Monday, October 26, 2009

Shifting Gears

I’ve been driving since the age of 16 and to this day have a perfect driving record. I consider myself a good driver; though I may be a bit heavy on the gas pedal at times, behind the wheel I’m relaxed and err on the side of caution – especially when I don’t know the abilities of those I’m sharing the road with.

Whether I was borrowing one of my parent’s cars, a friend’s or driving around in my own - I’ve never had to think. I’d turn the ignition key, throw it into drive and be on my way. Driving is easy. Of course you have to be alert and cautious, but not a lot of brainpower is required to maneuver a vehicle from point A to point B.

Now that I’m back across the Atlantic, I sometimes find myself over thinking when I’m behind the wheel. Almost everywhere you go in Europe you’ll find that 90% of the vehicles on the road are powered by manual transmission. I couldn’t tell you why, but it’s just the way it is. It’s the type of vehicle people learn to drive in and is the type of vehicle they will likely drive the rest of their lives. In all my years of driving, I had never experienced a situation where I had to drive a stick shift, so it never crossed my mind. Sure I knew manual transmission existed, but naïvely believed it only occurred in tractors, old cars and Mustangs. Since I don’t live on a farm and never plan on owning a Ford, I figured I was fine…

This isn’t the first season I’ve been offered a car, but it was the first season I accepted the offer. In previous years I was scared off by the thought of being an inexperienced stick shift driver in a foreign country. I didn’t want to think about punching down on a clutch while changing gears or stalling at a light and holding up traffic. In addition, I found no desire to drive through the snow in Finland and Sweden or coerce a car up the extremely steep hills of Madeira Island. These were no win situations and I instead asked for monthly bus passes and hoofed it everywhere else.

This year however, I was on a mission – a mission to be able to drive a car with a clutch. The first step was finding a friend who had manual transmission in their car, something I thought would be no easy feat. Surprisingly, I found 3 right away. All were kind enough to take me out for few lessons each – lessons that may or may not have been filled with profanity, steering wheel abuse and some very red faced, embarrassed passengers who were trapped with me when stalled at a stop signs or green lights. (Thanks Tay, Erin and Alex!)

Each session I got a bit better and my confidence increased. After driving around with my neighbor for a week and him breaking down how a manual system works and why you have to change gears, I assured myself I’d be fine driving around Central Europe - unless of course I came across a steep hill...I’ll avoid those for the time being!

Once landing in Luxembourg, I immediately had a new set of keys in hand. Now it was just me, my Twingo and the open road. Large enough to just barely contain my 6’1” frame, the Twingo gets me around town without trouble. However, this wasn’t always the case. The first time I attempted to take it on a ride I noticed something missing…the clutch! Brake pedal – check, gas pedal – check, cd player – check, gear shift – check, clutch….uhhh….where’s the clutch??? Confused in how a stick shift car would work without a clutch, I decided driving Flintstones style might be easier than figuring out how my new whip worked. After 10 minutes of staring at my feet, I finally called Pit (our team secretary) and explained my problem. He quickly described that the car was a semi-automatic and instead of having a clutch, you just had to release the gas pedal as you switched gears. It sounded easy enough and thankfully it was. After a couple of bumpy test-drives to get the kinks out, I was on the road again.

Surprisingly, the biggest adjustment hasn’t been the driving, but the rules of the road. Signage, street markings and lights are all very different to what I’m used to. Yield and Stop are the same, however, others are confusing - to the point that at times I’m unsure if it means do not enter or no parking. But I’m adjusting…slowly.

Switching gears, (sorry, couldn't resist...) I still can’t get over how friendly the people of Luxembourg have been to me. Everyone I have met has gone out of his or her way to make me feel comfortable and welcome. These are the times that I wish I were fluent in French, so I could verbalize exactly how thankful I am for their generosity and kindness. In this past week alone I was invited over to 3 different houses for traditional Luxembourg meals and a wonderful company. And last night after our game, my Belgian teammate invited me out with her boyfriend and 4 of their good friends. I felt like I was crashing an intimate gathering – but she insisted and I ended up fitting in and having a great time!

As I continue to develop relationships, I find myself driving to various towns around Luxembourg to hang out and socialize. Since everything in the country is ’20 to 30 minutes’ away, I’ve already found my way to Luxembourg City, Foetz (for bowling), Differdange (teammate’s house) and Walferdange (American men’s player for poker and baseball games). As I get more comfortable with the rules of the road I plan to make road trips to Trier (GER), Koln (GER), Bruge (BEL), Brussels (BEL) and various destinations in France. The above cities are a 2 hour drive or less from where I live!

Basketball Update: We had a tough weekend, facing 2 of the top teams in our league. Friday we upset Dudelange and Sunday we fell to league leader Musel Pikes. I had 2 solid games, though have been really sick - to the point that I haven't been able to sleep more than 4 hours at a time. After a visit to the doctor, medication and lots of rest, only today am I finally starting to feel human again. I couldn’t believe how fatigued I felt on the court. My body had just run out of energy. Nevertheless, it's time to bounce back this week.



Katerina said...

You've joined the club! Sounds like you're adjusting really well and having a great time:)

Anonymous said...

Dub! I'm so proud of you for facing your fear of driving a's fun eh? ;) I miss you friend and am glad you are feeling better!

KB :)

Kyle said...

Pffft you learnt your stick shift ways from me. Send me the link to your league stats and all that. Trinity game tonight! Might sell out!

Anonymous said...

Breezy F! Im soo proud of you for learning how to drive a stick! A bit sad I wasnt one of the luckies who got to watch you stall out and kill the engine at stop lights! haha
Your pics are awesome! Keep doin work girl! Miss you! xoxo