This week's excitement was getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time in four months. Now, I've been a licensed driver in California since my teens, and I'm now well past the age where driving a car is new, exciting or sexy. But I have to admit to something of a thrill when I sat in the "Learner's" car and gripped the steering wheel. Like riding a bicycle, basic driving is something you never forget.
The devil is in the details.
First, let's back up to why I'm in a "Learner's" car. Israel doesn't simply issue drivers' licenses to new olim. I came equipped with a valid California driver's license and went to the optometrist. Right - the eye guy. In Israel, the first step is going to the optometrist, getting an eye exam, the results of which are printed along with your picture on a very official looking green document. Having established that I am neither vision impaired or color blind, I next took the Green Document to the family doctor who filled out the back and stated I was in good health. She also added that I take a fairly commonplace medication which everyone knows has no effect on vision, driving or somnolence. Nonetheless, on my return to the Licensing Authority with the Green Document, the clerk explained that she needed to keep it and refer it to their doctor for approval "because you take medication." I offered a meek protest to the effect that half the country takes this medication and Everyone Knows that it has no effect on driving. She told me not to worry, someone would call me in a couple of weeks, and it would be fine but it had to go to their own doctor for approval.
By the way, in Israel, the phrase "someone will call you in a couple of weeks" is a kiss-off. It's a way to get people away from your counter without further argument. NO ONE ever calls you in a couple of weeks. This is a nation where if you want something done, be prepared to be very pro-active and go after it.
So after three weeks, assuming that 'a couple of weeks' literally meant 'two,' I asked the husband, who had his own business at Licensing, to check on my application. The clerk checked and told him my application hadn't come back from the doctor yet....this was not good news as Rosh Hashanah was rapidly approaching, and anyone in Israel knows that NOTHING happens from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah.
Sure enough, the holidays rolled in without seeing the Green Document in my mailbox (and without a phone call from Someone, whoever that is). But to my delight and surprise, the mail brought the Green Document to my mailbox a week after Sukkot, proving conclusively that this is a land of miracles! I happily walked all the way down Derech Bet Lechem to the Driver's Ed company recommended by many and presented my Green Document with all its official medical, optometric and bureaucratic scrawls. The young staffer who accepted it read it through and began explaining that 28 actual driving lessons are required and then the written test....and I cut him off in alarm.
"But I'm an olah chadashah!" I protested. The Licensing Authority said I only needed two lessons and didn't have to take the written test!"
The young staffer looked more closely at the document and then pointed to a lower right hand corner on the back with a red square. "You need a something incomprehensible here," he said, pointing to the red box. "They didn't fill this out."
I've learned some things quickly in Israel. "Could you write that down for me?" I asked with as much charm as I could muster. "I'll take it back to Licensing and ask them to fix it." He was happy to help me, and I wasn't going to fuss since it certainly wasn't his fault.
Having walked a mile to the Driver's Ed place, I decided I might as well walk the next mile to the Licensing Authority and get this fixed. It was a lovely, cool, crisp fall day, so I hiked into Talpiot, down the hill to Licensing, through security, into the main waiting room, took a ticket and sat down. 45 minutes later, I brought my teudat oleh (immigrant identification), my teudat zehut (identity card), my US passport, my California driver's license and my Green Document up to the counter along with the note. I told the clerk in simple Hebrew that I had this (holding up the Green Document) but I needed this (handing her the note with the incomprehensible words) because I am an olah chadashah.
I was ridiculously proud of this since it was the first wholly-in-Hebrew conversation with officialdom that I've accomplished since I got here. Never mind that any Kindergartner would've been more fluent.
"Okay," she said, without missing a beat, and while processing a fax for another customer, answering her cellphone and juggling calls on her desk phone, she filled out the red box and handed it back to me.
Now good-to-go, I hiked back to the Driver's Ed place, rewarding myself with a coffee break with my husband at a nearby bakery. The Driver's Ed man took my documents, and told me that the driving instructor who spoke English would call me THAT afternoon to arrange a lesson.
Sure enough, a man called and verified that I was his prospective student and identified himself as my instructor. He could start this afternoon. VERY excited to finally be getting somewhere in the licensing process, I happily agreed to start right away, and 2 hours later found myself sitting in the driver's seat of his Toyota Corolla. I resisted the urge to turn on the engine and gun out of the parking lot, thinking a little more decorum and intelligence needed to be displayed under the circumstances.
"Perhaps we should review some of the road signs before I drive," I suggested diplomatically, "unless you'd like to start with something else."
No, he thought that was an excellent idea so I sat with itching fingers in the front seat while he brought out a loose-leaf notebook containing all the traffic signs found on Israeli roads. I finally sat on my hands to stop their constant twitching around the steering wheel while showing suitable attention to my instructor's efforts to educate me about road signs.
Road signs are quite different here. Some, like No-U-Turn are familiar but the vast bulk of the signs are new to this ex-Californian. The signs are also considerably smaller, making detecting them difficult at first and making instant interpretation difficult.
This could be a significant problem on the actual driving test inasmuch as I have to drive the car, watch the traffic, watch the lanes, and navigate the extremely narrow roads where the tests tend to be given while instantly recognizing a "No Entry" sign, or navigating a round-about correctly, or deciphering immediately WHO has the right of way at a particular junction.
Finally satisfied that I was somewhat conversant with the road signs, my instructor invited me to turn on the engine and drive out of the parking lot. I did -- and I left the parking space much the way I'd have left it in California: I looked both ways, and drove across the lot to the entry to the road in quick order.
"You should go slower," my instructor told me gently, through clenched teeth.
It took me the first half of the lesson to re-train my brain to recognize that (1) 50 kms/hour is NOT the same as 50 mph AND that (2) although 50 is the maximum speed on a road, maximum is not the same as recommended (another new concept to me, coming from a land where the posted speed is generally the maximum and almost everyone goes faster than that).
My instructor fine-tuned my driving enough by the end of the first lesson for me to control my urge to play Daytona Speedway and travel sedately at around 30 kph, slowing in those places that required greater caution (oncoming tour buses, narrow turns, blind corners, etc.). Those items he felt I needed to work on most were recognizing the road signs more quickly so I could immediately determine who had the right of way, and also looking to the left when merging right. I do look left, but not for long enough--his point being I need to LOOK to the left very obviously so that the examiner SEES me looking left and doesn't flunk me because he didn't see my quick glance leftwards.
The Learner cars are very obvious. The instructor owns the car, and when he has a student he puts a small box on top of the car with blue edges, a white center and an obvious black lamed (the letter "L" in Hebrew which looks like a 7 with a topknot)in the middle. I've seen these cars everywhere--they are the ones which are actually doing the speed limit and staying within the lanes. The Learner car also has another feature which is not as obvious as the sign: the passenger side has a foot brake which overrides the driver's-side controls, for obvious reasons.
Today was the second lesson. I drove with more confidence over worse terrain, navigating the narrow, crowded lanes of Katamonim, taking various roundabouts with aplomb and even taking the correct route when confronted with a plethora of signs in a couple of confusing intersections. My instructor took me to the examiner's office so I would see the starting point of the test -- and that starting point is the first hurdle. As the prospective driver pulls away from the curb, the road ahead has a "No Entry" sign along with a right-turn-only arrow. Most folks who flunk do it right out of the gate, he told me: they drive straight up the road marked "No Entry." He then took me along a major thoroughfare ("Here you can drive faster or he'll think you're too slow") and into the Katamonim maze of streets. From Katamonim, we braved Pierre Koenig and Talpiot's industrial sector, handling choked arterials, pedestrians blithely jaywalking, tus-tusim (Vespas) snaking in and out of traffic, other licensees ignoring the traffic rules and I made it through every nasty corner and roundabout my instructor thought I might be tested on. "You're driving very well, very good driving," he murmured as I finally made it back to Derech Chevron.
I'll let you know how true that is. My instructor is going to schedule the test in a couple of weeks (that is apparently the next available date) and I'll drive his Toyota with an examiner sitting in the passenger seat looking for mistakes.
I hope it doesn't rain......