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A first-hand account of learning to drive in Brussels

06:05 01/01/2019
Our intrepid reporter plucked up the courage to try learning to drive in Brussels - and lived to tell the tale

Sweat and tears, but thankfully no blood. That’s what I remember of my time as a learner driver in Brussels during the hottest summer in Belgium since records began. It turned out the sun was the least of my problems.

Learning to drive in Brussels is like signing up for an extreme sport, like going on a rollercoaster or zip-lining. Twenty hours of the biggest frights of your life. Especially when you have no car to practise on in between. But I’ve signed up for this, and the day of my first lesson arrives. My friendly yet serious instructor Eric introduces himself. “Today, we’ll go to the park.” I don’t recall any parks nearby. Maybe he means a car park? No. He means Woluwe Park. I look at him. That’s six kilometres outside the city. And I can’t start a car without stalling. Eric’s having none of it. He’ll work the pedals, he says, while I navigate. And soon I find myself veering out on to Avenue de la Couronne, one of Brussels’ busiest stretches of road.

Over the course of 10 lessons, he proceeds to coach me through the basics of driving. He’s a good teacher, but it’s not easy. People drive like maniacs here. Driving on the right doesn’t come naturally to me, having grown up in Ireland. And what’s even harder to get your head around is the priority to the right rule, which at one point has me so bewildered that I brake in utter panic any time I see a car, whatever side of me it is.

The lessons move on at speed. My Belgian instructor doesn’t sugar-coat anything, as Belgians tend not to. “Right, right!! Why are you signalling left? Why are you stopping? What are you doing?! Now gas, gas, gas! You’re going at 20 kilometres an hour! You’re going slower than a pushbike!” We’re on lesson number five, and I’m thinking maybe I’d prefer a pushbike. Tears brim in my eyes. It had all been going so well! Last week I was sailing around Genval, using clutch control like a pro. Today I’m reduced to a blubbering mess. Classic signs of the Five Stages of Driving in Brussels: Fear. Anger. Embarrassment. Depression. Acceptance. (Although Acceptance may have to be ruled out of the Five Stages. I can’t accept how people drive here.)

Eric continues to push me further out of my comfort zone. My first time out on a motorway resembles a scene from Speed as I’m forced to drive no slower than 120kmph on only my fourth time behind the wheel. Other stand-out moments include crossing four lanes of traffic on Boulevard General Jacques into seeming oblivion; merging on to the motorway with huge continental trucks bearing down on me; and an interesting section of roadworks on Avenue de Tervuren where the lane stops entirely and continues ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE ROAD.

We even have a brief road-rage incident at traffic lights when Eric warns the driver beside me about his dangerous driving. Boy Racer doesn’t like that. The lights are about to change; it’s suddenly like The Fast and the Furious (he’s certainly furious by now). He looks at me defiantly and revs. I look out the other window, mortified, and promptly stall. Life is not like the movies.

I finally get my 20 hours’ certificate, with Eric telling me I deserve it, which feels like high praise. I almost cry with pride. And yes, I’d love to say it filled me with an eagerness to keep driving, cruising the open road with the wind in my hair. But truthfully, it just strengthened my love for Stib and the bus stop across the street – and I vow that if I ever take my test, I’ll be doing it in a sleepy Flemish village.

Written by Karen McHugh