Friday, 17 August 2007

Too Many Roundabouts

I believe myself to be one of the most expensively educated drivers in Scotland. When I finally passed my test, I felt a little sorry for my driving instructor: I'd suddenly dried up a huge source of his income. Still, I'll bet the amount of money he saved on gin and aspirin after he parted company with me went some way towards compensating for the loss.

Having a learner's sticker on our car got to be so embarrassing. "Is your daughter already learning to drive?" people would ask me. "Is she actually old enough?" And no, she wasn't anywhere near old enough, though at one point I figured we might as well leave the sticker there until she was: I started lessons when she was twelve and proudly peeled off that sticker shortly after her 15th birthday.

One of the reasons it took me so long to learn is that I refused to listen to the wisdom of the ages (and all my women friends) and allowed my husband to give me my first few lessons. This put us both off the idea of getting me licensed for years. But I’m also an unapologetic greenie. So even though I come from California, where not having a driver’s license is like not having running water, I’ve resisted learning how to drive for decades. I’m a great believer in using public transport, walking and cycling. All my life I’ve gotten around on buses, trains, trams, bicycles and subways – and Shank’s mare.

When we moved to a small town in Scotland, though, I knew I’d finally have to crack. I made it plain to my kids that even if I did pass my test that didn’t mean I would ferry them places they could just as easily walk to. After this face-saving gesture, I signed up for driving lessons. I figured I’d have my license in a couple of months, tops.

The first inkling I had that it might take longer was on my second lesson, when I was told to turn right at the roundabout. The problem was, I did. Turn right, that is. I don’t mean that I turned left onto the roundabout and then exited on the right, but rather that I executed a right turn into the roundabout, eliciting my instructor’s screams and speedy use of the dual control steering. In my own defence, I did exactly what he told me to do; it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t get the underlying concept.

Once I got the basic idea, I still had the problem of figuring out ‘left,’ ‘right’ and ‘straight ahead’ – especially when there were more than three exits. Directions have always been a problem for me: I got lost on my way home from kindergarten, which was only a block away from our house. As a child, before shaking hands I had to do a quick mental check of which hand I used when I wrote my name. I’ve since gotten over my early dyslexia, but roundabouts helped me revisit it. My driving instructor learned to issue clear, slowly enunciated instructions to me: "Turn left onto this next roundabout, then take the third exit."

I had dozens and dozens of lessons. I drove on icy streets, through snow, and over flooded country lanes. We idled on rural roads waiting for cattle and sheep to get out of the way, and in the evenings, when I learned how to emergency brake for badgers, foxes and deer. And there is one particular corner in Dumfries that really should be named after me considering the hours I spent there – and the fact that I first successfully backed around its curve. But still I was not ready to pass my test. Roundabouts – that’s what was holding me up.

All I had to do was see a roundabout up ahead – or that horrible, telltale roundabout sign – for my heart to fill with terror. When to enter? When to exit? Which way to look? It’s no big deal now, but back then, roundabouts made every driving a lesson a misery.

At some point my driving instructor decided that I ought to take my road test in Lanark and not Dumfries due to the fact that there were fewer roundabouts in Lanark. I was all for this, of course, but during one of my subsequent lessons, I was confused to hear my instructor say that the good thing about Lanark was that it had too many roundabouts.

Having spent two hours a week with my instructor for the better part of three years, I flattered myself that I could finally understand his toned-down Glaswegian dialect. But when he told me that all I had to worry about in Lanark was too many roundabouts, I suddenly felt like we were back to square one. I’d been doing so well up until then, both with my driving and my understanding of his spoken directions, that I hardly dared question him about this. Then he said it again and I just had to ask.

"I thought that we were going to Lanark because there weren’t so many roundabouts there," I ventured. He agreed: quite right, so we were. "But you just said that there are a lot of them there. Roundabouts, I mean." My instructor gave me a sidelong glance. "I never said that."

I frowned. "You did, though, you said so just now."

A long awkward silence followed, then my instructor spoke again in a father-to-idiot- daughter voice. "What I said was that in Lanark there aren’t very many roundabouts at all. That’s why we’re going there and not Dumfries."

We drove along in sullen silence for a few moments. From the way we were quarrelling, my instructor and I might as well be married, so no wonder I was starting to regress.

"Look," he said a little shortly, breaking the strained silence, "there are only too many roundabouts in Lanark, and when we get there, I’m going to have you go over them as many times as possible until you’ve got them sussed. Okay?"

"You just said it again!" I cried triumphantly. "You said that there are too many roundabouts in Lanark!"

This was followed by a brief silence, then a bark of laughter.

"Two, as in one-two-three! And mini as in mini and maxi! Two mini roundabouts!"


Kim Ayres said...

Brilliant :)

muncher said...

My mother's approach to getting her driver's license- Be so pregnant that the instructor is afraid any small bump will break your water. "Here's your license now get out my car!"

Brian said...

I have read a version this blog segment before -- and it still amuses me with your great narrative style.

I myself did not learn to drive until I was over 30. I did not really need to do so in my home town , as we lived within walking distance of everything essential to daily life and work.

Another reason for it was that my father would not teach me in the old Essex Super Six that he in turn had inherited from my grandfather . There would have been too much blood making the brake and accelerator pedals slippery. He was not a patient man.

But when we moved to Wagga , a car became essential . Three of my co-lecturers took it in turn to let me loose on their machines , and they, being good teachers as well as good blokes , made me proficient enough .So we bought our first car.

I then resolved that , if my wife and children wished to learn , I would give them every encouragement and do it in a strictly sane and supportive manner . All of them now drive well , and I am a pleased husband and parent about that.

Oz has a lot of distance driving on long highways , in many ways more dangerous than city driving , even with its proliferation nowadays of roundabouts and chicanes.


Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you. I still feel like putting down 'Scottish (comprehension)' when listing the foreign languages I speak.

Muncher -- Your mother is clever -- and brave. I started my lessons when I was pregnant, but soon would not comfortably fit behind the wheel. Later, I commuted to work by train up until a week before I delivered, making my fellow commuters very nervous. I used to imagine they were wondering just how many newspapers I'd need if the unmentionable happened while I was on the train.

Brian -- My hat is off to any man who can teach his wife AND kids to drive. But my hat is also off to any woman who can learn from her husband! Then again, you and your wife have already proved your superiority with the longevity of your marriage, so I am hardly surprised that you both managed this feat.

My mother had one driving lesson from my father and claimed that it was one of the most gruelling experiences of her life. My father fully concurred.

Carole said...

I did have some terrible moments learning how to drive. I may have to post it one day, or I would tell you the whole story. Although Munch was quite succint in summing it up.

I can see that roundabouts would be difficult to navigate, although perhaps not as much a heavy Scottish accent.

Katie Alender said...

Mary! You poor, brave woman.

For what it's worth, the driving in Ireland nearly killed us. There were five of us stuffed into a compact car, and everytime we came to a roundabout, the entire group went deathly silent so the driver could concentrate. What are earthquakes to traffic circles?

TadMack said...

Hah! A friend pointed me to this blog posting, as I was recently bemoaning the fact that a.) as a Californian I am a rare breed in that I didn't start driving until I was 28, and b.) we're moving to Glasgow in two weeks so my husband can attend a post-graduate program at the University.

And after this... I know for SURE I won't be driving in the UK!!!! Yay for public transportation!! I've heard of those "magical roundabouts." Um. Perhaps it's 'black magic!?'

DaviMack said...

Her husband won't be driving there, either. And I've been driving since 16, and have driven for a living. Just not up to it quite yet. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I am generally very good on roundabouts now, though I do get a little nervous in large or unfamiliar cities. We recently drove down to Birmingham, some 250 miles away, and I managed most of the driving pretty well. But the roundabouts still gave me pause and created some interesting moments. The only real worry for me was my husband's blood pressure...

Katie -- My driving instructor swore that most Americans could not handle roundabouts: apparently they only have them in Boston. I thought he was exaggerating until friends from the States visited us and I ended up a passenger in their rental car on one occasion. So help me God, our dear friend had no notion of roundabouts, and my heart never left my throat. And bless him, he thought I had indigestion.

Tadmack -- Welcome to my blog and thank you for posting! If you have a valid US license, you can legally drive for up to one year in the U.K. before they make you take your test. But I strongly recommend a lesson or two just to deal with roundabouts. Still, I agree with you about public transport. I still use it regularly, and just laugh when people ask me if something is wrong with our car.

Davimack -- Welcome to you, too, and thanks for dropping by. As for the driving, I would say go on and try it! You are really on your way to an adventure, though, so you might want to wait on it a little. I've just visited your blog, by the way, and I'm amazed at the things we have in common. Must be the Californian connection...

Bob Simms said...

An American in Scotland. You've got no chance of either understanding or being understood. No wonder you resort to writing it all down. And as ever, it's a delight to read.

Kanani said...

I can count the number of roundabouts I've driven: 3.

The first was in my hometown. It was in a suburban development and had been put there as a lark. It didn't get much traffic, so the high school kids used to drive it backwards late at night, while mooning anyone dumb enough to look.

The other two are here in Southern California. One is in Orange, the other Lakewood. And yes, they are an incredible pain!

DaviMack said...

After reading about the "magic" ones ... well, let's just say that I don't practice that kind of voodoo.

We're awfully glad that there's someone of seemingly like mind over there. :)

ERiCA said...

ROFL. This story cracked me up.

You poor thing--must've seemed like you were taking lessons forever.

Up where my parents live, they just recently got their first roundabouts. It took them a month to get it. And where I live, there are people who live here that still don't get what to do when they find themselves part of the flowing circle.

So don't feel bad! =)

Mary Witzl said...

Bob -- Yippee, you've finally got a blog! Or rather you've had it for ages, by the looks of things, but I finally know about it! Come back and visit mine often and I will camp out at yours every chance I get.

Kanani -- I feel so out of it. I didn't know that they even had ONE roundabout in California or I could have told my instructor that! And I used to go to Orange regularly (my great-grandfather used to be the mayor there, in fact...)

Davimack -- I've just checked this out and you will never catch me within 50 miles of that! Just looking at it made my mouth dry up. For God's sake, what were they thinking of creating something like that?

Erica -- Welcome to my blog, and how relieved I am to learn that there are other roundabout- challenged mortals in the world! All I want to know is, where were all of you back when I was sweating out all of those lessons? I should have had a blog then; it would have done wonders for my sanity.

A Paperback Writer said...

Okay, I am insane with jealousy that you actually LIVE in Scotland.
You dropped by my blog, but you might not have read enough to realize that I used to live in Edinburgh and I am still in love with the city.
This post cracked me up. I learned to drive at 15, but I never drove in Scotland. And roundabouts.... shudder. There are one or two very tiny ones in quiet residential neighborhoods in Salt Lake City -- and I panic every time I have to use one. NO!! My heart!! It's a roundabout!!! Run!
I would not even dare when they go the other direction.
And a Glaswegian driving instructor. Oh that just cracks me up. Even other Scots have to listen carefully to Glaswegians.
As for understanding Scots.... You might be interested to know that I had to do a great deal of research on Scots linguistics before writing my dissertation for my MSc at the U of Edinburgh (it was on Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan), and linguists agree that Scots is indeed a language, NOT a dialect. Scots and English have more differences between them than are among Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, according to several linguists. Glaswegian Scots is a dialect, as is Doric and Lallans. But Scots is a language. I bought grammar books (oh-- I'm an English teacher; I know English grammar well) and studied them, and I must agree that the linguists have a point: the grammar is often different than English.
Now, south of the border (Yes, I spent this last summer in Cambridge), they will tell you that Scots is just bad English, but it's not.
So it's just fine for you to claim understanding it as a skill. And for anyone who doesn't agree, put them in a cab with a chatty Glaswegian driver and then test their comprehension afterwards. They will see your POV.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Mary Witzl said...

A Paperback Writer -- (and I know how important that indefinite article is!) My husband and I are both teachers too, though his degrees are from English universities while mine are American, and thus we are unfortunately not allowed to teach here in Scotland. Right now my husband would happily trade his own residency in Scotland for a chance to teach just about anywhere.

After all the time I took learning to drive, I got to be on good terms with my driving instructor, who shared many interesting stories with me, and by the end of our time together we were both left with the agreeable feeling that we had managed to decode the other's tricky dialect.

One thing I noted with interest was that he used several words and expressions that I had thought were only, or mainly, used in my family: 'smidgen,' 'skillet,' and 'jobby' (to mean human waste rather than a small job). Obviously those expressions originated in Scotland, and I find it amazing to think that they survived unscathed for several hundred years, passed down from generation to generation in my own family.

My husband (who used to teach linguistics at a Japanese university) would certainly agree with you about Scots, and Glaswegians in particular: his former girlfriend was from Glasgow and he has described a conversation with her slightly inebriated father in a noisy car as one of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable experiences of his life.

DaviMack said...

Wonderful! Truly - the idea that Scots is its own language is a marvelous thing to me, as it would explain some of the difficulties I've had in understanding it. ;) And it presents us with a challenge, too. :)

SV said...

Oh my god! This is so true! I know a guy from the Ayr area who pronouces 'i' like an 'e'. Like he would say I saw 'sex' bunnies today. Or stop hessing. When he actually means 'six' and 'hissing'