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.

24 commentaires:

  1. If you ask me, learning to drive in Europe is pure torture. I'd rather learn to drive in... well, even China would be easier! Getting a French license is ridiculously expensive and difficult and cities weren't built for cars, unlike in North America.

    I learned to drive in France and it was an awful experience. It took me years to get over my fear of driving. I finally got my license in Ottawa and I've been doing better at driving alone. Mark was actually the reason why I started driving again, I needed to get out of the house last winter!

    I wish you could have come with your husband in Ottawa (yeah, I'm sure you wish too, sorry, unproductive comment here!)

    1. Yes, it was torture. The British driving test is so hard - the examiners look at everything and nothing gets past them.

      I'm sure that learning to drive in China is easier. I remember walking in Beijing and everyone, I mean everyone, was honking their horns. They weren't honking to warn you of danger, but the message was rather, "I'm coming so get out of my way now or I'm going to run you over."

      Yes, I've read your posts about driving. I'm pretty sure that if I lived in Canada I wouldn't be so afraid of driving either. Well, I guess the good thing about learning how to drive in Europe is that afterwards driving in North America is easy. It's a walk in the park compared to European driving.

  2. I feel your stress because I have to learn how to drive manual (we only have one car, and it's a manual)...I'm so stressed! I normally like driving but in Canada. In an automatic. Crossing my fingers it won't take me all summer to learn to drive stick!

    1. Why don't you guys just trade in your car for an automatic one? Anybody who can drive a manual can drive an automatic so it would make more sense for you and Max. But I guess it probably costs more.

      Yes, even with my limited experience driving in Canada I can say that it's a lot less stressful driving over there.

      For me the problem is not learning how to drive a manual car - it is learning how to handle aggressive European driving. It is hard to learn how to drive stick, but once you get used to it and you know your car, it becomes automatic. I guarantee you, if you know your car, you instinctively change gears. You can "feel" when you have to change by the how the motor and car are reacting. If your motor is growling you need to move up a gear. You'll know because the noise eventually gets unbearable and you feel pressure because you're trying to go faster, but the car can't because it needs a higher gear. If your car starts shaking then you have to move down a gear asap or drive faster.

      Luckily you already have many years of experience driving both in Canada and in France. I resisted an automatic car for so long, but now I am starting to think that I should just drive one if it could get me to relax a bit when driving.

  3. There are a lot of awful drivers out there who I WISH would realize they should not be driving. So I would never judge someone for not thinking they're up to it. Which is not to say that you should quit trying if it's something you want to do!

    1. Yes, there are a lot of bad drivers and those are exactly the people that prevent me from being on the road. I'm so afraid of them that I'd rather just stay away from driving.

      Then again, I'm not innocent. All it takes is one judgement error, for good and bad drivers alike, and it's all over. That's what scares me the most.

  4. I sold my car two years ago, to fund this trip here and I can't tell you how much I miss it. I feel like my lifeline has gone, my independence. Now, not only can I not work, but also I can't drive. I imagine passing your test in the UK would be harder than in Canada, but I would have thought driving in the UK would be easier than in France. Woah - imagine having to learn in Italy, though. That would terrify me!

    1. Yes, but I thought you could drive in Canada with a UK licence? You just need to exchange it as the UK and Canada have a driver's licence exchange agreement. Then you could drive Luke's pick-up truck just like a Canadian! I'd love to see a post on that - Holly driving a Canadian pick-up truck. Brilliant!

      I find UK drivers are really considerate and not aggressive. I think there's a lot less speeding in the UK and drink driving than in France. So yes, it is definitely easier to drive in the UK. However... I still think it's harder to learn in the UK because of all those pesky two way town roads. I don't know, but for some reason I find that in the UK there are always cars parked along these roads blocking one direction of traffic. So you either have to wait while the other side passes or try to find 'gaps'. This is what drove me crazy about the UK. In France, unless somebody has stopped to greet somebody or run into a shop, both directions are clear. In general, I find the roads wider in France. Those UK country roads with the high stone walls are scary for a learner driver.

  5. I think you need a motivation to drive, something you want to do so much that driving is the only option to get there.
    I'm like in certain ways. I didn't dare to drive in France for the first several years, until the day I needed to go for job interviews. So I took up the courage, then I needed to drive to work, all these forced me to drive. But until now, I'm scared to drive in downtown, or places that are jammed pack with cars. I still couldn't drive to my client site in downtown, but I need to overcome that fear.

    1. Yeah, well, there is no way I could ever drive to work every day. It's not worth it given the state driving leaves me in. That's part of the reason why I work from home.

      I won't even drive downtown with my husband guiding me. I did that once and no way I will ever do it again. I admire your courage as you do spend a lot of time on the road.

  6. One time I tried to get home from another town in my state and ended up going for miles in the wrong direction before I found my way home. Okay, actually that happened twice. I was on the highway and didn't know where to exit, so I just kept going for a while.

    I agree with Bee Ean that having a specific motivation to do something makes you finally do it. I used to be uncomfortable driving on the highway, but then I wanted to go somewhere that involved taking the highway, and it became easier with time.

    1. Actually I am more comfortable driving on the highway in France. Well, I should correct that. I am comfortable as long as there is not too much traffic.

      I've done a lot of driving on highways when we still had our car. We would take it to go on my husband's business trips. I helped him drive to Spain and Germany with that car as well as going all around France. Unfortunately, it hasn't become easier with time for me.

    2. I'm impressed that you've driven in several countries!

  7. I was super nervous when I started driving (around 18-19, which was late by NZ standards, where back in the day you could start at 15). Once my driving instructor even had to take me for ice cream and eventually he suggested I switch to an automatic car, so although I've had lessons in a manual since, I'm still pretty shaky. I have some horror stories from the time I had to get someone else at work to reverse my car out of a space after somehow manoeuvring it so close to another car that the side mirrors overlapped, to the time I got wedged on the side of a building and had to be lifted off by some helpful burly men. I'm not sure whether I'll ever drive here, the longer I leave it the scarier it seems!

  8. I have a feeling that it would have been easier for you if you had learned to drive in Canada first, where it is much less stressful, there is more space and ultimately less cars on the road. This would have allowed you to build up your confidence in your ability to drive before confronting the sometimes overwhelming experience of driving in Europe.

    I personally have always loved driving...in the US. And my recent experience driving in Canada was quite pleasant as well. But driving in France still scares me, though not as much as it used to. I have finally built up the courage to drive alone to nearby places - La Poste, the supermarket, etc - but I'm still terrified to drive downtown in larger French cities. And the thought of ever having to drive l'Etoile in Paris makes me cower in fear. Highway driving doesn't bother me though and my experiences driving in other European countries (mainly Croatia and Germany) were much less intimidating than driving in France. I just feel like French drivers are overly agressive and people rarely follow the rules of the road which stresses me to the max. It's not that way in Ohio, we respect the rules (except maybe the speed limit) which makes driving less stressful for everyone. Of course, I got my French license through the exchange so techinically I don't even know the rules here, but combine all of that with what I find to be very confusing streets and indications and in my opinion it's just an overwhelming disaster.

    That said, everyone tells me I just need to practice more in order to become comfortable, but I drive a decent amount here, and even alone sometimes, and I still don't feel any more comfortable driving in dense urban areas. I'm also lucky in that I learned to drive a manual in the US so I didn't have to tackle that as well, and I started driving a manual years after learning to drive on an automatic so I didn't have to learn it all at once. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to combine all those factors and I think that if I had had to learn to drive in Europe I would have really struggled too. Maybe you should try driving more when you are in Canada later this summer to build up your confidence in less stressful conditions?

  9. I think it took me over 70 hours in France, and it was the third time I passed the practical exam. I was very freaked out at first, going from automatic to manual. There are still times I wonder how I did it. Everyone has their own learning curve. I cried with my American high school instructor, so there's really no shame in it.

  10. Listen to your own advice: don’t give up! It’s your anxiety that’s taking away your presence of mind while driving. You’ve got to learn how to relax, so that you can remain focused on the road. Maybe you should practice on places that are less intimidating, and wait until driving becomes more natural to you before you drive onto those roads and places that scare you. Good luck!

    Verna Scott @ Greenville Driving School


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