Saturday, 4 October 2008

Taking The Cake

Early this morning, my husband got a phone call from one of his new colleagues. There was a car for sale at a fairly reasonable price, parked in front of a hotel in the next town. Were we interested?

Personally, I don't want a car. Cars, in my opinion, are unnecessary luxuries. The house we hope to rent is not far from a good grocery store, and there are small vans, called dolmas that run from our neighborhood to our respective schools. Why buy a car when you can get around so easily on public transportation? My husband, though, has pointed out that a car will be useful when we want to tour our new country, and all the girls are keen.

So I have given in. We've been lucky enough to borrow a colleague's car, and, after very little discussion, I capitulated on the car issue. I figure it's all about picking your battles. There is little recycling in this country; maybe I can encourage everyone to start a compost heap this way. God knows the soil has little enough organic matter in it; if I agree to turn the stuff, maybe everyone will go along with this again.

We bought the car from a man called Mahmout who runs a small coffee shop surrounded by date palms. My husband, youngest daughter and I drove out in our rented car to look at it and although I was intellectually aware that there was a tiny likelihhood I might be needed to drive one of the cars back, my heart sank when I heard my husband tell Mahmout what he'd already told me -- that yes, he wanted the car. "My wife will drive it back," he said with a certain nonchalance.

And suddenly, the enormity of this hit me.

Now, I am proud to have passed my road test two years back the very first time, after a mere three years of intensive and expert instruction. That might sound like self effacing humor, but I'm dead serious. I'm not a natural driver; I'm scared stiff of machines, have utterly no sense of direction, and I have a far too healthy sense of mortality. Learning to drive trumps lots of other things I've done in my life. But driving in our new country leaves much to be desired, and I am someone who has witnessed rush-hour traffic in Paris.

"You'll be fine," my husband assured me after watching me run through the gears in our rented car. I had my doubts; just a week earlier it had taken us ten minutes to turn onto the main road we were on. I'm awful at doing things like merging and knowing when to turn off a roundabout. Still, I nodded gamely and watched as he and youngest daughter got into our new car and turned onto the main road, pulling in by the side of the road to wait for me.

It took me ten minutes to get across; the first chance to go I got, the damn engine stalled.

In fact, it did that a lot. The clutch stuck like nobody's business, and no sooner would that miracle occur -- a break in the traffic -- than the nasty thing did it again. Finally, after many false starts, I made it, but after the signal buzzer clicked off, there was still an irritating bzz bzz buzz that would not go away. I checked the signal hastily, my heart in my throat as a motorcyclist passed me suddenly, weaving between me and my husband in daredevil fashion. No, the signals were both off! It took me a nerve-racking two minutes to realize that I'd been driving with the handbrake on.

Drivers here do not seem to have heard of the 'tires and tarmac' rule that my driving instructor took such pains to drill into me. "Now are you sure you can see both rear tires and road?" my instructor must have asked me half a zillion times as I pulled up behind another car, and even now, whenever I've gotten too close to the guy ahead of me, I can hear his voice in my ear. In my desperation not to lose sight of my husband, I threw the tires and tarmac rule right out the window. I followed him so closely my heart was in my mouth lest I rear-end him. But I was so nervous about losing sight of him and spending the next several hours circling the crowded city center, I'm sure a lot of other drivers must have assumed I was being towed by an invisible line.

I'm hard put to remember when I've spent a more miserable thirty minutes. Well-fleshed ladies in head-scarves dashed out from between parked cars right in front of me. They might have been less nonchalant if they had taken in my expression of frozen terror or my white-knuckled death's grip of the steering wheel, but the looks they wore were so provokingly blase that I marveled that they had lived so long. Trucks tried to cut ahead of me; children -- off school for the Bayram holiday -- swerved crazily on their bicycles, nearly side-swiping me. My heart was in my mouth every inch of the way, and I am very sorry to say that for part of the way, I drove like an asshole. An apologetic, timorous asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. I jumped the gun entering a roundabout and got honked at, and had to put my brakes on fully when a man with an enormous bundle jaywalked in front of me. I stalled and used up every foul word I know, and when an ambulance came shrilling along behind me, damned if the engine didn't go and stall yet again.

But the ambulance made it past me -- thank God! -- and I made it home safely. Thank God, really; I certainly have -- many times over.

And when I got back to our guest house, guess what was waiting for me? In all fairness to the baker, it had spent two hot nights in the trunk of my friend's car and the jaunty bow has melted into a rather wilted mess. But who cares?

I know a miracle when I see it.


Kim Ayres said...

Sounds like you've now learned how to drive like a local :)

Do they drive on the left or the right there?

Tabitha said...

The driving there sounds like India, with all all the people and bicycles all over the place. I *am* comfortable with my driving. Very. But after my first trip to India, I turned to my husband and said "There's no way I'm ever driving here." He laughed. :)

So good for you for driving a stalling car through insane traffic, and yay about the cake!! :)

Angela said...

I was with you on every step of the car ride--I can so relate! I have a bit of a driving phobia and really dislike driving, especially anywhere unfamiliar to me. The only reason I got my driver's was so I could take my kids to preschool (in the winter I knew that some days the weather would not cooperate enough to let me walk them).

Congratulations on getting the car home and not giving up. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like the first time I had to drive a stick shift in traffic, on hills.

Carole said...

Your driving stories are great. Your stories are great.
You're great.

debra said...

The cake doesn't look half bad after it's residence in the car. Will you be posting photos of your new town?

Robin said...

The most important question in my mind is....did you eat the cake? I probably would. It doesn't look too bad.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- That is EXACTLY what my kids said -- "Gee, mom, you already drive like a native -- you fit right in!" Somehow I mind it less coming from you...

They drive all over the place here and half the time you can hardly tell what side of the road folks are on. But when we get internet access, I will send you more details!

Tabitha -- I was getting to the point where I was reasonably comfortable with my driving, then we came here, and boy, has that taken a nose dive. But friends of ours have assured us that compared to Calcutta or Hong Kong, this place is a doddle to drive in. Remind me to take a whole year's supply of beta blockers if I ever make it to the subcontinent!

Angela -- You and I could share some driving stories, and I am so glad to know I'm not the only one with this phobia! Part of is aware that I am just making heavy weather of something that thousands here do every day. But the biggest part of me feels that what I did might as well have been flying to the Milky Way. I did briefly consider giving up, but once the ambulance had gone past I figured the worst was probably over.

Charles -- In my nightmares, I am driving a stick shift car in San Francisco, attempting a hill start in rush hour with the sun in my face, a splitting headache, and a carload of squalling kids in the backseat. Ooooh, the thought...

Carole -- Aw, no I'm not, you're just sweet. Still, I'll accept your kind compliment. You're as good for my poor old ego as my kids are bad for it!

Debra -- As soon as I can figure out how to use my horrid cell phone, I will start trying to post photos! I was forced against my will to buy a cell phone and am now being bullied to keep it charged and to learn how to use it too, as if buying it wasn't enough! I guess you can tell that the car thing isn't my only mechanical problem.

Robin -- We all had a slice of it, but ended up throwing out half of it -- there was just too much! It really wasn't bad, but I've just put on a swimsuit for the first time in ages, and having seen what I saw, no way was I having more than once slice.

Kappa no He said...

Terrifying! So glad you are okay.

I think I'll have to try your swim suit method of dieting. That's inspired!


debra said...

Sometimes I think that the reason I have children is to help me with my many technological challenges----and to drag me into the 21st century.

a. fortis said...

The vans are called "dolmas"? Are they small, green and cylindrical?? :)

We miss you around the writing group! Sounds like life has been quite eventful, though.

AnneB said...

On the bright side, Mary, once you've learned to drive there, you'll be able to drive anywhere! So...the thing to do is, drive every single day, even if it's just around the block. Promise me now. The only way you're going to get over this is to GET OVER IT.

Carrie Harris said...

You are a brave, brave woman. Trust me, I would have been white-knuckling right along with you.

laura said...

I'm just peachy driving in my own familiar little town but put me in a city?? Oh God, your description was me all over! Gripping the wheel, leaning forward, swearing up a storm, trying to find my road sign amongst the 20 or so all grouped together, all the while flying along at about 60 MPH because if I don't, I'm sure to be rear ended or ambushed!! And the cake? After that ride? I would have eaten the whole thing.

Christy said...

You deserved cake after that! I'm wondering about the vans, though. Aren't those little medditeranean stuffed grape leaves called dolmas too?

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa (Terri) -- Take my word for it, this method works! It's especially effective if you happen to have really good lights and a full length mirror, plus the courage to look...

Debra -- Me too! Mine have dragged me kicking and screaming into the information age and it has been a nasty business for all concerned, but I am still grateful. Wish I could get them interested in old fuddy things like poetry, though.

Sarah -- To my foreign ear these two terms sound so similar, but I have been assured that dolmas are what you eat and dolmush (or something similar) are what you ride on. I've got to fix that in my blog posting, but I've been too busy lately.

AnneB -- I want to promise you this, but I have been so chock-a-block busy lately that even walking around the block has been a challenge. But when I have spare time, I may brave the roads again. God, I hope they know what's coming at them!

Carrie -- Just remembering it makes me feel ill! In fact, just thinking about doing it again has made me a little dizzy, but it's going to happen. Maybe I should see about getting a prescription for beta blockers...

Laura -- Fortunately, when I'm nervous I can't eat much or I'd have scarfed the entire cake myself. But I am greatly reassured to know that I'm not the only woman who finds city driving hellish. Other drivers look so blase and thoroughly at home with their driving. I always think that I'm the only one who has these neuroses.

Christy -- You're right: they are pronounced similarly (to my unaccustomed ears, that is), but the things you board are called, I believe, dolmush, whereas the things you eat are called dolmas. In our family, we pronounce them the same as of now. I'm hoping our Turkish will soon improve.

marshymallow said...

That sounds like driving in Sicily - i'm forever grateful i wasn't old enough to drive then. I have a hard enough time driving an automatic, and in the States.

All Rileyed Up said...

Happy Bayram, indeed (this is the cake referenced at the end of the previous post, right?). That's some long-lasting cake. There's either a lot of sugar or the power of a deity behind it's longlasting ability...

Barbara Martin said...

Driving when you are still relatively new at it can be almost daunting. Your story reminded me of the time I learned how to drive a standard, and for nearly a week all I could do was reverse well and go forward on first gear.

Stalling cars are not any joy, and congratulations to you for putting up with it until you got home. Hope the cake was tasty.

Phil said...

Glad to hear you're settling in! A quick drive in local conditions tells you a lot about a place, I reckon. Driving abroad can be scary, especially when the rules of the road seem to be adhered to pretty arbitrarily - which I suspect they are.

Always a good read.

Hope all is well.


Mary Witzl said...

MM -- I shiver to think of Sicilian driving conditions, but maybe they watch American films and shiver to think of driving in L.A. It hasn't gotten any easier here, but maybe I just haven't been here long enough.

Riley -- Weirdly, there wasn't much sugar in the cake, though the icing was pretty sweet. There was a lot of yogurt in it, but it was tasty!

Barbara -- When I got back to our guest house, I was so grateful to be alive that the cake could have tasted like sawdust for all I cared. It was a blissful moment, cutting that first slice of cake!

Phil -- I'm overwhelmed with work right now, but my husband is even worse off. He and I are going to be e-mailing you, in particular, once we get internet access installed! We need lots of your advice.