Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis - Part of the Trailing Spouse Bog | Defining Moves

Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis

Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis - Part of the Trailing Spouse Bog | Defining Moves

I miss the day to day contact with friends who were part of our lives on previous assignments, which is why, when my son and a friend from LA were happily comparing iPod playlists in the car yesterday, I was listening in and enjoying fond memories of time spent with people we love and luckily, have not lost touch with.

This warm and fuzzy moment came to a screeching halt about ten minutes in, however, when an Elvis song started filtering through the absurdly loud teenage headphones.

The last time I listened to Elvis in a moving vehicle was during the most bizarre driving lesson I have ever endured, and bearing in mind I took five attempts to pass my UK driving test and had an 80 yr old instructor who thought nothing of rapping your knuckles with the wooden ruler she carried with her for exactly that purpose, it’s saying something.

To put the experience in context, we had just arrived in LA after a 26 hour journey from Nairobi, complete with 8 hour layover in Heathrow airport.

The journey was made significantly more stressful by a series of unfortunate events, the first being the loss of my passport (complete with newly minted US visa) in Nairobi airport. It had fallen into the flaps of the English leather saddle that I was inexplicably transporting with us to LA. After 20 minutes of frantic searching and some passionate use of Anglo Saxon epithets, it was found on the floor of the airport by a passing security staff member, who was promptly kissed and hugged by every member of the family bar the Wiggy One. He simply stood by, mortified at the public family drama, and looked like he had swallowed a frog.

Our arrival into LAX was hampered by flooding in the International Terminal, and the rerouting of all 2000 incoming passengers to Tom Bradley terminal, where we were then in a fight to the death to retrieve any luggage that may have made it to the carousel.

Predictably, the saddle was to be our nemesis, and 2 hours later we were informed that it definitely was somewhere, they just didn’t know where. Our flight had landed at 6.30pm, but at 10.30pm we finally exited the airport and checked into our temporary accommodation, only to be informed that the restaurant was now closed, our room only had one double bed, and that our driving lesson and assessment was booked for 9am the following morning. It was not an auspicious start.

Walking into the foyer to meet my driving instructor the next morning, I assumed the vision before me was some sort of jet-lag fueled hallucination. It had never occurred to me that Elvis impersonators might have a day job, but apparently teaching newly arrived corporate immigrants to navigate the hazards of the Los Angeles traffic system is a good use of their skills.

I don’t have a great deal of experience with this particular anthropological group, so the next hour proved challenging. Apparently, they don’t take their vocation lightly, and despite the white rhinestone studded outfit, carpeted car dashboard with nodding hula girl and propensity to accompany every directional instruction with a swirly arm movement, you are expected to remain straight faced and focused on the matter in hand.

LA traffic is difficult at the best of times, but having the Hound Dog personified in the passenger seat for your first battle is not exactly conducive to concentration. It didn’t help that my sun visor was adorned with a photo of his 40-something girlfriend with bottle blond 80’s hair, clad in a bizarre Playboy sailor outfit complete with hat. As a first introduction to US culture, it was a doozy.

Four years of nurse training in one of London’s biggest hospitals has rendered me immune to the more extreme varieties of self expression, and frankly, after you’ve seen some of the rectal X Rays that I have, it takes more than a Bryl-Creemed quiff and a whiff of old Spice to rattle me.

Despite him announcing within the first 10 minutes that “You are a very good driver”, we continued our bizarre promenade around the streets of El Segundo, with me numbed by a combination of lack of sleep, jet lag and hunger, and him becoming increasingly more frustrated with my lack of awe at his repeated catchphrases, masculine authority and choice of profession.

Eventually, he became bored with my continued focus on the highway code and directed me to a local shopping mall where he promptly announced that he would be back in 5 minutes, exited the car, and locked it behind him, with me trapped inside.

Twenty minutes later he finally returned slurping on a milkshake, by which time I was snoring gently behind the wheel.

We finally arrived back at the hotel to find the OH pacing outside the main door, anxious to see how I had fared, and pick up any pearls of wisdom that might help in his own quest for driving excellence. I had only one:


“We’re going to need some serious cultural orientation training.”



13 thoughts on “Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis”

  1. Rachel,

    She rapped my knuckles as well when I didn’t “go around the policeman in the middle of the road” as I turned right. I never asked to see what other torture equipment she had in her bag; sounds like you came close to finding out!


    1. You have to fail five times – she became incandescent with rage. I’m thinking she may be the origination of the term Road Rage. There is a whole generation of drivers with early onset arthritis in their left knuckles and a nervous twitch on corners.

  2. By biggest problem was a narrow bridge at Burford and a cattletruck.– my driving instructor was Pam — and my first experience of her driving was going through Redditch on the back of a Vespa scooter at 45 MPH — I was terrified.

    1. Did I mention that I’m thinking of getting a Harley? What could possibly go wrong, with my driving lineage..

  3. What a coincidence – I randomly came across a Dixie Chicks track yesterday that took me instantly back to our ‘Road Trip’ to San Fran – Ify sat knees under chin in the back of a red Pontiac / Dodge (it looked good in the rental car lot) while we wailed along to all the Country Greats and took detours to Malls rather than admire the famous Coast Road 🙂 Happy days

    1. If Ify had driven, she wouldn’t have had to spend so long in the back.. Although I’m not sure we would have made it to SF, and she did do an excellent job as DJ, if a little surly about our singing. She doesn’t appreciate the finer points of early choral training.

      1. Actually, i was oscillating between having my heart was in my mouth at Sarahs driving and my hands over my ears as you were both singing. That was a lonnnnnngggg (and unforgetable)trip.

  4. Not Elvis but The Beatles… six days in the car with my first boyfriend. After two days the only cassette tapes still operational are Beatles mix tapes. Really good because they are all B-sides and deserve to be heard again and again..BUT after 72 hours there is a limit. Some months later, back in L.A., the boyfriend bets me a martini that one particular song was NOT on the tape. Dummy. I won that bet.

    1. My children are currently asking me what a cassette tape is. I told them that I’m too young to remember, and to ask you..

  5. With your driving encounter, does this mean that Elvis really is alive? All your posts bring back memories from the past but I have to say you take top prize for this one…I can’t even come close x

  6. Rachel

    Your driving instructor can’t possibly have been 80 when she taught you. She is apparently still teaching now and no doubt the ruler is stll in use

    1. Someone brave really needs to ask her age. And as I am 4000 miles away and a yellow bellied coward, that job falls to you.. Good luck. Wear protective clothing.

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