I decided to depart my single, independent life four years ago when I moved to Germany to marry my now husband. It involved making a lot of significant changes in my life all at once including learning German, leaving a metropolis of the world (London) to move to the metropolis of the unheard of Ostalbkreis (Aalen), leaving gainful employment, and moving in with someone for the first time in my life. But what surprisingly overwhelmed me the most during this period in my life was learning how to drive in Germany. To clarify, I had already obtained my driver’s license at the age of seventeen, but as an American, I was only ever required to drive an automatic car. However, I had always wanted to learn how to drive stick shift, as we call it. In fact, it was among my top three goals while living in Germany (the other two being learning to speak German and becoming more comfortable riding a bike). I had always considered being able to drive a manual car to be a good life skill to learn so was happy to have an impetus to finally do so.
I didn’t think it would be so hard. My new husband found a driving instructor for me, and I figured that after a week’s worth of lessons, I would be driving myself to my daily German classes at the Goethe Institute in Schwäbisch Hall, a good hour’s drive away from Aalen, in no time.
I’ll cut to the chase now and say that this was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. Mastering the clutch proved to be far more challenging than I ever imagined. Stalling in front of a green traffic light with a stream of cars behind me sent me into a state of stress that I was unfamiliar with. With every stuttered ignition turn, I felt my confidence as an experienced, educated adult evaporate, realizing that there were 18 year olds whizzing around me, able to drive from point A to point B without stalling. Oh, I was jealous of them. My decade plus of life experiences – tertiary education, gainful employment, world travel – was meaningless in the face of not being able to get a Volkswagen Golf into motion. I had no idea which start attempt would actually be successful and that lack of control was terrifying. With each lesson, my confidence dwindled and I was too traumatized to drive faster than 40 kilometers per hour. (I know what you are thinking: I now groan too when I am stuck behind a slowpoke Fahrschule [driving school] car!) Navigating London, Seoul or any other large, foreign city for that matter by public transportation had never intimidated me, so why would driving in a small German city, which was more like a large village, shake me to the core?
The process of learning to drive in Germany seemed to parallel the culture shock I was experiencing as I was beginning this new chapter in my life. As a long-term American expat living in London, I didn’t think moving from one European country to another would be too big of a deal. Sure, learning German would be hard at first, but I knew I was adept at learning languages. Plus having already lived abroad independently for five years and all of my summers in Korea made me confident of my cultural flexibility, self-awareness and resourcefulness; living in a new culture was a welcomed challenge and adventure to me going along with my exchange student for life ethos. But when I was actually living my new life, I found myself in a slow-motion state of shock wondering, “What is this place?” and “How did I end up here?” as I did behind the wheel during those ulcer-inducing driving lessons. Some might have called it culture shock.
It was an intense beginning to my new life in Germany. While with two small children, I can’t describe my life now to be “un-intense” or more relaxed, I can at least say that my life got easier since I finally learned how to drive in Germany.