Sunday, 11 May 2014

Learning to Drive... Again.

I finally caved and bought a car. While this may not seem like an extreme purchase to some it was to me. For one thing, the steering wheel is on the wrong side. When we first moved to London it totally freaked me out that the "drivers" never seemed to be paying attention and were sometimes non-existant. It took me a few years to get used to looking right first before crossing roads and not totally freaking out and grabbing the drivers arm to pull him into oncoming traffic before realising that we SHOULD in fact be on the left hand side of the road. But after five and a half years, I did it.

Unfortunately, the dragging of my feet caused me a lot more pain than was strictly necessary. I had been informed that one had two years to exchange a U.S. licence for a U.K. one. I should say MISINFORMED - the rule was a year - from the date you become a resident - which is stamped boldly on your visa, which is in your passport, which you also need to send in with your paperwork (yes, the original... to the DVLA (which is British for the DMV)) and you just pray that the black hole of bureaucracy does not somehow swallow it up for eternity. The long and the short of it is that there is no getting around it, which means... wait for it... I had to take driving lessons and then I had to take a theory test. And then I had to take a driving test. Yes. Seriously. At age... ahem... never-mind.

I decided to approach this with a good attitude and to treat it as a learning experience. So I called AA (British for AAA) and booked 5 hours of driving lessons on a manual. I specified that I would like a car that drove on the left. They assured me that this wish could be accommodated but asked if I understood that I was going to actually be in control of the car and would have to myself ensure that it stayed on the left. It may have been because of my questions, or my comment that I might just drive on the right and make people go around me - but they then decided that I need the instructor with no sense of humour. At all. Literally. None.

The Brits are known for their wittiness and seeing the humour in just about any situation. They name food things like Bubble and Squeak and Pigs in a Blanket - I mean, you would have to have a sense of humour to do that... and even more so to then order it with a totally straight face and not a hint of a tongue being firmly pressed into one's cheek. It is an entire race of people who can laugh at themselves and others with abandon. That is, everyone EXCEPT MY DRIVING INSTRUCTOR. I got in the car on day one. He introduced himself as "John"(names have been changed to protect the innocent) and asked me about my experience etc. I told him I had been driving for *cough* a long time and that I needed to take all of the tests because I had missed the deadline to turn in my licence for a UK one. I said something pithy and fun and he turned to me with a very straight face and said - "so what do you know about driving a manual" and I said "I've done it drunk a few times." this may or may not have been true - but it was meant to be funny. I did not even get a courtesy smile. This just made the situation worse because now it was a challenge to get Mr. No Sense of Humour to laugh. and the more silly I got, the more serious he got which made me nervous which made me giggle which made me laugh at how insane it was that I was taking driving lessons in the first place - at my age. So my first lesson was... how do you say? Not so great.

But I decided to give John another go - and he surprisingly showed up for our appointment. It is a recession after all...  This time, I was all business. I had decided to have a little wine with lunch to calm my nerves and I did brilliantly... Like I said I've done it drunk a few times (the wine was in the sauce by the way - for all of you who are judging). The third lesson was after work, wineless at the wrong time of the month - so both he and I were having sense of humour failures and we were back to the basics - literally back to the way I was on my first lesson where we drove up and down a road and took maybe two turns. Very different from my second post-wine lesson where I was on main roads and going through drive-threws... but this was a nightmare and so. not. fun.

So I threw pride (and John) out the window and ordered up a new instructor. Bill. Bill taught people (read Americans) on automatics. I was told that there was only one instructor in my area - so we had to get along. Bill showed up on the first day and asked me how long I had been driving. When I told him, he buckled himself in and told me to drive. I starred at him... "just drive?!" "Yup" he said and crossed his chubby arms over his enormous belly. I would not have been surprised if he'd cracked open a beer just then, he was so relaxed. So I put the car in drive, pulled off the sidewalk (because that is how we roll her in London - small roads = half on sidewalk parking) and DROVE! The first thing he said was "do you usually do that push-pull when you are driving normally?" UM... NO!! JOHN TOLD ME TO DO IT!!! I knew it. He was a crap instructor. He was teaching me outdated methods. I moved my hands from the 10 and 2 push-pull position that I had tried to master under John's tutelage and did my usual hand on the bottom of the wheel other hand somewhere around one o'clock... the way my dad drives. I leaned back in my  seat, rolled the window down a little and was about to ask Bill to put on some tunes when he asked me to pull over. Once we were in a safe position he informed me that I would have failed my test had I driven like that.

I was starting to think that this driving in the UK was so not for me - I mean there were signs I did not understand, bus lanes I was not allowed to use, bikers... EVERYWHERE, motor-scooters scooting in between cars and pedestrians who dart in front of you car just to see if you are far enough along in your driving lessons to have learned how to do an emergency stop. So I surrendered to Bill's learning methods and learned how to drive again. Our first two hour lesson was over very quickly - we literally went on a joy ride. He took me up to this road in Wimbledon and was all "check out the view from here" (NO WE WERE NOT PARKED... perverts) and then we swung by the Wimbledon tennis club and headed home. It was all really non-eventful and he just corrected some things that I needed to know to tick the preverbal boxes so that I would pass. We set up our second lesson (another two hours) and during those two hours I mastered all the moves I might be asked to do - parallel parking (totally normal), pulling up and stopping at a kerb (totally normal) and backing around a corner (the most ridiculous manoeuvre known to man). I mentioned how ridiculous this was and said "why do I need to know this??! This is INSANE." Bill looked at me and said "every American I have ever taught has said exactly the same thing - you have to be able to do all of these things because the tester can choose any one of them to test you on - so just do it." Fine.

After a total of nine hours of lessons I was ready to take my test. Bill came over and picked me up. I was in my best pastel sweater set and pearls, hair curled - obviously. My heart was pounding, my hands sweaty and I tried to get into the passenger seat... (the drivers seat in the U.S.). Things were not going well. Bill looked at me and I thought - is it too late for me to grab a glass of wine for the road? But alas we were off (is it weird that I was surprised that I drove myself to the test? Thinking about it  - of course I would drive myself - but then I was like - why is Bill not chauffeuring me?? I realise now it was just the pearls talking...) and I was driving (!!) to the test (!!) I felt like a sixteen year old and when I blew through a stop sign, I turned to Bill and said  "I totally paused." He didn't laugh then, or when I hit the curb (known as a kerb around these parts) going about 40. In fact... he yelled at me... on the way to my test. I wanted John back - and that was saying a lot.

Bill warned me that we needed to pull over so he could check the tyre (British for tire) because I might not be able to take the test today if the tyre was damaged. Not take the test??!!  You have to book these things MONTHS in advance. I had to get my licence then - that day or I would not be able to drive the car that I had ordered and was arriving the NEXT day... (it was very positive thinking - I do realise that now). Bill was going on and on about how he had just had that tyre replaced because another student had hit a kerb and how it costs a lot of money and the examiner didn't let her take the test and blah blah blah blah blah - I felt like I was with a nagging mom (not mine - she is great and very non-nagging), not my "mate" Bill. So I pulled over, barely resisting the temptation to practice my emergency stop in his precious car (WHICH IS A DRIVING INSTRUCTORS CAR BY THE WAY.... BILL...) and he got out, slammed the door and walked to the back tyre to check it out... it was FINE. So he got back in and now I am super stressed, and sad that Bill and my relationship which was about to come to a natural end was falling apart in a most spectacular way, and not relaxed at all and I still have to take my driving test - which everyone fails the first time any way.

We make it the rest of the way to the testing centre without incident and go into this tiny room and hand in our paperwork and one by one the lovely examiners come out - the first one is a smiley woman who grins even bigger when she reads out the name of her examinee - not me. Then is the lovely man who puts a kind arm around his examinee as he leads him out to the car.  The next man is a kindly looking older gentleman who gives his examinee a light reassuring pat on the back and says "let's get you a licence!" as they walked out the door. The next examiners skipped and hummed and whistled until all the examinees were gone and it was just me and Bill and a man who looked like the Penguin from Batman waddling into the room. I heard Bill take a sharp intake of breath "$#!t" he said under his breath as my name was shouted from the depths of the Penguins bowels (remember there was no one else in the room) as he stormed down the stairs. I had been summoned.

We took the eye examination which I somehow screwed up with 20/15 vision and had to take again (to be fair I mixed up a 1 and an l... you can see how hard that would be - until you note that all registration plates (British for license plates) in the U.K. are two letters followed by two numbers and then three more letters - unless they are personalised - so I should have known it was a one not an "l".) We get in the car and start off - and we drive for a long time and he makes me do ALL THREE manoeuvres and since I was pretty sure this epic journey was going to end in failure I just started chatting and ended up thawing the Penguin's frozen exterior and dare I say, befriended him at a level crossing, where I sat,  leg shaking from being pressed on the brake too hard, for too long, waiting for the THREE TRAINS to pass through. THREE.

We got back to the testing centre and the Penguin said "congratulations, you've passed" and gave me the run down on my three minor infractions 1) hesitating at a round about (which I am going to do forever - no way am I charging into those things without hesitation!) 2) not putting the parking brake on at the level crossing (I actually contemplated that but thought it might be an automatic fail if I was wrong so opted for the shaky leg option) and 3) I can't remember so it must have not been that bad... I hope... anyway - as soon as he gave me my paper saying I passed, Bill about rips the door off the car yelling "where have you been? the last examinee got back 15 minutes ago!" Then a belly to belly screaming match between the stout Bill and the Penguin ensued... there were words and gestures exchanged. To be honest I was just hoping my "pass" would not become a "fail" because of Bill's (so not my friend) little outburst.  Bill kicked me (the newly licensed an now ready to drive driver) out of the drivers seat and drove me home... as we pulled away - the Penguin angrily noting Bill's registration plate - the car jolted to the right as, in his anger, Bill hit the kerb (insert self satisfying smirk).