Sunday, May 23, 2010

The joker

Arjeplog is a town in northern Sweden on the Arctic circle. According to an article in Top Gear I was reading recently, 7 months in a year it remains ice and snow-bound which is why it serves as the icy terrain testing capital for car manufacturers around the world. Rolls Royce, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Ferrari - all use the almost completely frozen lakes around Arjeplog to test their mean mechanical beasts in winter conditions. What a sight it must be to see a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Rolls Royce or a big SUV slide its way across vast stretches of endless ice, being tested at the limits of their design parameters and speed. Everyone has their own versions of heaven and I think I now have a fair idea of what mine is going to look like. Kilometres worth of frozen open space and a very fast car to race and skid across it! So used to icy conditions is this corner of the woods that even civilians can parallel park their car in one single spin. Talk about cool!

Besides putting Arjeplog on the "Must-go-places-before-I-die" list for me, reading the article re-awakened a cold fear in me. "Parallel parking" is a combination of words which never fails to cause me to gulp a couple of times before triggering sad memories of innumerable failed attempts to squeeze my car in that available spot between two available cars no matter how large the space was. 99 out of 100 times, I would turn to look around, then look through the rear view mirror and then turn around again, put my car in reverse and then find myself in a position where half of the city's traffic was stuck behind me and my car was in a position which was sure to invite a ticket from a policeman or the attention of a tow truck. I would quietly get down and ask a friend to parallel park my car for me to my great shame and accompanying sense of failure. I can drive a car for thousands of miles without fatigue because I love driving on open, empty roads but tell me to parallel park my car and the sour expression on my face will tell you what exactly I think of you.

This is why the one of the few times that I managed to parallel park correctly was amongst the greatest days of my life. It was during my road test for a Massachusetts driving license and that is a certification which made me happier than earning my engineering degree had made me such was the intense performance anxiety that overcame me. Driving license tests have a way of doing that. I had already been driving around in the USA for close to 6 months by then using my Indian driving license which was valid for a year from my arrival in Boston. But an urge to save on insurance money forced me to get my driving skills re-certified for an American license. Despite having thousands of driving miles under my belt, in India and the USA, on the day of the test, it feels like the first day at a new school. The same steering wheel, brake and accelerator all seem strangely hostile when a driving inspector is sitting next to you with a clipboard and a pen looking every bit like he was hell-bent on failing you. Clearing the road test carried no value in the office conversation amongst your friends but God forbid if you fail the road test, then the joke would be on you for years to come.

It was early in February 2009 when my chosen date for the road test arrived. It was snowing on that day as it had the day before and the roads were covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow while the stuff from yesterday was piled high in snow walls on both sides of the road by the snow plows. I was moving ahead with extra caution going easy on the accelerator as spinning the car with the co-passenger being the old guy in charge of evaluating my driving capabilities would surely have spelt my doom. I got sharply reprimanded by him for holding up the traffic though and so I had to step on the gas to keep him happy. I exercised extra caution and stopped well behind the line at a red light on the test route but then my invigilator gave me a look which said he wasn't too impressed with my safe attitude. Hand signals and the three point turn followed but none of them seemed to bring the remotest smile to his face. At this point of time, I was on the verge of losing it as the tension of not being able to match up to his idealistic standards was getting to me. That's when he asked me to pull up on an empty street and said the two words which were the real reason for my unrest "Parallel park!"

He added "Be careful, son. I don't want to touch the snow...". So, here I was, already taxed by the momentous responsibility of parallel parking between an ice cream van and a red Ford Taurus, even without the don't-touch-snow clause. The snow was piled 2-3 feet high on the side of the kerb such that even the kerb was not visible. The snow was to be my line of reference to put my car in position. A more picture-perfect horror scenario I couldn't have imagined for myself! My mouth ran dry and I twisted around in my seat like it was an electric chair while putting my car into reverse. I looked around, checked around in all human ways possible before turning the steering all the way in one direction and then in the other. Like magic, my car had pushed itself into position or so I thought. My driving inspector was still as silent as a rock.

I drove into the parking lot 0f 10, Washington Street where the Taunton Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) is located. I sat quiet as a mouse as the inspector popped open the lock of his door. On his way out of the car, he leant back, that grumpy old man of the last 20 minutes smiled at me and said "Son, congratulations. You have just become eligible to drive in the State of Massachusetts!" I breathed a sigh of relief and he added with another meaningful smile, "I was never going to fail you. I give you credit for giving the test in all this snow!" It seemed that all his seriousness was a put-on act to have a little entertainment at my nervous expense. I was still too happy then to have parallel parked successfully and earned my driving wings, on the one occasion that it really mattered, to tell him aloud what was going through my mind. I was smiling too but my eyes might have leaked the words that were on the tip of my tongue "Bl***y joker!!!".

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