Refugees, struggling to build a new life in America and start again from scratch in middle age, have two or three especially pressing needs–learning English, getting a job, and getting a driver’s license. Yes, life in America is difficult without a car. Public transportation is sporadic in the suburbs, and getting anywhere takes hours. Taxis are horrifically expensive (oh I do miss the days when I could pay a taxi driver 80 cents to take me clear across town, and watch the road going by below through a hole in the floorboards…) (That was Nouakchott, in case you’re wondering).

In general, the men already know how to drive. But old habits die hard. I think driving is about the same throughout the Arab world, and I’ve written plenty about the driving in Morocco and Mauritania; I’m pretty sure it’s the same in Baghdad. Donn went with one guy last year, for his third attempt at getting his license. They had to leave early to get the guy’s kids from school, and Donn watched, aghast, as he sped through neighbourhoods at 50 mph. “You know they’ll fail you if you speed like this,” he commented. “No problem!” said the guy. “Today is the last day–I promise! Tomorrow no more speeding.”

But the women need someone to teach them. They need someone to sit beside them and teach them new vocabulary, like “STOPPLEASESTOPAUUUGGGHHHHH.” I had no desire to be this person. I have a 16 year old son who has his permit, and sometimes I let him drive my car (which is a manual), and I have fun using the imaginary brake on the passenger side, and occasionally squeaking. That, frankly, is enough excitement for me.

But one day Maude asked me to teach her. I tried to put her off, but she was right–she needs a car, needs to be able to drive, to not be dependent on me to get her places all the time. Teach a woman to fish, I thought philosophically.

I knew she’d driven in parking lots several times and even taken a class which taught her rules of the road. So for the next several weeks, until they got a car, I pointed things out on our way to class. “This is a school zone. You HAVE  to drive 20 mph.” I pointed out the police car hiding oh-so-subtly behind a hedge in a driveway at the end of the school zone. I found myself pointing out all sorts of helpful things as I drove safely, logically, practically, and beautifully. Really, you would be very impressed at how I’ve been driving.

Last Friday I had a free hour before conversation class, so we strapped Maude’s 4-year-old in the backseat of their car, a ten-year-old gold Daewoo (or something like that) with the engine light perpetually on and a habit of lurching worryingly when idling. We drove round the parking lot for a while. “Now it’s time for a road!” I said, but Maude was unconvinced. In fact, she was downright resistant to the idea. “Look,” I pointed out. “There are two entrances to the parking lot. We’ll leave by one, drive less than half a block, and turn into the second. You will only be on the road for the tiniest bit.”

She managed to successfully turn out of the parking lot, but then she hit the gas, overshot the second driveway, and stopped in the middle of the road. I managed to get her going again, and we drove uneventfully round some neighbourhoods for about 45 minutes. No cars were injured, no squirrels were scared.

Buoyed by this success, the following week I took her out again. I told her she could drive from her apartment to class. This necessitated going on “big” roads, two-lane roads with light traffic and speed limits of up to 40. Although the trip in was a bit hair-raising, she made it okay. We swerved alarmingly on the bends and the left turns were a little frightening, but overall she did really well.

Part of me knew that should be enough for one day. She did great, on bigger roads for the first time, we should be done. But then, no one else came to conversation class that day. “Let’s go driving!” I said. I planned to keep to small residential streets. But then I thought we could go visit someone else, and I could sort of kill two birds with one stone, as it were. Another friend had called with the guilt-inducing “I’m just calling to say hi because it’s so long since you’ve come to see me” and I saw a chance to settle that score.

When I was 8, my Welsh grandma had a stroke and Mum and I spent a couple of months in Wales nursing her back to health. (This is not a rabbit trail; bear with me). I clearly remember seeing the big square “L” plates on the back of cars and asking about them. “L means learner; it means the person driving is just learning,” my uncle explained. I have always thought this was a brilliant idea. Think how you respond to cars that say “Driving School” on them. (Total aside but connected: once in Morocco, Donn saw an “auto ecole” (driving school) car in the far left lane of a road with about 6 lanes of traffic (2 or 3 intended) with its right turn signal on. He watched in amazement as the light changed and the car shot across all 6 lanes!) I cannot tell you how badly I want a big L plate for when I’m driving with Maude and when I’m driving with Elliot. Seriously, why don’t we have them? It’s so logical. Perhaps some enterprising person could make some?

Back to driving with Maude, on our way to a mutual friend’s house. We did all right for a while, but then we settled onto a fairly long, fairly straight stretch of road. There was one lane going each direction, and a centre lane for turning. Speed limit was 35, but Maude was having a hard time with consistency; she kept slowing then speeding then slowing. At one point, she slowed down quite dramatically and the car behind us, obviously fed up although possibly thinking she was going to turn, shot into the centre lane and passed us. I tried making the “L” sign (for Learner, naturally) with my finger and thumb but, judging from the driver’s reaction, I think he may have misunderstood me. But seriously–he had no business passing us. And, worst of all, when that car appeared where no car had been before, I screamed. This just made Maude more terrified.

Then I saw another car, waiting to turn left onto our street. My brain said he would wait till we’d passed, since he really didn’t have room. My brain was wrong. Out he shot, again into the center lane, then swerved in front of us. I screamed again, because I really thought Maude was going to hit him. She had sped up again by this point. And, unfortunately, I must admit that I’m  the type of passenger who mostly reads or looks at scenery but every so often decides that she’s about to die and shrieks, which usually makes the driver rather cross.

Maude wanted to pull the car over after that. Her hands were shaking. But we were nearly to our destination so I talked her down, and we followed Mr. Impatient onto the biggest street of all and safely to our friend’s house.

I don’t need to go to the gym these days. I’m getting quite a cardio workout just sitting in the passenger’s seat.

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