Brendan had a white, brand new Mini. I had a slightly less flash Toyota Corolla 2000. The cars had two brakes and one steering wheel. And they were automatics! No more manual hell for Tina.
I just got back from my lesson now. (First we had to find the instructor - I think we need to give special directions for our house. There are too many unmarked streets.) We drove round San Jose for a while. There are so many schools all clustered together! We even drove on lots of expressways. I was very proud. And she said I was doing very well by the end. Given I tended to approach driving quite nervously, I did OK. But lots of Americans are rude drivers, apparently - people kept on cutting me off. I did u-turns and backing and parking and kept stopping when I didn't need to - you only have to if there's a stop sign, otherwise the DMV marks you down. Which seems a bit odd as it's safer. I need to remember mirrors. I'm really bad at mirrors.
Unlike Brendan's first driving experience, I'd been driving Dad's van for a while as a teenager learning on Wairarapa country two-and-one-lane roads. I mostly remember a vague sense of panic that we were travelling along in something that I was, in theory, controlling, and a more urgent sense of panic at trying to work out the intricacies of gears. Ah, gears! How distracting I found thee! After crashing aforementioned van at 17, I decided to give driving a rest for a very long time. Luckily for us, Wellington perfectly accommodates that sort of behaviour. In fact, I next drove Geoff's car round a certain New World carpark in an incident involving trolleys....
So I told the instructor I hadn't driven before either. Halfway though, she looked at me very carefully and asked again, "Are you sure you haven't driven before?" Maybe I gave something away. Also, I think by both instructors' reactions, almost everyone in America has driven illegally at some point in their lives, when they were really young. She didn't explain anything about the car to me at all when I got in - I was expecting at least an explanation of the indicators etc. I certainly felt again the vague surge of panic when she just handed me the keys and said, "Start." Trying to indicate, I promptly put the windscreen wipers on. I did this more than once.
We only went around the park once, and into a dead-end street, where I turned around. I got told off for driving too much to the right, until I realised we didn't have to drive around all the parked cars as much... Then we hit the main road, and I spent the next hour and a half being totally disorientated and mildly nervous. I also took an hour to work out the whole mirror, mirror, shoulder thing meant you only had to look at the mirrors in the direction you were moving into, and turn your head only a very little bit. Not turning your head right around to look backwards.
We practiced driving around lots of schools, at different speeds, being cut off by rude American drivers, stopping and starting in intersections (I liked that for some odd reason), weaving in and out of traffic on the expressways, and negotiating intersections. I found I keep stopping at places where in NZ you'd have a stop or "give way" sign - but I saw none similar here. Stop signs, yes; but no "give way"s. Or even "Yield"s, the American word for it.
So my main things to watch for are the mirrors, and working out intersection yields on the red light, and also whether to stop or to slow down at the intersections.
The instructor was very interesting - she told me San Jose and California in general are very very overcrowded and there are lots of illegal immigrants, but people don't like apartment living. (Which for me would be the obvious choice. Look at Wellington!) Instead, they build on the hills which are on earthquake faultlines and which get mud slides. And then cry when their house falls over. Apparently lots of people have moved to the Caribbean instead, but it's almost as expensive there now.
And the homeless people tend to chose it or be that way because they can't afford the housing, so lots live in their cars. It's so expensive to live here, though. I can't get over how much energy and water is wasted - our complex alone has two spa pools and a pool, and the spa pools are on all the time with no cover on them. People just don't care. The water all comes from the Tahoe and surrounding ski fields apparently, but Californians don't want to build more reservoirs even though it's practically a drought already right now. (It was once a desert here.)
And all you uni people, be grateful we don't have the American "college" system. Here you have to do lots of volunteer work or paid employment while you are in high school, then you need high SATS (grade point averages) to get in, then you have to write letters to universities all over the country practically begging them to take you because you "can do so much for them". (??? I thought they were supposed to help you!) And there's no such thing as a student loan or allowance. Your parents pay, or you take out a HUGE $100,000 loan on normal interest rates. Ouchy. I am definitely going to have to write my book about NZ students rather than students in general. Student's Guide to Everything: NZ Edition.
So, interesting social commentaries aside, I felt my driving lesson was a success. Especially so because I didn't have to negotiate the gears as well, I could actually concentrate on driving. So my family, don't laugh. I'll let Brendan tell you about his separately, cos it was kinda funny.