Suddenly everyone wants to get up early, an extremely un-Spanish phenomenon far as I´m concerned. This week I started my "Practicas," actual behind-the-wheel driving lessons. This consists of meeting Santi, the teacher, over in Sahagun at 8 a.m., then spending the next 6 hours in the little car with the extra set of pedals on the passenger side, along with two or three other student drivers.
We students take turns driving. First up yesterday was young Nestor, a teenager from Melgar de Arriba. He drove us happily and contentedly to inner-city Leon. We stopped at Trafico HQ for Santi to drop off some paperwork. While we waited outside I congratulated young Nestor on his skills. "You´re almost ready for the exam, no?" I said. "Almost," he said. "I still have some work to do."
Santi came back, Nestor got back in the driver´s seat and was directed into the teeming narrow backstreets of the city, which are invariably parked tight on both sides.
I will not go into details of the series of near misses that ensued, only to liken it to the violent "Grand Theft Auto" video games, or perhaps the old "Herbie" series of Disney laff riots involving a free-will Volkswagen. Nestor and Santi stayed outwardly calm as we swung wide into tiny plazas, skated a good half-inch away from the sides of moving buses, and even once clipped the wing mirror of a parked Mercedes. (I was sitting on the Mercedes side, and watched as it folded closed in slo-mo. They manufacture cars here with the side mirrors on hinges, because they know this is going to happen...the backside of everybody´s mirror is etched in several paint colors.)
Then Nestor left a roundabout at a good clip and wheeled us neatly over a crowded crosswalk and head-first and wrong way up a congested one-way street. Half onto the sidewalk we went, and we´d have headed right up the block that way if Santi hadn´t finally slammed on his brake. The little Renault just about stood up on its nose.
"If this was the exam, you´d have failed just now," Santi said calmly.
We sat a minute, regaining our breathing skills. Santi made sure we were OK. And as young Nestor reversed the car back up the sidewalk and through the crosswalk, Santi gave him The Lecture: "Driving is one of the most dangerous things you can do. You can kill people. You have three other people in this car with you, and maybe they have worthwhile lives. Think about the other people in this car."
No mention was made of the heaving crowd out there on the sidewalk, which parted slowly as the backside of the Renault came at them. Nestor´s hands were shaking, but he said nothing. Santi directed him to a newer part of town, with wider streets. He told us crosswalks give the pedestrian the right of way, but only if the pedestrians are women -- men get a pass only if they´re accompanying children, or leaning on a cane. Yellow lights supposedly mean slow down or even stop, but if there´s a red light attached, the yellow just means "hurry up." These are practical instructions, he said, "the real life of the road." All the volumes of theory and traffic law we´d ingested over the past weeks were "just theory," he said. "This is Spain, the streets of Spain. Ain´t no theory here."
Finally Nestor was allowed to park the car to give another driver a turn. He didn´t get in the back. He bid us all a breathless "good day" and said he´d catch the train back to Sahagun. He turned and fled on foot into the Streets of Spain.
Susana is still mastering the clutch, and stalled the car several times at critical highway merges and often in the path of oncoming trucks and ambulances. (Automatic transmissions are still considered luxury options in Europe.) She was especially conscious of the pedestrian crowds who seem to gather at such places to gawk at the cars with their Driving School insignia on top. (Sometimes a Guardia Civil patrol parks there, too, just to add some frisson.) Poor Susana, her mobile phone kept ringing from inside her front pocket, filling the car with a tinny top-40 ditty that intoned, over and over, "no, no, no."
Santi said his job doesn´t get on his nerves, but I´m not buying it. As the hours went on and the traffic thickened his deodorant let him down. You could smell the fear.
Me, I did pretty well, considering I´ve been driving almost every day for 23 years. I have some bad habits, Santi said, but in all I drive with more self-control and discipline and precision than he does. I come from a more controlled and disciplined race of people. He said all this to my fellow students, with the unspoken assurance that I could not understand a word. Although I used pretty OK Castellano to tell him of my driving history and to explain that my lessons are in both driving and language, and that he may have to speak more slowly than usual to me... he evidently concluded that I am a retard. He started our instruction by telling me, "This structure over the road is called a bridge, or sometimes a viaduct. Bridge."
Driving Mister Rodgers. OK. I´m getting used to Square One, and it´s not always a bad place to be. I already know how to drive, thank God. And it won´t be me who gets us all flattened beneath a frozen-foods truck.