Sarge has started my driver’s education course. After two months of leaving him behind the wheel of our manual transmission rental car, he’s handing over the reins so I can get a taste of driving in Europe.
Almost all of the cars here are stick shifts. They’re cheaper to buy (and rent) and are more fuel efficient than automatics. In America, only 3 percent of car sales are manual transmissions, compared with 80 percent in some European countries, car-shopping website Edmunds says. In Croatia, mastering a manual is a practical necessity.
Sarge is of the school that everyone should know how to drive a stick. I’m sure it’s something he’ll teach our kids, even if changing gears on a manual is a novelty by the time they are drivers.
I hadn’t tried to drive a stick shift since I was in college, and it’s a skill I never mastered. I knew it was time for some schooling. For me, it’s kind of like learning the language here: It would be so much easier if I didn’t even attempt it. But I’d always be a little lost if I didn’t at least try.
Lesson One was on Sunday afternoon when the local hardware store closed and their parking lot was nearly empty. (Side note: Hardware stores in Croatia are not really set up for weekend Do-It-Yourselfers. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, you’re out of luck if your project is incomplete and you need more supplies. Might as well take a siesta!)
Sarge, an instructor pilot and natural teacher, drove around the lot and demonstrated how to release the clutch, when to push the gas pedal and how to shift gears and how to reverse. Then, I took the driver’s seat and followed his instructions. He’s good at this kind of thing and was patient as I fumbled through the process.
Our boys sat in the back seat and watched and added their own commentaries.
“You’re doing great, Mommy,” 11-year-old “A” said. “I’m a little scared, though!”
I was doing well in the flat and nearly empty parking lot.
When Sarge had me turn onto the roads with the other drivers, I got a little nervous. It was the same feeling I had when I joined a women’s sailing club years ago and was left in charge of navigating the boat myself. It takes a while to get in tune with being the captain of the ship.
Especially when you stall out. Lesson One ended when I stalled twice at a stop light and had cars lining up behind me through two rotations of the light.
That’s when I asked Sarge to switch places and take over. I expected the driver behind me to cuss me out in Croatian. Thankfully, he just waved and smiled watching our musical chairs performance.
In Croatia, you have to drive with confidence. Locals drive fast, and motorcycles and scooters zip between traffic. I’m not quite ready to take them on yet. It will take a few more lessons before I feel good about going out on the open road. Until then, I will be a Sunday driver in the Bauhaus parking lot learning a lost art.