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Driving in Europe

Think Twice if You’re Not European by Birth

I originate from a very “special" country. One that is, at the very least, well known. (It’s also well-liked and well-hated simultaneously, but that’s another story for another time.) An important aspect about this magical land of eagles and baseball is that people from there just assume that, due to our popularity, we are the average and status-quo of the world (oh dear are we global Kardashians?).

Yes, I’m talking about the good ol’ US of A: a place that I am in equal parts ashamed- and proud of. One of the most difficult things about moving away from my self-contained-universe of a country was that I had to leave behind my car. Driving as a whole was left behind when I crossed the Atlantic to get to Russia.

People in Europe do drive. In fact, in my apartment in Prague, one of my biggest complaints is the fact that we are on a VERY busy street and it is incredibly loud in the summer when we have to keep the windows open (like driving, air-conditioning is not common here). But, it’s not nearly as common. In fact, whereas the US has 797 vehicles per 1000 people, Czechia has only 485. Plus, in every Czech city I have been to, the public transportation is so fabulous that there is really no need for a car. You can get everywhere you need with your feet and a tram/bus/metro pass.


That doesn’t change the fact, however, that I have always loved driving. If winter were somehow avoidable, I would have probably become a long-haul truck driver in the US. Listening to good music with a long stretch of highway ahead of you has always been one of my greatest pleasures. Not to mention, on a practical level, the towns I lived in were really difficult to navigate without a car. In coastal towns in Oregon, there is a bus that will take you to the city (50 miles away) but it only leaves once per day in each direction and you have to get to the bus stop itself which, for me, was a treacherous walk down the shoulder of highway 101 in to town. And, before you ask, no, I didn’t realise how much I relied on my car until I didn’t have one and had to start walking everywhere. The grocery store here is about 1.5 miles from my house. In the US, that’s just a few minutes by car. If someone was walking that distance, perhaps their car broke down! How are you supposed to get your groceries home without a trunk? Well, now I think of it as a short distance and the key is to always bring a backpack and build up your stamina. It’s a lot different. And I do actually go to the potraviny (convenience store) across the street more than I should to avoid building said stamina.

So I’ve been getting along fine without my car. When we want to visit another country, we take a train. From there, we take the local trains and metros to get around. It’s really not complicated. But some places are a bit harder to reach by train. Direct trains are of course between big cities, and then taking 5 local trains (completely in Polish, let’s say) to eventually reach a small but glorious town can be a bit intimidating. So I thought it would be a lot more fun to take a road trip across Europe and see some of these places that were a pain in the ass to reach by train. It also appeared that it would be cheaper to rent a car than to buy train tickets for the two of us and the dog.

Appeared. That it would be cheap.

So I got an international driving permit (through AAA in America and had my mom mail it to me) and rented a car for 8 days though Europcar. I also mapped out a plan through Germany, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Austria. A big circle of excitement and adventure as I thought.

The first thing I learned, when renting a car, is that only my “special” country really has such a thing for automatic transmission. I personally have only driven a stick a few times, and even then it was just when my dad would let me shift for him when I was 5 and we were in a parking lot. Other than that, every car I owned and drove was an automatic. Same with all my friends and family (including my dad for the past 20 years). Europe has a different philosophy. Manual transmission is the norm here and therefore, I had to pay nearly twice as much to get an automatic. Let this be a lesson. Learn to drive a stick before renting a car here.

I ended up renting a little 2-door (they call it 3-door here because the hatchback) Škoda, which is a Czech car, but when I arrived to pick up the car, they gave me a free upgrade to a 4-door (5-door) Peugeot station wagon. What a huge, French, diesel-taking car! But, as my car in the US was a 2009 Chevy Cobalt, I was super excited about the rear camera this thing had. I was not informed that it would flash and beep at me when I got too close to something, though. Cool feature, but makes parking terrifying on that first go. I also never learned how to put on the emergency brake.

So I’d read up a little on if laws were different in these countries than in my country and the general consensus was that as long as I understand that the right pedal means go and the left means stop, I should be fine. I think my first mistake was doing that search in English. Because I learned the hard way that things aren’t as similar as they want you to think:

Speed Limits:

I was aware that instead of mph, here they use kph. I also already knew what speed limit signs look like. I would also like to ease the mind to know that the speedometer is in the same place in a Peugeot as it is in a Chevy. However, I ran in to two speed problems:

Speed limit signs are incredibly scarce. I guess this is because it’s a generally accepted practice in the countries I drove through that it’s 130 on the highways and 50 in towns. There was also a helpful indication on my cars gps map monitor (another cool feature) that showed what the speed limit should be. But I don’t trust things like that. Things change, and who knows when that gps was last updated? For comparison, in the US, speed limit signs are listed after each on ramp so that new members of the highway club know what’s in their swag-bag, if you know what I mean. I often gave my husband the job to help me find a speed limit sign. And was very often going wayyy under the limit because I wasn’t sure how fast to go.

Another reason I was going so slow was because, no matter how much conversion I did (the directional gps on my phone even told me my speed in mph), my US brain could only see the number 130 and think “holy shit you’re going way too fast.” I couldn’t shake it. It’s about 75mph, in case you were wondering, which is a common speed limit on US highways as well. On US highways, I tend to go between 79 and 84. But in Europe, I could only push myself to about 114-120 most of the time. It just freaked me out. I felt a lot better at 70 (which is about 43mph).

Tolls and Vignettes:

Thank god I looked this stuff up before I left on my journey because otherwise I would have potentially been in a lot of trouble. In the Czech Republic, there was no worries because I had rented a car here. So everything was covered. In Germany, the highways are free. However, France and Italy have tolls and Slovenia and Austria (and Czechia) have a thing called a vignette.

A vignette is a little sticker that you put on your windscreen that shows you’ve paid to use the highways in the country. The least amount you can get is 7 days in Slovenia and 10 days in Austria (or maybe the other way around). It costs 15 Euros in Slovenia and 7 in Austria. With that sticker, you only have to slow down at a few disused toll stations so a camera can take your picture and make sure you have the sticker. Apparently, you can order these stickers online and have them sent to you before your journey begins. We didn’t plan this trip with enough advance to do that, so we had to do it the local way and buy them at gas stations in neighbouring countries. So, in Italy, we had to stop along the highway and ask. The first place we asked was too far from the border. That’s understandable. The second place told me that they were out of Slovenian vignettes. The third place told me I had to go inside a restaurant to get it. And fourth place was a success. But that final place was uncomfortably close to the border. There is also a stop right at the border where you can buy them if you need to. But that line was looong.

Tolls make more sense to the US brain. We have those sometimes too. Last time I had paid a toll was to cross the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. It was a $6 charge southbound and free going north. As a consensus, we Americans believed that fee to be ridiculous. Tolls were usually 1-2 dollars. That is what my brain expected in France and Italy (again, because we believe we’re the status-quo in my special country). I also expected that tolls would happen at the end of a specified road.

In France, the tolls were maybe once every hour. When the first one came around and asked me for 30 euros, I nearly choked on my own surprise. That was the most expensive in France. The rest were in the teens. But, keep in mind, we drove through something like 10 hours of France. So it was pretty hefty. Our bank card worked in all of them, though. So that was nice because I had collected coins for tolls previously. Thinking that was legitimate.

In Italy, however, we ran it to some trouble. Firstly, in order to enter Italy from France (at least on the highway we were on), we were immediately hit with a long line and a 40 euro fee in order to go through a tunnel. I had no idea we were going through a tunnel, or that tunnels cost money, or that we were going through the 10th longest tunnel in the world. The Mont-Blanc Tunnel, in case you were wondering. Furthermore, I didn’t know there would be tax on the tunnel fee. They did give us a safety information card, though. Honestly, that didn’t make things better.

Then, once out of the tunnel and in to Italy (the worst place I’ve ever driven, by the way), there were toll booths every half an hour. Each with a fee in the teens and sometimes, I could not use my bank card. We were lucky to have enough cash on hand, but what happens if you’re not so lucky? All the machine does is yell at me in Italian.

We drove across the thickest part of Italy, so it got pretty pricey. I asked some European people how they felt about the toll/vignette thing and those from toll countries think their system is best and those from vignette countries think the opposite. If you ask me, I like Germany’s system. And if I had to choose a second, I’d say the vignettes are better. But that’s only because I was passing through. If you live there, it’s probably a different story.

Stoplights:

This was the first conflict we encountered and was also one that made me hate being in the car for the rest of the trip. When we reached our first destination of Colmar, France, my husband—while trying to help—hit the “stop” button on the gps just as we got in to the city proper and, in a panic, restarted it to take us just to “Colmar" and not to the address of our house. As you may know, putting in a city name just takes you to the centre. Which is usually where you don’t want to drive. What was supposed to be a 6-hour drive ended up being 12.5 hours because of the traffic jams in Germany and I was so done with driving. I just wanted to sleep. It was almost midnight and I was in an unfamiliar French town trying to listen to the gps who wouldn’t tell me street names, only distances until the turn (in metres).

I went to turn left on a green light (not an arrow) and did what I usually do which is pull in to the intersection to wait for oncoming traffic to break long enough to get through. Everything was normal until I looked forward and there was no longer a light for me to reference. The traffic light was behind me and I had no idea what colour it was. Now, this shouldn’t have freaked me out because even in the US, you sometimes end up taking your turn on yellow or red. That’s why you’re in the intersection: to reserve your spot to turn. But the fact that I couldn’t see the light freaked me out beyond my wildest imagination. I didn’t know what to do or how long I’d been in the intersection. There were people who were going to want to go through that intersection soon and I was blocking them. Sure, I should have just turned because the oncoming traffic was stopped. But I panicked and started yelling at everyone in the car while I reversed back behind the crosswalk. Yeah, I pulled an illegal reverse rather than just turn. Laugh now, but when you’re expecting a light that isn’t there, it throws you pretty far.

So let this be a lesson, stop lights can be seen only from the stop.There are not two sets like in the US. They’re also just sitting on poles, not strung across the top.

Priorité à droit:

Another fun part of driving in France was the rule "priorité à droit” which translates to “priority to the right.” It doesn’t sound so complicated at first. That’s what we do when we have a four-way stop. The only difference is that it works regardless of who was at the stop first. If I pull up to a four-way stop and there are three cars coming from my left, I don’t even have to stop, I can just keep going straight across. But if someone is coming from the right I have to stop. People on my left still have to wait, though. No one told me about this rule and seeing it in a sign as I pull up to an intersection was horrible. Brazil-system training, as my husband would say. Legend holds that there are even some roundabouts with this rule to them. I lived in fear every day of coming across one of those. Never happened. Speaking of roundabouts, though:

Roundabouts are everywhere:

At first, it was the worst thing imaginable to have roundabouts constantly impending. A trip around Lake Iseo in Italy hails what seems like 700 roundabouts and only 3 traffic lights. But, as I got used to them, I started to like them. They’re a better system, really. They don’t slow everyone down on the priority roads just to make way for one guy coming in from a side road.

I was liking them, until I ran in to some more complicated variations. For example, the two-lane roundabout. I have tried to look up an answer to this and still do not know why the hell there’s a left-lane in a roundabout. For going past the second exit? People didn’t use it that way, that’s for sure. There was also a roundabout in Italy that caused me to physically break down in tears because I had no idea how to use it. From the two lane road, it split in to three lanes divided by medians. I just took the furthest right because it seemed the least likely to get us killed. Again, Italy is the worst.

Petrol stations:

It’s not hard to fill your car up. There are stations way closer together on the highway than there are in the US. The things that got confusing was how and when to pay. I resigned to just praying that I’d pull up, survive the roundabout, find a pump, translate which type of fuel I needed, and be blessed with a credit card slot to pay. Sometimes there would be a sign thanking me for agreeing to pay inside. That happens where I’m from from time to time. In those cases, you park, go inside, say how much you want and on what pump, pay, and do your business. It wasn’t until a very nice Italian station attendant explained to me that I have to pump first and then pay that it started to make sense. The strong fear of being the person that causes a line at the pump is a non-issue in Italy, I guess.

Country roads:

Country roads can be a demon in any country, I’m sure. I mean, I know they’re not picnic in the US either. But still, driving through Alsace, France and going up in to the alps meant experiencing some complicated roads. We drove up to the peak of a mountain in Isère on the thinnest and windiest road in the world. There was also no centre line which gave me oodles of discomfort. Thankfully, we were the only people travelling this road on the way up and, on the way back, we only passed on car. There are often times that the road will narrow to one lane and you must know whether or not you are the priority to go through or if you have to wait. The rule is that uphill, you have priority, and downhill, you do not. But if I didn’t know these things from my own time in the country, I would have had an awful time for sure.

The [not-so] open road:

I think the biggest difference and the thing that makes a European road trip nothing like a US road trip is the fact that everything is closer together here than it is there. Entire countries here are the size of US states and therefore, there are no long stretches of open road. There’s nothing like Highway 50 here in Europe (that I know of, anyway), and there will always be someone close behind you and ahead. Driving isn’t a time to reflect and think about your life (though you can get something close just after crossing the border in to Slovenia. Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong.

All that said, there are some good parts of the European highways that I quite enjoyed:

Truck lanes:

At least in France and Germany, there is a third lane on the highway that is designated for exiting and big trucks. That means that, until they want to pass each other (which is a pain, but understandable), you can just cruise on by them.

The left lane is for passing:

I’m always yelling that to my fellow drivers in the US as no one seems to understand it. Somewhere along the line this narrative of the “fast lane” carried over to mean that you can just ride in the left lane as long as you think you’re going faster than other people. In Europe, you use that lane to pass the cars in front of you and then you get back over. Sure, there are some people who still don’t believe that, but they are genuinely going fast. Too fast. Of course, passing is a curse in Italy where no one shoulder checks. Ever. For any reason. At all. Not even once.

Well labelled petrol stations:

I always hate when an exit in the US will tell me there’s a gas station at the next exit, but in order to get to it, I have to change on to another highway, drive through three small farm villages, and then down a dirt road to find that the place is closed. Off the highways here, they are directly there. Sometimes there’s a restaurant next to them (Auto Grill is pretty popular) and they do indeed sell fun souvenirs inside. But instead of getting a magnet that says “Utah,” it’s a magnet that says “Italia.”

Using hazards to signal that there’s a traffic jam:

Hazard lights are used for when you’re pulled over and need help because your car won’t start in the US. In Germany, France, Slovenia, and Austria (again, notice that the outlier is Italy), you use them to indicate to cars behind you that there is a traffic jam and we are all slowing way down to a stop. It’s also used as a thank you sometimes instead of the US “wave.” Once I figured out where the button was, this was really helpful.

Generally, if I had it to do over, I would have done a lot more research in the languages of the countries I was visiting. Because it’s so simple to rent a car (all you need is a US license or, in some countries an international driving permit which doesn’t require anything other than $25 and a picture), it’s easy to assume that that’s because everything will be exactly the same here as it is elsewhere, just in a different language. But even in English, that’s not true. I know that I could drive in the UK with my US driver’s license, and they don’t even drive on the same side of the road! Having no practice with that at all and then just going out there in a car seems a dangerous venture. If I didn’t know French, I believe that driving in France would have ended a lot differently. As I said, my Italian is pretty awful and the road signs I looked up before our journey didn’t cover all that I would see. My time driving here was a good bit of evidence against the idea of “well if it was going to be hard, why would they make it so easy?"

It certainly was an experience, though. And, no, I didn’t cause any accidents or near-hits at any point. And I was only even honked at once as I was returning the car (which was, by far, the most terrible part of the whole journey. Driving through Prague with a gps that didn’t work).

But I learned a lot. Mostly, that I don’t want to drive in Europe. When we finally settle down in a small French city, perhaps I will get a driving license and a car as I will get used to the roads of our area. But, until then, I am just fine with public transportation.