Yielding to the right on Prague’s cobblestone streets
Driving School is the last school I would have imagined being enrolled in at nearly 40 years of age.
Until now, I have driven (happily) in Prague using my US driver’s license. I haven’t had any accidents – knock on wood (or teeth as the Czechs do). The one time a police officer asked for my license during a routine check seven years ago, he didn’t say anything about it not being Czech. Still, after years of navigating roads in the Czech Republic, not having a Czech license began to seem like the one hurdle standing between me and a settled life here. What was I waiting for?
In the beginning, a Czech driver’s license was deemed unnecessary. I preferred to use public transportation. And, I needed my US license when we returned to the US. My husband thought it was crazy that I wanted a Czech license. Why pay the expense and go through the hassle, when I could drive like a foreign visitor with my US license and an AAA international certificate? (At the time, we both believed this solution was in accordance with Czech law. We found out later, it wasn’t.)
Although EU members with valid EU driver’s licenses may drive legally in the Czech Republic, there are different restrictions for citizens of third-countries (whose licenses aren’t accepted by the Czech Republic). The website for the Ministry of the Interior has a chart in English, which shows which third-country nationals must apply for a Czech driver’s license. As an American with permanent residency in the Czech Republic, I needed a Czech driver’s license.
When we moved out of the city of Prague, driving became a daily necessity. Whenever a police car pulled up behind me in traffic, I shook with fear that I would be pulled over, found out, and sent to jail. It didn’t matter that my fear was irrational. Most days, I was carting three children to and from school, sports practices, and doctors’ appointments. They had no idea why their mom was a nervous driver; their dad certainly wasn’t.
I had heard of backdoor ways of getting a Czech license. But, in the spring of 2017, when I contacted driving schools in Prague, each school told me the same thing. I would have to follow the protocol of any new driver. This meant registering for Czech driving school, completing the required hours of classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel driver’s training. At the end of my course, I would take a written exam, followed by a practical driving test at the town hall.
I enroll in a driving school near my children’s elementary school. When I go for my driving lessons, I park my car by the children’s school and walk the rest of the way. In my head, I rehearse what I will say to a police officer if I am stopped before I get my license. I count the days until I can take the test.
In his office, my instructor teaches me the four rules of Czech intersections using a foam board, toy cars, and plastic traffic signs. We speak Czech together, although he tries out English phrases, just to see how I will react. When he is sure that I understand, we head to the streets.
Behind the wheel of my training car, I approach an unmarked intersection. I brake to look right and then left. My teacher shakes his head.
“Look to the right only,” he says, “Remember prava ruka (yield to the right). “We don’t care what comes from the left.”
A car whizzes past us on the left, crossing our right of way. My teacher shakes his head again. “Prague traffic rules are made to be broken, you will see.”
I know that already. I have been driving here for years. But I don’t say it aloud.
“But, who, if not the driving school, must follow the rules?” he continues. “The exam is a theater. With the commissioner, you must behave as if you don’t speak Czech. He must know that you know the rules. You can’t look with your eyes, you must turn your whole head. At least for the test.”
I am not sure why I have to pretend that I don’t speak Czech, especially since we speak only Czech during our lessons. But I don’t argue.
We practice parallel parking and backing into a street spot. I do everything smoothly until a man on a bicycle comes from behind to pass me on the right. I brake, even though I have done nothing wrong.
The teacher says, “There is a feeling of uncertainty from you. You are careful. You know the rules, but you hesitate. It looks like you don’t know the rules. The commissioner must be convinced that you know what you are doing.”
I practice driving with the children. I tell them to be quiet in the car. They are excited that I may soon have a Czech license and eager to help. I promise them when I get my Czech license, I will stop swearing in the car.
I don’t swear much, but I have been known to let an expletive slip when caught in a nasty Prague traffic situation. (Personally, I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t swear when navigating tram tracks, oncoming traffic, pedestrian cross walks, and impatient city drivers.) My children think that having a mom who doesn’t swear when she drives is a fine idea.
After my second lesson, my instructor tells me that I am not good enough to pass the written Czech exam. Which is why, he explains, I’ll need to pay extra for an English translator. With the translator, there’s no way I’ll fail. He winks when he says this.
“Rozumime se?” he asks.
He charges me an exorbitant price for the translator. I use my Czech to negotiate a price that seems steep but perhaps worth it (assuming I pass).
I spend hours going over MC questions in the school’s only English-language manual, a photocopied binder with colored pictures showing real-life traffic situations. Many of the questions are repeated. When I ask the director why the same questions have different correct answers, he tells me not to worry. The translator will take care of it.
He winks again.
I give up studying the English version. Instead, I take simulated online tests in Czech. There are 25 exam questions. I can miss two and still pass. At my kitchen counter, with the children hanging over my shoulder, we go through the questions. They translate words I don’t know. Often, I take a picture of the question to show to Radek later. I ask friends and neighbors. For weeks, my mind is a blur of driving-related Czech words. Most of the time, I miss three or four questions. I am not at all confident that passing the written exam is going to be easy (with or without a translator).
On the morning of the exam, I leave my house at 5:15 a.m. in a taxi. My children follow me to the front door to kiss me goodbye. My exam is scheduled to start at 6:30 a.m. Radek is out of town, so a neighbor has agreed to pick the children up and drive them to school. I am just as worried about leaving them to get ready on their own as I am about the exam, but I didn’t have a choice when to schedule my exam.
At the exam, my translator is an older man who knows less English than I do Czech. He is surprised that I know the answers in Czech. I pass the written exam with one mistake. It is my turn to be surprised.
When it is time for the practical test, I sit in the driver’s seat of a white Citroen compact, the word AUTOSKOLA stuck with a magnet on the car’s roof. I wait for the commissioner to finish smoking his cigarette. Other students waiting on the street for their own tests are two decades younger than I am.
When the commissioner tells me to start, I put the car’s blinker on and ease out of my parking spot. We cut across side streets to drive along the Vltava into downtown Prague. I yield to the traffic on my right. It is morning rush hour, and Prague’s narrow cobblestone streets are clogged. There are tram tracks to cross and pedestrian crossings to stop for. I may brake too soon, or I may hesitate too long.
Even while my hands grip the steering wheel, I am filled with a sense of hope. It is like the feeling I used to have on the first day of school. This is my new beginning.
As for the swearing, well, I’m taking it one drive at a time.