“Just let me know when you will be driving and I’ll make sure to stay at home at that time…” Those were the comforting words from a work colleague upon learning that I was about to take driving lessons in Kraków. To get a licence in Poland as a foreigner is possible, and while many have done so, they tend to take the easier path of using an existing foreign licence to receive a Polish one. Instead, I was about to do it the hard way, having never had a driver’s licence before.
It was about one year ago when I figured that it was about time to start learning to drive. I had just moved from a job where I could walk 15 minutes to get to work, to one where it was more like 15 kilometres one way to get there. I had spent the previous 10 years telling myself that I did not need to drive, and for most of the decade that was true. When living in Ireland, I had been in the lucky position that I had been able to travel by foot or bus to work, and during 5 years in Dublin, I was living in city centre locations. While this usually meant most amenities were within touching distance, it also meant that there was no point in having a car that would not be used and would need a paid parking space.
Polish regulations stated that before attempting a test, 30 hours of theoretical learning and 30 hours of practical learning were needed. Thus I first sat down to the books and a few weeks later, began sitting in a little Toyota Yaris for practical lessons. By mid-May I was ready and a test was scheduled. However, as the exam came closer, I made the mistake of speaking to some Polish colleagues and friends. The stories began to pop up about how everyone fails their test the first time, and no-one can pass a Polish test unless the instructor might be given a little ‘assistance’. As the day came closer, this lead to a little anxiety. Two tests were required to be passed, the theoretical and practical. I had scheduled both to take place on the same morning, although it is possible to try both tests separately. On the morning of the tests, I joined about 15 others in the room for the theory exam. This was fairly simple, as it was possible to attempt the test in English or German, as well as Polish of course. 18 questions needed to be answered, with a minimum of 16 correct to pass. With 17 right answers within a couple of minutes of starting, I walked out of the theory test with a confident step.
However that turned out to be a somewhat of a false dawn. I had a long wait ahead before an examiner would be ready for the practical exam. In the two hours that followed, nerves began to grow. I had asked an interpreter to attend the exam also, as I was concerned that I would get instructions wrong and fail as a result. However, the interpreter had not been involved in translating for a driving test before and she was as nervous as I was. She was chatting away about her experience in failing a couple of times when she attempted her test, and this was not helping me. Eventually after some time, my name was called and away we went.
The first challenge was to open the bonnet of the car and look at the engine. The examiner asks you to show something from the engine area to ensure basic car knowledge. I needed to just indicate where the brake fluid is maintained. However, I froze. I had a mental image of the engine area in my head and the real-life example in front of me was different! My interpreter then opened the 1000 page dictionary she had brought along trying to see if she could help… After a moment , I took a guess in the general area and got lucky. Then I moved into the car tself and had to do some simple practical examples before going on the road. First was the J-curve, where the car starts in one box and has to navigate a corner and end in another box. Then the same route has to be attempted in reverse. So far, so good. However, then the nerves set in again. Next up was a hill-start. The car was stopped on a little hill and needed to be started from the hand brake. First time around, I conked the engine and failed. If I failed a second time, the whole exam would be failed without even driving on the road. At that stage, I decided I had made enough mistakes, and did a good hill-start. About 30 minutes driving around the streets of Kraków without incident followed. As we got back to the test centre, I was mildly surprised to find out I had passed without any errors at all. The examiner even said that if others drove as I did, he would probably have fewer grey hairs. However, the assistance of a pretty young interpreter probably did help also, as the examiner mentioned upon finishing.
After all the drama, I had passed my test first time, and in Poland with its demanding roads, and challenging drivers!