I have had my international driver’s license off and on for many years, yet I have never actually used it. I live in France now, so here’s my chance.
From our home in Palavas Les Flot, it takes 1 hour 30 minutes to arrive at Andrew’s school in Montpellier. It requires a bus ride, a trip on a tram, followed by an additional bus ride. I was spending 6 hours a day carting my kid back and forth to school.
That was NUTS!!! I can’t believe I did it for 3 weeks. Anyway I’d been searching for a long term affordable car rental option, when a new friend offered me her car. She was buying a new car, a Nissan Micro. She was leaving France for a month and wanted me to take her car. That was beyond generous but there was a problem. The car was a manual stick shift and I had no idea how to drive it. I had driven an automatic car for 30 years. My friend offered to give me a lesson. A second friend offered a lesson as well. So I had a total of about 20-30 minutes in driving lessons in the parking lot of a strip mall.
I did not want to harm my friend’s new car so I rented a car for a few days to “practice” and to become proficient.
WHAT AN EXPERIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I should have known when I could not get the car out of the rental car area that there was trouble ahead. I was so fearful that security cameras would catch me jerking and floundering with their car. I imagined that there would be two security guards rushing toward me in the car, tossing me out of the driver’s seat and wrestling me to the ground yelling “You can’t take this car off the lot. You can’t drive!” Of course it would be in French.
I finally made it to the exit (in French “sortie”) One of those bars that lift and lower was my last challenge to conquer before I could leave the rental car lot. Would it just stay lifted long enough for me to get pass? I approach, it lifts and the car stalls. Oh No! It lifts and lowers 3 more times before I can get past it. Luckily only 2 other rental car drivers would witness this episode.
I finally make it home but there is an electronic gate that leads in and out of our complex of little cottages. The gate opened and closed so many times but I could not get through. The cars waiting behind me finally gave up, backed up and went into the complex through the exit gate. I would have done that too, but I did not know how to back up…..oh well.
In dealing with the clutch, I felt like my left foot and leg were invited to a party and didn’t know the latest dances. It was an awkward feeling. I had the hardest time coordinating the clutch and the gas. The car just kept stalling on me. I would attempt to get the car moving and it would cut off repeatedly.
I took Andrew to school for the 1st time in the rental car. It was a nightmare. The car stalled 15 times (it was actually more times — but I am too embarrassed to even write the actual number of stalls) There is not a driver in France that isn’t mad at me. Andrew goes to school in a city, so there is rush hour when I deliver AND pick him up from school . A stalled car causes havoc.
Any disruption from going straight with no stops or pauses, caused me to stall that darn car. Everything was my enemy because I couldn’t keep the car running. A person crossing the street, a car stopped in front of me, a red light, an emergency vehicle needing to pass, yielding to merging traffic, having to stop and go on a hill—were all opportunities for me to have to put on the brakes and there was no guarantee that I could get moving again. Each time one of those obstacles would arise my heart would flutter, panic would set in and the dread of being stuck once again would overcome my spirit. It was beyond frustrating.
And then there are the round a bouts. These round a bouts are EVERYWHERE!!!!! They are circles that you drive around . Up to 5 streets extend off from the center. You drive around the circle until you get to the street you want then you exit the round a bout. You have to yield to traffic that is entering and exiting the round a bout before it is your turn to enter and exit. YIELD???????????? Are you kidding me?
Yielding is one of the enemies. My yielding turned into a full blown stop and can’t get started again.
I missed a turn the first day that landed me at a stop sign at a round about. This is rare because you usually just yield. I was stuck at that stop sign for 7 consecutive lights. I just could not coordinate that clutch and gas to get the car going again. A young teenager, who could not be more than 15 years old saw my dilemma and in French offered assistance. I asked him in English “Can you drive?” motioning with my hands as if they were on a steering wheel. He said in broken English “a little.” That was good enough for me. I moved into the passenger seat and let him drive. He got us started and unceremoniously jerked us across a crowded intersection and away from the red light and blaring horns. He really could not drive at all but that was still better than my driving. I prayed silently “Lord, please don’t let the police see us. I am in a car with an under aged non-driver at the wheel, a bewildered pre-schooler in the backseat and I can not explain in French or in English why I have let this happen.”
My poor son sat in the backseat secured in his junior car seat through this ordeal. Every once in a while he would say “Mommy the cars are piling up behind us again.” Although I really wanted to understand the French language I was relieved that I did not understand the obsenities being yelled at me by French drivers that morning. This insanity went on for 3 days.
Maybe I should have pretended there was something wrong with the car. I could have turned on the emergency flashing blinkers, then go around to the back of the car and push my son to school. European cars are so small. I think I can possibly push one or maybe another person would feel sorry for me and help push.
I wanted to just give up and retreat back to the bus/tram/bus routine that I had become accustomed to.
Then I had to give myself a reality check. I had managed to come half way around the world to live, without knowing a soul in France, with a young child! A darn stick and clutch were not going to beat me down. I searched the Internet, specifically Youtube for videos on how to drive a manual car.
Once I was safely back home I was determined to learn to drive. I practiced all morning in the parking lot. In the beginning I could get the car moving 2 out of 10 tries. I kept at it until I could get it moving 7 out of 10 times. I kept turning on the ignition each time it would cut off. I am sure I was driving my neighbors crazy but I did not care. I had to get better.
Then my friend Sonja taught me (via e-mail) how to use the clutch, gas and brake to move with fluidity. Now Andrew and I zip around all of France, like we’ve been driving a stick shift all our lives.