I’ve started to drive again. Until recently, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I had gotten behind the wheel of a car in Ukraine since moving to this country eight and a half years ago. There were several reasons for this. When I first moved here, I didn’t speak the language or know my way around, a combination that I felt could lead to many unpleasant situations. Add to that the fact that the predominant driving style in Kyiv is aggressive, lawless, and erratic, and it’s not hard to see why I was too timid to drive anywhere on my own. And if I was going somewhere with someone else who could drive, why put myself in the hot seat? Many Ukrainians do not own cars, so the country has a variety of modes of public transport. If I needed to go anywhere on my own, I took a bus, a van, a trolley, the subway, or a combination of these. But all that is changing.
We don’t live in Kyiv anymore. In fact, we left the hustle and bustle of the capital four years ago. Here in the city we now call home, life is less hectic, people are more friendly, and the drivers are less insane. On the other hand, between having three kids and more responsibilities in the ministry, our personal lives have become much more involved than they were in our Kyiv days. And that is why I find myself behind the wheel of a car again. While I truly enjoy the challenge of taking public transport with an infant, a toddler, and a 4-year-old in tow, sometimes it simply isn’t practical. And while my husband has been kind enough to share the grocery-shopping responsibilities with me by using the car to get many of the things we need, he’s really too busy to be running errands that I could do by myself. (I figured this out on my own; he’s too unselfish to ever say anything like that.) So I’ve taken it upon myself to start driving again.
Driving a car is much like riding a bicycle. Even if you don’t do it for a long time, the skill quickly returns when needed, your muscles remembering old patterns and making your movements automatic. Although I had to remind myself which of the three pedals was the clutch when I first slid into the driver’s seat, once I got the car in motion, my feet instinctively reached for the correct pedals, my right hand remembered how to shift from one gear to another without my eyes having to glance at the gear box, and my fingers flicked the blinker on and off without me having to think about it. I did have a bit of trouble figuring out how to turn the headlights on the first time I needed them. First I activated the windshield wipers, and then I turned on the high-beams and drove all the way home before realizing my mistake. The next time I drove at night, I made the opposite mistake and only turned on the parking lights! But other than my headlight woes, the actual process of controlling the car has not been a problem. However, there’s something else that makes me feel like a new driver all over again.
Ukrainian roads are different from American roads. First of all, they are so rough that the driver in Ukraine must add “dodging potholes” to her list of defensive driving techniques. Secondly, they are usually either poorly lit or completely unlit after dark. This wouldn’t be such a problem except for the large number of pedestrians, many of whom like to dart across the street in complete disregard to the actual placement of legal crosswalks. (Perhaps, having never driven, they don’t realize that from dusk onwards, they are practically invisible to oncoming traffic.) But I think the one aspect of Ukrainian roads that has been the most difficult for me is the frequent lack of lane markings.
It may sound odd that a few strips of paint on the asphalt should make such a difference, but they do! Where I would have once confidently passed a slow-moving truck in order to make it through an intersection before a light turned yellow, now I’ll hang back, wondering, Can I pass? Is there a second lane here? Will this truck drift into my section of the road just as I pull up even with it and force me over the center into on-coming traffic? And where exactly is the center of the road??
It has always seemed odd to me that Ukrainian drivers tended to wander all over the road, but once I realized that most roads have no markings, this habit made perfect sense. Driving in orderly rows would probably not occur to someone who had rarely or never seen lanes clearly demarcated. And if no lanes are indicated, then the whole road is his domain, and cutting off other drivers or swerving into on-coming traffic to get around a slow-moving vehicle become acceptable behavior.
This is the world in which I now drive, and I’m learning to do so with confidence. But I had never realized what a sense of security and comfort I got from having well-defined boundaries. Now that they’re gone, oh, how I miss them!
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