The view from the driver’s seat


For years I was able to get by fairly easily in the Czech Republic without a car – everything was close by - or close enough. But not long ago, my wife and I took the leap, deciding at last that we needed a vehicle. For me, that meant re-doing my licence after more than ten years. I thought it would be easy: I had driven in Canada for quite a while in all kinds of conditions: snow, slush, ice, you name it, but soon I learned driving here is a different experience.

First, there was getting to know some of the different symbols and rules of the road. That went fairly well. Actual driving, though, was a bit of a jolt at first. Like riding a bicycle, you don’t forget. But everything seemed faster and tougher and it took a few lessons to re-build confidence. Cobblestones, higher speed limits, tighter streets, a lot of traffic and a lot of stressed-out drivers. But gradually I got back into the groove and began to enjoy driving again. And, I got my licence. Soon, I was zooming back and forth from the drug store and the supermarket, a different experience after years of my wife and I lugging our groceries in backpacks like we were set for the Himalayas!

Gradually, I got used to driving and trips took us further than just a few side streets. Soon, we were snaking in and out of traffic (No, tram, you will not sneak up on me!). I was beginning to learn the layout of the city from a new vantage point as well: from behind the wheel. Turns, and construction sites, and pedestrian crossings and above all one-way streets. I can tell you with full confidence that whoever designed the layout of streets near our home was simply… insane, a mad city planner. A one-way, no left turn, no right turn, wait, stop, go! I’m telling you this could be a Steven Wright sketch. It would be easier to crawl through the sewer to rent a video!

But driving through other parts of the city has also been a fun experience, especially later in the evening, when the traffic has died down. It’s cool to see the lights of the Castle reflected on the Vltava, it simply looks different from the car window, and my wife and I were thrilled when we began using the vehicle for longer trips to the countryside, especially to historic sites. Of course, we’ll still take the train when it’s a realistic option, but travelling by car for us is still new and still has a certain allure.

Of course, gas is expensive. And, there’s a world of difference of going somewhere by car because you want to… or because you have to. Twice this week, assignments took me out of the city and if you figure you can beat the rush hour in Prague - even if you leave early – you can’t. Two days in a row, I spent 40 minutes on the city’s strangled “magistrala” throughway with the motor idling. I now fully understand what it means to inch along.

Clutch, first gear, gas. Second gear. Brake. Slow down. Again and again and again.

My poor car! Poor me! In the jam, other drivers smoked, put on make-up; talked on the phone, or talked to themselves! After 40 minutes in this traffic, I didn’t have to guess what they’re saying.

So, that was something of a sour experience. I guess that too is part of driving. By the time I got out of the car later in the evening, I told myself I’d had enough of it for at least a few days and I practically whistled on my way to work on the “speedy” metro on Friday morning. I was cramped between a homeless man, an old lady, and a kid with a runny nose, but who cares?! I was happy just to be moving.