Driving a car around town is a common thing for almost everyone here in the North Country. Unfortunately, I haven’t been driving for two months now, and I miss driving. The first difference between Belgium and the North Country is that most people here drive automatic cars, while we Belgians drive stick. I do not really know how different it feels since I did not drive an automatic car yet. But I guess it is easier because you have less to focus on while driving.
Before someone can drive, you have to learn how to control a car, of course. In Belgium teenagers can take the driver’s written test at the age of seventeen. Some high schools offer the theory class and the exam for free. If not, you can take class at a local driving school or you can study yourself with the official book or by online courses. If you did not pass the exam the first time – or your school does not offer them- you can take the exam at an examination center, which costs you around $15.
When you pass the exam you’ll receive a temporary license, which allows you to drive. But there are rules. Before you can drive you must pick up your license at the city hall. Recently they changed the old paper version into a new card which costs every owner $25. When you finally own this card, you must learn how to drive. Many teenagers would like to do their road test immediately, but the law stays that you must drive at least 3 months. Each learner must have a sticker with a white “L” in a blue background on their window, so other drivers know you’re learning to drive. Sometimes we laugh with the L by calling it the loser sign.
Most of the student drivers get some driving lessons through a driving school. After finishing those, you can drive with a mentor – which can be anyone as long as they had their license for 8 years – or you can drive by yourself. If you choose the second option, you will have to do 20 hours of driving lessons. If your teacher thinks you’re ready, you can get a new driving license. This license has a shorter valid date (12 months) compared the regular one. After practicing for 3 months, you can ask for the road test. The road test is a 40 minute exam where they let you drive around to see if you gained the skills. If you pass, you get your license and you’re allowed to drive by yourself.
Life on the road
When you’re a teenager, you can’t wait to drive yourself. Here in the United States, teenagers are allowed to drive at the age of sixteen, so they are used to driving sooner than Belgians. When I got on the road for the first time by myself, I nearly wet my pants. Everything around me was scary and I can tell you that there are a lot of crazy drivers on the road. I also did not know the way, so I got lost many times. Luckily my phone has a GPS system to get me to every destination. And I also have to pay for my own gasoline, which I personally dislike.
Here in North Country everyone seems to drive. Maybe it is because of the winter weather or maybe because everything is far away from everything else. I realized roads are not made for walking here when I walked to the grocery store during my first week. Suddenly the side walk ended and I had to continue my walk on the side of the road. Cars were everywhere. In Belgium, some people are lazy and they drive everywhere. I am, too, sometimes. But most of the time I walk to the grocery store or to the post office. If the distance is too long then I will just take my bike. I just love taking the train, too. In Almost every village there is a train station which makes it very accessible. I prefer sleeping or reading in a train rather than focusing on the road for hours. But don’t get me wrong because I do miss driving, or maybe I just miss being independent.
Melissa Callaert is working as an intern at North Country Public Radio for the Spring 2016 semester.