Few events in adolescence carry more symbolic weight than that blissful moment when you get behind the wheel of your car and drive it for the first time…with a proper license. No more Mom and Dad. No more Driver’s Ed. Just you and the open road.
Getting your own license is a moment one rarely forgets: right up there with losing your first tooth and the day that you realize that there really isn’t a Santa Claus after all. It’s one of those signature experiences that seems to embody so much of what lies ahead in adulthood: freedom…responsibility…danger… fun.
Those of us living overseas, however, have the rare opportunity to go through this experience twice. And I’m here to tell you that it’s no less thrilling the second time around.
I know this because my husband – miraculously – just passed his UK driving test this weekend and was awarded a British license as a result.
I say “miraculously” because if you know anything about the UK driving test, you’ll know that it is notoriously difficult to pass. So difficult that most of my American friends here have failed it at least once, if not multiple times. They have left the test cowed and demoralized, if not downright terrified.
In it’s own weird way, the U.K. driving test has become a sort of litmus test for how well Americans really can adapt to British life and culture.
Why is it so hard, exactly? Mostly, it’s just that the rules are so entirely different from the ones we learn in the States. The hand brake, for example, features prominently in the exam, as does checking one’s mirrors compulsively and the ability to make a turn from the inside lane of a roundabout (traffic circle). (And that’s just the practical test. There’s also a 35-question, computerized “theory” test which makes our own written tests look like a cake walk. My husband has a Ph.D. and he easily studied for six hours before attempting the theory portion and, even then, barely passed.)
The results of the practical test bear out its difficulty. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (which gives a fabulous account of exactly what it’s like to endure this process from start to finish), the pass rate for the test in Britain was under 44% (and falling) in 2002 when the article was written, compared to New York, where 61% of drivers passed.
Which perhaps explains why people here invest so much time and money paying instructors to teach them how to “Drive British.” (For a brilliant send-up of this experience, see Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky.)
Indeed, teaching driving has become such a racket here that some instructors have begun charging extra for secret tips to passing the test that have absolutely nothing to do with driving whatsoever. A friend’s husband, for example, was told by his instructor to warm the car seats in advance so that he could then “bond” with the (male) driving examiner about how awful it is that wives always make their husbands over-heat the passenger seats. (He passed.)
And so we were elated that my husband made it through on his very first try.
Part of our joy was just relief that we didn’t have to shell out more time and money to revisit this whole thing all over again. Right up to his very last lesson (which took place one hour before the exam), my husband was entirely unconvinced that he would pass.
We’re also excited because while we’ve traveled extensively outside of the U.K. during our time living in London, we’ve done comparatively little travel inside our country of residence. A lot of our hesitation was due to our reluctance to drive with an American license which – while scores of people do it – is actually illegal after you’ve been living here more than one year. As a sign of the exuberance we’ve experienced after passing the road test yesterday, we’ve already signed up for Street Car - which, after cycling – strikes me as the best way forward for a greener, healthier lifestyle and planet.
But I think that most of our happiness derives from the fact that symbolically, passing this test was a major psychological hurdle towards feeling like we might possibly stay here in London. I wrote not long ago about the eternal uneasiness one feels as an expat as to whether – and when – you might repatriate to your country of origin. One of the central ways to reduce that anxiety is to eliminate the barriers – psychological and practical – that keep you from sinking roots. In short: to figure out ways to commit, large and small, to your host country.
In our case, it turns out, not being able to drive had become one such barrier. And with it now removed, we feel that much closer to staying – or at least being able to contemplate staying here for the long haul.
There’s only one catch: I still need to pass the test as well.
Image: driver’s ed by sciondriver via Flickr under a Creative Commons’ License