CLANK Goes the Essay

A few hours ago, I finally received a piece of paper that was stamped, scribbled on, and finally wrapped in plastic. My Chilean driver’s license. I can now drive in Chile without fear of getting stopped by the Carabineros and having to explain that I’m not actually allowed to drive. I have a hard time talking to police in my own language, let alone Chilean Spanish. I don’t like talking to anyone in a uniform. Even a McDonald’s uniform puts me in please-and-thank-you mode. And they don’t have guns (yet). Since I arrived in Chile about 5 years ago, I haven’t driven much, hardly at all. Once my wife, Fernanda, and I realized we were staying in Chile longer than the planned two years, I entered the guts of the bureaucracy that would eventually end today. The process took about 2 years to complete. I feel like I was eaten by a gargantuan Kafkian giant and this morning, I finally dropped from its anus. A newborn. Staring up at the sun of legal driving, shading my eyes, thanking the powers that be that I can finally take my garbage to the recycling and buy vegetables by myself. It is something like joy, if joy was kind of dull and uninteresting and boring. Because after all, driving for an adult is mostly about running errands. When you’re young, it means freedom. You go to the city. You drive to visit friends. You go to the beach and there’s laughter and running around. When you’re middle aged, it’s just a faster way to finish your list of boring things that need to be done. Can’t wait to get my license so I can drive to the dentist for that tooth extraction. Awesome.

Two years ago, or maybe closer to three, my wife and I were much more ignorant about these things. My wife is Chilean, but there’s a world of difference between a Chilean getting their driver’s license and a foreigner. I asked a friend of mine from Belgium how he got his driver’s license. He said he went, showed him his Belgian license, they put him in a room with a machine, he stepped on a few pedals, and then they gave him his license. Sounded easy enough.

Things have changed. A lot.

I needed my license to run errands and to pick up my wife at the airport and to take turns driving on long trips. Although I didn’t mind walking and taking the bus, a driver’s license was necessary for us. Our life would become much more simple.

The decision made, on our next day off, we got up early, packed all the documents we thought we needed, and went to the municipal building. You have to get up early to do anything with the government in Chile. You wait in line for a number. Then you wait for the number to be called. If you’re there late and there are no more numbers, you have to come again to wait for your turn to wait. So we got our number and waited. After an hour or so, hard to tell how much time passes in those places, we were given a piece of paper that told us I needed four things: a notarized copy of my Chilean ID, proof of education, proof of residency, and three photographs. I had my ID, but not a notarized copy; I had my diploma from college, but it was not authenticated either, and we had brought a recent bill to prove my residency, but this wasn’t sufficient proof. When we corrected our paperwork, we were told, we could come back and wait again to see if my paperwork was good enough to merit a schedule to come back and wait again.

I was very angry, but not about the thing that would turn out to be the most trouble. I was angry that I had to have my Chilean ID notarized. I had already gone through a lot to get my Chilean ID, which is another story, and I was livid with the insane idea that the government didn’t accept a government-issued ID as valid if it wasn’t stamped by a notary. Nothing in Chile is official unless some notary has stamped it. What a scam! Notaries are horrible, Dickensian places where crowds of Chileans have to gather to have papers stamped. The notary himself, and I am positive that most of them are male, sit upstairs or out back, while a horde of assistants, usually women, do all the stamping. The notaries can’t even be bothered to do that. They don’t even stamp anything! I don’t know what they do except drive around in their Lexus and BMWs. Sometimes you see them emerge from their legal burrows—old, wizened men with jowls and wrinkles and bushy eyebrows who waddle to their cars with suitcases full of cash. It’s a whole level of bureaucracy that is pure and utter corruption. Just a huge blood suck from the Chilean people. I’ve been told by Chileans that notaries are needed because Chileans lie, but what stops them from lying to the assistants of notaries? There’s some strange myth that notaries protect Chile from lying Chileans. The only thing notaries protect Chile from is free time and the joy of extra money.

So the very thought of paying them to notarize a document for the government that the government itself had issued was pissing me off.

As an act of principle, I told my wife, “Listen, we’ve gone two years without my license and we’ll be going back to the States soon. Fuck it. Fuck them.” Like I said, I really, really hate notaries.

She agreed, still very angry that we had wasted all morning with nothing to show for it. When my sister visited, I thought it was a good time to send my diploma with her to the States. That way it would be safe. That’s what I was thinking there. Didn’t turn out to be the best decision. Actually, it didn’t turn out to matter, but you’ll see.

A few months pass and my wife finds a spectacular job and, just a month before we were thinking of moving back to the States, we decide the job is too good for her to pass up. We’re going to stay in Chile. One of the consequences of that decision is that I really need my license. My wife, who is normally a very sweet woman, full of laughter and patience, becomes a completely different person when she gets behind the wheel. Her nose flares like a bull. Her mouth becomes a passage for vulgarity and ferocity that would make a soldier squirm. When we drive, I have to constantly tell her to calm down. She’s right on the verge of a total fucking meltdown. She once yelled at a handicapped woman on the sidewalk. She screamed at a very old man in a parking lot before speeding away like a gangster doing a driveby. So we both agreed, for the good of society, I should be driving whenever possible.

Not only that but it’s annoying when only one person can drive. I have lots of free time, Fernanda doesn’t. I could be picking up bags of vegetables and getting rid of our recycling. Instead, we have to wait for her precious weekends and spend most of them running errands that I could do myself. Nothing is more relaxing than spending half of your only day off in the week standing in line at the grocery store while little brats kick footballs around you.

We decided to get my license, so that meant we had to get my diploma back from the States. There was a box of goodies in the States that we’d been accumulating, so we finally finished that and had my sister send the box down to us. Sometime later, the box arrived in Santiago. In the meantime, we had done some research, I don’t know where, and found out that I had to bring my diploma to the Minister of Education in Santiago, where it would receive the precious stamp that would show that this was indeed an actual diploma. Fernanda and I packed up and got on the bus for the six hour ride down to the capital city of Chile.

The next day we went to the ministry and waited. When it was our turn, we handed over the diploma and were told they didn’t authorize those documents. When we asked how to get them authorized, we were told to get it done in the United States. We explained that was a little difficult because the United States was eight thousand miles away. To get rid of us, I’m sure, they told us to go to the US Embassy. Surely they could help us, that’s what they’re there for. The embassy was across the city, so we descended into the depths of the Santiago Metro and emerged by Santiago’s largest skyscraper, a huge mall called the Costanera, which looks like the tower of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. All it’s missing is a glowing red eye and circling Ringwraiths. Walking beneath it, it’s easy to feel like two little hobbits, inching their way toward an impossible destination.

When we got to the Embassy, three guards asked if we had an appointment, and when we said no, I picked up a phone to talk to someone. This person was obviously sick of being asked the question I was asking. “No,” she said, “we don’t authenticate any documents here. It says that right on the Web page.” I think I was supposed to feel bad that I had not extensively studied the Web site before I dared ask her a question.

“Where can I get my diploma authenticated?”

“You have to do it in the United States before you come to Chile.”

My inability to time travel has always been one of my chief failings as a human being.

There was some more discussion but it was useless, so we emerged from the US Embassy empty-handed. Now this is a good time to investigate this issue of the diploma deeper. It seems like a good idea to require everyone who wants to drive to have a basic level of education, although I’m really not sure what it has to do with driving. As far as I know, a basic education in Chile gives you the ability to receive a hug and cut paper with scissors. Those skills can be detrimental to safe driving, as anyone who has ever been hugged while driving can attest to. The education requirement can’t be to prove you can read because there’s a written driver’s test which you couldn’t take if you couldn’t read. Anyway, for a Chilean, it’s not hard to get this document. For someone from another country, it’s a pain of gargantuan proportions. Now I’ve spent the majority of my life being educated. I have a doctorate. I have a master’s degree. And where has it gotten me? I couldn’t even sufficiently prove to the Chilean state that I was educated enough to get behind the wheel of a car, something they let 16 year olds do.

The problem is that for a foreigner, it’s very difficult to prove you’ve passed the 8th grade. They should have a test of some sort. You know, I could solve a simple algebra problem or be put into a room with a woman and be able to have a discussion without stammering or huddling in the corner in an attempt to avoid eye contact. I’m pretty confident that I could nail that test 4 times out of 5.

So the trip to Santiago was worthless. My diploma was a useless piece of paper, despite its impressively ornate calligraphy and medieval terminology.

Fernanda was livid. “We’re never getting this license!” she cried. “A whole day for nothing!”

“Oh, I’m going to get this license,” I said. “I’m going to get it, damn it.”

To placate ourselves, we went out to eat. We drank Pisco Sours and ate seafood and, just in case, we went to a nearby notary and had a copy of my diploma dutifully stamped. Just in case. Who knows, it might work. It was the bureaucratic equivalence of closing your eyes and guessing on a multiple choice test. Fuck it. Could be C, who knows?

We went back to La Serena and decided to try the ole I-know-someone-at-the-office trick. Someone Fernanda knew also knew someone in Coquimbo who worked at the Chilean DMV. Maybe they would accept my notarized copy with a little wink and nod and elbow to the ribs. So, armed with a phone number of an official, we once again woke up early to wait to wait. So we waited for our number and then we sat and waited some more. We watched the sun come up in line at the Coquimbo DMV. It was very pretty actually. An hour or two later, the sun fully up and shining on all the happy people not in lines, we were sitting at a desk with a woman who was frowning at my notarized copy of my diploma, which was not a good sign. She asked to see my current license from the US, and I showed her my expired New York State driver’s license. She frowned at that and said it was expired. I’m not sure why that mattered, but she handed it back to me as if even holding it filled her with revulsion. An expired document? Take it away, it’s hideous. Hideous! The woman said I needed my diploma authenticated at the Ministry of Education. So we groaned at that, and then Fernanda tried her magic telephone number.

To no avail. There was nothing to do. Denied. We needed my diploma certified in the United States. Another day wasted, with nothing to show for it.

It was demoralizing. If anyone could tell me what I needed to do, it would have been better, but we were getting batted around like a tennis ball. Go to the Ministry of Education. No, go to the Embassy. No, go the Ministry of Education. So we just forgot about it for a while, as I sharpened my skills at taking public transportation and walking, which wasn’t bad, so the hell with it.

After a month or so of letting it fester, I finally dedicated myself to the problem. I figured I could send the diploma back to the United States and have my sister authenticate it for me. When she found the extra weekday to go stand in line in the US. So I started doing research on where she should go, and found out it could only be done in New York State, the State where my diploma was issued. The document I needed was called an apostille. It was a special certification that, by international treaty, would allow any document to be legally recognized by any member of the treaty. I checked and both Chile and the US were members. Great! Some light. But you had to send the document to the New York State office. A copy of it. Which itself had to be certified that it was indeed a copy of the original diploma. All right, but who did that certification? It was going to take forever as well. I would have to send the diploma back to Maine, my sister would have to get the copy certified, and then send it to New York State who would give it the apostille in their own sweet time. We were talking months. To cut back on time, instead of sending the diploma from Chile, I thought, why not just get a copy from my University? So I called the University of Buffalo and found someone extremely rare. Someone who knew exactly what the hell they were talking about. If you could send a kiss through Skype, I would sent several. She told me that all I had to do was write a cover letter to her explaining I needed an apostille, and the University would issue an official copy and send it to New York State who would give me the apostille and send it to my home address in Maine. EXCELLENT!! Oh yes, with two money orders, one made out to the University of Buffalo, the other to New York State. The cost in total? Six dollars. Good enough! Eagerly I thanked her and wished her all the good luck in the world and then sent the cover letter to my sister who had to get the money orders because, of course, they’re not going to accept money orders from Chile, and the machinery was chugging again! My apostille was on the way, my wonderful, wonderful, authentic stamp that would sweep away all the crap and prove beyond any doubt to any and all authorities that yes, I had passed Junior High.

Then it was just waiting. Waiting. And waiting. I had bought a ticket home to Maine for a visit, so when my apostille arrived, I decided to get it when I went back home and keep it in a very safe and secure place. When I returned from Maine, I came back with one envelope stuffed with a document as precious as gold. (While I was there, just in case they asked me for my current US license, I stopped into the Maine DMV with my expired NY license and an envelope sent in my name to my US address: I was in and out in 45 minutes and my new license was sent to me a week or so later in the mail.) Now I could go back to the La Serena municipality and finally get my license! In the meantime, I also got a job teaching at a local university, which was great. They also needed a certified copy of my diploma and I confidently told them I had one. That was great! I would make two copies of the apostille, one for my new job and the other for the municipality. No problem. I was talking with my new boss on the phone about it.

“Oh yes, I have my certified diploma,” I told him.

“And you brought it to the Ministry of Education, yes?” he asked.

I blinked. “No, no,” I said. “They don’t do that.”

“Yes, you must bring it to the Ministry of Education. They will give you a stamp.”

“No, they won’t,” I said.

“You see, I need it for the people in Santiago. Santiago needs the diploma to be certified, yes?”

“I have an apostille,” I said confidently.

“A what?”

My heart broke a little. “An apostille,” I repeated. “It’s a special stamp that legalizes a document in many countries.”

Long pause. Then he continued. “In Chile, you bring the diploma to Ministry of Education, yes? They will give you the stamp. Then you give it to me, I send it to Santiago, and we are all okay, yes?”

I closed my eyes. I wondered if there was a world, any world, where paperwork was banned. Like against the law. What a wonderful world it would be! “I’ll show you,” I told him. “It’s okay.”

It had never occurred to me that no one would know what an apostille was even though it was the only stamp that one could get. At my other job teaching English, my current employer laughed at my predicament and gave me several pamphlets issued by the Chilean government that could be used to show any official that the document you had was official and they had to accept it. That too was precious. If the apostille was gold, then the pamphlet that said it was gold was silver. I just hoped there wasn’t a bronze in this trifecta of madness. Of course there was. My old friend, the notary.

When I went to my prospective employer and showed him the pamphlet that said in stark terms that he MUST accept the apostille as a legal document, he looked unconvinced.

“And Chile is a member of this treaty, yes?” he asked. The fact that the pamphlet was issued by the Chilean government didn’t seem to matter to him.

“Yes,” I said.

He shrugged. “Okay, then,” he said. “You just bring a copy of this to the notary and have it notified and you bring it back to me.”

“A copy of the apostille?” I asked. “But it says here it doesn’t need any other certification.”

“No, no,” he said. “Everything needs to be notified.”

“But it says you have to accept this document as legal without any other form of authentication.”

“This is not certify your diploma, yes?” he explained. “This is only paperwork. Everything is paperwork must be notified at the notaría. This is Chile, yes?” He laughed.

“Oh, I see,” I said. It was some weird logic, but all right.

So the next day I took the copies of my apostille to the notary. I waited in line with the other poor bastards who were paying money for a stupid stamp for no reason whatsoever except that they lived in Chile and it was customary for Chileans to get screwed. So we all lined up and waited dutifully for our allotment of screwage. I also brought my Chilean ID, a copy of which needed to be stamped at a notary so that government would recognize as official the official document that it had officially issued that turned out not to be official unless it passed under the stamp of the almighty notary and became official. After waiting and waiting, I finally reached the women who actually do the stamping. They wielded big metal stamps of the type that I was only familiar with from the library. Only larger, about the size of a forearm. They made a very official sound when it hit the paper. CLANK! Ah, I see. CLANK! Now it’s official. It’s the sound that does it.

CLANK!

That’s official!

CLANK!

Delicious, delicious sound of authorization!

CLANK!

Meanwhile, the old, fat notary is in the back, picking his nose and staring at the clock. Probably there’s no light on in his room. He’s just a fat, old shadowy presence wearing a tweed suit and thinking about this weekend’s barbeque and which of the ladies he’ll paw today.

CLANK!

Finally it was my turn. I have the original apostille in hand and the two copies of it in the other. The copy of the Chilean ID is also with me. I’m surprised it doesn’t burst into flame because of the pure rancor I hold against it.

A woman at the notary looks over my papers. When she realizes she’s going to say no, her face lights up with pleasure.Chileans love to tell you no. They get this look of satisfaction on their face and this wonderful smile and they tell you no, there’s no way it can be done.She shakes her head.

No, she can’t stamp this. It can’t be done.

The papers need to be EXACTLY IDENTICAL. She can’t stamp anything as official copies unless they are EXACTLY IDENTICAL. She says this several times to me. EXACTLY IDENTICAL. I emerge into the sun, empty-handed as usual.

This will make more sense when I describe to you my apostille. It’s a strange document. First there’s a nine and a half by eleven copy of my diploma. Then there’s another sheet of paper under that which certifies that it is, indeed, a copy of my diploma issued by the University. On the back of each of these are mysterious but doubtless priceless stamps with meaningful inky squiggles. These squiggles of ink are crucial to their authenticity. Now attached to this is a another green sheet of paper, this one sheet about as third as wide as a sheet of paper. It is stapled to the sheet behind it, and has a stamp that overlaps onto the paper behind it, to indicate which paper it is certifying. There is a New York State seal on this and the signature of a woman in Albany who apparently means a great deal to a Chilean bureaucrat. All of this is fastened with a fancy brass ring paper fastener. So it’s kind of a complicated mixture of documents. I foolishly just made copies of all the sides and put them together in the same order they appear. But no. It has to be EXACTLY IDENTICAL or it can’t be notarized which means it can’t be used to get a job or to get my license (Remember? That’s what I’m trying to do.)

So I took my stack of documents to Fernanda’s office and I began to make identical copies. I took out scissors. With the help of the secretary, I copied on both sides of the paper. I lined up the overlapping stamp and stapled the papers together. I went back and forth from the original to make sure it was IDENTICAL. It was like a fucking art project in grade school. It wasn’t inconceivable that at some point, I would have to glue macaroni to it in the shape of a stern, authoritarian face. Suddenly I realized why it must be very important for a Chilean to have a basic education and know how to use craft scissors. Perhaps it is a necessary Chilean talent.

Finally I returned to the notary with EXACTLY IDENTICAL papers and waited again. When it was my turn, the women puzzled over the document as if searching for an excuse to say no.  There was some discussion about the brass ring fastener and whether they could excuse a staple in its place. Technically the packets were not identical. I waited with held breath, but they decided that the brass ring was too much to require, and I breathed again as they stamped the papers several times: CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK. Then the other copy. CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK. Then the copy of my Chilean ID CLANK. I left the notary feeling light and ecstatic. I was free! I had it, finally! My notarized copy of my authenticated and stamped copy of my official diploma! What joy! What ebullience! I was drunk with officialness!

The next free morning, I got up early and headed to the municipality of La Serena to wait again to schedule my several driving tests. This time I felt confident. I had a folder full of official papers. I would not, could not, be denied. This time would be different. I was prepared. I had all the right things, all the right stamps, all the correct copies. But you should never underestimate the ability for bureaucracy to find a way to reject you. Never.

When my number was called some hours later, I shot to the seat before anyone else could slip in (this happens) and handed over my papers with a smile. She frowned at the apostille and went through it two or three times. I waited with held breath. Would I have to argue with her in my stupid gringo Spanish? Would I have to try to explain the apostille? I had the pamphlet, I was ready. But no, she only nodded and then looked at my copy of my Chilean ID and nodded again. Then she asked what I was doing so far from home and I told her I came to Chile to marry my wife which made her visibly more pleased with me. Chileans are sentimental, so now I have her on my side and that’s important. She types in my information and sets up a date for me to come to take my tests to get my driver’s license. She gets up and then returns with a piece of paper that has the date of my exam on it, about a month in the future, and also, highlighted in green, the fact that I needed proof of residency.

“Can you get this today?” she asked.

“Today?”

“Or tomorrow?”

I nod my head like a moron. I will do whatever they say. What. Ever. They. Say.

Getting proof of residency for a Chilean is pretty easy. For someone from another country, it’s hard. Because I didn’t have a Chilean ID for a year when I got here, everything is in my wife’s name. We rent and all the utilities are under our landlord’s name. So I went back to my wife and we began trying to figure out how to get proof of residency. Luckily she works with lawyers, so they were invaluable. In the end, the solution was a sworn statement that would be, you guessed it, NOTARIZED. The lawyer dictated the exact wording in appropriate lawyerese, and we dutifully typed it out and printed it. This time, however, I had to use the ole someone-I-know-knows-someone trick because I didn’t have anything on it with my name and address. People don’t use mail with the regularity that it’s used in the US, and, like I said, even if they had, chances are everything would be in Fernanda’s name anyway. I decided to get two copies because you never know when proving your residency might come in handy. So I had to go to a different notary and I waited in a dingy hall for an hour until he came in and took my Chilean ID and then I went into a room with a table and a single, lonesome pen pointing at some blank walls and I sat there and looked around like a rat introduced to a new cage, pretty oblivious to what was happening. Finally he came back and I signed something and he vanished again. Somewhere I could sense a CLANK CLANK. Sure enough he came back with my Sworn Declaration that I lived where I said I did. Never mind that in the paperwork I signed at the municipality, I had already sworn to that. This was notarized with a CLANK. I paid my money and left that office and went back to the woman at the municipality. She took the paper and eyed it for a full second. Turned it over to make sure there wasn’t more on the other side. (God only knows what I was swearing to on the OTHER side.) Then she looked at me and smiled and said perfect.

 

Excellent! The paperwork part was over, praise the Lords of Paperwork. So now there was just the test! It came in four parts. An eye test, a psycho-technical test, whatever that was, a written test, and an actual driving test. Luckily, perhaps because I already had my license in another country, I didn’t have to take the driving test. It wasn’t marked on the paper. I was thankful for that, at least. Remember how horrible your driving test was? Imagine doing it in another language in a different country. No thank you. Small blessings. I would come, take the tests, and finally get my license. All I had to do was study and wait a month. I had waited this long, what was another month?

I wasn’t too concerned about the written test. The driving rules in Chile are pretty much the same as in the US. A few little differences here and there, but easy to remember. I had already read the driving booklet a year or two in the past when I was stupid and thought I could just go in with my ID and diploma and take a test. (What a moron.) I decided to study the week before so all the special rules, like putting on your headlights on highways, would be fresh in my mind.

A few days before the test, I found an online Chilean exam and took it. I passed. Excellent. I would study more the day before, and I should be okay. Two days before the exam, I read through the book again and took the online test. This time I failed. Maybe I was being too nonchalant. I took it again and concentrated. I failed again. I took it a third time. Failed. What the? The test had some questions which were completely arbitrary, like: What is the best way to be a defensive driver? A) Be aware of your surroundings. B) Always have time to go where you need to go. C) Drive at a reasonable rate, or D) Be polite and thoughtful with the other drivers on the road. I can make a case for all of these. The answer is B, by the way. I shit you not. You just had to memorize those.

Well, now I was nervous. After all this crap, I’m going to fail my test? Ludicrous! So I studied all day Sunday. I took the test again and again and again until I passed more than I failed, and then I got up the morning of the exam and I took the test all morning. Pass. Pass. Pass. Fail. Pass. Pass. Fail. Damn it!

The appointment for my exam was at 3, so I was hoping to get my license for the evening. If I didn’t fail. Like a gringo, I arrived 10 minutes early and began to wait. An hour and a half later, someone called my name and I went into a room and stared into a machine and said some letters and colors to check my eyes. She asked me if I had any problem hearing, and I bit down the urge to say “What’s that?” and cup my ear like a grandfather. Not only was this a bad joke, it could lead to misunderstandings. Under pressure, I tend to say stupid things. I shook my head quickly. So I passed that.

Then I waited again for the next test. Half hour later, someone called my name and I went into another room to have my motor skills checked. I pushed on some fake pedals when the light turned red and green. Then I poked at a spinning wheel with a metal pen. Then I guided a thick metal needle along a metal path by manipulating giant scissors. I passed that one too. Then I waited another half hour for the written exam. I took the test which seemed ridiculously easy. And I passed! Excellent! Now finally I will get my license!

A man noted me down in a book and then asked when I could do my driving test. My heart took a nose dive. I sighed and asked what times were available. I should have known I would have to do EVERY little thing. Of course I would. Of course. I got my photo taken and then passed on the good news, bad news to Fernanda. My driving test was set for the following week. But what was another week?

I’m a 44 year old man. I don’t remember too much from when I was sixteen. But I remember the sheer terror of taking a test with a police officer. I’m sure you remember it too. The anxiety. The tight-lipped nerves. The hands like steel on the driving wheel. The heart thundering nervousness that you could feel in your ears. Now imagine that, except the person giving the test is speaking a language that is not your own. My Spanish is not bad. But it’s not good either. So I’m not happy about this driving test.

Especially because I have a hard time knowing the difference between go straight and take a right. One is derecho, the other is derecha. But which one is which? Are you sure? Are you sure it’s not the other one? Are you POSITIVE? I frequently mix them up. I live in terror for a week thinking the test is going to go horribly wrong when he tells me to go straight and instead I barrel off the road to the right, wiping out pedestrians as I hurtle down a train track, thinking derecho or derecha? I don’t operate well under pressure.

Derecho? Derecha? Derecho? Derecha?

I came up with a great way to remember. Since left was izquierda, with an ‘a’, then derecha with an ‘a’ must be right. Izquierda, derecha. So I repeated that a few dozen times a day. Izquierda, derecha. Izquierda, derecha.

It was an unhappy week of waiting. When the day finally came, I found myself waiting in the car and he came in after testing all the lights and we strapped in and fastened up.

Now I want to say something. I am an incredibly boring driver. You know the guy that always goes the speed limit? He signals in time. He waits for other drivers to enter. He yields the way when someone does something stupid. That’s me. I am that driver. I like to take my time, listen to the radio. I don’t really give a crap how long it takes me to get there. I like to drive to get where I need to go safely. That’s it. I don’t speed, I don’t make erratic turns, I don’t talk on the phone or text. I am the khaki pants of driving. Behind the wheel, I am vanilla, a plain apple, a game of scrabble on Friday night, teatime with Granma, a copy of National Geographic by the fire. All things dull. I am the goddamn poster boy for driving. I’m not saying I’m a good driver. I’m a safe driver. There’s a difference. They should invite me to different countries to teach people to drive boringly. I should get honorary driver’s licenses from all over the world. My brain should be scanned and replicated for the AI for driverless cars.

But having a man in the passenger seat whose sole job it is to judge every single decision I make is my worst nightmare. There he is. My Chilean driving exam guy. He’s not a cop. He has no gun, but he does have a clipboard. I don’t know which is worse. He’s got a plaid shirt, he’s going bald. He talks to me in rapid Spanish, asking me if I understand Spanish. I say yes but not perfectly. He continues in the same rapid Spanish. I’m listening and somehow understanding even though my heart is dancing along my fingertips. Years of preparation is coming down to the next 25 minutes of tested driving. All those hours of waiting in lines. All that money paid to the notaries. The trips to Santiago. The hours researching online. The papers I’ve signed. The stamps I’ve received. And this guy whipping through his Spanish like it’s a speed test, this is where it leads to. He tells me I can make three mistakes and then I fail. I say all right. The Chilean driving test is split into two. One is self-directed. I choose a destination and drive there and he watches me. He says he won’t say anything to me so I can concentrate. Then, in the second part, he will direct me. I say all right. In my mind I’m thinking, izquierda, derecha, izquierda, derecha. He asks me where I want to go, and I tell him, and he says okay, let’s go. So I carefully signal, check all around me, and pull out. Immediately I get a mark.

What was that for? I look around, concerned I’m driving the wrong way on a one way street. But no. I don’t understand. (We still don’t understand what I did wrong.) I continue. Signaling. Stopping. Letting pedestrians go. Other Chileans roar around me. Horns honk. I signal and turn right. I pass the first part and move into the second part. I get another mark when I move slightly to go around a construction site without signaling my return to the right lane because there was oncoming traffic and I moved quickly to get out of that lane. I come around the corner and get my third mark by going over the posted speed limit which is 30 km/h, or about 18 mph, which is difficult to accomplish in my car. 18 mph. That is goddamn slow. Meanwhile other Chilean drivers are zipping past me, some honking.

I failed my first test. I wanted to scream. The guy who gave me my exam tells me to re-schedule with “Don Cristian”. How the hell would I know who the fuck Don Cristian is? Did he think I was on a first name basis with all his co-workers at the municipality? “Oh yeah, I’ll go see Don Cristian after I talk to Pancho. He owes me five Lukas, weón.” But I was so disappointed, I didn’t ask for clarification. I just wanted him to get the fuck out of my car. Then he had the gall to tell me to keep the car in gear when it’s stopped, until he saw it was still in gear and he went, “Oh,” like he was disappointed he hadn’t caught me fucking up one last time. So I tromped uphill back to that fucking municipal office and hunted down my old buddy, Don Cristian by going around like an idiot, shrugging my shoulders, and saying I don’t understand, again and again. “No entiendo, no entiendo.” I was like a chimpanzee looking for a banana in a library. Ooooo eeeee ooooo aaaa! Anyone see banana? I no understand, where banana? Popping into one office after another, asking around for my pal, good ole Don Cristian. I finally found him and re-scheduled for three days later.

That was delightful.

Then I had to go tell my wife I failed. Good times. I recommend that to everyone. You know that test I had to pass after all the shit we’ve been through in the last couple years? Yeah, the one everyone in your office said was a piece of cake? Yeah, that one. I failed. Yeah, fucking bombed it. Easiest test in the world and I failed. Well, isn’t that hilarious? This is the guy you’ve decided to spend your life with, by the way. Yeah, this one, the one with the years of paperwork ending in the letters F-A-I-L-U-R-E. Really precious moment in my life. Priceless.

For the next two days, I lived in terror of the next driving test. This one I passed. Just barely. When I saw he had passed me, the relief I felt was like an injection of morphine. Finally, it was over. I had my license. After two years of paperwork, confusion, and tests, I had it.

But I didn’t. I figured that I would get some provisional license to use while I waited for my official license, but I didn’t. I would not be legal until I could actually get the physical license in my hand. He told me my license would be ready after the long weekend, on Tuesday, at noon. But I couldn’t come then because I taught that day, so my license would have to wait one more day. Wednesday. I had already waited for so long, another four days wasn’t anything, I told myself.  Okay, then, Wednesday. Fine.

When Wednesday rolled around, I was happy. I woke up early, had my middle-aged breakfast of oatmeal and tea and headed out to get my license. Here it was at last. After all those copies, phone calls, after all those hours of waiting, after the visits to countless offices and talks with dozens of bureaucrats, I would finally be rewarded. I would be a legal driver in Chile, free to drive wheresoever I pleased. It was with a spring in my step that I set off to get the license.

When I arrived at the municipality, it was closed. There was a sign:

On 24 Hour Strike.

I had to sit down. The frustration had reached a point where I wasn’t quite sure if I cared anymore or not. I tried to be patient. After all, what was another day? But I had been saying that for the past few years. What’s another month? What’s another couple weeks? I hadn’t driven in five years. When would it end? I just wanted to pick up my glossy plastic driver’s license, put it in my wallet, and never, ever, EVER walk into another municipality again.

I walked out empty-handed. It was a familiar feeling. I would go the next day, pick it up, and everything would be fine. That’s what I told myself.

The next morning I woke up early, just as I had the day before, just as I had so many days before when I had to go to some government office. I packed an apple and a book, supplies for waiting. I made sure my phone was charged and then headed off to absolutely and for the last time pick up my license.

When I got there, I went to the desk and gave my Chilean ID to man who walked away with it without say much. I waited for the guy to return. When he finally did, he told me there was a problem. The same glazed look of pleasure on his face I had come to know intimately over the years. They didn’t have my proof of residency. I blinked. I stammered that I had given it to them. He let me look through the stack of papers he carried with him, which I did. Of course I found nothing. They had lost my Sworn Declaration. What use was it to protest? It wouldn’t magically reveal my proof of residency. Stiff with frustration and fury, I left.

Empty-handed.

I took the bus home. I watched out the window at everyone else with their driver’s licenses. Happily driving around. It seemed implausible I would ever be one of them. I had reached a strange phase: I no longer really cared about the license. I just wanted it to be over. No more waiting. No more lines. No more discussions, explanations, and lectures with bureaucrats. No more seeing that light of satisfaction on their faces when they told me no. No more days off spent watching the sun rise while in line. No more hours spent sitting and standing only to be told nothing could be done. No more being sent to offices that couldn’t help me. No more stamps and squiggles and signing my name wherever the fuck they told me at any time. No more CLANK.

I wasn’t even thinking any longer about the end game. I could care less about the license. For five years I had been walking to work and riding the bus. I could continue doing that. What I wanted more than anything was to get out of the system.

I was lucky that I had gotten two copies of the Proof of Residency. One of the smartest things I had ever done during the whole process. But what if they didn’t accept it this time? Just because it worked the first didn’t mean the Sworn Declaration would work the second time. I had to have a back-up plan, in case I found myself sitting in front of a sour-faced bureaucrat whose husband or wife had yelled at them that morning and they were in the mood to spread that misery around. So I got a sworn statement from the caretaker at my apartment building that I lived there. He wrote extremely slowly in the tight cursive that people use who never write. He copied my name from an envelope where it was written Ben Bedard and Fernanda Glaser. He asked if that was my whole name, all of them. I said no. “The other name is my wife,” I told him. I thanked him for his help, took the paper, and left to try my luck at the municipality.

When I read the letter, he had written my name in careful, painful cursive: “Don Ben Bedard and”.

Hopefully this would not doom my mission.

When I arrived back at the municipality, a room that was becoming more and more familiar—perhaps I should have been on a first name basis with them by now—I waited again for my turn at the desk of disappointment and suffering. I handed over the Sworn Declaration. He looked at it. Turned it over. Without saying anything he went to another woman and gave it to her. She looked at it and turned it over. And then the man came back and seeing I was still there, looked slightly annoyed and said, “We’ll call your name.” Having been dismissed from the presence of authority, I left the majesty of his presence and dutifully sat to wait.

Finally a woman called my name and I signed a stack of papers. Then she told me it would be a while, so I should go to the center of La Serena and find something to do. I asked how long and she said a half hour to an hour. I looked at my watch nervously. It was getting close to lunch time, which meant that the whole place would shut down until 3PM. It was uncomfortably close. I took her advice and wandered around La Serena, but I returned early and sat down. If they closed for lunch, I would protest. I would sit right there until they gave me my license.

After another half hour or so, inching closer to lunch, another woman called my name and I signed the paper that would be my license. Then she disappeared with it and I went and sat down to wait.

Finally, after about three hours of waiting in total that day, a woman returned with my license. (Not the same woman, by the way. For some reason, in order to get this done, I had worked with five different people that morning.) I signed my name one more time in a huge, red book, and finally got the plastic card in my hand.

I walked out of the municipality in a state of numb surprise. There it was, the official document. At last. Should I feel something? I turned it over. Pride? Excitement? Relief? What I felt was tired. In the end, it was just a sheet of paper covered in squiggles, stamps, and clear plastic. It had been too difficult and too frustrating to be overjoyed about it. I eyed it with some resentment.

I didn’t have long to think about it. There were errands to run, and now that I had the freedom of the road, there was no vegetable or fruit, no pack of mineral water, no bulk rectangle of toilet paper that could not be obtained. I was official.

CLANK.

 

 

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