Monday, August 19, 2013

Mr. Norwegian: Part Three

It's chilly standing in the cold night air speaking with Mr. Norwegian. Part of me is thinking that he’s a very pleasant young man in appearance and manners. And the other part of me is thinking that I need to make sure we get all of his information for the rental company ... in case we never hear from him again. He's talking about having borrowed his friend's car and wanting to pay for damages instead of going through the police and insurance company. And I'm weighing my want to trust him against the possibility of me needing to pay for the collision if I wrongly judge his character.

Unfortunately, Mr. Norwegian was driving his Swedish friend's car. 
Fortunately, there wasn't much damage to his car. 
Unfortunately, there was significant damage to our car. 
Fortunately, his friend has insurance. 
Unfortunately, having insurance pay for an at-fault collision would raise his friend's premium dramatically and probably ruin their relationship. 
Fortunately, he is financially able to handle the cost of the collision if we agree to settle privately.
Unfortunately, we need a police report for the rental car agency.

Fortunately, he respects our decision to call the police.

Mr. Norwegian's Serbian language skills are adequate but when going to jail for causing a collision is on the line, it's important to have a native speaker in your corner. He called his Serbian roommates. As we continue to talk with him, we find out that Mr. Norwegian is in Belgrade working in a hospital emergency room as part of his medical training. He will become a doctor in the next couple of years. 

Thinking of the wonderful ER doctor who sewed up Jovana's hand last year, I can totally picture Mr. Norwegian working in the same position. Even in the middle of a crisis, he is both calm and genuine. It’s endearing. He could have driven off. He could have been angry. He could have done a number of things, but instead he decided to get to know us a little better.  I'm sure he probably never imagined that someone else may go to the ER because of something he did.

The police dispatched to our scene arrive. I'm back to sitting in the car and feeling warmer already with the door closed. I look in the back seat. My girls haven't woken up and Anja is patiently sitting. She's never been in a collision before or even been pulled over by the police. This particular situation seems to be an ideal learning ground. Adults all acting mature. It's a relief, really.

Jovana starts writing out what happened. Mr. Norwegian takes a breathalyzer test. Clean. The officer taps on out window. Now it's Jovana's turn. She blows into the device. And is also alcohol-free. No surprise there. The crash wasn't as bad as it could have been. No one got hurt. Or died. Or even needed the ER. It's just a money issue. That's okay. I believe we were divinely protected.

Jovana gets hands on training in incident reporting.
Mr. Norwegian genuinely feels bad to have put a kink in our evening plans. It takes an hour or more to get all the paperwork done and be on our way. He leans in the window and offers to take us all out to dinner to make up for our inconvenience. What? Who does that? The gesture is well received. 

Did I mention that Mr. Norwegian is good looking? Intelligent. Calm under pressure. Maybe in his mid-20s. Yes, this is the type of guy we want for Jovana. We exchanged phone numbers.

Jocelyn was surprised to find out the next morning that we'd been in a collision.
She'd gone back to sleep after the initial impact.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take Mr. Norwegian up on his offer before we were scheduled to go to Slovenia 36 hours later.  
Fortunately, we arranged to exchange our smashed car before we left town.
Unfortunately, the smashed car was a Škoda.
Fortunately, names are humorous. Škoda  means “darn it” or “bummer” in Slovene.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a copy of the police report to give to the rental agency.
Fortunately, Mr. Norwegian had already been in and arranged payment
Unfortunately, our rental agency didn't haven any other cars available in the peak season.
Fortunately, rental agencies are friends with each other and loan cars between themselves.

The next morning, my girls and I leave for Slovenia in a roomy Chevrolet.

While we were gone Jovana and Mr. Norwegian continued to text each other. The timing for meeting up would be tight. Jovana's in her final days of her undergraduate studies. After we return from Slovenia, we’ll only have one free evening before my husband and sons come to join us on our Balkan adventure. Two days later Jovana will take her final exams for college and that same afternoon, we’ll all leave for Macedonia. 

When we come back to Belgrade, Jovana will pack her bags and have one day before flying to Germany. She'll be gone for 6 months while doing an internship with an insurance company. That doesn't even take into consideration Mr. Norwegian's work schedule. Yikes! Timing this meet up will definitely be tight. And puts a damper on my plans for their happily ever after.

Yet still I dream. I picture them at a party together. They looked fantastic. Heads turned as they walked into the room. In a more private moment, someone would ask them how they met. She would say, “on the street” and he would add, “I just ran into her.” They'd look at each other and smile. Because very few people knew the whole truth.

To my delight, Jovana and Mr. Norwegian meet up a couple of days before we get back. He dresses up. She doesn't. It doesn't matter, they have easy conversation and enjoy each other's company. Interestingly, Mr. Norwegian is familiar with the Pacific Northwest. His sister lived and worked in Bellevue…the same city where the main office to our driving school is located. And where Jovana interned last summer. Sharing a connection over two continents convinces me even more that these two are meant for each other.

He's 30, she tells me. "Well, at least he looks young," I say.  They exchange a few more texts. And then one evening in Macedonia, Mr. Norwegian sends Jovana a Facebook friend request. I push. I plead. "Jovana, did you accept it yet?" She didn't. Not too soon, she tells me. "But he is your destiny!" Bridget, calm down. Nothing will come of this. I'm leaving. He's in Serbia. Then he'll leave. "Jovana! Life if full of challenges and you've just gotten a peek into how this guy handles a crisis. You want someone like that."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mr. Norwegian: Part Two

We turned left from a dark side street onto the main road a few moments after the light turned green. Just a few more minutes and we’d be back to Jovana’s apartment. But, as soon as we entered the intersection we knew we were in trouble with no way to escape.

Bright headlights were coming straight for us.
There was no where to go.
Squealing brakes.
Crunching car.
Screaming erupts from the back seat.
Our car stalls.
Jocelyn starts to cry.
It’s her door that’s been smashed.
We look at our light.
It’s still green.

Jovana jumped out of our car to chase the guy down. Hit and runs in Belgrade are common and there was no way she was going to let this guy get away. Turns out the driver wasn’t going to flee. He got out of his vehicle, a bit stunned. He missed seeing his red light because he’d been looking just beyond it at the green arrow marking his reversible lane as open. An unfortunate, but easy mistake to make. He tries to stop. Or swerve. Or do something. Anything. But it’s too late. We’ve been hit.

Our situation remains precarious. Like targets, we are sitting in the middle of the intersection vulnerable to getting hit again.

I get out, run around to the driver’s seat, put on the hazard lights and try to start the car. Nothing happens. Yikes! A line of cars slowly begins to go around us. Jovana calls out, “don’t move the car!” She wants the police to see everything in its original position….they’re now on their way.

My thoughts immediately went back to the driving instructor conversation Jovana and I had been having literally two minutes prior to the crash. And I chuckle. I know this collision isn’t her fault. But the irony of it all is pretty humorous.

While waiting for the police, another random officer happened upon us. First he checked to make sure we were okay. Drivers who cause injury to others in Belgrade don’t just get a ticket. They go to jail.

I didn’t know for sure but I thought we were. Jocelyn, asleep before the crash, cried for a minute as it was happening and then fell back asleep. The officer wanted to make sure she was okay and to call an ambulance, if necessary.

I got out to open her door. It was stuck. I put my whole body into it, grabbed the handle and gave it my best pull. Success! Jocelyn didn’t wake up when I took her out but nuzzled into my shoulder seeking comfort from the chill night air.

The officer directed us to move our car, which thankfully started immediately, onto the sidewalk and out of traffic. A large back up had already formed and needed release. After getting everyone in a safe holding pattern, the officer left and we waited for the officers dispatched to our collision to arrive.

While we waited, the guy who hit us, who we now call Mr. Norwegian (he’s from Norway), came over to our vehicle. I got out. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. We shook hands as introduced ourselves. “You know there are better ways to go about meeting people,” I said with a grin.
Complements of Facebook you now have Mr. Norwegian's photo.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mr. Norwegian: Part One

Visibility in the center of Belgrade was low as we winded our way through the narrow streets headed for home. Jovana and her cousin Anja had just run in to pick up a take-out pizza. Kira, almost 2, refused to nap earlier in the day and needed extra amounts of attention. We were anxious to eat and end the day with a good night’s sleep.

The evening had turned torturous about the time my girls started throwing dirt from the potted plants at the mall, and got worse when they had to touch everything in the shops, then broke a necklace, wouldn't stop with the name calling in the car and had overall disobedience issues.  A fight had broken out earlier between Jocelyn, age 4 and Anja, 12. It didn't seem to matter that they’d been best of friends since we had arrived one week earlier. Or that we’d played games together in the arcade. They definitely weren't getting along now.
Anja, Jocelyn and Kira
There was a lull in the back seat commotion. Turning around, I realized the temporary cease-fire came from both Kira and Jocelyn falling asleep. Jovana and Anja returned. I held the pizza in my lap and felt its warmth. My stomach growled the moment the aroma hit my nose.  

I added Jovana to my rental car policy for times like these. She’s a conscientious driver and fully capable of getting me and my jet-lagged girls around. I was her driving instructor and helped her get her first license when she was an exchange student in our home almost five years ago. She improved her ability to handle road crazy by going home to Belgrade and learning to drive a stick shift in city traffic, which is not an easy task. It takes complete focus to get to any destination and avoid numerous hazards.

I've been trying to devise a plan for Jovana to come back to Seattle to live. She’s got a clean driving record and has almost had a license long enough to become eligible to be a driving instructor. Ooh, the perfect set up. She can come back to live with us and have a real job and earn enough money to get ahead when she comes back to Serbia. She can make in an hour in Seattle the same amount as she can make in a day as a student in Belgrade.

I offered her a job as an instructor at my driving school. Jovana’s dream has always been to teach teens how to drive. Ha ha. I’m not sure that’s anyone’s dream. But it’s fun and keeps you young. The conversation moved to her upcoming internship in an insurance company in Germany and what the possible future may hold.

We turned left from a dark side street onto the main road a few moments after the light turned green. Just a few more minutes and we’d be back to Jovana’s apartment. But, as soon as we entered the intersection we knew we were in trouble with no way to escape. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


One of my favorite views from the highways of the Balkans are the poppies that grow wild all over the place. They brighten my mood and feel like a bit of hope on an otherwise dusty shoulder. I think the American VFW recognizes the simplicity of their beauty, as well. And the fact that they can grow in what seems to be infertile land. I bought one of their poppies a few months ago. The seeds of freedom are just as hopeful and definitely as prolific as the poppy. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Taste of Crazy: Driving In Belgrade

My daughters and I are currently visiting Belgrade, Serbia, the home of our beloved former exchange student Jovana. We rented a car to get around but the first day, I wasn't comfortable driving. It is definitely different driving here than at home.

Streets are narrow and cars park on the sidewalk. Those backing up don't always yield to traffic on the street. Sometimes 5 roads intersect at the same point and collisions are barely avoided. But everyone seems to be ultra aware of their surroundings and able to react at a second's notice.

Busy Belgrade street
Jovana explained the rules to me. Stop signs are like stronger yield signs. Sometimes, you stop at stop signs, but never if there isn't anyone around. But some are like super strong yields so you definitely need to stop. If you want to change lanes, you turn on your blinker and move over...the other guy will slow down. If you need to stop somewhere and there's nowhere to park, you just pop on your hazard lights (even if that means blocking a lane of traffic) and you run in. No one likes it, but everyone does it.

Last night, we went for pizza and my girls fell asleep in the back seat. Chubby's Pizza is on a busy avenue with two lanes of traffic in each direction. Jovana pulled up behind someone in the right lane with their hazards on. She turned hers on and got out to go in and order. Sitting in the car, I noticed two more cars stopped in back of us to run in as well. When the guy in front of us left, two more cars pulled into the impromptu parking lane. Jovana was gone about 10 minutes and then we were on our way.
The woman in the maroon car popped on her hazards and ran into the store. Red car is going around her.
We've been staying in Jovana's family's second home and driving to her apartment daily using gps. While I appreciate the device and technology, I've been frustrated because it takes anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes to traverse between the two homes. Anyone from Seattle would chalk that up heavy traffic...but it's not that. The gps is taking me a different way each time. It's been difficult for me to learn my way by memorizing landmarks. Yesterday, I got a tour of some country road with fields. I'm supposed to be in an urban area, not rural. A couple of nights ago, the gps had to keep "recalculating" my route because I thought the streets it mentioned were driveways...not even wide enough to be an alley.

Thankfully, Jovana wrote down some instructions for me so that it'd be easier. And the past few trips have been much better.

One of the hardest parts of Belgrade driving for me is that the traffic signals are maybe 12 feet off the ground and placed on both sides of the intersection. I'm working on retraining my brain to see them since my automatic response is to look high above each lane for signal directions. I don't think I've run any lights. But if I have the Serbians around me have adapted well.

Notice the motorcycle going the wrong way?
While driving in Belgrade is crazy and often like an obstacle course or driving video game where you try to avoid the hazards popping out all over, it's got an upside, too. Here, my mind has been 100% on the driving task. Part of what keeps me present and in tune with the car and road is driving a manual transmission. The other part is that there is no friendly allowance for zoning out. You zone out and you've crashed or maybe hit someone. It's intense.

I believe Americans are too comfortable behind the wheel. Traffic is well regulated and roads are wide and smooth, making driving too easy. Our brains insist on being active (or falling asleep - not good for the driving task) so we look to our phones and other distractions to stay engaged. While dodging other cars, pedestrians and potholes may not be ideal, I do believe these drivers are more focused on driving than we are at home.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Drive It Home Seattle

Drive It Home came to Seattle tonight and put on some pretty humorous sketches about teens and driving. A comedy troupe put on a Dr. Bill television show with commercials. My favorite were the commercial skits.

For the more serious part of the program, a mother spoke about her son being killed by an inexperienced driver who should never have been driving friends (he had a provisional license). That was rough.

The main take-aways for the evening include:

1. After licensing, continue to drive with your teen at least 30 minutes per week. See for yourself where their skills are and coach them on skills to improve. Be the authoritative parent. Set rules and ensure they are followed.

2. Before you let your teen drive on their own at night, or in the rain or snow or on the freeway or where ever, make sure they drive in those conditions with you first. Then you'll see what they know and where they need help. The number one killer of teens is car crashes. The number one reason for these crashes is inexperience (not texting or alcohol). Help your child get a variety of driving experiences before turning them out on their own.

3. Set the example. Drive the way you want your child to drive.

4. From the mother who lost her 14 year old son: Talk to your kids early about riding with others...when to speak up when something dangerous is happening...when to not get into someone else's car. Those conversations happen frequently for older teens. But younger ones need the same conversations.

5. And for the grand finale of the take-aways: Determine your child's readiness for driving before they take driver's education. What kinds of decisions are they making? Are they responsible? Considerate? Chances are they will make the same kinds of decisions when driving. So make sure they are ready for the challenge.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Velva Jean Learns To Drive

Book Review: Velva Jean Learns To Drive by Jennifer Niven

Velva Jean is a poor young girl growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1930's. She has a beautiful voice and dreams that one day she will make it to Nashville to sing on stage at Grand Ole Opry decked out in rhinestones. Velva Jean temporarily forgets her dream and marries at age 16. A couple of years later she inherits an old truck. It sits in her yard many months before she rekindles her dream and teaches herself to drive. I was so completely wrapped up in Velva Jean's story that I was sad to see it end. The good news is that there is a sequal about learning to fly and another one after that (both of which are on the hold list for me at the library). I understand that book four will be out later this year.

Velva Jean's world doesn't have many cars in it. The people are isolated in the mountains and very few come in or out of them. There weren't many cars and even fewer drivers. Her sister was so afraid of automotive technology that she refused to ever get into a car and would never think of driving one.

Driving was considered a man's activity. A stereotype though long gone from the United States, is tightly adhered to in other parts of the world. I am reminded of the fight currently going on for women drivers in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, religion plays a huge role in Velva Jean's husband forbidding her to drive just as it does for the Saudi women.

Driving equates to freedom and independence just about everywhere and it was no different for Velva Jean. While she understood that she needed to have a teacher when learning to drive, she also knew that she would never have that luxury. So she took her destiny into her own hands.

The books Velva Jean studied contained numerous lists of things you had to do while driving. They reminded me of the ones that modern day driver's ed teachers use. For example, when getting in the car there are hundreds if not thousands of acronyms in place to help you remember to put the key in the ignition, adjust your seat, adjust your mirrors, get the car in gear, release the emergency brake and get down the road. There are more to help you lane change. More to help you scan the road, drive in reverse and park the car. Each teacher has their favorites and there's great debate in whose are better and why. While building habits in new drivers is important, memorizing a bunch of lists is not. Hence, most of my students get out of my car only memorizing the lane changing procedure.

Velva Jean's brain was so overwhelmed with the endless lists in her book that if it weren't for her raw determination to learn, she would have quit immediately. She closed the books and started the truck to see if all hell would break loose like they wrote would happen. It didn't. She stalled the car. A lot. She gave herself small goals, like drive around the house once, then 5 times, then 10 times to measure her success.

Her method for figuring out the clutch was to read a little, try a bit and then read some more. Building skills incrementally prepares the brain to receive more insight for the next round of practice. And there's no substitute for experience.

Not only did Velva Jean's story captivate me on a personal level, but I also appreciated her incremental method of learning how to drive.

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