Obtaining my Spanish driver’s license took far longer than I ever expected. I passed the written driving exam on Tuesday 2 November after nine weeks of study, thinking I had done the hard part. Little did I know.
I scheduled my first driving lesson with the school for that Thursday and the road test for the following week. Carles, my instructor, took me around Tortosa, showed me the different neighborhoods that the examiner might ask me to drive to, and tried to hammer into me what the examiner would expect.
In the nice new dual-control Seat that we were driving, not only does the clutch disengage much faster, but crawling slowly in second gear you don’t have to keep your foot on the clutch to keep the engine from stalling. Take your foot off completely when you’re barely moving and the car just keeps rolling along very, very slowly. In any car I’ve ever driven (including my current 13-year-old heap), if you did that the engine would stall. Carles never told me that explicitly, or if he did, I didn’t understand. The problem was that I didn’t know the word for clutch in Catalan so I didn’t know what he was saying. Only the written exam was in English; everything else was in Catalan and although I’m pretty conversant with body parts, engine parts are not yet part of my vocabulary. It took him most of the hour to get me to understand about the clutch, having finally to take over the dual control to press home the point. Aha! I learned that desembragar means to let out the clutch. There was also the matter of the brakes being so much more responsive than mine. It did take some getting used to using the brakes and the clutch gracefully on this modern car.
I decided that it would be prudent to take another lesson and not be clumsy during the actual exam. So I paid an additional 60 euros and off we went the next day, Friday. Now that I understood that the engine wouldn’t stall, I used my left foot less. But I still didn’t exactly get it that Stop meant not only Stop, but Stop and linger. Since most people here don’t stop at Stop signs at all, I thought I was doing very well by stopping, shifting to first, and then going.
There were lots of little things that Carles told me during the lesson and I tried to assimilate them all. You are supposed to back into the perpendicular space in a parking lot. Most cars front in, and I always do too. But apparently that is not the correct way. Also, you must always drive with two hands on the steering wheel, which I do, most of the time, except when I am compelled to gesticulate to make a point in a conversation. But I steer with one hand when I turn to look back to parallel park. That isn’t allowed on the exam; you have to use your mirrors. Uh, oh.
The driving exam is given once a week and taken in groups by school. Since none of us has a driving license, everyone goes together in a school car or van. But because I suffer from panic attacks in a car that someone else drives, I drove myself. My school knew about this and I was discrete enough to park a block away. Tuesday finally came and at 7:45 in the morning I was in Tortosa waiting for Carles and the other students to arrive. There were five of us that day – three women and two men. One of the women was about my age, the other was in her twenties, one of the guys was also about twenty, and the other was only slightly older.
During the exam, our instructor rides in the front passenger seat with his dual controls, one student drives while the other sits in the back seat, together with the examiner. When the first student finishes, the two change places. Since I cannot ride (can you imagine my panic with a student driving if I can’t ride with experienced drivers?) we arranged that since there were an odd number of students that day, I would go last.
The exams begin in the street in front of the Department of Labor of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional government and nothing to do with the exam or the Department of Traffic). To ensure that we would not be late, our appointed time was actually half an hour before the exam was supposed to start. Before even the first trip out, we had already been standing out in the cold for about forty-five minutes. It was a good hour after the first group started before my turn came up. At one point, while I was driving down the main street in the city, two pedestrians stepped down onto the roadway just as I was approaching the crosswalk. But I was already quite close and there was enough distance, I thought, not to slam on my brakes and have whoever was behind me slam into me. So I decided to drive through. The rest of the exam was uneventful and went smoothly, as far as I could tell. I was confident and happy, looking forward to maybe stopping somewhere for a celebratory lunch on the way home. Or should I wait until the weekend?
Back at our starting point all five of us students waited while Carles conferred with the examiner. Eventually he came to tell us our results. The young girl and the older guy passed, the other older woman, the younger guy and I all failed. I was supposed to have stopped for those two pedestrians. I hadn’t spoken with either of the two guys, but I did know that the young girl who passed that day had failed the exam before, and the older woman later told me she has failed it five times.
I scheduled another driving lesson for late in the week and another exam for the following Tuesday. I paid another 60 euros for two more hours of practice, spending one of them on the highway there and back and the other tooling around Tortosa. I was beginning to get to know Tortosa but not liking it any better. The rundown city sits alongside the
which could be nice, and in fact there is an ancient castle on the highest hill and a very short, tree-lined promenade along the river, but overall the city is shabby. I drove up one dingy street and down another, tried to make my stops long enough and not annoy the other drivers by going way too slow and, well, obeying the speed limits and following the rules. When you do that, you stick out like a sore thumb and in fact, people did pass me on city streets! The instructor told me to never mind. Ebro River
On Tuesday, this time at 8:15 am, I was there again, waiting on the street in front of the Department of Labor. This time there were four of us so we went two by two. In my turn, I drove first and then was asked to park, told I could get out of the car, and walked back to the starting point while the other student went on to have her exam. I felt I had done nothing wrong, but was uneasy because I had been driving only a short time and they say a complete exam takes 30 to 45 minutes. This was suspicious. When all of the group was finished Carles came to tell us the results. One of us had passed and the other three had failed; I was one of the unfortunates. What in the world had I done wrong? There had been a Stop sign at a dead end street where one could only turn left. After stopping, I inched forward in order to be able to see the oncoming traffic and when I saw it was safe I made my turn. Inching after a stop wasn’t good enough; one had to actually stop a second time. For this I failed?
I had thought it before, but now I became convinced that the whole thing was a racket. What with the high cost of the driving schools and the fact that you could only get your license through these schools, you didn’t do well or poorly on an exam – you either passed or failed, and there didn’t really seem to BE a Department of Traffic, it seemed like a game run by some kind of mafia. On top of that, they also took in extra cash from excessive driving lessons and steep additional fees for repeating the exams.
After failing twice one must wait two weeks before trying again. Time to practice, or to reflect on the system? I scheduled another lesson, and my next exam would be on Tuesday 30 November – this time at the more relaxed time of 11:15 am. I had to pay an additional 210 euros, which included the cost of up to two more exams and one more lesson. They say the Department of Traffic levies these charges for the exams and it is not up to the school, but they somehow managed to discount mine from the posted price of 260 euros. For that next lesson I arranged to meet Carles in Tortosa since he lives there so we could better spend the whole time driving up and down the city streets, trying not to run anyone over and practicing when to slow down plus when and how many times to stop at any given Stop sign, and not waste an hour of the lesson on the highway there and back.
Tuesday came and it turned out that there were only two of us taking the exam with our school that day. My companion was a young guy who was taking the exam for the first time, and who had already paid out over 1200 euros to the school. He told me that until you get your license, you are only allowed to practice on the roads with an official school. My father would have been out of his unpaid employment teaching me.
I drove first. The first two examiners had been women but this time it was a man. My young companion said that would be better. Men weren’t so mean. We started out talking about the Barça-Real Madrid game of the night before (it was the examiner who told me that Barça had won 5-0) and I got so excited about the score that I almost forgot I was taking an exam. After a short time I was told to park, at which point I could walk through Tortosa, back to our starting point. I thought I had done OK, I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, but I had lost my earlier optimism and was resigned to the worst. Again my driving time had been suspiciously short. I must have done something wrong, so as I walked, I went over and over how the driving had gone. Well, never mind, I would find out what I had done wrong when the others got back.
When they did come back and Carles walked up to me with a serious face, I just kept thinking OK, how much more money do I have to pay to get this thing done? But he was just teasing me. I HAD PASSED! Unfortunately my poor young companion had not.
My new Spanish driver’s license cost me a total of 780 euros. A lot of money – more than I had originally hoped and too much to add celebratory lunches to the bill, but probably below the average of what most people pay. It could have been worse.
It was around that time that there was a story on the news about some new electric car that was going to be manufactured in
. They showed the Mayor taking one of these around the Placa Sant Jaume for a test spin. Jose Montilla, the President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional Government) was also present but didn’t test drive the car. It seems that he takes public transportation and has no driver’s license. I think I know why. Barcelona