“Here,” said my uncle, passing his keys, “take your aunt to the supermarket.”
“Um… okay, sure…”
“I thought you said you can drive a manual.”
“I can,” I replied, “I just haven’t driven on the other side of the road..."
I gazed intently at the lane ahead, my arms and shoulders progressively stiffening, while beads of perspiration accumulated across my brow.
“Remember to turn left here,” said my aunt.
“Don’t distract me… I have to concentrate at this intersection!”
Stay in the right lane… stay in the right lane, I repeated silently to myself, as my left hand reached out for the gear shift, only to hit the door.
Doh! My brain synapses short-circuited while my unaccustomed right hand frantically searched for the gear stick; thank goodness the clutch pedal was still in the correct order!
I carefully steered the car through the intersection, making a smooth left turn.
“Stay in the right lane!” my aunt squealed.
I’d momentarily lapsed into automatic pilot, and started to veer the car into the left lane - the side of the road I normally drive on.
The short drive to the supermarket was requiring a super-concentrated effort, despite having clocked up more than a decade’s driving experience on the odometer. Fortunately, though, there weren’t many other cars on the road that afternoon; Greeks were notoriously reckless drivers…
My second equally stressful attempt occurred a short while later, having been dispatched - this time on my own - to the local train station to pick up a guest who arrived from Athens for my cousin’s wedding that day. We returned home intact and I celebrated by gulping a small glass of well-deserved moonshine; after all, the wedding celebrations had already started!
They were my only two driving ventures during 1994-96 when I lived in Greece; being a passenger was confusing enough, without the added mental challenge of driving on the unaccustomed side of the road. For starters, the steering wheel and gear stick were on the wrong side of the car.
Can I have the car keys, please?
I tentatively pushed my foot onto the clutch pedal and carefully shifted the gear stick into drive mode, my right foot edging the accelerator, slowly nudging the car forward.
After about 15 metres, I braked, depressed the clutch pedal and changed gears again. I checked the rear view mirror and glanced behind me as I reversed, and attempted a parallel park.
I put the car into forward motion again, stopped at the end of the short street, reversed, and parked, repeating these actions for another 30 minutes; dad closely observing my manoeuvres while watering the plants in the front garden. He’d finally acquiesced to my relentless entreaties that it was time for me to have driving lessons.
I was 16 and learnt to drive in a station wagon with manual transmission – with the gear stick mounted on the steering wheel. How’s that for vintage?
I’ve since only ever owned manual cars and they’re still my preferred choice of driving option. Even now, I feel somewhat awkward when driving an automatic car as my left hand and foot habitually search for the clutch and gear stick.
Once I’d mastered the forward/reverse/parallel park technique after countless hours of practice in front of our house, dad drove me out to a long stretch of isolated road nestled behind Sydney’s oil refineries and the cemetery.
There, I practiced driving over longer distances, made three-point turns and hill starts.
“Okay,” he said when we finished the lesson, “you can drive home now.”
Gulp. Real traffic. Well, I had pestered him about learning to drive.
I continued pestering dad for the car and practice sessions until I reached the qualifying age of 16 years and nine months, obtained my P plates (provisional driver) and full licence a year later. Then I just pestered him for the car keys.
I didn’t buy my first car until about eight years after I first learnt to drive. I didn’t really need one; I lived on campus while at college, my first job was a five-minute walk from home, then I spent a year overseas.
When I started working in Sydney, though, the long train commute prompted me to finally invest in my own transportation.
In the last 25 years, I’ve owned only four cars (in chronological order):
1. Toyota Corolla
2. Holden Barina
3. Daihatsu Charade
4. Toyota Echo
All with manual transmission and all compact little cars that have allowed me to easily zip around town and park in small spaces!
What type of car did you learn to drive in? What type of car do you drive these days?
New Zealand 2008
New Zealand 2006
United Kingdom 2004
Athens Olympics 2004
Beijing to Athens 1994
I acknowledge the traditional Custodians of the land on which I work and live, the Gubbi Gubbi / Kabi Kabi and Joondoburri people, and recognise their continuing connection to land, the waters and sky. I pay my respect to them and their cultures; and to Elders past, present and emerging.
© 2023 HARI KOTROTSIOS