Thursday, February 20, 2014

A License To Drive

Can you identify all of these
road signs?
As part of settling into Belgium we are required to apply for a Belgian drivers license. Prior to arriving here, we had been warned that not only were the Belgian roads horrible but their drivers were even worse. I guess it is all relative since coming from Albania I immediately found the roads to be very good and the drivers to be quite civilized. Even the big tractors driving down the highways seemed to be following the rules of the road. I did notice that there were a lot of signs along the roadsides--most of which I recognized but a few that I didn't. But, acclimating to a new country, I wasn't sure whether there were truly a lot more road signs than in other countries or just a lot more than in Albania. It turns out it was a little bit of both.

While nothing is as easy here as it should be the process was more cumbersome than difficult. First, we had to schedule an appointment to take the class where we would learn everything we needed to know cruise the Belgian roads. When filling out my application I was asked if I had European driving experience. This question caused me to pause because, well I do, but I don't. Or do I? When I explained that I had been driving in Albania for over two years (yes, Albania is a part of Europe), he looked at me in a horrified way and hissed that Albanian driving did not count as the requisite experience. (I later learned that if you had true European driving experience, you would only have to take the class and not the test in order to receive your Belgian license). It looked like I would be taking both all at the early hour of eight in the morning. I was then handed a thick driving manual and a handout with pictures of a hundred plus roadsigns. I was told to only skim the book but to memorize the signs because knowing all of the signs would be very important.

Bright and early on my appointed day I sat in a cold classroom with a handful of other recent arrivals listening. The instructor immediately launched into a Power Point presentation covering you guessed it, the road signs. (Actually, he prefaced his entire lecture with the warning that we must follow the rules of the road and not drive like Belgians.  Maybe Belgium is more like Albania than I want to admit?). For over two hours we went around the class identifying road signs and what we were to do when we encountered them. What I heard was essentially common sense but it made me realize just how rusty my western driving skills have gotten over the past couple of years. Repeatedly I found myself nodding in agreement with the instructor yet realizing that such rules just wouldn't work in Albania. Police in the road? In Belgium you stop your vehicle and obey their instructions. In Albania? You go blazing by them not making eye contact. Stopping for red lights, not turning left from the right lane, or stopping for an approaching train rather than trying to outrun it. These rules are common sense here but not where I am most recently coming from.

There are two Belgian (or actually European) rules that have been taking me the longest to grow accustomed to. First, there is the sign with a little red rimmed white triangle with an "x" in the middle. When we see these signs, whether we are on a main road or a country lane, we need to yield to the right, meaning that whatever traffic is approaching from the right actually has the right of way. Sometimes this makes sense but as I have already encountered during my drives through the area, yielding to the right is counter intuitive. However, we were sternly warned that if we get hit broadside by a car that we were supposed to yield for, we are without a doubt at fault. Secondly, on many sections of secondary roads, the traffic alternates on the more narrow sections with cars yielding to oncoming traffic. This alternating of lanes seems to be a built in speed control mechanism. Signs with red and black arrows indicate who has the priority and as I quickly learned, drivers-Belgians and foreigners alike- take this rule seriously. All drivers seem to be exceptionally civilized about obeying who has the right of way; disregarding the signs could result in a nasty head on collision.

Three hours later I took my 100 question exam where we were allowed to miss a total of ten questions. Half of the test was multiple choice questions and the other half was identifying those pesky road signs. We had to know the difference between a wild animal crossing sign and one for farm animals; the specific rules and lane restrictions for bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds; when we can park totally on the verge, partially on the verge, and only on the street. The list of signs just goes on. And low and behold, this girl who spent the past two and a half years driving in Albania where anything and everything goes, aced the test. Yes I did. So I am now licensed to drive in Belgium with my SHAPE license. However, I must wait until the arrival of my Belgian protocol card (in six, seven, eight weeks maybe) before I can go to the Commune of Mons and apply for my Belgian drivers license. It sounds easy enough but I now know better than that.

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