dimanche 15 juin 2014

My driving hall of shame

I have a bunch of posts in mind, but today I have this sudden urge to talk about my driving experiences, or rather, my non-driving experiences.

When I was 16 and living in Canada my parents gave me a couple hundred dollars to start driving lessons on my birthday. I remember in the months leading up to that day I told everyone that I was going to start lessons as soon I turned 16. I was so excited.

My birthday came and went. What did I do with the money? I put it in my account and forgot about it. I don't know why I suddenly had a change of heart because I was jealous of my peers, most of whom already knew how to drive as I was one of the youngest in my class. But I guess I never really did follow exactly what other people were doing (university, settling down, career, buying a car, etc.). On hindsight, this is one thing that I wish I had done then.

I didn't learn how to drive until 10 years later when I was living in the UK. Between the ages of 16 and 19 (when I was still in Canada), I told everyone that since I was moving to Europe I should learn how to drive there, that I wanted to drive a manual car and that I had to get used to European roads. Then when I moved here I was travelling and didn't have much money so years went by without me giving much thought about learning.

I reasoned with myself by saying that it would be easier to learn when I was older and had more life experience.

That is actually untrue. Statistics show that the older you are, the longer it takes you to learn how to drive and that it takes women longer to learn how to drive than men. If you think about it, it is precisely because you have more life experience that you take longer - young people are not always aware of the dangers of life, while older people think twice about decisions, sometimes too much. Also, just think about how easy it is to learn how to ride a bike when you are a kid - you are afraid, but you want to try and you are like a sponge. As an adult, you think of anything and everything that could go wrong. You hold back.

I should have learned how to drive when I was 16. Of course I would have had a long adjustment period upon arrival in Europe anyway, but that pales in comparison to having to learn how to drive here. If I already knew how to drive, I would have had a basis on which to build upon arriving here.

Whenever I tell people in France, expats (not Brits) and natives alike, that I learned how to drive in the UK, they often say something like, "Well, that's a lot easier than in France, lucky you."


Yes, the administrative procedures are much easier. A hundred times easier. And the written test is much easier as well. Not to mention the fact that it was in English. But what most people don't know is that the pass rate for the practical test in the UK is actually lower than in France. At least this was true in 2009 when I passed; France's rate was at around 49% if I remember correctly, while the national UK pass rate was 43%. My theory is that France's pass rate is around 50% because they do the test in pairs. So one person usually 'looks' better than the other and that person will pass while the other will fail even though the person who passed actually drives badly too (but compared to the second person they drive well) or both candidates drive well enough to pass, but the examiner fails the one who drove worse because the other candidate drove really well. Does this make any sense?

This is why I'm against the French testing ways. I don't want my score to be somewhat based on the performance of the other person. I wanted to be tested alone. During my last few months in the UK I knew that I would be moving to France and either I would go through the system in the UK or I would have to face the French one (then I would never get the motivation to finally learn how to drive).

It was harder than I ever imagined. I think that had I known how bad I was going to be, that I would have never learned. The average person, if I remember correctly, needs 35 hours of lessons in the UK. I needed double that, plus more. It took me 35 hours of lessons (I reached this on the day I passed my written test) to finally realise that I was not a natural-born driver. One other idea I had in my head was that I thought smarter people had an easier time learning how to drive. Wrong again. I'm not saying that I'm smarter than anybody else, but most university graduates are used to (over) analysing things. Then behind the wheel we start to think of a million different things such as, "If I do this, then will this happen?" or "Maybe I should be...?" The less educated person doesn't second guess himself as much.

I remember reading on the internet about people who cried in the car in front of their instructor. I thought I would never become one of those people. But I did. On more than one occasion. It was so humiliating. Luckily I had a really nice instructor in the UK and he wasn't bothered at all. If anything, he was really nice about it.

Learning how to drive overtook my life. I had a two-hour lesson almost every day for at least two months. I spent thousands of pounds. I constantly read theory books and slept with these books in my bed. I interviewed people about driving. I drew diagrams. I was never late to my 8AM driving lessons. I practiced sitting in the driver's seat of my friends' cars. I even went around with my bike, can you believe this, to study the roads I was driving on, including all the possible exam routes. It was crazy.

It was so crazy that when my husband came over to visit with his French car I drove us around England and Wales to practice driving. That was my first time driving without dual pedals, in a car I didn't know, driving a left hand drive car on the left side of the road. In a manual car. I was that desperate to practice.

The French car I practiced on parked at the end of
a country lane somewhere near Bath. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Luckily I passed the practical test on the second try. I know that this is thanks to the fact that I had a really friendly examiner that I got along with so well. My husband doesn't think so, but I'm convinced of the fact. I came so close to failing during the test a few times. I messed up the reverse around the corner manoeuvre and was too close to the curb as I was manoeuvring. I just turned the steering wheel fully to the right and prayed that I wouldn't hit the curb as I was going around the corner. The examiner held his breath, I could hear that really clearly. I was close to that curb, so very close, but luckily he told me that I could stop before I could hit it.

People tell me all the time that I just need to practice, but I don't think that this is the case. I passed the test in 2009. In the first few years after, I was enthusiastic about driving and pushed myself to practice. Then, as the years went on and I saw that I wasn't getting any better, I gradually drove less and less. I have never driven alone in France and the only time I managed to drive alone ever was to go around my parents' neighbourhood in Canada in an automatic rental car. I honestly feel that I was never meant to be a driver no matter how much I practice (and please don't leave a comment telling me that 'all I need to do is practice').

The first dream I ever remember having was a driving nightmare. Even my 5-year-old self knew I was never meant to be a driver. I have regularly been having driving nightmares ever since.

We had a car (well, it was my father-in-law's car) for a few years here in Bordeaux. I never once took it to drive anywhere alone. Once I drove with my neighbour guiding me to visit a friend living across the city. I slept badly the night before, tossing and turning.

I would leave the car in the parking lot, taking double the time to go to appointments far away by public transport or by bike.

The worst thing is driving my husband to the airport, or rather, my non-driving my husband to the airport. Yesterday my husband flew to Ottawa (yes, I know, he's with my family in Ottawa while I'm sitting in my den alone). He had a lot of bags and couldn't take public transport. So what happened? My neighbour drove him, thank goodness. I offered to take the bus to the airport with my husband at an ungodly hour to help him with the bags. Those of you who know me know that I am a night owl. If I had just driven him there, there would have been no need to wake up so early to take the public bus. Of course I offered a nice bottle of wine to my neighbour.

The absolute worst story, and I'm pretty sure that nobody can top this, is the story about how I moved the car from the street into our parking lot. One night we came home late and there were no more spots in our parking lot. So we parked in the street, a dead-end street just 20 metres from our parking lot. I promised my husband I would move the car the 20 metres into the parking lot the next day.

The next day I paced the apartment at least half an hour before getting the courage to go downstairs into the parking lot. I walked around our residence, once, twice, a couple more times, walked around the car, walked a few times around the parking lot and went and sat in the car a few times before finally giving up and going back upstairs into our apartment. I paced in the apartment for another half hour and went back down repeating what I wrote above. My neighbours came home and saw me in the parking lot and asked me what I was up to. I was so embarrassed that I lied and told them that I was just coming back from the library. I went upstairs with them. I paced around the apartment 10 minutes before deciding that enough was enough and that I needed to move that car. I went downstairs again, marched up to the car, sat down in it, performed a three-point turn and drove into the parking lot. Of course just as I drove in, I encountered another car and nearly had a heart attack. I was driving in 1st gear at 5 km an hour - how could I have an accident? This is so pathetic. I got that car into a spot, went upstairs and needed the afternoon to stop shaking.

So that, my friends, is my driving hall of shame. My mother-in-law suggested I take driving lessons again. My husband just thinks that it's all in my head and we avoid talking about it because it just makes me mad. I probably need some kind of 'driving therapy'. I wonder if some sort of group therapy for nervous drivers exists somewhere?

I guess what I want to say is this: For anybody reading this post and who is having a hard time learning how to drive in Europe, you are not alone. And if I can do it, you can too, believe me. Please don't give up. (I should listen to my own advice...).

Anybody wish to commiserate with me? Is there anybody who hates driving as much as do? I'd love to hear your driving horror stories.

dimanche 1 juin 2014

T minus 30 days

Can you guess what this post is going to be about?

Yes, I am moving.

Can you guess where? I'll give you a hint.

Author of photo: Den Nation.

Do you remember these guys?

That's right, I'm moving to none other than...

Author of photo: Den Nation.

That's right, we're going back. In exactly one month. Well, actually now it's less than a month since it's already the early hours of June 2nd and we're leaving on the 30th.


Yes, there is a but.

This is a move that I am not entirely on board with. I have discussed this with my husband and he understands my feelings. That is not to say that I don't want to go because I definitely do want to go. There is so much that I have yet to explore up north like Latvia, Norway and Russia, places which are difficult to get to from Bordeaux, and I actually like learning Danish and living in Copenhagen. However, I don't really want to leave Bordeaux. The more I think about it, the more I feel that living in Bordeaux suits me. The thing is, though, I have already talked about this and you all know that I have just been floating along in Bordeaux (as a lot of you living in France are doing as well, so I'm not special in this regard) and in Copenhagen I felt alive it that explains anything. But... I really do love living here: the wine, the countryside, the city, the food, the weather, my friends here, my apartment, cycling everywhere, etc, etc. I don't feel some external force pulling me to leave Bordeaux.

Luckily, my husband is keeping his job here. That's the good thing about being a fonctionnaire in France - you can put your job 'on hold'. So we are going off to Denmark for 2 years, but we have the option of coming back after one year and we can even stay in Denmark for up to 5 years. After 5 years we must come back here if my husband wishes to keep his job. Honestly, though, things could go either way - we could really miss it here and want to come back at all costs or we could like Denmark so much that we wouldn't want to come back here. The thing is, working in France at the university involves dealing with a lot of paperwork and unproductive meetings. My husband is a scientist and wants to mainly focus on his work and he thinks that Denmark can offer him that. It is true, the position in Denmark is a promotion for him - he'll be at a higher grade, be paid more (even with the higher cost of living in Denmark, he'll still be earning more than in France) and have almost half of the teaching hours that he has in Bordeaux.

Yes, I said that I like learning Danish and living in Copenhagen. But do I really want to focus my attention on learning Danish? Maybe I just want to continue improving my French instead of continuing with Danish. After all, I know that it would take me years to get my Danish up to the same level as my French or Italian. Do I really want to put in all that effort?

And sure, Copenhagen is a nice city and things are easy there and relaxed. But I do like living in France, as unorganized and stressful as it may be at times. 

Anyway... there's more...

A few days after we went to Denmark and my husband signed his work contract back in March, I received a call that I have been waiting years for. For the past few years I have been applying for a job (the same job) and have been rejected twice. This year I almost didn't apply (you can only apply once a year) since I was going to Denmark, but decided to apply anyway just in case. Well, of course the just in case happened this year. I still don't have the job and won't know until September if I have the job or not, but in March I went through the police check which involved going down to the police station for an interview. The other years I was never called for the interview. Of course this doesn't mean anything as they could be conducting police checks on a bunch of applicants and then pick from the lot, but something tells me that come September it is going to be a yes. Just because I am supposed to leave.

The job would involve me being physically here some of the time. I wouldn't be an employee - I would be an on-call freelancer. What I need to do is to get in touch with other people who already have this job and ask them how often they get called and at what notice. I think that commuting from Denmark would be crazy, but if it were only every now and again I could handle it. However, working under this status would make me more attractive as a freelancer in France and I could more easily find more freelancing jobs with other companies or organizations. But not if I'm in Denmark - I would physically need to be present in France for this kind of work even if I am working from home. This would be a huge opportunity for me here - if I was hired I'm pretty sure that I could finally have the career that I've always wanted.

So what should I do? Nothing for the moment of course as they have not said yes. I am relying on the slowness of everything here to work in my favour. If I do get a yes, let's just hope that I can stretch out the process as long as possible and buy myself some time.

I don't want to become a weekend couple. With this kind of distance, though, I couldn't even be a weekend couple actually. My husband has a lot of flexibility with his work and I could be flexible as well with this job, but I really don't see myself going back and forth. I would hate that, I am sure of it. I am happiest with my husband at my side. But I have felt like a failure in France professionally for far too long to let this opportunity pass.

I am going to Canada this summer. I'm going to enjoy my summer with my family and friends and try not to think about the job. For now I am moving to Denmark and if I get a positive response, I'll have to re-examine my options at that time. This is not the explanation for the doubts that I raised above, however, as I had doubts about moving back to Denmark even before the possibility of this job came up.

So, will it be Bordeaux?

La Grosse Cloche gate in Bordeaux. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Or Copenhagen?

Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Only time will tell...