“Hey Sir, can we get a ride to Mereseni?

The man looks inquisitively at me and my best friend and then opens his back door for us.

“We are in luck today.”, Dana whispers in my ear. We jump in the back seat, throwing our backpacks at our feet.

I know what you are thinking. “Bad idea.” Two seventeen year old girls  hitchhiking home from school with a stranger.  Maybe in America that is a cultural taboo, but in Moldova this is a normal way to commute. The buses that come from the capital city are typically full, so they either don’t take any more passengers, or they do, which is sometimes even worse. You get to experience the epitome of Moldovan travelling – standing inside a human sandwich topped with grocery bags and sometimes even animals like chickens, pigs, goats or some other creature. If you have a big space bubble I recommend you either get over it before you decide to visit Moldova or have a change of heart about hitchhiking.  Although Dana and I preferred getting home  in the back seat of a nice Volvo or Mercedes that smelled like leather and air freshener, we really didn’t mind the human sandwich scenario as long as it got us home. We, of course, had to pay a standard fee in either scenario.

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Photo by John Lloyd

“My name is Vasily. What are your names?”, he asks as he studies us in his rear view mirror.

“I am Dana and this is Diana.”, my girlfriend responds while she looks out the window.

“You girls are students at the lyceum aren’t you? I recognize the grey uniforms.  Do you commute everyday?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever had to walk home?”

“Well its only about four miles, so when its too snowy and the road is too bad for anyone to stop at the bus station, we do walk home along with other villagers that work here in town.”

“My grandpa  who is almost eighty five walks to the market every other Sunday.”, I chime in.

Walking long distances is just the way of life in Moldova, especially if you are a villager. My family never owned a car. Although neither of my parents have a driver’s licence, we never had too much trouble getting around. It may have not been very comfortable and maybe less efficient according to American standards, but we were doing just fine. And yet, cars were still seen as a sign of wealth and affluence, especially newer ones from Western Europe, rather than the old  zaporozhets- painful reminders of the old Soviet Union.

While in middle school I didn’t see a distinction between people who owned cars and people who didn’t, once I moved to the lyceum in the next town over, things changed. Many students, both males and females, were going to driving school and some of them even drove themselves to school in their own cars. When I was younger, I thought driving was meant exclusively for men. But in this new school, the idea that I could maybe learn how to drive started taking shape in my mind and I slowly started to hope that maybe someday I would drive my own car. Of course, no one in my family took me seriously and even teased me about it. I never did end up going to driving school in Moldova.

When I came to the US  as an eighteen year old, the last thing one my mind was driving. I had more immediate needs like figuring out how to use a washing machine and the microwave, or how to navigate the grocery store. Three years later, one of my friends volunteered to teach me how to drive and during our first practice run I almost ran her car into a tree in the parking lot. After that failed attempt, I decided I just couldn’t emotionally handle driving.

During my college years not owning a licence wasn’t a big deal, although a lot of people were surprised to hear it. It seemed like for most of my American friends driving seemed like an easy task.  I always laughed it off and explained that I just didn’t have the time to learn. In reality I was terrified. Since my parents never drove, I never touched a steering wheel or learned anything about how engines work. It was all very mystical… and driving seemed like an unattainable talent for someone as clumsy as myself.

After Clayton and I got married and I got a full time job, I realized that if I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t in walking distance, my husband had to be my chauffeur. For someone as fiercely independent as myself, that felt incredibly limiting, and even embarrassing. So I decided to go for it, and under Clayton’s close supervision, I started to learn how to drive.

Now, I wish could tell you all that as soon as I decided I would learn how to drive, my fears went away and six months later I had my driving licence. Instead, a tricky stick shift, insecurities, and communication issues with Clayton happened. I had never even touched a steering wheel until I was 20, and then didn’t even drive around in a parking lot until I was about 25. After almost 4 years and more than a few friends trying to teach me, I finally decided that I simply couldn’t learn on a stick. So we bought a old automatic for me and guess what –  last August I finally got my driver’s licence on the first try!

” Where do you want me to stop?” asks Vasily “Your village is so spread out.”

“Right here is fine”, Dana says and we both hand out money for the ride.

“Oh,don’t worry about it girls. Just do good in school and get yourself some lunch tomorrow.”, he says and he turns a kind smiling face to us.

“Thank you Mr Vasily. Drum bun to you!”

He waves at us as we put our back packs on. This is not the end of our journey. We still have to walk to our respective neighborhoods, which took us another fifteen minutes or so, but it was a great experience. We got a free ride from a nice man, we didn’t have to ride in the crowded bus, we only waited for about half an hour to get a ride, and I still have plenty of time to get home and feed our chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys, fetch water from the well, clean the house, and start on my homework before my parents came home at five.

diana in car

It’s almost impossible to describe in words how I feel now when I get into my car to drive somewhere. Words like  freedom,  confidence, pure joy, and special privilege come to mind.

My mother was more nervous on the day of my driving test than when she was when I was defending my thesis. Being the great teacher that she is, writing and argumentation are lessons she taught me well. But driving was a skill neither her nor my father could share with me. Her helplessness as she wished me luck on the morning of my driving exam shook me to my core. Neither her nor my grandma will ever drive a car because of the culture they live in. It’s not that they don’t want to; but since the option was never given to them, they have simply had to write a different narrative to cope with the reality they live in –  that driving is very difficult and not everyone is meant for it, especially women. But as soon as they found out it might turn into a reality for me, they both became so nervous and excited. One of my biggest dreams is just to drive my mother around. After years and years of hitchhiking in the extreme hot and cold and walking for miles each day just to get to her job, I want to show her that her efforts have not been in vain. That even though she couldn’t teach me how to put  a car in gear, she taught me a bigger lesson – to never give up.