We moved to Germany after three years living in Bangkok. Forget all the cultural differences – do you know what my biggest worry was?
Back in the UK I drove every day, no problem. But then we moved to Bangkok and for three whole years I didn’t get behind the wheel once.
But it wasn’t lack of practice that worried me. It was being on the wrong side of the road. Literally.
In the UK, unlike the rest of Europe, we drive on the left hand side of the road. It’s the same in Thailand. It’s all I had ever been used to, and I honestly couldn’t imagine that driving on the right would ever feel normal.
Living overseas means re-learning how to do things
Since moving overseas there have been plenty of things I have had to re-learn or at least adapt to. There’s the obvious cultural differences – in Thailand, for example, I got used to always removing my shoes at the entrance to someone’s house.
But driving on the other side of the road was more practical than cultural and one that felt a bit more, well, dangerous.
My first attempt at driving in Germany was not so good. I went out in the car with my husband and kids. It’s not for nothing that my husband isn’t a teacher. Five minutes in we swapped seats and drove back to the apartment. In silence. I decided I’d be better on my own.
Hmm ‘Better’? Well, there was definitely less shouting. And only one scream (my own, I hasten to add) as I realised I was driving the wrong way down a main road…
Driving isn’t really a cultural difference – why was it so hard?
I guess for those few weeks, the way I felt in the car was an amplification of how I was feeling. I was back in Europe and the cars, the streets, the countryside – it was all pretty similar to England.
But it wasn’t England. To use the Thai phrase, it was ‘same same but different’. I was literally on the wrong side of the tracks – and I felt ‘wrong’ in everything I did. The cultural differences here were not as obvious as in Thailand, but that somehow made them harder to adapt to.
Going anywhere in the car was hard because I’d never been to any of these places before – I didn’t know the street names, or the relative distance between towns. I was having to build a mental map from scratch and, when you’re already navigationally challenged, that’s tough.
I was having to do something that I had been competent at before, but do it differently. And that took time and some adjustments.
But the way we drive is different across cultures
I also had to get used to the rules of the road. Not the actual rules, but the way of driving – which clearly shows the cultural differences between countries. Bangkok may have the second worst traffic in the world, but you rarely hear anyone beeping their horn. Karma is king and you can make the biggest driving error and people let it pass. And if you happened to get stopped by the police? Nothing a handful of baht won’t solve.
But in Germany? YOU GET BEEPED AT FOR THE SLIGHTEST HESITATION. And I write that in capitals because that’s what it felt like – like being shouted at very angrily. However, if you want to park your car right outside a bakery, obstructing the street and basically being a massive hazard, that’s ok. Because bread is really important here.
But I wasn’t the only one struggling
I feel pathetic now about how nervous I was in the car. That first week, when I had to drive with the kids the thirty minutes to our new house I think we all held our breath the whole way. Several wrong turns and a slightly dented wing mirror later, we made it. I think it was the sheer relief of getting out of the car that made them hug me and tell me I had done a good job. If nothing else, they’ve learned that we reward effort in this house rather than results…
But when I got talking to other parents at school I realised that I was not alone with my driving anxiety.
The Americans would be fine, I thought, given that they also drive on the right. But no. They were terrified of the tiny narrow streets, the dinky parking spaces and the pressure of parallel parking.
Others avoided the autobahn at all costs because the no-speed-limit zones freaked them out and the sound of cars screeching past them gave them heart failure.
Another friend had no problems driving here whatsoever. But what she did have a problem with was discovering she had to take her driving test again, because some states in the US do not have a reciprocal agreement with Germany. And the German test? It’s not easy. Fortunately she sailed (or should that be motored?) right on through. Other people I know were not so successful with the test and had to have their partners taxi them around until they managed to pass. Not a recipe for marital harmony…
The driving, like the culture shock, got better with time
But now driving here does feel normal. Just as living here feels normal – I didn’t imagine I would ever feel at home here, but now I do. It just took a bit of time. It was also a huge help to realise that I wasn’t the only one stressed out by driving. There were other people in the same boat. Or car…
As it happens, I actually quite like driving here now, and I very rarely get beeped at. Germany is infamous for the amount of speeding tickets it gives out; fortunately I have only the one (touch wood).
However, I’m not sure whether I got it because I was going 35 in a 30kmph zone or, as the photo showed, because I had my eyes shut.
See? I’ve got so used to this driving lark I can do it with my eyes closed…
Author: Rebecca Hilton
Rebecca Hilton is originally from the UK and over the past few years has lived in Thailand and now Germany with her husband and two children. Before leaving the UK Rebecca had a career in marketing and change management – which has been very useful when dealing with all the changes inherent in expat life!
On her website, Making Here Home, Rebecca writes about moving and living abroad, and her attempts to make wherever ‘here’ is feel like home. An avid reader, Rebecca has also recently set up ‘The Expat Book Club’(https://www.facebook.com/groups/694134614112415/), a virtual book club to join together expat women via a shared love of reading.