Mastering the Life-Changing Art of Driving in a Foreign Country

I can be hard on myself about certain ways in which I handle living abroad. Awkward language-barrier encounters, not being assertive enough, not having local friends. But one thing I’ll say outright that I deserve kudos for: Driving a car in foreign countries.

To know why this is especially commendable in my particular case, we’d have to go back to when I was getting my driver’s license in Plymouth, Mich. Detroit’s car obsession permeates to nearby towns like spilled motor oil, but I have never been all that interested in cars. Still, I went to driver’s ed for a month or so like everyone else, but when it came time to take my test, I realized that while I had a rough idea of how to drive, I didn’t know how to park. Like at all. The look of disbelief on my dad’s face as he watched me maneuver the car all sorts of ways except correctly when trying to back in between cones is something I will never forget. I failed the test before even getting on the road.

I eventually got a license. Maybe once I backed out of the driveway in my mom’s car and hit my dad’s car. Maybe once I accidentally went to Canada on my way home from the orthodontist. Maybe once my friend and I spent three hours looking for my car after a Dixie Chicks concert.

These transgressions aside, my parents bought me a car that I took to college and I loved being able to drive from Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan or back home to Plymouth whenever I felt like it. When I moved to Washington DC, I was only too relieved to sell that car because it seemed that DC had it all and why would I want to drive elsewhere? I could easily get around on foot or by Metro, or in cabs when I was feeling splurgy. That began an eight-year stretch of my life in which I didn’t drive much. Occasionally I’d rent a Zipcar to go cover meetings for work. Once, I somehow ended up driving two National Geographic employees to a forest in Virginia in my best friend’s rickety Jeep, praying the whole time they’d not notice how uncomfortable I felt behind the wheel when really I should have been concerned that I had nothing in common with these women yet was about to do a six hour hike with them.

Adam and I didn’t have a car in Yemen and were instead driven around in armored vehicles. I didn’t mind that, because no way would I have been up driving in a city with no traffic lights and a not insignificant risk of bombs and kidnappings.

We were also carless in Madrid, where we just took the subway and trains everywhere. But in Jerusalem, having a car felt necessary. We lived too far out, cabs were expensive, and I wanted to be able to get myself places, like to the forest, or to the significantly cooler city of Tel Aviv.  A car felt like both an escape and a way to connect with others. But I was worried because I hadn’t driven in years, except for the times I borrow my dad’s car to drive from my parents’ house to the CVS down the road, and even then, Dad is usually like “Doesn’t Adam want to drive?” I was nervous also because Jerusalem is filled with sharp-elbowed people who will honk your ear off for the slightest perceived offense. What if I got in an accident and someone is screaming at me in Hebrew and I panic and just go run into the hills? All the fears I had of driving in Jerusalem were allayed after a trip to frenetic, chock-a-block Delhi. If people drive there, and they do, then surely I could figure out driving in Jerusalem, where there are ample stoplights and signs and people generally follow the rules of the road. So in 2016, we bought a 2007 Honda from a diplomat and after a simple eye test and some paperwork, I had an official Israeli Driver’s License. The first time I really drove the car was when I dropped my friend off at the airport in Tel Aviv. She actually drove there and then I got in the driver’s seat, turned on some music, and I was off. After five minutes of nervousness I realized driving a car is just like riding a bike, or rather, just like driving a car. It all comes back. And if you’re in Israel, you learn to get real quick with the horn. The horn speaks multitudes in Israel.

When my parents, along with my aunt and uncle, came to visit us in Jerusalem in 2017, I borrowed a minivan so we could all fit in one vehicle and played chauffeur for my family who still saw me a certain way. How your family sees you is not as fluid as *insert second car simile here i dunno maybe something about gas or brake fluid?*. What I mean is how your family sees you is molded by when you pedaled your pet dagu George to a weird pets contest three blocks away but then couldn’t find your way home or the time you pooped in a McDonald’s parking lot when you’re two years old and they called you “McNugget” for years.

During that 2017 trip, I drove my family to the beach in Tel Aviv, pulled U-ies in Bethlehem, and most perilously, chugged up the narrow and steep roads of the Mount of Olives, navigating the van into a donkey alcove to let a big tour bus of Russians pass us. Someone said from the backseat “You’re actually a good driver!” I stopped the car, right outside the Garden of Gethsemane and told my lawyer uncle to please draw up an affidavit stating that they believe me to be a good driver and we’d all sign it and I’d keep in the glovebox next to the registration.

Adam and I bought our Jerusalem car with us to Rabat. We live in a suburb quite a ways from downtown and from public transportation so not having a car would be limiting, although cabs are very cheap. But there’s something about parking outside the medina, driving right to my beloved Oulja Artisan Village, driving to a big beautiful grocery store, driving to the hardware store, that just makes me feel like I’m operating within the place rather than outside of it. And driving is fairly easy here save for an abundance of inane roundabouts in which it’s nearly impossible to tell who has the right of way. Seriously, there’s a roundabout in Rabat that has two traffic lights inside the circle. That makes no sense. Oh also, a Moroccan would only honk his or her horn in very dire circumstances and even then it would like just be a polite “Woops, the light has turned green, please go” type of honk. This is taking some getting used to.

IMG_0301
Adam was driving on this trip to Volubilia during this pretty sunrise.

Recently one of my best friends from my DC days came to Rabat and when I picked her up at the airport in Casablanca, she was all like “Wait, do you even know how to drive?” She had never seen me behind the wheel of the car! But soon she was impressed as I did battle with the notoriously hectic Casablanca traffic, tooled around Fez, drove down a Rabat road that was, looking back on it, most likely a sidewalk, and executed a rapid-yet-graceful righthand turn to narrowly avoid getting plowed by a van that ran a stop sign. She sent text to our group of girlfriends informing them that I was “…a race car driver, skillfully avoiding any and all obstacles on the road!”

I’m probably jinxing myself here, but I wanted to give credit where it’s due: A person with maybe a little fear of driving, or at least a major lack of confidence in her abilities, sucked it up and drives because she realizes that having wheels makes her feel freer and opens up a whole new facet to a foreign country. I have a Danish friend here in Rabat who feels the same way, although she suffered from a major fear of driving. She recently underwent hypnosis which she credits with turning her fear of driving into excitement to drive. She’s waiting on the purchase of her car to go through but says she can’t wait get to get behind the wheel.

To driving in a foreign country,

Emily

 

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