Tuesday morning I woke up with jumbled guts and a nervous heart, but I was used to the drill, I’d gone through this many times already. I drank my camomile tea with two bags stewing for my nerves and then set out for a twenty-minute highway drive to Dungarvan, County Waterford in South East Ireland for my fourth go at the driving test. I was allowed to drive there by myself because I was on my second provisional license (the quasi-equivalent to a Canadian Learner’s license, but you can drive alone with it*).
When I first moved to Ireland and went in to show my Canadian driving license in the hope of swapping it for an Irish one it was a no go. They practically laughed me out of the office. My license was no good here now that I was a resident in this green land of tiny, winding roads and boreens leading to the edge of blustery headlands. I had to start from scratch and now, after two years of trying, the pressure was really on as the minister had suddenly declared new rules for provisionals! No more driving alone.
“Your driving is out the window!! I don’t know what to do with you, stop the car, Sophie, for God’s sakes, Stop the car!”
Driving on the left side of the road was the least of my problems. Going from driving an automatic to a stick shift was a much more serious issue, that and the Irish concept of what constitutes a two-way road is downright hilarious to the Canadian psyche. Still I jerked my way through the gears carefully down those narrow roads, assuming a little roughness around the edges would get smoother with practise and that it wasn’t such a big deal. My jerkiness was however enough to fail two tests that I’d waited over a year to get! My third test was terminated before I even got to turn my key in the ignition, my key with the lucky rabbit’s foot—one of my signal lights had blown just before the test. Broken light = failed test.
I was desperate to pass this time around. My daily commute to work was killing me. It took four hours, catching rides, hitching from spooky strangers, taking a maddening bus with deafening top 10 nightclub music pounding all the way to Cork and then getting out only to have to hoof it the rest of the way rain or shine, and let’s face it, usually rain. By the time I got to work I was a sweaty, wrecked mess of a person ready for a massage, therapy and some painkillers.
I had a pre-test lesson with Dungarvan’s top instructor, a man with a pass rate much higher than the national average. After a few minutes of me driving very carefully, checking my mirrors every two seconds, doing larger than life shoulder checks he yelled, “Your driving is out the window!! I don’t know what to do with you, stop the car, Sophie, for God’s sakes, Stop the car!”
I suggested this might not be the best approach to building my confidence. He just shook his head. Among my innumerable crimes, I hadn’t gone quickly enough around the roundabout. As he put it in Dungarvanese, I’d “get done for that.” Better Safe than Sorry, a maxim from my Canadian training, was deeply imbedded in my psyche and no longer applicable in this context. Teach told me I’d get done for so many things that my spirits couldn’t help but plummet; I saw myself as an eighty-year-old hitching rides on sheep just to get around.
I had been cocky (“saucy”) on my first test, as I had actually driven for two years without any incident in Canada. I had driven up hills with five inches of slippery new snow on top of black ice, I had driven the Coquihalla through the Rocky Mountains. I had driven in blizzards with snowflakes the size of small dogs and apocalyptic snowdrifts reducing visibility to zero. I also had a motorcycle license. I was a grown up, dammit.
So I was shocked when I failed so dramatically that first time. It is true though that Canadian roads are much wider, flatter and don’t have nearly as many potholes etc. And driving in Ireland does require a whole new skill set of pulling into ditches on roads that the rampaging Vikings built way back when. Even the stop signs are at funny, unexpected angles.
I’ve learned over the years trying to pass that the ethos here seems to be: Fail them and then let them drive home while the Canadian approach is more Pass them and get those rookies on the road. My teacher swore by the Irish system. He’d been to America and couldn’t believe how easy their test was in comparison. I would love to know who has the safest roads in the world.
The part of the test I was most worried about was undoubtedly the reverse bend which just involved literally reversing around a bend, fairly close to the curb the whole way, without mounting the footpath. Mustn’t mount the footpath! It wasn’t that it was so difficult, but rather that you could so easily get performance anxiety doing it. I had failed my first test with one harmless little curb jump. So I drove down to a parking lot by the sea to perfect my technique. People that lived in this neighbourhood must get sick of seeing all these desperadoes practising their reverse bends. This was a prime bending zone and as I pulled up I watched a driver in a lime green Beetle reverse beautifully before driving away.
There had been gale force winds since the previous evening and the sea was busy raging. The sun was fighting to poke through the dense clouds. Its beams hit all the whitecaps creating a kind of mystical light and a strong glare. I practised over and over again, hoping to tap into the Zen of the reverse. After sixty reverses, I could barely remember which way was forwards.
All the while I noticed a little old lady with a black shawl over her head walking along the seafront, every now and then pausing to admire the boisterous sea. On my seventieth successful reverse around a bend, I paused to massage my sore neck from cranking it to the left. She approached the car, obviously wanting to say something. I rolled down the window, worried I was going to get busted for polluting the air with all that unnecessary exhaust. The light shone behind the woman and she took out a hankie to wipe her drippy nose. She looked very old and very sweet with her gentle brown eyes and turtle skin.
“You are doing very well, my dear.”
“Thanks, I’ve got my test today,” I smiled at her, grateful for the cheerleading.
“Oh,” she said, deeply sympathetic, “what time?”
“Okay then, I’ll say a prayer for you at 12:30. Try to relax, Dear,” she said as she took out her navy blue rosary beads from her trench-coat pocket and carefully rubbed them so I could see she meant business.
Now I’m not particularly Catholic but she just looked so freaking holy it had to be good karma.
I went to my test with yet another humourless tester. There’s zero small talk with these guys. I felt I was doing a good job of it, yet I had paused a bit too long at a roundabout and possibly coasted on the clutch once or twice. I had felt his eyes on my feet, looking at my pedal control. All through my manoeuvres he scribbled on the dreaded yellow testing sheet. I had absolutely no idea what the result was. It seemed to me from my failing past, that it was all nuance and subtle things that are the difference between passing and failing this elusive exam. I parked the car and we did the long walk up to the office in silence––the walk of horror I was doing for the fourth time. I reckon they have a silence policy for the walk; I’d noticed all four of my testers had had the same clamped mouths. My guts squirmed, my forehead sweated, my breathing sped up as I visualized all the months ahead of trying again, re-applying, psyching myself up, taking more god-awful lessons from Mr. Out The Window, going for more reverse bends.
“You passed,” he said.
And I finally exhaled into one of the highest moments of my time in Ireland so far. The relief was profound. I’m pretty sure my victory was all down to that little old lady’s prayer. Thanks to her I was finally emancipated from being driven around the bend on my commute––traffic here I come!
An excerpt of this article was published at mycow.eu in 2004.
*Rules for Provisional Licenses were changed in 2008. Please check with your local licensing authority for details.