Mar 2009

The Bitch is Back

When last minute spaces opened up on the waiting list for a teaching conference in Verona, I was excited. On the line up of speakers were the names of authors whose books I have been using for years. I always get a professional charge out of sitting in a room full of like-minded teachers, soaking up a passionate speaker’s ideas and innovations. And what fun to jet down to Verona with Julia, one of my colleagues from the school?

The school owners encouraged us by readily providing the company car for the trip. I wanted to drive my car~ she is familiar, zippy and, as I have found out, runs pretty much on air. The owners insisted. Their car, a Smart car painted up with the school logo, was a great advertisement and the best way to cover the expenses for the drive. So, reluctantly, in the predawn darkness in the school parking lot I pointed the key at the pod shaped vehicle and squeezed.

It chirped awake and we opened up of what can only be described as a set of doors on wheels. With virtually no back seat and at five feet wide by five feet tall, two of these cars can fit in a normal parking space. One essentially wears it. We slid into the seats, the new car smell and upholstery enveloping us. At this point I faced my first challenge. Where does the ignition key go? We couldn’t even figure out how to turn on the lights as we felt around on the dash where the ignition
should be. Nothing. Julia again voiced doubts.

“Don’t you think we should take my car?”

“But they really want us to go in this. It has got to be here.” I felt along the space between the seats, initially to release the parking brake. I felt an indentation. “Here it is! Between the seats. Incredible. I jammed the key in and started up the gaily painted car, who roared encouragingly to life, and carefully backed out of the parking space. Having driven stick shift for the last fifteen years, I wanted to be careful with this rare brand new automatic transmission.

Yet, as I turned onto the main street I instantly forgot this and stepped down on what should have been the clutch, but was instead, of course, the brake. The car obediently stood on its head as Julia and I lurched towards the windshield in unison. Just as suddenly we returned to earth. Sheepishly, I glanced at the thankfully empty rear view mirror and pressed on the gas.

“Ok, I won’t do that again,” I said to Julia.


Strangely the car was not shifting, but whining loudly obviously in first gear, even as I picked up speed. Why wasn’t it shifting?

“I don’t like this,” I muttered, pulling into a vacant lot to examine things better. There were buttons on the side of the shifting column and I pushed them all blindly, then pulled out again. This time, the little car agreeably swung up to the next gear and picked up speed.

“Hmmm, that’s strange. I guess she just needs to warm up a little. Verona, here we come.”

Once flying down the road at top speed, it was easy to forget that there was essentially no car in front of the windshield or behind the driver’s seat. It handled like any compact car, solid and sturdy, and were it not for the glances from passing cars I would have forgotten that I was basically driving an ESL billboard, with bright little red soldier logo on its flanks, loaded with two English teachers on the loose, motoring across the Veneto in search of enlightenment and perhaps corporate freebies.

As a veteran of many teacher conferences, this one sadly under delivered. I had either heard it all before or the subjects were not useful. What was interesting was the realization that Julia and I, both native English speakers, were a minority in the room which was filled with Italians, mostly women, some of whom speaking halting, accented English. While I was impressed with the chutzpah and their desire to learn, it saddens me that an entire generation of Italian children is learning to pronounce “stop” as
stopa, there are 52 states in the US and that the expression “so and so” is correct. Things that I now spend time unteaching.

Sometime during the afternoon presentation, I glanced at my watch and, gathering my little pile of ESL swag, slipped out the door. Julia had a 6:30 class and we had to hit the road.

As it was Julia’s turn to drive, we had to relearn the key, the brake (not as dramatically this time) and how to get on the highway, going in the right direction. She pushed a few buttons, adjusted the seat and shot out on the street in search of an on-ramp. Ominously the car was whining again, as if in first gear.

“That’s weird. Why does it sound like that?” I wondered out loud.

“You said it needs to warm up, right?” Julia was nervous, a little distracted, possibly thinking of her lesson and impatient with such a prima donna of a car. The on-ramp was in front of us and, just as I began to object, she gunned the engine and headed screaming onto the highway. The car shrieked in protest as it flew onto the A4. I hung on. Suddenly a car passed us, honking…the driver was waving. We both looked out the back.

“Serena, there is smoke! There is smoke coming out of the car!” Our tiny, brightly painted moving billboard for the prestigious English school in Conegliano was hurtling onto the highway trailing a plume of black, angry smoke. Being a small car, this smoke was in very close proximity.

“Pull over!”

Julia yanked the wheel to the right and we came to a rest in the glass and debris strewn gravel. The acrid smell of smoke filled the car. She switched off the engine and we sat in silence for a moment as big rigs roared passed us, shaking the little car in their wake. It was five o’clock and we were 70 miles from home on the side of a freeway in an unfamiliar car whose unhappy transmission was a complete mystery. I needed to collect my thoughts and draw on my recent extensive training to obtain my Italian drivers license. Hmmm. I seem to remember the great pride in the call box system and, lo and behold, a few meters ahead I could see one.

“Can you pull up to that call box?” I asked Julia, who had become scarily silent.

“Ok.” She gingerly started the engine and we crept to the box. I stepped of the car and pushed the scarred button on the baby blue plastic box. I had very little hope that anyone was on the other end, but suddenly there was a scratch of static and a voice.


I shouted in my best Italian: “We are having trouble with our car. Could we have some help?”

“Di sdfhoudnaldu oioiu sodidd nuuqgakk?”

I leaned in to the speaker. “I am sorry, I did not understand. This speaker is not working well. We are having trouble with our car. Could we have some help?”

“Viooirmj! Di sdfhoudnaldu oioiu sodidd nuuqgakk?”

I hung my head in frustration. This was useless. I pushed the button again.

“Thank you…we will figure it out.”

With the urgent garbled voice following me, I returned to the car where we sat for a moment again in silence. Trucks barreled past us. The little car stood firm as I thought. Then, I did something that perhaps I should have done that morning before even searching for the oddly placed ignition: I pulled out the owner’s manual.

With Julia waiting with a white knuckle grip on the steering wheel, I flipped through the book looking for the section on transmission. Soon the reason why we were at that moment sitting on the side of a highway became painfully clear: this car had two transmissions, automatic
and manual.

In the early morning fumble I had inadvertently switched it to automatic and then later Julia had somehow switched it back to manual. We had indeed gone screaming onto the highway at 60 miles an hour in first gear. No wonder the car had objected. It is in fact surprising that the engine had not thrown itself out in protest, only to land steaming and sparking on the pavement.

Why would any car, especially one so damn small, possibly need two transmissions? How utterly pretentious. And why on earth, without visible sign of clutch or means of shifting, could one ever imagine that we might have deduced such an odd condition?

I leaned over and looked at the side of the shifting column and found the button. I pushed it. The letter “A” quietly lit up on the dash. How simple. How ridiculous.

“Try it now,” I instructed Julia. She looked at me dubiously, but started up the car and we both watched out the back window. Miraculously no smoke appeared; the engine sounded normal. She cautiously moved forward along the median strip, then faster. The car dutifully changed to the next gear and with another quick look at me, Julia picked up speed and joined traffic. Moments later we were at eighty, as if nothing had happened.

A tense hour and a half later we screeched into the school parking lot and Julia tossed the keys across the desk at the owner. She pasted on a smile and swept into the classroom of waiting students as I sat down to break the news…

Despite the owners’ lackadaisical reception of the news, I now give the damn car a wide berth. For I know that beneath her cheerfully painted exterior lie some complicated, and perhaps spiteful, guts.