Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Dear Friends 9

Written: 18 June 2006
Published: 20 June 2006

Dear Friends,

I am pleased to report that I have at last been able to retire my passport. I don’t mean that I don’t ever intend to travel abroad again, or that I no longer need a UK passport thanks to having become Canadian; it’s just that, since we arrived here, my passport has been my primary method of identifying myself, and I no longer need it to prove that I am who I say I am.

I imagine there is still lively and energetic debate going on in Britain about the ID card situation, and I’m not particularly sorry to be missing it. Canada has an ID system, but one you would all recognise – it’s called the driver’s licence. For most people, and in most situations, your driver’s licence is what you are required to produce when you have to identify yourself.

And that happens surprisingly often. I have been asked for ID at the post office, the bank, the supermarket (when applying for a frequent-shopper card, not because you need ID to buy avocados), when collecting my new computer from the delivery company, any time I have been buying anything large or expensive, and every time I have had to fill in a piece of official documentation. And Canada – or this part of it, at least – has a lot of documentation. I have worked with Italians; I know all about bureaucracy and paperwork, but Canada runs Italy close for the amount of paper involved in doing anything – I even have had paperwork through the post for an entirely online transaction; I downloaded some software, paid for it electronically, installed it on my computer, used it happily for several days, then received a paper confirmation of the whole thing.

Given how often I have had to produce it, then, you can imagine how tired I was becoming of handing people my passport when they were expecting a driver’s licence, and how many times I have had to explain that, no, I don’t have a BC one yet, and yes I will have to sit a test before I get one, and yes, a passport is proof of identity, honest.

From all of which you may gather that I have now passed my dreaded driving test, and I am in possession of a credit card-sized piece of plastic which proves that I am who I claim to be (and even says I have brown hair, when I thought what I had was invisible hair!)

In the end, the test was as comfortable as such a thing could be; I have, after all, been driving perfectly competently for 25 years, and hardly ever hit anything, so I should be able to prove my ability without too much trouble.

And so it proved. But before getting to the test, I had to adjust to the BC driving experience, which was much more of a challenge than the test itself. First of all, and most obviously, Canada, unlike many Commonwealth countries, drives on the right. Now, I have had plenty of experience of driving in Italy, which prepared me for this, and it was only a matter of a few hours before I was remembering where my mirror was, and what side the handbrake was on. Unfortunately, driving in Italy is so completely different from driving here that, in all other respects, it was completely useless to me. For example, in Canada, speed limits, while not universally respected, are at least acknowledged and paid heed to; lane markings serve to separate lanes of traffic, rather than decorate the road surface, and stop signs cause traffic to come (more or less) to a halt. And there are a lot of stop signs. Italy has become infested in recent years with the British invention, the roundabout – here they have 4-way stops.

I won’t pretend otherwise – the 4-way stop is a truly terrifying beast to the British driver. Until quite recently, I was expecting everyone else on the road to drive in the British ‘me first’ style; it took a long time to realise that other drivers at 4-ways were actually waiting for me because it was my turn! I carefully read all the rules for these intersections, but I’m afraid I still am not clear what happens if four vehicles arrive simultaneously – presumably, they all wait until one of them decides that progress is more important than being polite.

Other hazards awaiting the unwary Brit include the very sensible, but equally scary, ‘right on red’ rule, where you can legally go through a red light if you are turning right, there are no pedestrians in the way (pedestrians rule here), and you feel brave enough. It is, I have been reliably told, perfectly legal to go left on a red if you are turning on to a one-way street; perhaps I’ll leave that until the day I no longer feel like I am breaking the law just by turning right.

Possibly the biggest difficulty I have faced (apart from the road surface, which I will return to when I’m feeling braver!) is the school zone. Now this is a very sensible invention, whereby areas around schools are protected by a 30kph speed limit, which is to say, traffic is supposed to go at only very slightly above a light jog. Often in a school zone, I have been overtaken by elderly ladies walking arthritic dogs.

The school zone is announced by a luminous sign, which is difficult to miss; if ever anyone is pulled over for speeding in a school zone, there can be no excuse about not having seen the sign; it remains burned into the retinas for several minutes. However, there is no sign announcing the end of the school zone – instead, one is supposed to look out for the back of the sign for opposing traffic. Which is often behind a tree, lamp post or arthritic dog. I am genuinely surprised not to see more people trundling along for miles at 30kph, searching in vain for the back of a sign on the other side of the road.

Despite all of the above, the test was passed with no real problems (apart from inexplicably clipping the curb before my 3-point turn); I even got an ‘Excellent Job!’ written on my form. And now I have proof that I can drive as well as proof that I really do look like this.