The closest I’ve ever come to a complete mental breakdown in this country was when I tried to get my Israeli Driver’s license. Those of you who have ventured through that shadowy underworld of dubious driving instructors, corrupt and ridiculously inept examiners and surly, underpaid department of transportation employees, know exactly what special circle of hell it is.
I passed my driving exam in Israel in 1995. I moved to the States shortly thereafter and converted my Israeli Driver’s license to a Pennsylvania one relatively easily. I brought my dad’s Saturn to the local DOT testing facility. I paid a small fee and a very cordial examiner had me drive around parking lot. I parallel parked and 10 minutes later I had my provisional driver’s license. The permanent one arrived in the mail a few weeks later.
Fast forward 12 years and a squeaky clean driving record later. I came back to Israel as a Toshav Chozer, a returning resident, and realized very quickly that I had made two fatal mistakes that were about to set in motion a series of events so mind boggling and surreal that they could only occur in this country.
My first BIG mistake was that I had let my Israeli driver’s license expire some years earlier. Every five or ten years you have to pay the Israeli DOT a fee to have your driver’s license renewed. Failure to do so will result in the loss of your driving privileges in this country.
My second BIG mistake was that I had renewed my PA driver’s license several months before coming back to Israel. If your foreign driver’s license isn’t at least 5 years old, as far the Israeli DOT is concerned, you’re not eligible for a swift conversion. Far from it. The guidelines state that you are required to complete a written exam and then, and this is the real kick in the nuts, a driving test. No matter how many obscenities you hurl at the indifferent menopausal representative behind the glass the outcome will inevitably be the same.
My driving instructor, a lovable albeit short, bald Yemenite charlatan (who had taught me to drive twenty years ago) tells me that he is obligated to provide me with a minimum of 10-15 hours of driving lessons before he can submit my paperwork to the DOT. Each lesson costs approximately 200 shekels, but he’ll cut me a good deal. “Eyeh Beseder”. Everything will be alright. But first I have to complete the written exam (116 NIS). Oh, and before that I have to get an eye test (75-100 NIS) and a complete physical by my physician (or privately for about 200 NIS).
The written exam is multiple choices and consists of 30 questions. If you get more than five wrong you have to wait a week and pay the fee again. I’ve been driving for twenty years and for the life of me I had never come across half of the 100 or so road signs that you are asked to memorize. Nor could I remember exactly who had the right of way if four cars approached a train crossing at the same time and it was November.
I passed on my second try. I took the form to the optometrist and my doctor and had them sign off and began my 10-15 hours of driver’s education. The Yemenite instructor, Y., always had students in his filthy, rundown 1998 manual gear Volkswagen Polo. There was the old Bukhari guy, who promised his daughters he would get a license, but had, so far, failed four driving tests miserably and had completed over 150 hours of lessons. After my lesson there was a beautiful young Moroccan girl with bedazzled fake fingernails who would berate Y. and all the other drivers on the road with a volley of road rage insults so foul even a sailor would blush. She was going on her third driving test. God knows how she could drive in 12-inch heels.
My lesson would almost always end up with me waiting while Y. completed his errands, ate hummus or had a quickie with an anonymous woman he called “Paradise”, who, for some ungodly reason found him attractive. All this while I waited in the stifling heat of the car (the ac hadn’t worked in years) The worst part is that he misplaced my form (the one with the eye test and the physical) sometime between the 10th and the 15th lesson, forcing me to repeat those steps.
When my driving test date was set (450 NIS for the test and since you have to use your instructor’s car another 200 NIS) five months later I was thrilled. Finally. After months of agonizing torture I was about to put this whole expensive ordeal behind me. Famous last words.
The examiner looked at my sheet and proceeded to confide in Y. that he thought Americans made terrible drivers. “My daughter was in Boston” he tells him, “and some stupid American hit her. They can’t drive.” He had thick glasses, smelled of turpentine and seemed impatient with me even before the test began. Y. reassured me. “You remember the Moroccan girl? The one with the big tits? He passed her and she can’t drive for shit. This is a sure thing.”
He slammed on the brakes at least four times, grabbed the wheel twice and shook his head innumerably. “Terrible driver” he muttered under his breath as he made extensive notes on the sheet. He failed me and recommended that I take another 10-15 hours of driving instruction before I apply for a second driving test. Y. left me off at the bus station and I had a long ride home from the DOT to contemplate the cruel twist of fate that had led me here.
I eventually passed my driving test after a staggering 30 hours of lessons, two driving tests and a few thousand shekels. As I drive around Israel, home of the world’s third worst drivers (Italy and India respectively) I have to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with this system. Israeli drivers are rude, aggressive, inconsiderate and reckless. What’s not surprising is that more people have died in car accidents in this country than in wars. One thing is for sure though. I’m never, ever, ever going to let my Israeli driver’s license lapse again.