Driving Lessons

August 20, 2015.  As sad as it sounds, I’ve been taking driving lessons — even though I’ve had my license for decades.  It’s like being 16 again, and not in a good way.  For the last two months, I’ve spent a few hours a week in a Driver’s Ed car while my instructor politely recites the Norwegian rules of the road, points out my flaws, and routinely stamps on the passenger-side brake to prevent our imminent deaths.  Why am I subjecting myself to such humiliations?  It’s kind of a long story….

U.S. citizens immigrating to Norway have one year to exchange their American driver’s license for a Norwegian one.  But there’s a catch:  they must first pass a practical driving test.  Sounds easy, right?  Especially since Norwegians drive on the same side of the road that we do in the States.  However, considering that Oslo has virtually no stop signs, surprisingly few traffic signals, seemingly lawless “Priority Roads,” and thousands of crazy intersections only nominally resembling roundabouts, it’s much harder than you think.

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In Norway, kids can start learning the rules of the road at age 16 by driving a moped, tractor, or ATV, but they can’t begin classes for their license until age 18. One of those classes includes taking your instructor on a 7-hour highway drive to determine how well you’ll stay awake and alert on long road trips …. I swear I’m not making up this stuff.

The fun part is, you get one shot at passing the driving exam (which costs about $550, including the test fee, license registration, and use of the Driver’s Ed car).  If you fail, you then must take both a written and a practical test, along with classes in first aid, night driving, and driving on ice (around $3,500.)  And if you somehow don’t get your license within two years, you must participate in the full-blown series of tutoring programs endured by all Norwegian 18-year-old wanabee drivers, which supposedly cost upwards of $10,000.  Cha-ching.  Cha-ching.

Just to provide a little perspective on the difficulty of this endeavor, only about half the folks on our jobsite passed the practical test.  Those who failed had horror stories of their experiences with their nit-picky, admonishing examiners, while the lucky ones cited having taken a few lessons first (around $200 each) as the secret to their success.  Fearing the worst, I decided to sign up for an eight-session packet, which came at the discounted rate of $150 each.  Wisest money I ever spent, considering how nervous I get taking tests.

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Given the number of anatomically detailed signs indicating potential roadside obstacles, it’s clearly quite important to know the exact species of animal likely to be responsible for your death. (I’ve seen the reindeer-Xing symbols all over Tromsø, and the moose-Xing symbols when driving between the airport and downtown Oslo.)

So why did I bother getting a license when we’re only going to be here for little more than a year (now probably closer to two years)?  Here’s the deal.  We don’t own a car, and you can’t rent one in Norway using an American license if you’ve been here longer than three months.  Without the occasional use of a car, you have no way to access remote and awesome hiking trails, which is half the appeal of living in this beautiful country.

But even harder, no license or rental car means no driving to Sweden on the weekend for cheap groceries, clothing, and cat medicine.  So about the cat medicine.  One of my cats has an eye problem that requires treatment using a drug not licensed in Norway, meaning if I purchase it here, it costs $2,000 per month.  But if I rent a car ($150/day) and drive 1.5 hours to Nordby Shopping Center — an enormous mall built just over the border, where cheapskate Norwegians (whose numbers now include me) can take advantage of the weaker Swedish kroner — the price for my cat’s medicine drops to $75.  Hence the need to get a driver’s license.

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Although it may not look like it in this picture, I have been judged a safe driver by the U.S. DMV. By the way, this is our Honda Fit that we left at home. The car is a big joke in Norway, because “fitte” is a really dirty word meaning “pussy.” To retain a little dignity, Honda has since wisely re-branded it the “Jazz” for Norwegian markets.

My quest began by permanently relinquishing my American license to the Norwegian version of the DMV, who used it to do a background check on my driving record and ascertain what kind of vehicle I’d been allowed to drive in the States.  Upon discovering I could be trusted behind the wheel of a car, the DMV bestowed a Temporary Permit upon me, which gave me three months to take lessons and get on the two-month waiting list for the exam.

Since then, I’ve spent my Tuesday mornings with Roar, my incredibly nice and supremely patient Norwegian driving instructor, who has done his level best to ensure I don’t embarrass myself or shame his teaching skills when it’s time to appear before the examiner.  First, he somehow managed to stir up English translations of the Norwegian Driving Manual, as well as sample written tests, so that I could learn the many rules so different from those in the U.S.  Then he risked his own life and that of his fancy Audi by letting me practice my newfound knowledge in his car.

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Take a look at this sample question from my quiz book. Any ideas? Let’s improvise a fifth option out of the Lutheran playbook. How ’bout, “Hell is down, Heaven is up.”

I’ll give you a few examples of the roadway oddities I’ve encountered so far.  It’s okay to peel off across the oncoming lane of traffic in order to parallel park with your car facing in the wrong direction.  Traffic signals cycle through yellow both when the light is about to change to red and when it’s about to change to green.  And in the many hours I’ve logged on Norwegian roads so far, I’ve encountered only one stop sign.  Roar says excessive stopping is inefficient and prohibitive to good traffic flow.  Uh … yeah … but braking sure beats being T-boned by a tourist who’s never heard of the “Priority Road” right-of-way.

So about this odd thing called a “Priority Road.”  A seemingly shy, elusive creature, it announces its presence as unobtrusively as possible, predominately via a yellow diamond displayed on teeny, tiny signs mounted intermittently along the roadside.  If you spot the diamond, good for you!  It means the laws that govern stopping apply to everybody else, not you.  You can breeze blithely through insanely busy intersections, safe in the knowledge (or false confidence) that everyone else will halt to let you whizz by unimpeded.

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See the little yellow diamond indicating that the green car is on a “Priority Road” and is therefore permitted to blow through the intersection? In real life, the sign is about 1/10th of the size portrayed here — and it’s usually placed about a half a mile back from the intersection, often behind a tree, leaving drivers to search the cross streets for those tiny white “yield” triangles indicating who has the right-of-way. This method of what I like to call “priority-road divination” works particularly well on snow-covered roads.

But what if you’re not on a Priority Road?  In that case, you must stop or give way only to cars coming from roads on your right side, not on your left.  And what if you haven’t spotted the hallowed yellow diamond and aren’t sure what kind of road you’re on?  You must then resort to searching every intersection to see which road sports little white triangles painted across its pavement — the signal that drivers on this road must yield to the intersecting Priority Road.

Are you confused yet?  Believe me, even the Norwegians lose track.  I’ve seen the play-by-play right outside my apartment door, which sits at the apex of a five-way intersection with no Priority Roads.  It’s nerve-wrackingly entertaining to watch the carnival that erupts during rush hour as drivers converge in the center of the junction and argue over who has the right-of-way.  Witnessing cars going nose-to-nose with one another, jockeying for position while accompanied by a cacophony of car horns and swearing in Norwegian, makes it clear that “Norwegian Chicken” is a game played out on the roadways as well as on the sidewalks.  Clearly, the goal is to never stop, slow down, or alter your trajectory if at all possible.

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Note that this five-way intersection in front of our apartment has no stop sign or traffic control signal of any kind. Hence, chaos reigns during rush hour, despite the rule that says, “give way to the person on your right.” Roar and I have frequently discussed the Norwegian view of stopping as unnecessarily detrimental to traffic flow. He agrees that this philosophy probably only works well in a country with a small population.

You can understand why, after observing so many melees, I might be a bit trepidatious as I approach every intersection.  The temptation is to slow down, just to be sure of who has the right-of-way.  But during my practice sessions, Roar was forever cautioning me, “By slowing down, you’re signaling that you’re about to turn, meaning others will take the opportunity to dart out in front of you.”  Seriously, people.  Wouldn’t a friggin’ stop sign be so much simpler?

That brings me to my next driving hurdle:  roundabouts.  For years, I’ve driven on roundabouts across Great Britain and France, and I heartily appreciate the fact that they keep traffic flowing faster than a signal light, which brings everyone to a halt for several minutes at a time.  But Norwegian roundabouts often have weird U-shaped or otherwise geometrically challenged configurations that sometimes masquerade as regular intersections.  You don’t realize you’ve entered one of these impostors until the guy coming from your left — the direction that never has the right-of-way at a normal junction — practically runs you down because his big moment has finally arrived.  (In roundabouts, you must yield to cars coming from your left, rather than your right.)

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In most other countries with roundabouts, folks would say that the green car is taking the first or second right, while the blue car is taking the third right. But in Norway, they’d say that the green car is going right or straight ahead, while the blue car is making a left turn. It’s really about taking a bird’s-eye perspective on the situation versus describing the driver’s actual experience as he circles around the green median.

To make it even more complicated, I’m accustomed to British and French roundabout signage and verbal directions, which usually indicate things like, “Take the third right turn out of the circle.”  But in Norway, folks say stuff like, “Go straight ahead,” or “Go left.”  What the heck?  There is no “straight” when you’re going in a circle, people!  And in case you haven’t noticed, all intersecting streets are on the right side of a roundabout as you circumnavigate it; left turns are not an option.  This kind of creative orienteering may also explain why I often get steered completely the wrong way when asking for directions on the sidewalk.

One last driving hurdle for U.S. citizens in Norway:  crosswalks.  In Chicago, pedestrians wishing to survive the use of a crosswalk first wait for traffic to clear before stepping out into the street.  But in Norway, pedestrians will suddenly sashay right out in front of an oncoming car, secure in the belief that those little white lines and the law will protect them from impact.  That’s because the rules say drivers must give way to pedestrians who are using a crosswalk, or who are even on their way to a crosswalk.

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A second after I took this photo, the car almost mowed down the mother and child as they crossed the street.  Guess the driver thought the missing lines obliterated by the new asphalt gave him free reign to blow the crosswalk. Norwegians are very literal.

Yep, this means that on busy days, you end up motoring at the pace of a granny on a Sunday drive while you search the crowded sidewalks trying to divine which headphone-wearing, texting person is also contemplating a quick dash across the street.  Again, that’s not to say that Norwegians actually obey the law to the letter.  A few times while making use of a crosswalk as a pedestrian, I’ve received a gentle nudge from the bumper of a waiting vehicle whose schedule is apparently more pressing than mine.  I gather the driver thinks that he can speed my progress across the icy street with a mechanical assist.  How thoughtful.

But back to my saga of actually achieving my license.  The day dawned for my exam date, and I met up with Roar for the drive to the DMV.  First, we took a few turns around the parking lot so that I could practice backing into a space, which is the typical testing scenario rather than parallel parking.  Then, he quickly went through my list of “trigger issues,” reminding me of how to respond in certain situations.  For roundabouts, he advised that I clarify directions with questions like, “Did you say left?” rather than with questions like, “So I should turn left here?,” which would be seen as not understanding the rules of the road.

By the way, if you take your test in a car with a manual transmission, you're allowed to also drive an automatic. But if you take your test in an automatic, you're not licensed to drive a stick-shift. (Our Honda Fit back home is a manual, so I took the test in a stick shift.)
By the way, if you take your test in a car with a manual transmission, you’re also allowed to drive an automatic. But if you take your test in an automatic, you’re not licensed to drive a stick-shift. (Our Honda Fit back home is a manual, so I took the test in a stick shift, since they’re the cheapest and most plentiful rental cars.)

Next, Roar gave me a crash course in car maintenance by showing me where to find the emergency vest, flares, and triangles; where to check the oil, transmission fluid, and washer fluid; and how to determine the necessary air pressure for tires based on the season of year and how much weight the vehicle is carrying or towing.  As it turns out, inspectors typically give an oral quiz with three questions about the vehicle before you ever leave the parking lot, including asking you to demonstrate how to perform various maintenance procedures.  Thank goodness you’re allowed to fail this portion but can still pass the test if you drive well.

Norwegians regularly use even the tiniest cars to haul their campers, boats, and trailers stuffed with wood for fixing up their hyttes (mountain cabins). Hence the emphasis on knowing the correct tire pressure for the permitted weight.
Norwegians regularly use even the tiniest cars to haul their campers, boats, and overstuffed trailers to their hyttes (mountain cabins). Hence the emphasis on knowing the correct tire pressure for the permitted weight.

Anyway, my fortunately English-speaking examiner showed up, introduced herself, and asked me three questions, one of which included, “How many meters behind the car do you place the emergency triangle sign in case of a breakdown?”  Having no clue and being terrible at estimating metrics, I guessed, “About three car lengths?”  She responded, “Is that your final answer?” I said, “Um, since that’s clearly the wrong answer, how about six car lengths?” Looking disappointed, she sighed, “Okay … let’s move on.”

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Isn’t it perfectly obvious? The answer is the third one down the list.

As we left the parking lot, the examiner asked if I would like to take the test in silence, or whether I’d prefer to engage in casual conversation.  I joked that perhaps we could find a middle range between the two extremes, since I didn’t want to be too distracted by juicy topics.  But we ended up hitting it off and intermittently discussing everything from how to grow lavender in a cold climate to where to find the best hiking spots in Western Norway.

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Um, how about Option E: “Throw my car into reverse and head back to my garage with my tail between my legs”

At the end of the drive, after I’d completed the parking test, she asked me the dreaded question, “How well do you think you performed?” Roar had forewarned me about this one.  He said, “You should outright confess any big mistakes you made, because if you acknowledge them, she may let you pass since you know what you did wrong.  But you have to be careful, because you don’t want to call her attention to something she might not have noticed.  Neither do you want to say that you did nothing wrong, because there’s always something you can improve upon.”  In other words, provide an answer like a presidential candidate during the party debates.

Picking through my mental options, I answered that I should have slowed down a bit faster right before the “Road Under Construction” sign, which she seemed to find acceptable.  Then she asked for a few moments to write up my review.  I sat sweating until she turned to me, stuck out her hand for a shake, and said, “Congratulations, you passed.  You were a safe driver who made your intentions clearly known to other drivers so that they knew what to expect from you.”  Uh, I guess that’s a good thing.

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Yay! I’m a legal driver in Norway! Wonder how they’ll reconcile this perpetually youthful photo with my aged face at 100 years old (the expiration date of the license)?

Absolutely weak-kneed with relief that the test was over, I practically collapsed as I exited the car.  Roar gave me a big hug and then proceeded to translate all the truly lovely comments the examiner had written on the form.  I think Roar himself had been a bit concerned about my ability to pass, having witnessed my “Chicago driving” as well as my nervousness, so I’m glad I did him proud.  I’ll miss our many drives together, not only because it’s nice having a wingman when you’re learning new rules of the road, but also because we had fabulous discussions about the differences and similarities between life in Norway and the U.S.

So now it’s Matthew’s turn for driving lessons.  Good luck, honey!  Looking on the bright side, if you get the license, it’s valid until you’re 100 years old, no additional testing required, no renewals necessary.  Not kidding!

P.S.:  Sorry for the bad photos — it’s hard to get good lighting on textbook pages.  Thanks for the images, Autoriserte Traffikkskolers Landsforbund!

One thought on “Driving Lessons”

  1. hola!What a crazy story!!! are they just trying to get people to use public transportation instead of using cars? either way, congratulations on your hard earned DL. I hope you guys are well. It was nice to see you for a bit on Halloween. I hope the weather isn’t getting too icky there and that you’re staying warm. Sending you warm hugs and kisses from an unseasonably warm mid-November in Chicago. -Christina

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