Licensed to drive

Three months in and I’m beginning to feel part of the scenery.

I’ve been granted my very own US social security number; a work permit (bang goes that excuse for apathetic living) and I’ve even been allowed out for a brief home visit.

I can do the school run with my eyes closed (a good job, given that I have to do it so indecently early); I’m recognised as a regular at our local Starbucks (where my skinny iced grandee latte is one of the simpler caffeine permutations they have to deal with) and I’ve been welcomed by the open arms of the Connecticut medical profession (who’ve seen their Christmas come early with the lucrative task of reconstructing one rather shabby English model to meet more exacting American standards).

I’m the European representative of multi-continent weekly tennis four in Darien; I’ve stayed up past midnight to watch a baseball game (on consecutive nights) and I play in a competitive soccer league of ageing ex-pros and enthusiastic amateurs (and one or two ageing ex-amateurs like myself).

But, until Friday October 15th, I hadn’t really arrived: I hadn’t passed the most significant initiation of them all.

Everyone talks about the Green Card as being the passport to American citizenship, but it’s nowhere near as important as a US driving license.

This is the culture of the car.

A country that will run roughshod over anyone, and blithely endanger the human race, to feed its oil habit. The founding father of America is not George Washington, but Henry Ford; and the great American novel is not ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, it’s ‘On the Road’.

And what is the Declaration of Independence if not a manifesto to put your foot down to Steppenwolf as you hit those wide, open roads? You would, of course, have to start releasing the pressure on the accelerator, and turning down the volume on ‘Born to be Wild’ a smidgeon, as you hit approach fifty, to be sure not to break that fifty-five mile an hour speed limit. It’s a bit odd, come to think of it, that an American band should pen ‘Born to be Wild’; ‘Born to Conform’ would have been closer to the truth. The absurdly pedestrian speed limits are yet another of those American contradictions. For a people that believe in freedom, they are hot on rules.

This is a country that can only fantasise about unrestricted autobahns. In most of Darien the speed limit is 25mph. I did wonder where I might stand with the local law enforcement officer when I hit 34mph on my new Black Bad Boy bicycle the other day. Just in case I risk misrepresenting myself as the new Lance Armstrong, I should add that I wheezed my way to 9mph going up the very same the hill on my return journey. No-one, other than members of Darien’s ‘Brit Group’, travels at 34 mph around here. There’s something stultifyingly soporific about driving a Sports Utility Vehicle as if it were a motorised pensioner trolley.

Driving in the States is an act of meditation. It’s all too easy to drift off into another world: nowhere more so than at junctions, where everyone courteously stopping for everyone else produces a peaceful karma, the like of which you don’t get at Marble Arch. Over here cars insulate you from the real world (while in London they bring it into terrifying sharp focus). If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an American’s is his automobile. That the children can watch their DVD’s in our Volvo XC90 while we enjoy coffee in its front room only serves to prove the point.

My only real regret about our relocation is that I failed to slip my Smart Car into our hand luggage. Not only is it as far from a mobile home as it is possible to imagine for anything on four wheels, but it’s also completely unlike anything else out here. I would love to have seen the reactions it would have inevitably provoked. It used to amuse me, and take the sting out of the £60 fine, when traffic wardens back home would write “make unknown” on parking tickets. Over here traffic wardens (if they existed) would pass it by completely, “It can’t possibly be a car, it does more than 5 miles to a gallon”, they would think. Mind you, conversely, there are things on the road over here (designer armoured trucks called Hummers and driven by waspish young blondes, for instance) that defy what we would call a car.

Mindful of the adage about men with big cars having small penises, I originally bought the Smart Car because I felt it said all the right things about me. Although I’m not into cars I do subscribe to the view that your choice of motor says something about you. With a beaten-up Mini, a French Connection Citroen DS21 and a souped-up Renault 5 turbo (that matched my nineteen-eighties mullet hairstyle) among my previous personality statements, it was important that I choose my new car out here very carefully. A ringing endorsement of my selection came from the reaction of my club-mates at Greenwich Arsenal who all asked if it was my wife’s car when I turned up in a nearly new pale blue Volkswagen Beetle Convertible the other week. It truly is the choice of a Connecticut Mom. It reveals, I think, my sensitive and caring feminine side.

In a country where less than 20% of the population hold a passport, a driving license is the source of identity. Until you have one, you’re a non-person. As far as an American is concerned anyone above the age of sixteen who couldn’t drive would have to be an alien. To paraphrase Harry Nielsen, ‘you can’t live, if living is without a car’. You certainly can’t go to either of the two Darien resident beaches without one. In my innocence I assumed that residency would be sufficient qualification for a residents’ beach, but I wasn’t counting on proof of residency only being made available as a car sticker. I can’t cycle (not unless I towed the car behind me) or even walk to the beach, because the pass that would admit me is firmly fixed on the windshield (see I’m getting the local lingo) of our Volvo. On the few occasions I’ve tried to challenge this I’ve been greeted with blank incomprehension…“Why wouldn’t you want to take your car to the beach?”

So, twenty-three years, five months and twenty days after passing my last driving test, I had no option but to take it again. Given my new role as family chauffeur this was perhaps the most important day of my life since Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-1 to secure that final Champions League place and, with it, Roman Abramovich’s millions. It was a day that I approached with considerable trepidation, as the potential for humiliation was great. To fail one’s driving test in England (as I did) is generally considered to indicate a good driver (at least it is in my book); to fail in America is a sure sign of a retard.

My apprehension was increased somewhat when my dear wife told me that part of her hoped I would fail. There’s nothing like the wholehearted and unquestioning support of a good woman to make a man. And, when she explained herself by saying that my passing would increase the pressure on her own test two weeks later, I found myself wondering if competitiveness in a marriage really is a good thing. It left me with much the same lost boy feeling as I had a couple of years ago when Natasha asked, “when Daddy dies can we get a cat?”

My mood was lightened somewhat by The Connecticut Driver’s Manual.

I can’t recommend this text highly enough. What it lacks in plot it makes up with unexpected pearls of wisdom. It advises against parking on railroad tracks; drinking and driving ‘while you are taking other drugs’ (presumably it’s okay to drink and drive when you’re not taking drugs, or even to drive on drugs so long as you haven’t had a snifter, but it’s the three together that’s the problem) and using your horn in close proximity to a blind person. The Manual cites only five circumstances where drivers are discouraged from using their horn: ‘being in close proximity to a blind person’ is one of them. Quite apart from the difficulty of determining whether a blind person is in the vicinity in that split second when some arse-hole cuts you up, I enjoyed this piece of advice because it conjures up such a great image. But best of all is, “If you want to waive (yes, ‘waive’) at another driver, please use all your fingers, not just one.” Clearly this is not the Highway Code.

The driving test itself was multiple-choice on a computer screen. The three months I had driven in Connecticut, rather than the two hundred and seventy-six in England, was deemed sufficient for me not to have to do the practical bit of actually driving a car. It has to be said that the questions weren’t difficult. One showed a picture of a No Entry sign with no entry written on it, asked what it meant and gave ‘no entry’ as one of the four multiple-choice options. I got that one right. Another question asked (with accompanying visual to help remove any vestige of doubt) which lane you need to get into if you needed to turn left. In clicking the ‘left lane’ option (another correct answer) I wondered just how low your IQ would need to be to answer that you need to get into the right hand lane to make a left turn. A later question tried to catch me out by asking which lane I should be in order to make a right turn.

In fact the hardest part of legitimising myself to drive over here was trying to arrange car insurance through the voice recognition phone system of our insurance company. Voice, but not accent recognition. The one English vowel that Americans have particular difficulty with is ‘a’. They cannot just understand what you want when you ask for water. However you say it they can’t understand you. I’ve found the only solution that works is to ask for a beer instead. Similarly, when I told the voice recognition machine that I wanted Auto insurance it put me through to renters insurance, then benefits insurance, then ‘children squashed on trampoline by twenty-stone nanny’ insurance. Only when I made the same kind of noise that our Yorkshire Terrier makes when you stand on her tail was I put through to Auto insurance.

And after all that I finally belong here. I’ve got my very own American driver’s license.

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