It's Not All Rainbows and Unicorns
Sometime last year, I talked to a good friend who lives in the States. She commented that our life seemed awesome with all the travel and new experiences. I agreed wholeheartedly that it was. But I only really broadcasted the good parts. I’ve said before that this experience has been equal parts fun and exciting AND one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. For example, part of the power went out in our apartment yesterday. So late last night, we ended up with several neighbors trying to replace some of the fuses in our building. Usually, something like that is no big deal, but coupled with our lack of Swedish and calling the power company for advice late Sunday evening, let’s say… it wasn’t the best night’s sleep we got. As these things do, it worked out in the end, and we owe our neighbors an even deeper helping of gratitude.
There are things like the power company occurring for us all the time. One small example: I cannot figure out the phone menu when I call our dentist. My Swedish has improved, but I can’t ever find a way to get someone on the phone to make an appointment for my kids. There is the option of hitting 9 for English, and this takes you back to the main menu - in Swedish! I default to walking to the dentist and making our appointments in person. But I had a recent experience that is just too interesting not to share:
I Got My Swedish Drivers License
If you are American and want to drive in Sweden, you can legally do it for one year. I’ve heard you can write to the transportation agency and get that extended, but I didn’t learn that until later. If you are from most European countries, you can turn in your previous driver’s license and get a new Swedish one. Not Americans. We have to… go back to driving school.
It’s Like Being a Teenager Again - But Not in a Good Way
To preface this discussion, I don’t disagree with this policy. I think it's strange that you are legal for up to one year of driving, but a day after that, it is not legal anymore. But being required to go through the process of learning again is understandable. European traffic rules are different from American ones. And roundabouts. We all need more practice on roundabouts.
I dutifully signed up for a driving certification course at Jarla Trafikskola. They assured me that my rudimentary Swedish would be fine; everything would be offered in English. The first thing I had to do was take two driver courses: Risk 1 and Risk 2. Risk 1 is a classroom exercise focussed mainly on things like drinking and driving, drugs, and general fitness to drive. Our instructor asked us to introduce ourselves. It was clear I had driven before.
“How long have you been driving?” she asked.
“Longer than most of these students have been alive,” I replied.
Awkward laughter. “No, really. How long?”
“Oh, OK, maybe so.”
Most of the students were in their late teens or early twenties. Although a few Swedes I met were getting their licenses in their late twenties and early thirties. Getting your license later in life is common around Stockholm. Several hours of lecture and chatting later, I passed.
Risk 2 is another thing entirely. It’s all about car handling. And it’s all in Swedish. My instructor assured me that he would translate the essential bits. He then proceeded to lecture in Swedish for minutes at a time, and then he would pause, look at me, and say something like, “We talk about tread depth.” And then move on to more Swedish. Luckily, one of my classmates took pity on me and helped translate the essentials. Humbled.
It didn’t matter much because the real purpose of the class was to drive on a track. There was a dry track. And there was a “wet” track. The wet track was covered with a special plastic sheeting, and sprinklers were fired at it. It simulated stopping on an icy road. We drove at certain speeds on each track and then slammed on the brakes. My brother told me about this course, so I was excited. With a car partner, we went 40, 50, 60 KPH (+/- 5 KPH. I always did +5 KPH) and then slammed the brakes. It was great fun! And I must say, anti-lock brakes have come a long way. They should have a class like this in the States. Your first emergency stop shouldn’t be in a live setting. For the end of the class, they stuck you in a car seat in a specially mounted car AND FLIPPED YOU UPSIDE DOWN - simulating your vehicle rolling over! This class is the highlight of the Swedish driving school.
Next, I had to take my Theory Test. I got an official driving course manual. I dutifully read it and took notes. There was an online tutorial from the driving school. I took some practice exams throughout a couple of weeks. I thought I was ready. However, several days before my scheduled exam, the administrator contacted me in a panic. I hadn’t passed any practice tests! I wasn’t ready for my exam! I assured her I was. I had been driving for 40 years! It turns out the online tutorial has a whole different section with many practice tests. And that is how you are supposed to study. You take practice tests. So I took one. And I failed. Then another. And I failed. She informed me that we would need to move my Theory Test so I could study more. Humbled again. I found the whole thing strangely stressful. I mean, it didn’t matter if I failed. I had all the time in the world to take these tests. The process brought out a long-suppressed primal desire to pass on the first try. I felt like I was in high school again, cramming for a final. So, for the next two weeks, I took tests. Initially, I failed them all, but gradually, after pages of notes and errors, I began to pass. Eventually, I passed consistently. I was ready. Apparently, this is a very Swedish way to study.
I went to the test center. I signed in and told her of my Swedish deficiency. She assured me that I would be OK with English. She then started to give lengthy instructions. In Swedish. When she was done, she said in English, “You can start now.” More humbling. Luckily, the test was automated and in English. Although some of the translations were strange, I could understand everything. I started the test, which had 70 questions. The first ten questions were things I never saw before in my book or studies. The majority of the next ten were mostly unfamiliar as well. Oh crap! I might fail this test! More humbleness. And then, I got more familiar questions. My confidence returned. But I kept having these super simple questions that were very similar but phrased slightly differently. They seemed obvious, but was I missing something? After an hour of mental discomfort, I submitted my test. I passed!
Concurrent with studying for my theory test, I practiced driving - Swedish style - with my instructor, Peter. He was friendly, quiet, and laid back. He was also meticulously critical of my driving. Not because I couldn’t drive well but because I did things that would cause me to fail the driver’s test. It was a continuous barrage of things like: “If you block the intersection like that, you will probably fail your test.” “If you change lanes that late in the roundabout, you will probably fail your test.” And my favorite, “If you signal to change lanes before you check your mirrors, you will probably fail your test.” This last one was a tough habit for me to break. Somewhere along the way, I developed the habit of using my signal to and then looking in my mirrors to see if the lane was clear. This is a no-no for the Swedish test. You always want to check to make sure the lane is clear in your mirrors BEFORE you signal that you are changing lanes. On the plus side, Peter said I rarely drove too fast, a common problem. He frequently told me I could go faster. Having children trained me to drive like a Granny. But Peter’s constant criticism really got in my head. I worried about my test. Would I fail? Would I have to retake it?
It turns out I shouldn’t have worried. The driving test was the easiest part of the whole process. I took my test before Christmas during a beautiful snowy week. Several friends were worried about taking it in the snow, but I thought that would give me an excuse to drive even slower. My driving proctor was a wonderful, kind woman who spoke perfect English. The snow had stopped just before I took my test at 8:30 in the morning. It was bright and beautiful. We spent forty-five minutes driving around Jarfala in a winter wonderland. I parked, went through roundabouts, drove on the highway, and chatted with my instructor. Driving by the bus station around 9:00 was the thorniest part. Pedestrians were everywhere. I drove there in my practice session, so I dutifully drove slowly and carefully. Nevertheless, the only negative feedback I received about my test was that I needed to mind the crosswalks. Apparently, some pedestrians were waiting to cross in one crosswalk, and I just drove right through. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. At least I passed!