A good friend scared the crap out of me over coffee today. She was telling me about her 16 year old daughter’s first attempts behind the wheel. In itself, the tale was not shocking, but I immediately had to think of my own 16 year old, who is exactly two days older than hers. (In fact, it was us both having new babies that kicked off our friendship.) Mitzi driving? No way! I only got used to her riding a Vespa about . . . 15 minutes ago. And that only happened as a direct result of (briefly) contemplating the alternative. Why oh why do things keep changing? And so fast!
When I first arrived in Graz at the ripe old age of 22, I thought it was strange that the drinking age was 16 and the driving age was 18 (the exact reverse of the Wisconsin laws at that time). How did Austrian high school students get to their keg parties? It made no sense.
As I grew older, I found my opinions shifting. I started appreciating the fact that there were no 16 and 17 year olds sharing the roads with me. Back in Wisconsin, when the drinking age went up to 21, I found it kind of nice that bars were devoid of college freshmen and sophomores. Now if we could only get Austria to raise its drinking age to at least 18, that would be progress!
In reality, the opposite happened. Driver’s Ed can be started at 15 here now. At age 16, kids with compliant parents can put an “L17” sign in their cars and start practicing with an experienced driver in the passenger seat. On their 17th birthdays and after clocking in 3000 practice kilometers, they can get their license. (And alcohol? It seems there is no problem whatsoever for 14 year olds to get served in bars here. The profits for bar owners far outweigh those pesky fines they periodically pay.)
So when Mitzi returns from the States in two weeks, I assume one of our earliest discussions is going to include the term “L17”. I also assume I will have no ally in my husband while working this out and that “Driving School” will be added to her long list of extracurricular activities.
What a horrendous thought! But I am not saying this because I don’t want her driving. That is going to happen whether I like it or not. I’m saying it because I, too, once had to go to Austrian Driving School.
In my first four years here, I lived in a city and never really needed to drive. But then my husband and I moved out to the country and I faced the prospect of commuting two or three times a week to work. Suddenly the fact that my Wisconsin license was not valid here became an issue. I looked for ways to get an international license and came up blank. So, despite having driven for 11 years, I had to go through the entire Austrian program – an expensive 8 week course and so-and-so many hours of driving lessons.
It was an eye-opening experience.
On the bright side, we were never shown any gruesome movies with names like “Highway to Death” or “Tragedy on Wheels”. But we were also not taught to drive defensively or keep a safe distance from the car ahead of us, or really anything of practical value. No, instead I learned all about how motors work and the German words for car parts I couldn’t name in English and insurance regulations and the history of the Autobahn . . .
The really educational part of it, though, was being on the other side of the classroom for once and living the Austrian school experience through the eyes of a student.
Our teacher-drone sat at the front desk and lethargically mumbled his text in some strange dialect for ages and then suddenly dropped his payload. A surprise question shot out of his mouth followed quickly by the second round – the name of a student who was expected to shoot back an answer in the same tempo. The teacher returned fire with – at best – sarcasm, at worst with an insult. Periodically I was startled awake by the sound of my name and had no idea what I was supposed to say. He finally asked me if I was having trouble understanding his accent, to which I stupidly answered “No, it’s okay” – even though I truly was. But it was more than that. I was having trouble understanding his entire reason for existing.
On the last evening, we had a mock oral exam. The same unintelligible questions were shot at us again and after two hours of this, the teacher-drone called out the names of the students who were to return again the following morning at 8:00 am for a second practice test. Mine was the first name he said.
I dutifully appeared the next morning along with the five other imbeciles and we each took one of the six seats facing a desk. I had the chair at the end of the row. The teacher walked in and sat down. He fired a question at the poor slob at the other end of the row who promptly got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer. Then he asked the SAME question to the miniskirt in Chair #2. She got it wrong. He told her the right answer – again. Then he asked the poor slob in Chair #1 – again. He got it right! So did the miniskirt! The teacher then asked the severely hungover boy in Chair #3 the SAME question. Unfortunately he got it wrong. The teacher told him the right answer – again – then returned to the poor slob and – you guessed it – asked the SAME question.
Things continued this way until the question was answered correctly six times in a row. Then the teacher started the process again with Question #2.
This went on all day long.
By the time the questions got to me (Chair #6) I could have answered them in my sleep. A few times when the deer-in-the-headlights in Chair #4 or the boy-I-wish-you-had taken-a shower in Chair #5 answered incorrectly I think I groaned audibly. By mid-afternoon I started getting a little punchy and contemplated answering wrong on purpose – just to see if he would return to the poor slob and start over.
Sometime around 5:00 pm, the teacher announced that Hangover Guy, Deer in Headlights girl and I were done and could go sign up for the test now. Poor slob, Mini-skirt, and the Unshowered would have to return the next week for practice test #3. We were then all released back into the wild.
The following week, I went confidently into my real driving test and was asked to name all the lights on the dashboard. That, unfortunately, had NOT been one of the questions during Imbecile Day. So I winged it. I ended up passing mostly because the examiner was amused by my misnomers and cute accent. Disappointment came a few days later, though, during the practical test. The examiner spent the entire time peppering me with questions about “America”. I don’t think he even noticed my driving skills. Which is too bad. It was, I think, the only time in my life when I did a perfect parallel park in one gorgeous, smooth swing. He never actually uttered the words “You passed” but he did ask me to relay his greetings to his best buddy who just happened to be taking tennis lessons from my husband that very same week.
I can’t say for sure, but there is a slightly possibility that, unbeknownst to me, a call had been made.
Despite all the aggravation and wasted effort and expense, I will never regret having gone through Austrian Driving School.
In fall, I walked into my own lecture hall for the first class of the new academic year. I looked at the rows of students facing me and thought “I understand you better now.” They returned my looks passively. With feigned docility. Ready to flinch. Expecting little.