Back when I was growing up, you learned to drive in your driveway and, later, thanks to the help of an older sibling or a parent. Then you took the test which on the whole was so easy it was an utter embarrassment to fail. And that was where the pressure lay, my friends. Everyone knew when you had to take your test and everyone knew just what you had to have in your possession the next day. Anything less made you a laughingstock. Those of us who were not designed with nerves of steel, let the horror of screwing up seep into your psyche for weeks ahead of the big day. Suddenly anything was possible. It’s like flubbing that two-foot gimme putt in golf that meant victory, sending that 17-yard chip shot wide in football, missing a goal two feet out with no goalkeeper around, or sending the front bumper into the pylon with the egg on top in Marcia Brady style. I could see any one of those situations coming true.
But the real test was an entirely different matter. All I had to do was answer a handful of questions which appeared on the screen of a video-game style machine, get in the car and go around the block. I took four right turns and coasted the vehicle back into the parking lot. The examiner said I was a good driver and all that raced through my head was “How the hell do you know? I haven’t done anything.” And I was right. But, hey, if he insisted. The rest was left to experience, which happens to be a fairly American way of doing things.
Seven years later, back in Spain, I learned that getting a permit to drive was something that required months of pain and suffering. It was no wonder so many people my age didn’t have their license yet; especially women, who seemed to crumble under the pressure of such high masculine expectations, especially at a time and in a country where female driving skills were even more lowly regarded.
The strain was brutal. The nervousness, exponential. I once heard about a woman who was told by her examiner to “Please, take a right as you leave,” which in Spanish she interpreted as meaning that she was to abandon the car by going over the passenger’s seat and out the right door. The thing was, the examiner was sitting in that seat and she only realized this misunderstanding as she was climbing over him.
I got away with murder, though. I didn’t have to take the test because, back then, if you had an American driver’s license, you could get it validated for 5,000 pesetas and voilá. Many Spanish families knew this too. So they would send their kids over toAmericato learn English and live with a family for a few months and, while there, have them get their license. It was an investment.
The authorities inSpainpicked up on this and decided that anyone with an American driver’s license, be they Spanish or American, had to go through the local process again. And that’s the way it stands.
There is something to be said for this. I, for example, did not know how to drive stick shift. Most Americans don’t. And you can’t get very far in this country if you can’t use a manual transmission. The Spanish talk about how boring it is to use automatic, and they do have a point, but I also think it’s a macho thing. Real men don’t drive automatic cars…until they get one.
I learned how to use standard on the streets ofMadrid, and I tell you, it ain’t fun. Other drivers don’t appreciate your presence and you wish they would all just go home and leave you alone for about an hour so that you could sputter through the empty streets peacefully.
I easily lost ten pounds through pure sweat. But I got there.