31 October 2012

King and Shark
Learning to Drive and Becoming a Real Driver

"The control and operation of a motor vehicle". This is the definition written just underneath Driving, in on the "D" section of the old and wise Oxford English Dictionary.

As a teenager growing up in most parts of the world, among many dreams, driving is definitely in the top three. Along with sexual fantasies and drinking alcohol, driving occupied a very big portion of my daily thinking…: "A nice red sports car, fancy alloys, black windscreen and leather seats. Maybe a Ford Fiesta, that would do for me. Windows open, loud music filling my ears and the ears of by-passers too. I am driving past the College entrance, one hand in the wheel the other hand waving. All girls looking at me. I am the king of the road" all perfect…But then you wake up and you realise that before you do that, there is the "not exactly small matter" of passing the driving test. A huge matter in the UK. You invest plenty of time and effort. First, the written test. You have to study. Unlike your college study, for the written test you study fanatically. Once the written test is over, you start driving for the first time. That you are driving a car with two pair of breaks does not bother you. You do not even mind the fact that a driving instructor is the one really controlling and operating the car, from the passenger seat. By now the dream is on its way. You see the end of the tunnel.  After a few hours of that kind of driving, you feel like you are ready to be in full control of the car. You book the "reality check" with the driving authorities. All confident you start driving the same car. Your instructor in his usual seat. Only, now a gentlemen or a lady is sat at the back passenger seat. The driving evaluator is all quiet. You can only hear the point of his/her pen rubbing the white paper. The nerves get the better of you. The moves you have been doing with ease earlier now are in vain. You are not in control of the car at all. The inevitable hits you after returning to the starting point. Hearing it in such a gentle and polite way makes it remarkably acceptable for you: 'You failed'.

You start to think that what is the point of this driving test. Now you are annoyed. But the failure does not put you off. You are disappointed but not beaten. It is a dream and you do not give up easily. You start again. You already emptied your pockets, now the need to do the same to your parent's pockets has arisen.  Eventually, after doing the same process for a few times, four times in my case to be more precise, you reach the promised land. You pass. Now, if you have extremely rich parents who buy you a car, you can go ahead and live the dream. Enjoy every bit of it. Be the King of the road. And that is how it really feels, at least for the first year or so. After the dust is settled and your excitement level while driving is back to standard again, you realise the whole point of the driving test experience. It enables you to really "control and operate the car". Conditions and roads permitting. After driving for a few years, enjoying it most of the time, you start to think that you are an expert now. You have gasped all there is to driving. Years of experience, driven in daylight and during the night, through rain and snow, in huge cities (London) and small villages (Oxford, kidding!). Experience is priceless, now you are an expert driver. Then, suddenly you have to travel abroad. To drive abroad, more specifically. Depending on your luck, driving abroad can be a rather good experience or a rather horrible one. In my case, absolutely and utterly horrible. But rewarding and educative, at the same time.

I had to move to my home country, Albania. I had to drive while there.

Gëzim, the old driver of the taxi taking me from the airport to the centre of Tirana, the capital, tells me that he has been driving for over 30 years. My response to him?: I see. What I am really thinking?: Like this!, how come you are not dead, or in prison, or you have two legs, or you have two arms, or you are not a pilot, … you get the point. 'To me, you are not a driver unless you have driven in Tirana" he says. "And you can only drive in Tirana after you have seen with your own eyes how they drive here, for a few months" he continues. Yeah, right, I am thinking. I have been through the toughest of driving tests and I have been driving full-time for over 6 years, in all conditions and most of the time through rain in London and Oxford. As the definition of the old and wise dictionary says, I am in control and I fully operate the vehicle. I can handle Tirana, I do not have to wait six months and then try to learn driving here. How different can it be? I am an expert already.

Come to think of it now, Gëzim was spot on. Oxford Dictionary definition is not applicable here, at least not for the first few months. In Tirana, it seems like you are never in full control of your vehicle and fully operating it. It is like other, undesirable forces are present. Driving in Tirana is a whole new experience to most first time visitors. Even to Italian taxi drivers, who are part of and experience some amazing and dodgy driving habits in Italy. Even to worldwide experienced drivers, who have driven in Baghdad, Kabul, Australia, Africa and New Zealand. Even to "busy big city" drivers, who have driven through rush-hours and early mornings in New York, Beijing, Johannesburg, Ibiza, Athens and Rio de Janeiro. And of course, it was a whole new experience to me, a very modest driver compared to the above mentioned categories. I needed time to come to terms with it. Even more than six months. Tirana is big, but not a huge city by all means. The way that people drive here is unique. It is really hard to describe, indescribable actually as there are no patterns, no rules and no logic. It has come about as a result of a remarkable blend. Until the 90's there were hardly any cars in Tirana. But after the millennium car ownership really took off. There are a huge numbers of cars now. Infrastructure is a 'work in progress', to say the least. Many roads are not in good conditions. Road signs are to the limit of inexistence. Even in cases where there are road signs, hardly anyone respects them. Then you have the drivers. A large number learned to drive from practice. Some even started to drive as young as 10 year olds. By 12 or 13 a large number hits the road, national roads, especially in small cities and villages.  Unlike me, most of them did not go through a vigorous written and practical driving test. The result: it is not that they can not drive, far from it, but most of them do not have driving principles. Throw in their cultural and historical background and 'hot blooded' Balkanises and the blend becomes interesting. To complete the blend, authorities play their part too. Law enforcement and driving authorities are working hard. But a long time and plenty more efforts are needed to start changing things. 

As a result, if you watch the cars in the streets of Tirana from above, it is like watching fish in the sea. All going to different directions, all like completing their own private 'little' mission. Setting their own rules as they go by. If you concentrate in one particular road, it is like a river. You see plenty of fish travelling in both directions through a wobbly line. Other fish are making their entry into the river from either side, jumping at own will. Some are flying out of the river. No signs given, no lines or borders to cross. And they are fish, they do not care for traffic lights or indicators, no-one uses them as if there is no need. Or as if indications are not permitted to be used by fish. Looking at a roundabout, it is like looking at swimming pool. The fish inside are moving slowly. They stop often to make way for fish thrown in from the diving board or from the back door of the pool at 100 miles an hour. They have to carefully check all diving boards around the pool and entrances and exits before they can move again. If you are stuck in the middle of it and watching from the ground, they do not seem like fish anymore. Each car seems like a shark. Coming and going at speed. Tiny sharks and big sharks. Dirty sharks and fancy sharks. All with their teeth out and racing each other. The terms: rules, standards, speed limit, road signs, junctions, priority, do not apply to sharks. You realise, now, you are a really little, tiny fish. You have to be careful not to be eaten. You have to be brave to even move from one side to the other. You have to keep your eyes open. You can not survive for long, so above all, you have to become a shark. The only way you can survive. The only way you can drive in Tirana.

Becoming a shark is easier said than done. To become a shark you have to grow watching other sharks. You have to live in sharks territory, to come acquitted with the sea, the rivers and the pools. You have to learn some of their skills and practice some of their moves. Above all, you have to think like a shark. Fearless and predatory. Six months is the least you need.  Shark's nose, instincts, behaviour, eyes and ears have to be vividly stored into your mind.  A King is useless here, only a shark can survive. Once you become a shark, you remain a shark. You can go back to King again if you want, but your shark-i-ness will never go away. It will be stored safely. You will be able to call upon it when needed. No need for it while driving in the UK though. Less than a King is fine there, but to drive in Albania you have to be a shark.

Now as Gëzim said, sharks are real drivers. I must be one. Only now I can fully agree with the definition of the Oxford Dictionary again. I feel like I am in control and operating the vehicle. In the UK, but even in shark territory, Albania.

Experience is priceless. I was a King. Now I am also a shark.


Written by Emin Shini

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