Guess what? I have discovered a Fountain of Youth, of sorts. I have had to re-learn how to drive, UK-style. You might think, “What’s the big deal, Deb? Drive on the other side of the road, sitting on the other side of the car. Simple!”
Simple? For others, perhaps, but not for me.
We didn’t have a car when I first moved here. There was no need for one; most things are within walking distance and for the rest there’s public transportation. Still, it seemed a good idea for me to get a British driver’s license, so I signed up for lessons with a nice lad called Big Al and… came up against my first hurdle: manual transmissions. When told that all my driving experience had been with an automatic, Big Al confidently declared it to be “nae bother” for me to learn stick-shift, and off we went in his (dual-control) car.
I didn’t grind gears but I stalled at inconvenient moments. Then there was a tiny language barrier. “Make sure you stay off the pavement,” Big Al cautioned. Uh… what? How do I stay off the pavement when I am driving on – – – and then I started laughing. Pavement! Pavement in the UK means sidewalk! Whew! Moments like that will make a person (me) feel pretty dense.
I gave it a good shot but in the end it was a failure. I got discouraged and frustrated, especially without a car to practice shifting gears with, between lessons. My weekly pre-lesson meltdowns grew in intensity, mainly because I’d never felt so stupid in all my life, and after a while the driving lessons were dropped. I was getting nowhere, and enough was enough. But now, seven years on, we have an increasing need for transport, and it was decided that we would buy a car – an automatic.
This is a nation of stick-shifters, which sounds like an insult, but isn’t. My preference for an automatic car baffles people. “If you pass your test with an automatic, you won’t be qualified to drive a manual,” they say, aghast. Well, good! The safest thing for us all is for me to drive an automatic.
We live on a somewhat dangerous road so it’s best if I can react instantly and safely which just wouldn’t happen if I had to contend with gears and a clutch, what with all my instincts being US-driving-based. That was brought home to me when I started going out in our car – every time I wanted to put the car into drive, reverse or park, my right hand would automatically drop down to where my former car’s gear lever had been, and thump hard onto the armrest instead. Because I have yet to devise a smooth move to disguise that reach-and-thump as something else (suggestions welcome!), my driving instructor laughs at me every time I do it.
Speaking of instructors, I was lucky to find one willing to teach me in our car. They have this thing about having controls on their side of the car. “But I know how to drive,” I kept insisting. “I just need to know what the examiner will want from me!” No dice, not even hot pink fuzzy rear-view mirror ones. Fortunately someone thought of Allie, a local policewoman who teaches driving on the side. She, too, was a bit hesitant and I’m not ashamed to say I begged a little, as she was my last hope. She looked over my insurance paperwork and I pinky-swore that I truly knew how to drive, and she – thank all the driving gods – agreed to be my instructor.
Allie is fun as well as being a good teacher, and I liked her from the start. When she saw that I did indeed know how to drive, she relaxed… and then started to unravel my bad habits and teach me things that I never learned in the US. But we often get sidetracked, chatting. She regularly starts off my lessons with the warning of, “Right, Debs, THIS time I am actually going to watch your mirror-checks and make sure you’re doing things properly – we do too much blethering!” She is quick with praise as well as correction, and she’s just such a nice person. I have the bashful hope that we might stay in touch and become friends, once she is no longer my instructor.
You’re probably wondering where the Fountain of Youth part comes into this.
Remember how incredibly narrow the road seemed when you first learned to drive, and how impossibly wide, the car… and how oncoming traffic roared towards you, bringing certain death if you didn’t move far away from the center line? Do you remember the feeling of finding your place on the road and gradually realizing that there is actually plenty of room for all? Until I had a long break from driving and then had to start over again, doing it all on the “wrong” side, I’d completely forgotten what that was like. To re-live it is strange; familiar yet new, and surprisingly a little bit exhilarating. I rediscovered that heady sense of teenage freedom and endless possibilities.
Sitting on the “wrong” side behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car, driving on the left, I recaptured my seventeen-year-old self… and just like in my teenage years, the moment I’d think I was doing everything right, I’d have an American Moment and cut a corner because my brain still “thinks right”, leaving Allie bellowing, “TELL me you did NOT just CUT THAT CORNER!” Oops. Newbie mistake, once again. Cringe, blush…
This driving thing has been exasperating but necessary. I will come out of it a better driver than I was back home (and I thought I was a decent driver!), with a better understanding of the UK driving culture. I have passed my theory test (a story all on its own!), but because nothing is ever easy in the Highlands, I couldn’t get a test date until this coming April. It’s a 40 minute road test during which I’ll have to do things that I have done efficiently but “incorrectly” for almost 25 years, and now have to do properly according to UK standards. It is daunting.
Allie sighs in frustration sometimes. “You should be driving,” she says, as we fly along the main road at a speed I couldn’t even consider with Big Al, in his car. “You are a driver already. You just need that little card that says you’re allowed!” If she is impatient on my behalf, imagine how I feel about it!
Remember how important and all-consuming it was to get your driver’s license? At the age of 48, it is precisely the same big deal to me today as it was all that time ago, which is how I have come to feel so young (read: inexperienced) again. I took driving for granted for almost 25 years, but now it looms as large in my life as it ever did, as a teen. Getting that little card matters a great deal and I’m as apprehensive about this driving test as I was the first time… and when I get behind that wheel, I’m in high school all over again.
Now if only I could go back to my high school weight and my teenage mass of thick, wild hair, while keeping what knowledge and wisdom I have gained, I’d really have this Fountain of Youth thing nailed!