Sometimes I wonder if it just isn’t meant to be. Me. Driving. Behind the wheel.
As of today, I am now back behind the wheel. Now that my three-month period of being an intolerable backseat driver has drawn to a close (my poor long-suffering husband!), I can “talk” about the experience with some degree of perspective. In July of this year, my license was taken away for three months, and I was fined 1000 NIS, for an accident that happened two years’ ago, on a cold December morning in Modiin. In order for you to understand quite how unlucky this was, you’re going to need some background info. It’s a rocky ride, but there are some laughs along the way, so hold on tight.
It took me over two years to get my driver’s license in Israel. I could have bought myself a Ferrari with the amount of money I spent on driving lessons. Now before you draw hasty conclusions about my driving and coordination skills based on the length of time it took me to get my license, and the fact that I just revealed that I was in an accident, I can say emphatically that this one was beyond my control. In order to take the practical test, you need to take the theory test. After a couple of months of crawling around the Modiin streets in the evening with my Iraqi driving teacher, whose name – Sassi Sasson – continues to crack me up until this day, we decided that I was ready to take the theory test and then the practical test. At 100 NIS per lesson, Sassi had done well out of me, and he gave me his blessing to prepare for the test.
Not trusting my limited knowledge of mechanical terminology in Hebrew, I opted to take the test in English. Pretty logical decision, one might think, but that was my first mistake. Now, maybe because I am an editor, I have a heightened awareness of inconsistencies and the like, but it was quite clear from page one of the theory book in English (if you can call it that) that finding one coherent sentence that didn’t totally contradict the previous one was going to be a challenge of enormous proportions. Sentences like, “The transmission works in operation next to the gear box and the crank shaft all together up and down,” swam in front of my eyes, and I told myself that if I could pass the theory test in English, I could do anything. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I turned to Sassi for help, and told him that although I am no mechanical whizz, the book just made no sense. Even if Sassi explained to me the ins and outs of mechanics (why you need to know the complex mechanics of the car just to pass a driving test, I will never know), it wouldn’t help. The test in English would surely be based on the nonsensical drivel in the book – so the question was: Should I learn the correct information in the hope that the English test would be more coherent, or should I memorize the entire book, however dumb and illogical, in the presumption that they would test me based on the false information in it?
Sassi could barely contain his excitement at hearing my dilemma. In Hebrew, he told me that I was absolutely right (thanks, Sassi, for telling me that NOW after I have already bought the book, and memorized each ridiculous sentence of its eighty pages) – the book was horrendous – filled with typos and inconsistencies – a landmine for any potential driver, and that he had a solution that would work to my advantage in more ways than one. As he delivered his master plan, I listened skeptically. Sassi suggested that I write a letter to the Ministry of Transport alerting them to the awful state of the English theory book. I should include in my letter some “best of the worst” sentences as examples of the mistakes. I should then take the opportunity to offer them my professional services as editor (gotta love the opportunistic edge of Israelis) to help them remedy the situation. How would this scheme benefit Sassi? Not quite sure. But he was mighty keen on the idea. He did say that he had other English-speaking students, and that it was in everybody’s interest that something be done about the English theory book. Well, as ideas go, it wasn’t the worst scheme in the world–but knowing the beauraucratical process in Israel as I do, I wasn’t hopeful that the Ministry of Transport would be knocking down MY door anytime soon, however convincing my letter, so I left it at that, and promised Sassi I would give it some thought. This won’t sound noble, but at the age of 26, as a mother and wife with a full-time job, I just wanted to DRIVE. Not launch a campaign against the Ministry of Transport, not write petitions, and rally for the cause. I just wanted to pass the damned theory test, so that I wouldn’t have to take another cab again to pick up my daughters from gan.
I told myself that I had written dissertations, and am now an editor – a silly theory test would not get the better of me. So I psyched myself for the test, and joined some giddy sixteen-year-olds in Modiin to take the test. Unlike me, they were taking it in Hebrew, and their books actually contained sentences that might actually help a person in a tricky situation with a flat tire. I was the only one who took the test in English, and the multiple questions were designed to trick. If I wrote the correct answer, would they fail me anyway, because that was not what was written in the English theory book? Felt like a lose-lose situation to me. And it was. I failed. Not just once. But twice. “Hi, my name is Sorelle, and I can’t pass a theory test to save my life.” According to the results of my theory test, I got 49 questions wrong out of 50. 49 questions wrong out of 50 – I ask you!!! Well, as you can imagine, my self-confidence was at an all-time low at that point. That was until I read the local Modiin newspaper a couple of months later – and said that they were no longer giving out tests in English in Modiin, because there were reports of corruption, and that the tests were marked manually – and not on the computer…. each time you take the test, you have to pay another 113 NIS, so it was in many people’s interest to keep on failing those unsuspecting Anglo students… At that point, I burned the theory book in English (no joke), and prepared myself to become incredibly familiar with mechanical lingo in Hebrew.
Well, three’s a charm, and I passed my third theory test in Jerusalem. (Lest you think things were finally going smoothly, unbeknownst to me, while I was taking my theory test, my husband who had dropped me off at the test center had gotten into a minor accident, and collided into another car…) Yay! Hebrew prevailed! Sassi was profiting very nicely from my predicament, since he said that it was important for me to keep taking lessons while I was studying for my multiple theory tests, so that I wouldn’t lose momentum, so we kept cruising round the Modiin streets, me, Sassi, and Ayal Golan, and all other sorts of delightful Mizrachi singers on the radio, as he regaled me with tales of Iraq, and his escape from there at the age of 14 when he left his family and moved to Israel alone. The editor in me was thinking at the time of offering to edit his autobiography – he told some pretty hair-raising stories – either he had a fascinating life, or he would make a great fiction writer.
The time came for me to take the practical test, and by that point, I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my second daughter. Getting behind the steering wheel was a challenge enough, never mind navigating one-way streets in Modiin at the mercy of insane Israeli drivers, and of course, as can be predicted, despite Sassi’s assurances that I would pass without a problem (after over 100 lessons, I would hope so!), the tester set me a trap, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. He told me to do an emergency stop, so I did – but he failed me for parking on the wrong side of the road. Another 300 shekel down the drain, and some more “momentum” lessons with Sassi in between my next test. Well, I took my second test just two weeks before I gave birth to Tzofia, and as I was waiting to see which tester I would be subjected to this time, I was horrified to see that it was the same tester who had just failed me. I turned to Sassi in desperation and told him that after last time, there was NO way that I was going to pass! The tester hated me as it was! Sassi reassured me in the typical Israel fashion that does everything BUT reassure you – “Al tidag, hakol yihiyeh beseder, taamini li, motek” – “Don’t worry, love, everything’s going to be just fine.” Of course, what this translated as, “I have a deal with the tester, and you WILL pass this time.” I looked at Sassi menacingly, and told him that I had better pass, because at 38 weeks pregnant, I was fed up already, and that if I failed again, I would drive illegally, and wouldn’t take any more lessons with Sassi. I don’t know what it was that clinched it, but I did indeed pass the next time. The tester’s demeanor and attitude was totally different this time – he didn’t snap at me, and he was polite. I don’t know whether it was because he feared that upsetting me would cause my waters to break in his nicely scented shiny car, but this was a joy ride. He made me drive around the block a couple of times – NO reverse parking, NO highway, NO traps – and lo and behold, I passed! YAY! I had made it to the finishing line, but the drama still wasn’t quite over…
<APOLOGIES FOR THE CLIFFHANGER> Stay tuned for part II of “Why did I ever think I could drive in this country?”