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.' 

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