Speaking of air pollution: What is it about cars, anyway? Personally, I’m not fond of them. Because I went to high school in India, I did not learn to drive at the usual American age of 16. By the time I did learn, I had already been involved in two spectacular accidents (someday I’ll tell you about the Fabulous Flying Jeep Trick), so I am a nervous auto passenger, let alone driver.
However, Austin, Texas, is one of those American cities designed on the assumption that everyone drives, so when I transferred to university there, it was time for me to learn how. It was a triumph when I got through driving school and actually earned a license. I lost a few points on the road test for poor parallel parking, and was surprised when the driving instructor told me: “I thought you’d get 100%.” I didn’t know then that this is actually easy to do in the US!
I inherited my grandmother’s ancient AMC Hornet and began cautiously to drive it. Within a month or two, I accidentally ran a red light in a fit of nerves while trying to get onto Interstate Highway 35 (which has some of the worst-designed entrances and exits ever to grace a highway), and ran head-on into someone else’s car. That was the end of the Hornet, but at least no humans were hurt.
After that, I had few opportunities to drive, and even less desire to. My college roommates both had cars, and were kind enough to ferry me around when needed, in exchange for cooking or helping them study for exams.
During my college study abroad year in Benares, we all rode bicycles, and I travelled across northern India by train and bus. I do not recommend bus travel in the Himalayas: after a harrowing trip from Simla to Mussoorie, I understood why so many of those buses end up plunging down mountainsides!
When I began my working life, in Washington, DC, I was able to rely on the subway. But then I moved out to suburban Virginia. After several months of valiantly trying to do everything on bike and foot (even in the snow), it was time to face that car thing again. My boss let me borrow his Pontiac Fiero to practice on; I didn’t tell him about the time I accidently made it spin out on gravel. <grin> When I finally felt ready, my dad accompanied me to look for a new car. We bought the first thing we saw, a Dodge Colt (actually manufactured by Mitsubishi), on ruinous financing terms.
The Colt and I got along all right. I never wrecked it, but neither did I drive it long distances (I let Enrico do that). We gave it to his brother when we left for Italy, and it went on to sturdily face winters in the northern US and Canada.
I have never yet driven in Europe. That would mean getting an Italian driver’s license, which is hard – people routinely fail the written exam several times. I could probably handle the traffic in Milan, when it moves slowly (the other drivers would hate me, because I’d be moving even more slowly). Stopping, however, would be a challenge, since it requires parallel parking in spaces only ten centimeters longer than your car, or head-in parking with half the car on the sidewalk. I’ll stick to public transport for now. It’s the ecologically responsible thing to do.
I’m convinced I wouldn’t want to drive in metropolitan Italy – although I can attest that blasting through the prettier bits of countryside is a real hoot. In Naples, certainly, everyone drives with their wing mirrors folded flat against the side windows so they don’t get wiped off by a passing car (although some still do), cars overtake eachother with passing clearances measurable in thicknesses of coats of paint, pedestrian crossings are jolly, stripy, meaningless decorations on the road, and stopping at a red traffic light is a sign of weak character. At busier times of day, the atmosphere is that of a Formula 1 grid, 0.1 seconds after the lights went green. I’m glad I’ve only been a passenger and a pedestrian, there.
It took a few attempts for me to pass my test here in the UK, and I didn’t learn to drive until I needed to, either – however, I’ve been making up for lost time since, having found considerable enjoyment in it. I’ve also had a few prangs (I don’t run out of fingers on one hand when counting them, and nobody was hurt in any of them) over the course of many cars – and for domestic and short-range international journeys, I still consider driving to be “the only civilised way to travel”. Mind you, I do spoil myself on that front – after a whole slew of Ford Mondeos (the first privately owned, the rest company cars), a Peugeot 406, a Honda Accord, and an Audi A4 also as company cars, I got out of the company car scheme, got a Jaguar which did me very nicely for several years, and finally arrived at my current Aston Martin…
I’ve considered the possibility that I’d enjoy driving more in a better car. I felt a bit more secure and in control in the Toyota Rav 4 that I had on lease when I was living in Colorado, not so much in the Honda Fit I bought for my daughter. She’s a much better/more confident driver than I am. I’ve also been in a couple of fairly serious wrecks (not of my making) which, while no one was badly hurt, were nonetheless frightening.