Shabbat Goy: Demon driver

I often feel like an outsider in Israel, but when I’m behind the wheel...

Cartoon car 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon car 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
People often ask if I feel at home in Israel. It’s a difficult question to answer.
Language, culture, political and social sensibilities; they all conspire to make me feel an outsider.
It’s not you, it’s me, I hasten to add. No matter how long I live here, there will always be things that I’ll engage with from a different perspective.
But all this is turned on its head the moment I get behind the wheel of a car.
Some background detail.
Before I moved to these parts, I only ever drove if I had absolutely no other options available. To many people, not driving seems a rather eccentric affectation, and so I was forced to invent all sorts of creative justifications for this – public transport is more than adequate; I’m pro-Green and anti-pollution (a lie if there ever was one – but we won’t dwell on that); the fact that I don’t believe in drinking and driving, and therefore had to sacrifice one for the other.
The truth, however, is that I become an absolute beast the moment I turn the ignition key.
I’m usually a cautious, polite, even unassuming sort of chap (you’ll have to take my word for this), but once behind the wheel I turn into a snarling, aggressive and thoroughly reckless creature. My competitive instincts are ramped up to the nth degree; the road becomes a conduit to serve me, and me alone.
You know the old joke about driving as if one owns the road? That’s me behind the wheel. The road is mine, dammit; and if you don’t like it, tough.
IN ENGLAND, this approach to driving was always a little... shall we say, problematic.
Brits being what they are, it didn’t take long for me to understand that the only thing that stood between me and extended incarceration was acceptance of my condition.
So I hung up the car keys and made do with buses and the Underground.
But then we moved here. And the vagaries of the public transportation system in Israel being what they are...
Buses are fine, but there aren’t enough of them. As for taxis... well, suffice it to say that I will never enter a taxi in this country again, even if my life depended upon it. There’s nothing worse than being ripped off by rapacious bandits whilst they coo felicitously at you – “Where are you from? Ah, welcome to Israel!” – and not being able to do a thing about it.
So I had no choice but to go back to driving again. But first, I had to convert my foreign license for use in Israel. Which required driving lessons.
I’m no fan of driving lessons: I’ve always been a poor student. I believe that my driving instructor in England put his children through university solely on the back of my inability to appreciate that speed limits are restrictions rather than targets. But I realized that I might be in sympathetic company when, during my first lesson, my instructor upbraided me for slowing at a zebra crossing.
“Is there anyone on the crossing?” he demanded.
No, but there is someone approaching, I pointed out.
He harrumphed.
“If the pedestrian isn’t actually on the crossing itself, you have no obligation to stop.”
Ah. How refreshing. And so it went on.
“Don’t drive so slowly, you’re a danger to other drivers!” “You put the handbrake on at a traffic light? What, are you suicidal?” And so on.
Needless to say, I found all this very liberating. When the time came, I passed my test first time.
I think that driving gives a unique insight into the Israeli psyche. If I had a shekel for each time I’ve been forced to brake violently to avoid running into the idiot who has pulled out of a side road into my path, I’d be a millionaire.
I still marvel at the feat of divination that enables the average Israeli driver to start horning the millisecond before a traffic light turns from red to amber. The guilt I always feel when I narrowly run a red light is always dissipated by the view in the rear view mirror of the two cars speeding after me.
And I just love it when oncoming traffic flashes you to warn you that a speed radar gun is lurking just around the corner...
But I’d never really thought about it this way until last weekend, when I went on a trip with my father-in-law. He is a courteous, conservative gentleman of very set habits and routines. One is that he never drives above 80 kilometers an hour; another is that he must take a nap every afternoon, without fail.
Sitting as a passenger in a car that was being overtaken by all and sundry was difficult enough, but I managed to restrain myself from beating him about the back of the head (respect for one’s elders and betters, and all that).
But then it got worse. On the drive back home after lunch – we’d been to the Be’ira Forest in the Negev, a lovely day – he suddenly pulled up at the side of the road.
“Time for my nap,” he announced. “You wouldn’t mind driving, would you?” You know what’s worse than being passenger in a car being driven at the speed of snail? Being forced to drive at the speed of a snail, because one’s father-in-law is recumbent in the back seat, liable to awake if I stray to even 81 km/h.
Trundling along at the pace of a tricycle, I watched cars horn and hurtle past with ill-disguised venom. My wife, sitting beside me, patted my knee sympathetically.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s good practice for when you’re in England next month.”
And then I understood. I do feel at home in Israel, at least when I’m driving. It’s just that this might have ruined the outside world for me.