25 October 2015

Getting used to driving in the Czech Republic

As you might have gathered from previous posts, I am the very proud bearer of a Czech driver's license.

However, this extreme privilege comes with one major downside: I now must drive on Czech roads (fine) with other drivers in the Czech Republic (problem!).

In fairness, probably 80% of Czech drivers are perfectly acceptable.

The other 20%....

A few weeks ago, I was driving home on the motorway and some enthusiastic member of the 20% club had caused an accident which caused the whole three-lane road to be bricked for a solid, miserable 5 km. And what, I ask you, do the other drivers do?

Me, I swear a bit and become good friends with first gear and the radio. A dark calm settles on me, very similar to the feeling as one waits at the Foreigners' Police or any other of the grand Czech bureaucratic institutions.

The other 80% take a similar approach, or use the extended interval to take an impromptu roadside pee break.

However, those strange souls in the 20% start waving their arms wildly, spring into any gap between cars that is more than 15 cm wide, and make their way to the shoulder, which they commandeer into a fourth lane and zip at terrifying speeds between the overloaded trucks and the yawning ditch.

I'm pretty sure that not all of them are heart surgeons with a transplant specialty and a waiting surgical team.

A few days ago, I was driving through the village next to ours and a car came speeding up behind me. He kept trundling along until he was practically on my bumper, and then started gesturing at me from behind his windscreen.

I would like the record to show that I resisted the temptation to ease off the gas at this point.

'Just driving like my dear old Dad taught me!' I said cheerily instead. And pointlessly, of course.

I officially learned how to drive (the first time around) at 15 and a half through after-class lessons at my Junior High School. (I am now horrified when my 18-year-old students tell me they are taking driving lessons.) But my real driving approach was honed by early morning drives with my dad.

Together, we'd brave icy twilight mornings. I'd drive to school, he'd carry on to work. Along the way, he taught me the Dad Approved Way to drive.

'They'll give you tickets for going even a few miles per hour over the speed limit,' he'd tell me, with the bitterness of experience.

'Always leave plenty of room between you and the person in front.'

And the generational wisdom of: ' Take your time! As your grandmother used to say, if you wait long enough, there is always a hole.'

Driving is very different where I grew up. Traffic is ten cars waiting at the stop light on Main Street. I can't bring myself to call the main roads here in Europe 'highways'. The highways of my youth stretch for miles in straight lines, dotted by the occasional semi truck. So, 'Czech motorways' it is.

The drivers are different too.

'You really need to watch out for drivers here,' my sister warned me when we were visiting this summer. 'They are crazy.'

L and I laughed a little bit. Crazy? Compared to Czech drivers?

But at soon as I got behind the wheel, it all came flooding back. A different kind of crazy.

20% of Czech drivers seem to believe they are in some timed video game and the rest of us are computer-generated obstacles.

On the other hand, 30% of drivers from my sister's town seem to believe they are dream-driving and the rest of us are invisible.

The whole experience tends to be slower, but equally terrifying and considerably more unpredictable.

As for me, I've had to adjust my driving approach somewhat. I still hover around the speed limit, but my thinking is sharper. I spend more time identifying the heart-surgeon drivers. I am more assertive.

And I've amended my grandmother's saying.

'If you wait long enough,' I mutter to myself with grim satisfaction at weaving, waving, tailgating drivers, 'there's always an a-hole.' 

03 October 2015

Studying home culture

The apples are falling from the trees in our garden. I'm sitting in a sweater with a cup of tea. Our local hedgehog was out last evening meticulously snuffling his way around looking for just a few more calories before hibernation.

Fall, glorious fall, is here again.

The boys are off to press apple cider in L's uncle's mini orchard, leaving me at home in a contemplative mood.

It's been 10 years since I left the US, and in some ways, I'm beginning to feel it.

Occasionally, students ask me about the nuances of adult-type things in the US (credit cards, job interviews) and I have to confess my ignorance, since I was a young student when I left.

Similarly, there have been a lot of social changes in the US in the past decade since I left, some of which make me feel twinges of patriotism and others that make me mutter: '...And that's why we'll never move back.'

And then there was the embarrassing incident when I informed a student that 'pic' is not generally used in spoken conversations. Still feeling a little red about that.

A few years ago, L and I were in a hotel in the US and decided to see if there was something interesting on the TV. I sat there blinking at the flashing screen, completely lost in the strange ad campaigns and bellowing TV personalities.

...And we're back! Will Jen and Rocky be ECSTATIC about the complete and total renovations that we did IN A MERE TWO HOURS or will their minds BE COMPLETELY BLOWN and not in a good way. FIND OUT AFTER THE BREAK!!!

So, to augment my receding cultural knowledge, I watch a few American TV shows, read online forums with mostly American members, and keep an eye on what my high school friends and acquaintances post on Facebook (not creepy! I swear!).

In many ways, I think it's helping me stay mostly up to date, though I suspect my knowledge of memes and slang is lagging behind.

Fortunately, since I grew up in a remote area with pretty much only a Walmart and a JC Penny's, I'm used to being a little behind on the fashionable things.

I do suspect that my Home Culture Studies are lacking in diversity of views though, since I want to read and watch things that don't make me too angry.

I was reading an interesting book a few days ago about this phenomenon - that the internet gives us much more information of a vast diversity and depth, but that we naturally self-select things that reinforce our own views and prejudices.

Give me another decade, and I'll be convinced that the US is filled with educated liberals with strong social consciousnesses and a love of quality books and ethically-produced food.

And that's why I never block people on Facebook.