The new, improved me – courtesy of the EU-conform driver’s license

Obsolete pink German driver's license
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One of the first things I did after arriving in Germany was to get a local driver’s license. All I needed to do at the time was to present my Virginia driver’s license and they issued me a German one. I figured there was no need to get a decent picture, assuming the license would be renewed in two years, as it would be in the U.S.

So in that distant, PBP era (pre-biometric photo, not peanut butter pastry) with no exact specifications, I casually tossed a few coins into a photo booth at the train station, plopped down on the spinning stool, adjusted the height, and presto! A quick, cheap picture.

As it so happened, I had just come from the hairdresser’s. I had gotten not just a haircut but a perm, which was very stylish at the time, the time being the eighties. So precisely on the day when I had my license picture taken, I had the curliest hairdo of my life. By far the curliest.

This turned out to be a big mistake.

I know all of this in such detail since this driver’s license picture was destined to haunt me for the next couple of decades, a tiny whisper floating up from my wallet reminding me with a snicker that dozens of police officers and customs officials have borne unwilling witness to one of the most questionable stylistic choices I have ever made.

I was unaware at the time that Germany in those days issued driver’s licenses for LIFE.

Perhaps this was an expression of a lack of confidence in the longevity of the driver (na ja, she’ll die in a crash soon anyway; after all, we have highways with no speed limits and we tailgate the hell out of each other). Or maybe it was a money-saving tactic. After all, it’s expensive to reissue licenses every couple of years, especially if you’re as bureaucratic as Germany.

On the flip side, this ridiculous photo has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. It has been a veritable treasure trove of “Is that really you?” stories.

Like the time I was on vacation in Washington and a friend recommended having breakfast in the cafeteria of a federal government building downtown.

“It’s open to the public,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.

She was right. What she’d neglected to tell me was that I’d have to show a picture ID.

Digging around in my purse, the only one I could locate was – yep, you guessed it, my German driver’s license. At first, the cashier looked a little sleepy. After all, it was 7:30 am. But one glance at my license made her sit straight up in her chair.

She held my license up in the air, lining it up with my face, her forehead wrinkling in disbelief. There was no mistaking what she was thinking.

Could that be…is that really…?

”An old picture, heh-heh!” I chimed in helpfully, hoping to distract her.

“A really, really old picture!”

She looked up at me, still uncertain.

“In Germany, they issue your driver’s license for life,” I added.

She shook her head, probably to erase the image from her mind of that downright scary curly-haired photo, and waved us through the turnstile. I succeeded in overcoming another bout of driver’s license embarrassment with a hearty, federal building breakfast.

At a bar in California, I was once again caught without a decent photo ID, which was required for entry. Once again, I had to resort to the curly-haired freak version of myself. 

But that night I got lucky. Our bouncer was a former GI who had been stationed in Germany for several years. So enthralled was he with the idea of having two real live Germans standing in front of him (well, OK, one German and one American, but with a German driver’s license) that he didn’t even notice my picture.

Car rental agencies always require a driver’s license, too. For years, I was condemned to showing them the Shirley Temple version of me.

Child actress Shirley Temple with her famous curls, Photo from From the Los Angeles Times digital library

It’s like when someone asks you for a writing sample and all you have to show them is your essay from fifth grade entitled, “What I did on my summer vacation” – a vacation when all you did was sit in the backyard and spray your brother with the garden hose (all characters in this statement are fictional, no brothers were harmed in the creation of this sentence).

I became accustomed to being deeply embarrassed and usually got an early start working up the discomfort even before I reached the counter.

“Here we go again,” I would think. While presenting my license I would apologize for its antiquated look and quickly explain to the car rental agent that they shouldn’t bother looking for an expiration date – because there isn’t one. And hoping that they weren’t just staring at the picture in disbelief.

My in-laws had even older, gray licenses, with photos from the 1960s. Their licenses were literally older than most of the people on this planet. They rarely traveled abroad, which is fortunate, since the person behind the counter at the car rental agency would probably have wondered why this elderly German tourist was showing him an old photo album to try to rent a car.

But those days have now come to an end, thanks to a mandate by the EU. By January 19, 2023, all driver’s licenses issued before 2013 must be exchanged for new ones. All told, 42 million Germans must renew their licenses over the next few years to meet EU standards. The new versions are more fake-proof with a hologram, exotic markings on the plastic, and yes, a boring, non-curly biometric photo.

My new driver’s license is so ordinary that nobody ever comments on it. They just glance at it to check the date and the photo and hand it back to me.

After all of the hullabaloo about my old, floppy pink cardboard license with the curly-haired photo, it almost makes me nostalgic for all that attention.

Almost. But not quite.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo: The now-obsolete pink German driver’s license from Wikimedia Commons

See also:
Germans put the fun in fungi
If this is punctuality, my watch is broken
The library, the monk and the sandals

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