It took me 2 years to pass the driving test after 7 attempts. In the beginning of my long journey towards my newly discovered independence (and a million of responsibilities), I used to naively think that I would take a couple of classes here and there, go for a test and be on the road within a month or so. Yeaha. Just like that.
In Russia, where I am from, women aren’t expected to drive. I still remember jumping into the subway on the way to school to avoid the daily traffic chaos on the city roads.
I usually went down the steps to instantly find myself in the underground world of Moscow’s museum-like subway, officially one of the most beautiful subways in the world.
There, I was surrounded by artwork, curly chandeliers, marble floors and, most importantly, people of all origins. Each one of them had a story. They rushed to work, school, dates and adventures. Hence, I was one of them, on my exciting journey through the tunnels of my beloved Moscow, with a heavy school bag, loaded with books and chocolates. I’ve spent 1,2 hours each day in subway, in the company of Bulgakov, Checkov and Turgenev, telling me their stories, as the train’s wheels clacked along the way and the air filled with childhood happiness.
Since then, I moved to the States and Canada, where I also preferred public transport. It gave me freedom to think, read, observe and write. And then we moved to Australia.
I soon discovered that Australia was a beautiful, spacious country where people enjoyed the land and drove everywhere. At the age of 22, I was considered a weirdo without a licence, where every 18 year-old proudly drove a car, no matter how old and ugly it was. And, having two little kids in a massive double pram, it was very problematic to get anywhere on public transport. I still walked and shlepped the pram on busses, telling myself that it was a great fitness exercise, but as kids grew older, it became tougher.
I bought a driving theory book, and, just like in high school, memorised all questions and answers, being clueless about its meaning.
I got 97 % on the test. My husband was thrilled. We were almost there. Soon I would drive a Lamborghini. My husband constantly spoke about the great independence I was soon to obtain. He thought that my academic knowledge would help me to learn driving quickly. After all, I managed to get my BA with honours! I was smart and keen to learn. That’s what he said the day before he took me for a drive.
Now, I am not sure why, but things went wrong. I say that his instructions were unclear. He thinks that I wasn’t paying attention and we almost crashed. In any case, later that night (when I came home after leaving the car in the middle of the highway and walking back on my own), we’ve agreed that investing in a driving instructor was much wiser than spending on a divorce lawyer.
Some people have ex-partners. I have ex-driving instructors. To my memory, I went through 5 of them. 4 males and 1 female. They spoke English, Russian and Greek. And each one of them had a character.
My first instructor was Australian. He patiently explained the rules to me, but I was slow, and it took hours to learn lots of technical terms in English that I’ve never needed before, like ‘accelerator’ which is ‘gas‘ in Russian.
It didn’t click. And soon, he commented that he had no slightest idea if I would ever get a license. My sense of pride was hurt and I left him in tears. Well, maybe I left in tears, not him. It was a while ago.
My second instructor was a Russian, 60+ year old immigrant, who taught driving during the daytime and played at the local Russian restaurants at night. He thought highly of his skills, schmoozed non-stop and shared the latest gossip and jokes with me, complimenting my sense of humour and sometimes teaching me a few driving tricks. To be honest, we mostly talked, and I paid him for company. The next 2 driving tests proved it.
During the 1st test, I hoped to pass. But, ironically, the one to almost pass out, was the tester. Yes, maybe, I was too quick to change that lane. And, I agree, the nearby car was closer than I thought. So what? I still don’t understand why the tester blew her whistle and screamed loudly to the instructor to take control. Oh, those testers are just too nervous at times…
My second test, with the same instructor, 3 months later, wasn’t any better. I failed within the first 10 minutes by turning right too fast. Why so? Because the stupid car behind me was too close. I m still suspicious that it was the same annoying car from my first test following me on purpose.
On the way back from that test, the motor-mouth instructor handed me a pack of tissues, then looked in my watery eyes, and said seriously: ‘I feel sorry for your children, Sarah. What a mother they have.’
So that was the end of him. My angry husband decided to teach me again. We booked a new test in two days’ time, but it was to happen in… Ballarat. Just 2 hours away from Melbourne. In a completely new route.
I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea, but hey – life plays its jokes. I failed twice in the suburban Melbourne, after 50 lessons with 2 instructors. Maybe, my fate to pass the test was, indeed, in Ballarat?
I gulped and sat with my husband in his beautiful, snow-white car, heading to the country. I was nervous and edgy. My husband seemed pretty relaxed, telling me to focus on 3 easy things on my way to success: those were brakes, the road and speed. And the rear view mirror, from time to time.
We rushed through 110 km/h zone with breeze. The lively music on radio predicted the future victory over VicRoads. Well, sort of.
The village-like Ballarat VicRoads office seemed friendly. Soon I was in the car with a nice lady tester, who gave me instructions monotonously. Half-way through the test, I realised that my speed was about 40 km/h at maximum. After driving at 110 km/h for more than an hour, I couldn’t physically make myself drive any quicker than 40. I calmed down myself that slow drivers were safe drivers, and I was just extra cautious.
The test ended in 20 minutes. I still remember how the tester handed me the pink paper with the pressed word ‘FAILED’ on it, saying with a smile: ‘Have you considered to take a couple of private lessons with a driving instructor, Sarah? That would definitely help!’
That was a bitter pill to swallow. ‘Sure, what a great idea.’ – I said with a sarcastic smile. – To this moment I only had 50 lessons.’
I was in agony. I had enough. I wasn’t meant to drive. All drivers were stupid. I had a higher purpose in life than sitting in traffic and adding to the world’s pollution levels. After all, I still knew how to ride a bike.
My husband insisted that I find another instructor and keep on trying. Easier done than said. But soon, after a few months of schlepping my children on public transport and seeing all my friends on wheels, I gave up and rang another instructor, a nice Jewish guy from the community.
He promised that I would pass the test with his humble assistance. I wasn’t sure. Each time we neared the VicRoads office in Oakleigh, my knees started shaking, eyes went down and I couldn’t remember my name. It felt like a dark KGB office, a local torture chamber for me.
We successfully failed two more tests with my instructor and departed as friends. Enough was enough. It just didn’t happen. I wasn’t a driver.
That’s what I told my fitness instructor on a sunny winter day in 2010. She couldn’t believe my story and said that it really wasn’t the end. She suggested to call her son’s instructor, a Greek guy, who taught half of her children and they all passed.
‘Yeah, yeah, everyone passes, except for me,’ I thought to myself, but still called him without hope.
Kosta, the instructor, spoke with a heavy Greek accent, making jokes left and right. He was in his sixties, always positive and on the go. I sat in his car for the first time and told him right away that I was a lost case. He laughed and we went on.
‘So, tell me, vot ar u skered of most?’
‘Well, I am scared of people and cars.’ I said honestly. ‘Especially, trucks.’
Kosta smiled and said: ‘So, ve next time u si a truck, just open ze vindow and scream in his face “AI HEIT YOU!” And he did just that.
Kosta’s comments were great, and he was the first instructor who gave me confidence.
‘Nu, it’s grin lite. Vot are u weiting for? Bingo! Let’s go, beauty!’
I looked forward to his classes, but soon Kosta had to go overseas and he gave me his daughter’s phone number, who was also an instructor.
‘Don’t vorry, Sarah. Vicki is perfect. She won’t leave you until you pass that test.’
I wished he was right. To that moment I failed a few more tests, calling my Dad in Russia after each disappointment and sharing my grief with him.
He answered in his wisdom, that all things in life were meant to happen in the right time. And, apparently, my time for driving hasn’t yet arrived.
Kosta was right. Vicki, the first female instructor I had, was amazing in her professionalism, care and understanding. She knew about my challenges and helped me to overcome my fears on both practical and psychological levels. Moreover, she suggested to take both of my toddlers with me for classes, as I was limited in my babysitting options.
So, each time, she installed two car seats in her spotless car, soon to be filled with bread crumbs, kvetching and baby rhythm CDs I took along. Often my children fell asleep in the car, and Vicki helped me to undo their belts and carry them upstairs to my apartment after class. I suggested that she starts a mobile daycare. She would be just great at it.
My driving improved and soon we became very good friends, talking about everything: children, food, life’s turns and…..’yes, left turn could be done smoother, just a bit, yes, much better, Sarah.’
I was ready for a test, but it was a pretty dramatic experience. Vicki followed me on a sunny December day, about a year ago. That time I didn’t take my kids along, even though I know that Vicki wouldn’t mind. The test has started. I turned on the car, but it didn’t move.
”Please, reverse out of the car park,’ the tested said calmly.
Nothing has happened. I frantically looked for a reason. Maybe the fuel has finished? The engine broke? All four wheels had fallen off with the help of my previous driving instructors?!!
I was wrong. It was the hand break that was on. I quickly released it and the car started moving. Sometimes the genius solutions are easier than we think.
It was my 7th test and I went through it in daze. After we came back to VicRoads, I was sure that I failed, but Vicki kept on telling me that I didn’t.
I couldn’t believe my ears when the tester congratulated me. I was quickly photographed – a pale, greenish face with a set of shocked eyes, as if I’ve been smacked on the head with a frying pan.
Definitely, it’s one of my most distinct images I always carry in my wallet.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve got my driver’s licence. My driving style is still far from perfect. I already had a few accidents, scratched cars and angry drivers honking behind me.
And yes, I do take two parking spots, giving older, passing-by ladies heart attacks, but that’s secondary. What matters most is overcoming challenges, while driving through life’s obstacles.
My road to driving wasn’t easy, but I got there, to much disappointment of all those who disbelieved in me. And to great happiness of my supporters.