Round the Bend

Warren Merkel

“Everything in Norway is either obligatory or prohibited,” quips my neighbor Ingvild, a woman in her sixties with a thin swoop of hair dyed rust red. A wry grin slicks her face, one that tells me she’s accustomed to the regulations of life in a socialist country. That’s not the case for me. I’ve been in Norway with my family for eight months, having moved here in the thick of the December darkness for a professor position at a university. I am American, and my wife is South Korean; our two young daughters straddle these worlds and are acclimating to a third.

It’s a late August afternoon, temps in the mid-50’s. Ingvild and I are at the end of our narrow gravel driveway, which lollipops into a small parking area for residents. We’re talking about driving in Norway. I inform her I have my Norwegian driver’s license test next month.

“Theory or road?” she asks.

“Road.” I ask her whether her husband, Jan, wouldn’t mind my poking around his car. He drives a Ford Mondeo station wagon, the same type of car I will borrow from my driving school to take my test.

“Not at all,” she says.

Raindrops begin to stripe my glasses. I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Ingvild, like all Norwegians, is prepared for whatever weather is thrown at her. She’s ensconced in Gortex. I’m reminded of the lone Norwegian maxim I know: Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

***

Mere weeks after our arrival, my wife and I relinquished our US licenses, which are valid in Norway for only three months. At the time, we thought little of a carless existence, as the city where we live – Trondheim, at 200,000 residents, the country’s third-most populous – offers reliable public transport. The apartment we rent is one of six in a two-story wooden house painted mulberry red. It sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Trondheim Fjord; to the west lies Bymarka, a nature reserve of thirty square miles dotted with lakes and laced with countless walking and skiing trails. Despite our proximity to nature, we can be downtown in a flash: the walk is about twenty minutes and the bus ride about ten. Trondheim also boasts the world’s most northerly tram, an 8.8-kilometer-long steel stitch that begins in the city center and, at its terminus, drops passengers at Lian, a popular recreational area stippled with charming cabins.

For six months, public transport transported us. We rode it to and from grocery stores and pharmacies, cafes, and museums. It took us to Leo’s Lekeland, a gargantuan indoor playground where are 5- and 2-year-old daughters ran wild for hours. It sheltered us from the rain and the cold, and let my older daughter press the stop button as we approached our point of departure. But after six months, my wife and I began to itch for new views.

Once the spring semester passed and we settled in, we looked into getting Norwegian licenses. We slowly began to entertain the idea of owning a car and exploring the countryside on our own schedule. But the more we learned about the costs and regulations of road travel, the more we questioned whether the effort was worth the bother. It soon became evident that it was easier to move to Norway than through it.

In the summer, I started the process of obtaining my license by paying $30 for week-long access to the website of a company that provides an overview of Norwegian road rules via a series of videos and tips. I have had a US license for thirty years, yet decided to part with $350 for two one-hour driving lessons. If I failed the one-hour road test, I would have to take the theory test before retaking the road test; coursework costs, taxes, and fees can be shockingly expensive. This was all the coaxing I needed.

Because of the strict road regulations in Norway, driving schools are a legitimate and healthy business; in my online search for one, I count eighteen in Trondheim (there are roughly 600 driving schools in Norway). Their offices are tucked away throughout the city, and the cars that drivers borrow for practice lessons are decked out in colorful advertisements with the school’s name, logo, and contact information. I called several schools to inquire about prices, but they were roughly the same, so I settled on one within walking distance from my university office.

***

Centrum Trafikkskole is squeezed into the Trondheim Torg, a three-story mall located in Kalvskinnet, a neighborhood near the city center. I climb the steps to the second-floor office where I meet Christer, Centrum’s co-owner, and my designated driving instructor for my lesson. Christer is tall and stocky. A thatch of gray hair sits atop his head; the same gray hair muzzles his face with day-old growth. He’s wearing a sweatshirt, white sneakers, and jean shorts.

“I wear these until October,” he informs me, ostensibly proud to be the last citizen of Trondheim to put on pants as summer comes to an end. I’m tempted to tell Christer he’s wearing jorts, a sartorial portmanteau beloved by clothing-conscious Americans, but I reckon the humor – if he finds any – would be lost in translation.

We head down to the basement where Christer’s car awaits us. It is a recent model Ford Mondeo station wagon, dressed up with bright green letters and yellow piping that advertises Centrum Trafikkskole.

“You can drive standard?” Christer asks.

“Yes,” I respond. I want to keep my options open: if I take my driver’s license test in Norway on an automatic, then I can only ever drive automatic.

“That’s good,” he says.

***

The lesson starts inauspiciously: I cannot locate the emergency brake. I was raised on used cars, all standard: a 1986 Toyota Corolla, a 1990 Audi 80 and a 1982 Honda Accord, the latter of which – as it neared death – my parents sold to their mechanic for fifty bucks. In all of these vehicles, the emergency brake was a slender black rod that the driver would yank up like a carnival ride lever. But on a new model Ford Mondeo, the emergency brake is a misplaced switch for a power window, stashed behind the gear shift. Christer points at it, then looks at me.

I pull out of the garage and begin navigating Trondheim’s downtown area. The radio station commemorates 80’s metal; I temper Christer’s instructions and small talk with Alice Cooper lyrics and a Scorpions guitar solo.

“I’m going to be strict with you, Warren,” Christer says. “It will make your test easier.” His driving countenance is instantly palpable. Within the span of one lesson, he instructs me to brake slightly before I depress the clutch, make wider turns, enter roundabouts slower, check the rearview mirror before I brake, check the side mirrors for cyclists before I turn, signal earlier, signal later, and not grip the steering wheel underhanded when I turn. I feel sixteen again, a high school student in driver’s ed class, armed with a flaccid learner’s permit. But I know Christer is doing his job – I am paying him to help me pass my test. Despite Christer’s matter-of-fact demeanor, he also lays bare a welcome lightheartedness. When he asks me to take a right or a left at a sign for Leangen or Lerkendal or Høgberget, I repeat the name, approximating it as best I can. But Christer laughs as I swing a phonological axe, butchering his mother tongue.

During my first lesson, my Achilles heel is the roundabout, a circular intersection uncommon in the US that serves to keep traffic moving and minimize the frequency and severity of collisions. I know I must yield to vehicles already in the roundabout, but the other fundamentals, second nature to Norwegians, blow my mind. If I plan to turn right in the roundabout, I use my right turn signal both to enter and leave the roundabout; if I intend to go straight through the roundabout, I begin with no signal, but must use my right turn signal once I have passed the first exit; if I leave the roundabout to the left, or after three-quarters of a circle, I must signal left when I enter the roundabout, then indicate right after I pass the first two exits and approach the third. These rules are standard for a roundabout with one lane; life intensifies if the roundabout has two. Christer forces me through five or six roundabouts until I get it right.

We also spend some time on the highway. In the US, I am accustomed to entrance ramps the length of a diving board, which force me to gun it in the hopes of another driver letting me squeeze in. In Norway, I am surprised to see the driver in the rightmost highway lane yield. Every time. Christer educates me on the meaning of the three types of white lines for merging traffic: a solid white line must not be crossed; a white line with long dashes means a merging driver can enter the highway but must yield to other vehicles; a white line with short dashes means a merging driver has right-of-way, and vehicles on the highway must allow them safe passage into a lane. If road rage exists here, Norway has likely regulated the shit out of it.

***

At the end of the lesson, I pull into the car garage and cut the ignition. Christer asks me what I feel went well and what went wrong. I don’t care about what went well.

“The roundabouts,” I respond. Christer nods. “And speeding?” He nods again.

“If today had been your test, you would have failed,” he says. "You went eight kpm over the limit. More than once.” This is less than five mph, roughly the top slithering speed of your average snake. I fret about failing the road test, so I ask Christer details about the theory test and retaking the road test.

"Don't worry about it," he responds, slapping my shoulder. "Take another lesson with me, and you'll be fine." But my mind wanders, and that evening at home, I investigate the protocol for the worst-case scenario. I locate the website of a driving school that lists the estimated costs for obtaining a Category B (passenger car). These include a 14-hour course in basic road traffic knowledge ($150); night driving ($225); first aid ($100); a 20-hour driving theory course ($200); a 45-minute driving lesson ($85); two evaluation lessons ($175); a safety and flat tire course ($575); an on-the-road safety course ($975); a review ($30); and car rental for the driving test ($285). In Norway, the total cost can run up to $3,000 – a fair price for a cheap used car in the US.

***

I start my second lesson by popping the hood. During our first lesson, Christer had informed me that the examiner could ask me any number of questions about road safety or car maintenance. Though I’m not overly mechanically inclined, I can change a tire, so I found this facet of the test a bit absurd. Still, then I remembered all the stranded cars I had passed in my life in the US, a white T-shirt or a strip of orange tape dangling from a driver’s side window like a flag of surrender: I couldn’t hack it on the open road. Then I thought of how many Americans would have failed the Norwegian driver’s license test, and how many would have benefitted from this type of training.

“Where does the oil go?” Christer asks. I point.

“Where’s the battery?” I point.

“Where’s the windshield wiper fluid go?” I point.

“Where’s the coolant go?” In a flash, all I see is an engine – a tangle of tubes and wires.

“That one?” I say. Christer shakes his head, redirecting my finger. “You should know this stuff.” I thank Christer and reach my hand to close the hood, but Christer stops me. Apparently, I’m doing that incorrectly as well.

My second lesson goes smoothly. I relax a little and am momentarily able to steep myself in Norway. As we work our way from the city, we pass Nidarosdomen, the oldest Gothic cathedral north of Hamburg, and Gamle Bybro, or Old Town Bridge, a 17th-century pedestrian bridge that crosses the Nidelva River. Out in the country, we weave through two-lane roads that splice the quintessential Norwegian landscape of rolling hills and houses painted deep red. It is torture to possess a car and the freedom that accompanies it for only one hour. For the first time in eight months. In Norway.

I want to keep driving. To the next town, and then the next; to the ruins of a medieval abbey I'm sure must lie ahead somewhere; around one more corner, just one more.

And then the lesson over. I have botched turn signal protocol in one roundabout and pulled shamefully into a bus lane before turning right, but Christer tells me neither of these blunders would merit failing the exam. He is confident I will pass.

***

On the day of my test – September 27, which my driving school had reserved for me four months in advance – I meet Christer at his office. He is wearing a gray hoodie and jorts. We do a 45-minute lesson, then drive in the Ford Mondeo to the Statens Vegvesen, or State Driving Authority, where I will be paired with a driving examiner.

Before we walk in, Christer asks me if I am familiar with procedures in the case of an accident. I shoot him a blank stare.

“Do you know where the orange safety vest is?” In Norway, the driver must wear an orange safety vest when exiting the car unexpectedly – for instance, in the case of an accident or breakdown. Something orange had caught my eye earlier in the lesson, tucked away in the driver’s side door. I pull it out.

"Good. And where is the safety triangle?" We get out of the car and pop the trunk. Christer shows me how to set up the triangle. He tells me the distance from the vehicle that the triangle should be set on the road in the city, in the country, if there is a blind spot. I stuff my skull with the extra information, wondering if it will be on the test.

"Alright then," Christer says. "Let's go in." We traipse across the parking lot and enter the building. I take a number from a machine like I'm at a deli.

“I hope your examiner speaks English,” Christer adds.

“What’s that?”

“You didn’t mark that as a preference on your application.” I try not to piss myself. Christer sees I’m trying not to piss myself and laughs. “You’ll be fine.” He pats me on the shoulder.

***

The name of my driving instructor is Martin. He speaks English – he tells me how he and his family vacationed in California a few years back. Before I start the engine, Martin asks me where I would place the safety triangle: I respond with the proper distance in the country, the city, and also note that blind spots on the road would determine whether I place the triangle in front of or behind the car. He nods in kind, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Martin looks to be in his thirties, and he is fighting a cold. He is kind – he asks me whether or not I would appreciate small talk during the test or concentrate on the road.

“A little small talk is fine,” I say, trying not to seem uptight.

We drive along one of the dozen or so routes that examiners must follow. He guides me through roundabouts, along two-lane roads and highways, and into the parking lot of a shopping center, where I must back into a parking spot. For the first time in my life, I use the rearview camera to guide me. On the highway, I watch my speed, not passing one car. Everyone passes me, and I remember what it was like to drive with my grandparents.

As the exam ends, we pull into the parking lot of the Statens Vegvesen. Martin is silent and taps notes into his tablet. The suspense in the car – at least for me – is palpable.

“How do you think you did?” he asks. I reply honestly.

“I made a mistake with one turn signal through a roundabout, and I drove too slowly at times. Otherwise, I think I was safe and abided by the rules.”

“I agree,” Martin says. “You did drive too slowly. But you did fine. You’ve passed.” I’m elated. Once we step out of the car, Martin and Christer chat in Norwegian. Then we head back inside, where I have my photo taken and provide a signature. I stay in the booth for five minutes, resnapping the picture to my satisfaction. I am proud of my accomplishment, and besides – this mugshot is valid for fifteen years.

***

In Norway, I hear a horn honk once, perhaps twice a month. I’ve never seen anyone peel out, kicking up plumes of smoke as the stench of blazing rubber fills my head. No raised fists in rear views, no road rage between drivers who emancipate their life’s problems on the road. When I cross the street with my daughters, the drivers stop. I am forever tempted to smile or nod as I would in the US, to raise my hand in gratitude. But the drivers are stone-faced. They do not stop because they have the time, or because they feel the urge to extend me a courtesy. They simply approach the crosswalk with care, then wait. It is as if, for the briefest of moments, my children are theirs. Norwegians drive the way the system wants them to. It’s a high price to pay, and one I am at peace with.


About the Author

Warren Merkel is an Associate Professor of Foreign Language and ESL Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. His creative non-fiction has been published in Hippocampus, Two Hawks Quarterly, and The Raven’s Perch.