Driving forces – Cultural Observations of the (incompetent) Trailing Spouse..

When you are a relocating trailing spouse, cultural orientation comes in many forms. I had a British driving moment yesterday, which bearing in mind I’m in the US, is not such a good thing. I was turning out of a petrol (gas) station, and without thinking, ended up on the left side, much to the alarm of the guy in the truck coming towards me..

It’s one of the many curses of the expatriate life. No sooner do you get a valid driving license, than you are relocated to parts unknown where the rules are completely different, the steering wheel is on the wrong side, and the potential for disaster is immense.

Take Britain, for instance. Much to my driving instructor’s exasperation, it took me four years and five attempts to pass my driving test, and not before I could juggle, had a degree, and could legally inject people with controlled substances. My first car was an ancient Volkswagen Golf, which had a steering wheel on the right, a gear stick in the middle, and a cassette player that gradually ate its way through my music collection.

The rules of the road in Wales are simple and mainly involve staying on your own side of the road and taking your foot off the accelerator when the word “ARAF” appears in large white letters on the tarmac. While the correct translation is “slow”,  it usually signals impending doom, anything from a single lane blind bend to a large combine harvester blocking the road.

Other potential obstacles include large dairy herds (twice daily for milking), errant sheep (for every one you can see in the road, there’s three more waiting to jump out of the hedge), tractors with large blades attached, and the fact that every piece of relevant highway information is in Welsh.

Oh, and most of the roads are single track  back roads with 12 ft high banks of granite cunningly camouflaged by primroses, designed in ancient times to lure the unwary tourists of the future to lose their wing mirrors, passenger door paintwork, and no claims bonuses..

Just when you’ve mastered rudimentary Welsh and the emergency stop, the internal driving obstacles appear – children.

Suddenly, keeping your eyes on the road is made impossible by the sight of a small person behind you sticking foreign objects up a nostril, rubbing banana into the upholstery, or (my personal favorite) opening the door while passing the Swindon exit at 70 mph on the M4.

Car manufacturers fail to allow for multiples of children, of different ages and developmental abilities, ‘helping’ you by making sure the child lock is on for their little sister while you are loading the car. I invented the term “Rodeo driving’ – the art of hanging on to the steering wheel with one hand, while swiping furiously at the rear seat with the other in an attempt to stave off the latest catastrophe, usually involving sibling near death experiences.

There needs to be a “Highway Code for Parents” which outlines just what driving actions are to be taken when Offspring No.1 decides to feed large lumps of banana to (newborn and now somewhat purple) Offspring No.2, and the nearest motorway service station is 14 miles away.

Lest you think there are no advantages to having children in the car, however, I must confess that the only speeding ticket I never received was when I had my 8 day old son in the car with me, and was stopped for doing 37mph in a 30 mph zone. Inexplicably, I was on my way to the Other Half’s office with an enormous batch of homemade profiteroles, which were wedged firmly in the lap of my newborn. The policeman took one look at my red-rimmed eyes, my hormonal state, and my infant son buried under dessert for 30, and obviously decided that this was one he didn’t want to have to try and explain in court.

Accidents in Wales were greeted with little drama. Most of the vehicles on the road already bore the scars of the stone banks, the narrow bridges and the supermarket shopping trolleys, so minor scuffs were no cause for alarm.

More serious accidents involved calling the police, who rather enjoyed the chance to drive really, really fast to the only interesting thing that had happened that week, and then make sure they got a very detailed family history so that they could tell on you to your mother, your boss, and all their mates down the pub.

Fast forward eight years, and the Other Half relocates to Kenya. Despite his many and varied promises for help, support and gifts, what he really meant was “I’m going back to work on Tuesday, so here’s a 4WD vehicle, a very out of date map, and a sticker to get through the security gate. Have a magical day”. Although the road signs were all familiar, the interpretations were very, very different, and can be summed as ” avoid the potholes; only stop when there is a policeman watching”.

The roads were appalling, with the tarmac laid over red soil, so that every rainy season, the supporting earth was washed away from underneath, and huge, axle-breaking chasms appeared. New ones could be easily identified by the white toyota corollas stranded at strange angles, or upended matatus (13 seater minibuses which are the main public transport) with amused commuters watching while the driver and conductor valiantly attempt to restore it to its wheels.

Accidents in Kenya are commonplace – rarely did a day go by without seeing a bus on its roof, having veered too close to the steep sides of the road. And yet not once did I see anger on display, either on the road or off it. Horns blared constantly, driving was an extreme sport, and yet apologies were standard, and the worst insult I ever heard our driver, Gerishom, offer, when witnessing a particularly disastrous piece of speeding, was ‘You see, this man? He is not very good at his job.”

Enter Los Angeles, where they drove on the wrong side of the road, turned right on red lights, and never, ever used  their indicators. The vehicles were huge and covered with tribal decals(everything from satanic symbols to Girl Scout logos), people passed you at high speed on both sides, horns blared constantly, and the anger was palpable.

Especially on the school run. I have never seen such aggression, and from women who were on their way to explain how “Character Counts” to eight year olds. The size of the vehicle was inversely proportional to the number and age of the children, and woe betide you if you paused a nanosecond to long at a stop sign en route to school. These women may only be a size zero, but they were fueled by days at the gym, caffeine and hunger. They were the maternal version of napalm.

Accidents in LA can only be resolved with the help of lawyers, three months of physical therapy and an astronomical insurance premium. Million dollar ‘umbrella’ insurance provides the liability version of the airbag, and the focus was less on actual injury and damage and far more on emotional distress and potential future incapacity. And never, ever say sorry. It said so on your insurance documents..

Ironically, the only time I have ever been hit by a car was in LA. Heavy traffic, stop lights every 200 metres, and a driver behind who was changing radio station, all combined to insert the front of his car into the rear of mine. We both pulled into a side street, where the offending driver jumped out and, ignoring all insurance guidelines, proceeded to apologize profusely, and check my somewhat battered Volvo for (additional) damage. In true British fashion, I politely told him that all was well, I had sustained no injuries, the car was fine, and thanked him for actually stopping to check on my welfare. He looked at me like I had grown an extra head, got back in his car and sped off into the dense traffic, with me waving gaily behind.

Gerishom would have been proud..


6 thoughts on “Driving forces – Cultural Observations of the (incompetent) Trailing Spouse..”

  1. So many comments to make….where to begin..LOL! Welsh street signs…the ones I’ve seen have NO vowels and two LL’s make a clacking sound.

    “Rodeo driving” is international; universal.

    Hahahahaha! “Have a magical day..” LOL. You stoic people.

    Your description of L.A. traffic is spot on! I can’t believe you didn’t get the other guy’s insurance info. Not here in Ca long enough at that time, I guess. You are being kind about the driving experience here in your new hometown. Well after all, you do have to live here in peace with the herd of designer family vans, Hummers and enlightened hybrids.

  2. Very funny and frighteningly true! DH and I refused to drive in Baku and Cairo and placed our trust in an assortment of drivers, taxis and the Almighty. My one criteria for accommodation was that it be within walking distance of a grocery store so that on days I felt particularly faint-hearted I could avoid driving altogether, although of course I still had to dodge it on both roads and sidewalks.

    1. I was never savvy enough to have thought of the walking distance element.. Yet another thing to put on a ‘what to look for when you’re finding accommodation’ checklist!

  3. Ha! This is awesome… (… and YES, yes I am commenting on a post you published last year. Because your writing is funny, I’m reading through the archives, and I am a master procrastinator). I haven’t been brave enough to attempt the Japanese driving lesson (which they only require for Americans since America requires it for them and other European countries don’t). I’m trying to enjoy life without a car, and relying on the mass transportation, which is pretty good here. However, if we stay here long enough, I can see myself breaking down, getting myself the smallest Toyota known to man, and taking a driving lesson. Ugg… dreading that day!

    1. Ooh, better late than never! Please let us know how your first driving lesson goes – preferably with plenty of near misses and language gaffes?

  4. Yes! Okay, I am also just finding this now… I am also Welsh, left my job teaching in London in January to move to Los Angeles with my boyfriend’s job, still learning how to drive here… I just don’t have kids yet, otherwise this is spot on for me! Have been having a bit of a rubbish day: fed up of relying on my boyfriend for financing anything (I am waiting on the money to activate a US bank account for me, we’re still in the interim phase of me having to ask every time I run out of cash… for eight months), and finding having to walk, bus or cycle everywhere a bit of a nuisance. I failed my driving test in February and haven’t taken any lessons since, thinking that it would be better to just practise in the car with my man – but getting his Cal license and putting me on the insurance has taken up until now… I guess I was feeling a bit frustrated at the total lack of control! Anyway, your blog has cheered me right up – thank you 🙂

    Any advice you have on making friends in LA would be really useful – I have been to several failed Meetups, tried and failed at volunteering, still haven’t got past pleasantries with the neighbours, and although my boyf’s work friends are really nice and our main social group, they not people I’d call on to have a cup of coffee with – besides, how do I find all the people who are free in the daytime? Sometimes I think it would be easier to just have kids so I could meet other mums…!

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