Thursday, February 15, 2007

Baby you can drive my car - well almost

I had my first driving lesson in 10 years today, and my first ever on English roads. My instructor, an upbeat Asian man by the name of Johnny, boasts a 90 percent pass rate. I said to Robert, "Yeah well, he hasn't met me yet."

I went along and made it abundantly clear that I had not been behind the wheel in 10 years. And even when I was learning how to drive all those years ago, I warned, I wasn't particularly good - except at clipping pavements that is. I also pointed out that I was extremely nervous back then, and accompanied this by some convincing jaw clenching to emphasize that this was still the case.

But most importantly, I told him that I didn't know what to do when I came to a roundabout, because we don't have those in South Africa. There are loads of roundabouts here in the UK, and the system relies on the fact that people drive in a civil, considerate, and law-abiding way. This would never work in South Africa. In fact roundabouts would result in even greater instances of road rage, where the driving motto seems to be 'Each man/woman for him/herself' or 'Die muthaf*ka die.'

Anyway, I digress. So I was pretty clear about the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, was pathologically frightened, and that it would probably just be safer for him, me, and the English population as a whole if we just called the whole thing off and put it down to a bad idea.

Well Johnny was having none of it. He drove me to a quiet spot in Camden, got me behind the wheel and assured me I'd be fine. We went around the block a couple of times at a snails pace with me gripping the steering wheel as though I'd recently experienced shock therapy. Eventually I felt myself growing in confidence, which translates into experiencing feelings of terror, as opposed to ones of abject terror.

By 4.30pm (with a few sneaky directions from Johnny) I was driving down Camden high street - in back-to-back rush hour traffic, with a few punks and pierced jay-walkers thrown in for good measure. I tried not to get too phased by all the cars and the jaywalkers, and just kept driving up to Primrose Hill and then on to St John's Wood. Here I was reminded that his driving school would prefer that I didn't ding any hugely expensive parked sports cars.

After a bit more driving around in this area to teach me left-hand and right-hand turns (including one roundabout), I drove us back home again. The old pavement clipping tendecy tried to rear it's ugly head, but Johnny nipped it in the bud. "You don't need to turn the wheel that much Lucille - we want to drive on the road, not the pavement."

Johnny is a very calm person, but he was also having none of my cowardice, which is exactly what I needed. He seems to have a strange knack of being supportive yet firm, and I felt I had little choice but to do what he asked of me, yet felt safe doing so. As a result I drove fairly well (according to him), and got us there and back safely - which is the main thing. Tomorrow we are going to Maida Vale to do lots of roundabouts, and he is also starting me on maneuvers (parking etc). He reckons I can get my license in a couple of months.

This will be a huge accomplishment for me, and hopefully it will also mean I'll stop being a joke back in South Africa - where if you don't drive, well - forget it, it's just unheard of.

Friend: This is Lucille, possibly the only South African adult who cannot drive
Friend of friend: What, you cannot drive? Whahahahahahah! You must be joking?!?
Me (clearly not amused, and bored - having gone through this 10 times in the evening already): No really, it's true, I cannot drive.
Friend of friend: That really is incredible. Hey, babe (motions to wife) - come over here and hear this... .

You get the picture.

Most of my friends were 'loaning' their parents cars at the age of 14 and 15 already, and by the time they were 18 had licenses and were driving us to and from clubs. I was a year younger, and my mother refused to teach me, maintaining I should learn with a teacher when I turned 18 so I wouldn't pick up any of her bad habits. I think she was just terrified at the thought of being in a car with me, and back then she probably had good reason to be.

As it turned out I finished school at 17 and went straight to university, where I didn't have the money or the need for a car in that small town. After leaving university I worked for a couple of years and started learning, but then I came to London, where with the blessed public transport system, I definitely didn't need to drive. Add 10 years of living here to that equation, and that folks is how I came to be a 32-year-old South African / British woman who doesn't know how to drive, or rather, who doesn't have her drivers license yet.

It will be a bright bright sunshiny day when I go back for a visit and am able to see various friends and family members, and even do a spot of shopping on my own steam. Because trust me on this one, you can be as grown-up, wordly, and independent as you like, but few things knock you back to kid status quicker than having to ask your mum for a lift to the shops.

1 comment:

T. said...

We should import a gigantic American car from the late 1970s for you. They were crap, but made of steel and nearly indestructible! Surrounded by several tons of armor you could then brave the busy London streets without fear. Although everyone else will likely be terrified at your approach.