For most of my adult life I had a car. My favourite was the 1956 camper bus. I also had a Volvo that drank oil, a reliable Subaru station wagon, and a Ford Escort station wagon that my kids learned to drive on. Then I moved to Turkey, where I learned to live without a car.
I haven’t owned a car since 2002 and that last car was in Istanbul. I had bought it from an Italian friend when I was living on the Koc University campus, way out at the end of the Bosporus where it meets the Black Sea. The campus was in the forest, a beautiful place, but it was much like a gated community and not much like actually living in Turkey. Most weekends I used the car to get into the city, usually the old city, which had been the old and new city for millenia or to explore the areas around the campus..
Buying the car was an adventure in itself. When all the bureaucracy had been stumbled through, with the help of an agent, I finally got to sit in the driver’s seat to take the agent back to his office. When I sat down, I thought, ‘oh my god, what have I done? I will be driving in Istanbul!’ But, like riding a bicycle, old habits clicked in and I paid attention to the somewhat different body language of people wanting to get into my lane or to cross the street (crosswalks in Istanbul? Ha!). It often involved direct eye contact – I sort of ‘I dare you.’. In addition, since I did not know my way around by car very well, I always kept the gas tank at least half filled so that if I got lost I would not also run out of gas. If I did get lost, my modus operandi was to head down to the water (usually the Bosporus) and then I would know where I was.
Also, the first week I had the car, I was barrelling back to campus and about half a kilometer away I hit a good-sized pot hole. As I went through the security gate, the guy called out, ‘Madame, you have a flat tire!’. ‘I know’, and drove to my flat. Not only did I have a flat tire, I had two flat tires on bent rims. So I got to know my new mechanic, who fixed the tires and took the car away to tune it up.
One summer a friend came to visit and we went on a road trip from Istanbul by overnight ferry to Izmir. Before we went, a male friend warned me about driving on country roads, but I responded that I did not drive a BMW (as he did) and I was not fuelled by testosterone to make me try to pass everyone on the road. On the ferry I hadn’t realized that we could not go to the car, as that part of the boat was locked up, so my friend and I told the steward that she needed to get into the car to get her eye medicine (actually contact lens fluid). We were taken to the captain’s bridge, as there was going to be a shift change shortly. The assistant captain (or whatever he was) delighted in showing us all the gadgets there, including radar screens that showed other boats and whether they were moving or moored. Finally we got into the car and got the medicine we really wanted, a bottle of vodka.
The next year I sold the car, again with much bureaucracy. Unfortunately the Tunisian man who bought it could not complete his side and although I was paid for it, he was not able to get it and it is probably mouldering away still in the customs yard.
Since then I have not owned a car. In Istanbul that is not a problem, as the transportation system has been moving people for millenia. There are ferries, private ferries, smaller ferries, motor boats, and fancy water taxis to move people by water. There are subways, light rails, busses, and metro busses to get people around on land. As well, there are dolmushes (private minivan busses) and thousands of taxis, legal and ‘sivil.’ One time I took a ‘sivil’ (private) taxi with my boyfriend of the time who was a traffic cop, and when the driver found that out, he gave us a very good price on our ride. Of course there are many cars in Istanbul and the traffic is always a joke, but there are freeways and toll roads in contrast to the small streets made before cars. So it was easy to get around if needed. However, after Koc, I moved to Galata, my neighbourhood at the foot of the Galata Tower and became localized, as almost everything I needed was right there.
Now I am back in Canada, living in a small town. I am in the process of getting my drivers license, which is the same process as for a 16 year old and has taken two years. I took a written test which allowed me to drive with another driver. Then I took a road test which allowed me to drive anywhere except freeways, and this summer I will take the final test which will allow me to drive absolutely anywhere.
Will I get a car then? Nope. I can’t afford it, mostly, but also I do not want to deal with the insurance and the maintenance.
That means that when I want to go somewhere I have to think about how to get there. I don’t just pop into my car that is not there. If I have to walk somewhere, I check the weather and decide on the route. If I have a big grocery shopping to do, I walk down to the supermarket and take a taxi back. Sometimes I ride my bike if the place I need to go to is a little far, though that means that I walk the last bit home, since it is uphill. If I am lucky, my sister or my friend will take me to where I need to go. My friend will sometimes let me know if she is going to the supermarket in case I need to go too. Otherwise, it is the downhill walk. I tried the supermarket run on my bike once, but you know how you go to the supermarket with your list and get extra stuff too– that does not work on a bike.
Sometimes I wish I could just pop into a car, particularly when I would like to go into the Big City– Toronto. Instead, I have to buy a bus ticket (luckily I get a senior discount) and then get around the city by public transportation. Once upon a time Toronto was admired for its public transportation, but that was decades in the past and now it is rather limited and inconvenient. However, when I lived there for a while a few years ago, I did enjoy taking the street car, one of the few left in North America (a sign of Toronto’s cautious conservatism about making changes).
Last year my sister and I went to Montreal by train, which was the first time I had been on a train in about 20 years. We got senior discounts and enjoyed the trip. It was much easier than driving. There was space for our legs and we could see the beautiful land we were going through.
When I fly in or out of Toronto, I can take the shuttle to and from my home. It costs about $80Cdn each way, but I meet interesting people on the shuttle, I don’t have to pay attention to the roads, and I don’t have to worry about parking.
When I was dealing with my father’s stuff I often drove his wife’s car, a zippy little thing that we later nick-named the lady truck, as it fit a lot of stuff with the seats folded down. I have driven on the freeway there (gasp!), but who will question a gray-haired lady? It was fun to drive, but I prefer to be the passenger and look around.
And related to that, I have become aware of how zipping past things in a car means you don’t get to see them very well. For example, recently on a road trip with a friend to Port Dover in SW Ontario, we drove past sheds that used to be used for drying tobacco. Now they are only picturesque relics. We also drove by lovely old homes that were gone in a flash. Walking or bicycling allows one to stop and smell the roses or at least to get out the iPhone to take a photo. That gets into the issue of “owning” things and places and people by taking photos, but I will not get into that here. The larger issue is that getting places often means not stopping to take in the land and buildings and everything else that you are zipping past.
Sometimes, I miss having a car, but mostly I am glad that I can get around fine without one. It takes more time and more thought, but I have a lighter carbon footprint and more money to spend on other things– as long as they are within walking distance.