Monday, September 12, 2011

Becoming Licenced

When I moved from NZ to the USA back in 2003 I was especially terrified of driving over here.  Some friends with experience had told me that although at first driving on the wrong side of the road was rather exciting and without mishap that after a few weeks you sort of relaxed and started drifting to the side you were more used to.  That would be the American wrong side of the road.  Otherwise known as the left side.

For this reason it was a few weeks before I was ready to jump into the drivers seat and have a go.  Then I had to get out, go round to the other side (previously known to me as the passenger side) and start again.  I got out on the road and drove.  Nothing happened.  I didn’t feel a magnet like force drawing me to the left side.  I didn’t forget myself at intersections and veer suddenly into the oncoming traffic.  A few weeks went past and still no magnets or veering.  I had assimilated.  

Actually that same year I travelled back to New Zealand for my sister’s wedding and it was only there that I came close to driving on the wrong side of the road (which actually turns out to be the right side here in the USA)

At this point I was still driving on my New Zealand drivers licence which I was able to do for one year from the date of my entry into America.  Since I had done a spot of travelling I was able to let that date move out each time I left the country.  A bit sneaky but it did a good job of avoiding the inevitable wrestling match with the DMV or RMV or whatever acronym they are using these days.

I had found out that since my drivers licence was issued in a country where we drive on the left side of the road I would have to sit both the written test and the driving test.  At this point I had been driving for nearly 15 years and I was slightly nervous.  I mean after 15 years you kind of forget why you’re doing something a certain way, its just the way you always do it.  The other thing making me uneasy was that the intersection rules are a bit different and I had struggled to figure them out.  My rule of thumb was to wait for everyone else to go and then go myself, but this would not do during a test.  

The thing that makes it even harder than you would think is that there are rules and then exceptions to the rules (at least that’s how I see it).  Like if you are at a normal T intersection and one person has a stop sign and the others don’t then there’s an order to it.  But if you are at a four way stop sign there’s no order.  It’s just first come first go.  Which can be interpreted as ‘have biggest car, who’s gonna stop me?’  This confuses my poor rule following brain.

I got a road code book and studied for days (well, I read it at least once).  I didn’t really know what the test would be like so it was hard to know which bits to read.   

I got to the testing place and they sat me down in front of a computer and the test started.  All the questions were very wordy and didn’t have any pictures at all.  Nothing like ‘what does this sign mean?’ or ‘which car should go first in the situation illustrated below?’  Basically I could have avoided whole chapters of that silly book.

Most of the questions related to the rules surrounding driving whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol.   More than half the questions were related to this topic and by the time I got through them I was a bit worried for my own safety on the roads given that they had obviously needed to make a very specific point in the test.  But if anyone was dumb enough to actually answer any of these questions with a ‘yes, it is ok to drive drunk so long as you are within 1 mile of your destination’ then I would think they should be prohibited from driving due to lack of brain cells more than anything else.

I did manage to get some questions wrong due to the incredibly wordy way in which they were written.  I actually said that it was ok to drive the wrong way on a freeway off ramp in basically any situation.  They had worded the question in such a way using double or triple negatives that when I read it I thought ‘my goodness, you’d have to be an idiot to think you could go that way under any of these circumstances.  I guess I’ll be choosing all of the above.’  Oops.  should have picked none of the above.  

So I scraped through with the minimum mark required due to the fact that I picked the correct fine for driving a certain amount over the speed limit based purely on logical thinking.  I mean, $25 seemed too low, $5000 seemed too high so I went for the middle and got lucky.  Why on earth would I need to know that whilst driving that fast anyway?  So I could reduce my speed into the next fine bracket before they caught me?  

I now had my learners permit which allowed me to drive for a while before sitting the test.  In between sitting for my learners and sitting the practical test I got married.  This caused all kinds of bureaucratic difficulties due to changing my name.  I had my passport changed but I never did get around to changing my social security number.  

I booked in for my test and found out that I couldn't even drive my own car.  It didn’t have a hand brake in between the two front seats (nothing for the cop to hang onto).  So I had to do the test in my sister in law’s car and what’s more she had to sit in the backseat throughout the test.  I’m not quite sure the reason for this but I didn’t argue.

The officer came out to meet me and immediately noticed my accent and started making little digs at me.  I immediately noticed he had a gun but unfortunately for him he didn’t seem all that menacing.  We went to the car and got in.  He asked me to pull out of the car park and take a right hand turn.  Almost immediately he asked me to take the first right onto a small side road.  I did this and even remembered to indicate.  He then asked me to pull up to a stop at the side of the road a little further up.  I did exactly as he asked, again remembering to indicate my intentions to my fellow road users (who were not actually around at the time).  He then looked at me and said “so, in New Zealand are you allowed to park in front of fire hydrants?”  I was a little confused and said “no, why do you ask?”  “because you just parked in front of one”.  I looked out the window and all I could see was an overgrown patch of long grass and a ditch.  I guessed that the fire hydrant was hiding in this grass but you couldn’t even see the little flag they put on the top unless you looked really hard.

I turned around and said “well, in New Zealand we don’t have fire hydrants like those.  Ours are in the road and we wouldn’t park on top of one.  But if we did have fire hydrants that looked like yours we would certainly make sure we mowed the grass around them”.   My sister in law just about had a kitten in the back seat.

The officer took a big breath and said “would you turn the car around please”.  I figured I had done myself in by now so I put the car in gear and attempted a U turn.  The road, as it turned out, was too narrow.  I ended up doing a very messy 6 point turn, almost going into the ditch in both directions before getting the car safely turned.  i headed off down the road in the direction we had just come.  I expected that he would take me to a more populated area and test my ‘driving with a bunch of traffic’ skills but we got to the end of the road and he asked me to turn left and then left again back into the parking lot of the testing place.

He asked me to park the car and I did.  I mean I pulled up to a vaguely perpendicular angle to the curb, put the car in park and turned off the engine.  I realised at that point that I was nowhere near being inside the parking lines (which were very faint).  I turned to the officer and said “would you like me to straighten it up?”  “it would probably be best if you did” was his reply.

I turned the car back on and pulled out, straightened up, found the lines and re parked the car.  As I came to a stop he said “Don’t you have lines in your car parks in New Zealand?”  Well that did it, I couldn’t help myself, I turned to him and said “yes we do, we have very nice lines and we make sure they are kept painted so we can actually see them”.

He looked at me and said “go inside and talk to the receptionist, she’ll tell you what you need to do next”.  He got out of the car and walked inside the building leaving me and Elizabeth sitting there.  We looked at each other and decided I had definitely failed the test.  She couldn’t believe I had taken the bait from the cop and talked back.  We slowly got out of the car and walked inside.  There he was smirking at me as I stood at the counter waiting for the inevitable rescheduling of my test.

To my utter astonishment he had passed me!!  The receptionist was very friendly and even issued my new licence in my married name.  I now had an official American ID with my married name on it.

When we moved back to New Zealand I still drove with my old New Zealand licence.  It had been issued when I was 25 and would last for 10 years.  I could have had it changed to my new name but I would have to pay the full fee and have a new photo taken.  I didn’t so much mind about the fee (although a partial fee would have been nice) but the new photo was a deal breaker.  You see since having that photo taken I had gone to America and had their carbohydrate loaded food forcibly stuffed down my throat to the point that I no longer looked the same as the 25 year old me.  I wanted to hold onto that photo for as long as I could.  

It was for this reason that while visiting a friend in prison in New Zealand I used my American drivers licence as id since it had the correct name.  Because of this it was the American licence (now my only form of id with the correct name on it) that got lost when James put it in his pocket for safekeeping.

When we moved back to the States a few years ago I needed to get my licence replaced.  Well the drama of that was without match (except perhaps getting the Green Card - another story).  I went to get it done and was told that since the name on my drivers licence did not match the name on my social security card, they could not replace my licence.  Never mind that I stood there with my marriage licence and my Green Card issued in my married name,  or that they had done it before like that (apparently they do it once as a courtesy but twice would be a security risk).  I had to traipse all over several towns to fix this.  All with 2 children and a baby in tow and in the snow.  It was not that easy, after getting lost in seedy side streets in even seedier towns, going into the wrong buildings because nobody seemed to know that the office had moved, having to get the kids back in the van at double speed because the locals were making me nervous with their requests for money, I finally managed to get it done.

I am now a fully legal and licenced driver in the State of Massachusetts (actually I can drive in any State but they know where I live).  My photo makes me look slightly harassed (I was at the time) but it has proved to be invaluable as a form of id and not as confusing for people as my Green Card is.

I am now no longer a licenced driver in New Zealand.  I do still have my old licence with me and sometimes I look longingly at that photo and wish I still looked like that.  Still, if I do go back for a visit sometime I’ll be able to drive on my US licence so long as I never give it to my husband for safekeeping again.

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