The Fountain of Youth at the End of the Highway

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on anewscafe.com. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that's about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn't had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.
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21 Responses

  1. Doug says:

    I had the good fortune to be taught driving on a ’66 VW Beetle so I got used to manual transmissions early on. When I moved here to France, I had no car (still don’t) and all rental cars are manual. Like riding a bike, it all came back quickly. I’m jealous that you’re in the Highlands. A place I’ve always wanted to explore (and paint). If I can muster up enough courage to drive on the opposite side of the road, maybe you’ll see me close by with an easel and watercolor palette. Good luck!

    • Deb says:

      Thanks for the good-luck wishes!  When I first learned to drive I really, really wanted a Honda Prelude, and my dad was really, really happy that I wanted to learn to drive a manual transmission.  What actually happened was that I got my godmother’s Pontiac LeMans, a beautiful seafoam-green beast with a V-8 engine – automatic.  I loved that car, and all thoughts of stick-shifting ended, never to be revisited.  I’m glad that you have no trouble there in France with the rentals, though!  That is handy!

      Nearly every Highland view lends itself beautifully to painting; the quality of light here can be breathtaking.  I hope you find your way here one day!

  2. A. Jacoby says:

    That right hand drive thing isn’t even on my horizon. I can’t even IMAGINE; however, my son and his family lived in Japan for 10 years. My daughter-in-law was Japanese so it was second nature to her but getting licensed in the US must have been another story for her. My son didn’t seem to have any trouble switching back and forth. Then came another big HOWEVER. They moved to Italy (a left hand drive country like the U.S.) and shipped their brand new RIGHT HAND DRIVE van to Italy. So now they were driving a right hand drive car in a left hand drive country. I can’t even wrap my head around that one. Ahhhh, kids. It’s so much easier to be adaptable at 30 then it is at 50 or even more so at 80!! Deb, I think if this would be happening in my life, I’d be adding gray hair, not the fountain of youth!

    Thanks for another great glimpse into your world.

    • Deb says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article!  Your son and daughter-in-law are definitely adventurous and adaptable – I can’t even imagine switching back and forth like that!  A couple of people in the village have left-hand-drive cars, and I don’t know how they manage it, but I suppose if they’ve never driven their left-hand drive car in a right-hand-drive country, it makes sense in their brains…?  I couldn’t do it, that’s for sure.  I’m certain I would just revert instantly to my US driving, causing mayhem everywhere I went!

  3. A. Jacoby says:

    P.S. Always love your pictures. That first one is really interesting.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you!  That first picture is one I remember taking very clearly…  It was wintertime a couple of years ago, and that long shadow was being cast at around 2pm because the sun is so low on the horizon up here, at that point, during December and the beginning of January.  I pass that wall nearly every day, and my superlong legs in shadow made me laugh, so a photo was necessary!

  4. Matthew Grigsby says:

    I too am an “automatic only” driver, and my rhetorical question is “Why do we even have manuals if the automatic has been invented?”  I’m preparing myself for a chorus of detailed explanations about standard/manual and why they’re superior and how they allow you to feel the road and blah blah blah. I say yay you! You’re tackling something huge and you’re making it happen and that deserves all the cheering in the world. Go Deb!

    PS. I hope there’s a follow up piece on how things went.

    • Deb says:

      From what people tell me, especially living here in the hilly Highlands, manual transmissions are better for the road conditions, and easier on the car (not so much braking, since down-shifting is an option).  And of course all of the “whee fun yay-be-‘one-with-the-vehicle” sentiments I hear as well.  But for me to continue on with manuals meant that more than likely one day I WOULD be ‘one’ with the car – as in, accordioned into it because of hitting a hill or tumbling down a cliff or something.  I’d much rather avoid that, so automatic it is, for me, for life, as well!

      As for a follow-up piece… well, if there’s a resounding silence after April, it’s safe to assume that I did not manage to reverse around a corner without bumping the sidewalk (or a sheep), or something.  I’m told lots of people fail at least once, sometimes more.  But let’s hope I emerge triumphant.

  5. Ginny says:

    Deb, your photos are just beautiful.  Then your horror story of leaning to drive UK fashion was precious.  Your descriptive writing style is wonderful.  Keep enjoying all you do.  I don’t know the reason for the need for a car, but that is OK, yet pray all is OK that you need to have one now.

    God bless, always………….

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Ginny!  I’m glad you enjoyed both the photos and the story.  Your intuition about the need for a car is spot-on, but perhaps a story for another day.  Meanwhile, hopefully I will soon be the proud owner of a British driver’s license.  Let loose on the roads in TWO countries!

  6. Russell K. Hunt says:

    AAh lassie if see ma ole friend Nessie at the Loch tell she owes a liter of  hagaas. But seriously, in Edinburgh you can trace the love life of Mary Queen of the Scottish Terriers . But  if want the drive of a lifetime hop down to Cairo. No lines on the roads, few signals, no insurance, few if any new cars, and fine cussin’ in Arabic.

    • Deb says:

      I’m not sure haggis comes in liters, Russell 🙂  I’m not all that interested in the love lives of long-dead Royals (actually I’m not even interested in the love lives of living Royals) but I would love to see Edinburgh some time.  Don’t think I’d like to drive there from here, though… and I certainly won’t be driving to (or in) Cairo 😀   Even if I survived the experience, I don’t know any Arabic cuss words! 😉

  7. Doni Chamberlain Doni Chamberlain says:

    Deb, you are one of those rare people whose talents encompass words and photography, and this piece is a classic example of that.

    I get a cup of something hot to drink when sit down to read your stories, and just take them in to the point where I truly feel as if I were there with you. Thanks for taking us along on this ride. So much fun! Best of luck with the driving. You’ve got it!

    p.s. And I can attest that Doug Cushman, the American artist who lives in France, is a great guy. You’d be lucky to have him show up at your doorstep with brushes and paints. Fast friends, I guarantee.

     

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Doni!  You are very kind, and I’m glad you enjoy my stories and photos.  I’ll let you know how the driving goes (unless I fail hahawaaahsob)!

      One of the reasons I wish we lived in Sem’s former house in the village is because it has six bedrooms.  I would so totally have ANC B&B guest weeks if he still had that house!  But if Doug ever showed up at our doorstep with brushes and paints, we’d be happy to show him around – if he is brave enough to drive with me, once I’m ‘allowed’ to do it here legally that is!

  8. acelightning says:

    Well, my dad was a tractor-trailer driver, so I learned how to drive a stick long before I was legally old enough to drive. I find an automatic transmission annoying; to me, it feels as if the car thinks it knows better than I do. But it’s basically a matter of personal preference, and most of the people I know in the US drive automatic – some of the younger ones seem to think that’s the default for cars in general. (They’ve never been out of the US!)

    When I went to Australia, I had plans to rent a car while I was there – I figured, “Well, how hard can it be to drive on the other side of the road for a couple of weeks?” But as soon as I saw the traffic in downtown Melbourne, especially the “hook turns” (basically a wrong-way turn across six lanes of traffic), I changed my mind! I admire your determination, and I’m looking forward to your joyful stories of your new freedom once you get the license.

     

  9. Marilyn Traugott says:

     

    You live in one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the world. I spent three weeks driving all over the Highlands a few years ago and I am quite accustomed to driving a manual on either side of the road, but nothing prepared me for the one lane roads in the more remote rural areas of the Highlands. I don’t mean one lane in each direction – I mean one lane, period – with strategically placed bulges here and there for pulling over and avoiding head-on collisions.  Fortunately, the local drivers were so polite that rather than the expected game of “Chicken,” there was always a friendly exchange of “After you,” and in time, the white-knuckle pavement-staring at 5 mph morphed into a sort of easy rhythm and a chance to enjoy the gorgeous scenery.  Just keep telling yourself that if other people can do it, you can too. And you’ll be glad you did.

    • Deb says:

      The dreaded “single-track roads”!!  I’ve been on a few as a passenger, and they can be pretty intimidating.  Generally people are good on those 🙂  It’s everywhere else they seem to be a tad aggressive, and not at all what you’d think of UK folks, polite as they seem to be in every other way! 🙂

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