeling that I didn’t do so well. The Australian girl in front of me pulled out her phone and turned it on and I followed suit. As soon as I had a signal back, I texted Bram. “I don’t think I passed.”
It seemed like forever after sending that text before the moderator came back with a stack of papers. “If I call your number, you may leave. You failed the test.” Oh boy! How positively humiliating. I had heard stories of this, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the reality of it. And I was number 39. The last number. Pretty much everyone in the first two rows were eliminated. Alifia was one of the first ones called. Then she got closer to my row and two of the 3-4 timers were asked to leave empty-handed. I heard the number 37 and cringed, waiting for the inevitable “39”. And nothing. I looked up and met eyes with the Australian (later, I learned her name was Lucy). We looked at each other, stunned in complete disbelief. Simultaneously, we grabbed each other and started screaming in an awkward happy dance with a table between us. I felt like I had won the lottery. Or Miss America. The ‘winners’ walked up to the front of the room where the moderator stood to congratulate us. With a shaky hand, I took my residence permit, driving lesson information sheet, and my driving theory certificate. I muttered an astonished “Dankjewel” and pulled out my phone to replace my i-don’t-think-i-passed text to an i-did-it! phone call! My proud husband spread the news throughout his office and left to meet me at the train station and take me out to lunch!