“I don’t think driving five hours a day for weeks would be fun. You’re the one who loves to drive.”
– Wife, over dinner, talking about vacation plans
I heard somebody say recently, in the aftermath of the restructuring of the American and Swedish auto industries that he felt that having a domestic auto industry was one of the signs of a nation being a true industrial power. I can’t remember who it was, or the actual phrase he used, but I know I heard it in my car, driving to an interview about an hour from my office.
I also remember thinking that the man had a point.
After all, the Americans had their big old cars, the Cadillacs, Fords, Chevrolets; the Germans had their Audis, Volkswagens, Opels; the Brits the Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Jaguars; the Italians the Ferraris, the FIATs, Alfa Romeos, Lancias; and, of course, the Swedes Volvos and Saabs.
I love the Internet but to me, car is the invention I hold closest to my heart. Not that I have the faintest idea of how it works, or what to do when the, um, “radiator”, stops working. (I googled radiator to make sure it’s a real thing). I have no idea what V16, or those letters on the back of our Volvo mean. Son says that the “V50” means that our Volvo was built on “Vecka 50” – “week 50” – and he may be right.
But I do love to drive.
It probably has something to do with the fact that my Dad loves to drive. When I was a boy, if we didn’t have anything special to do, we often just hopped in the car and went driving. We’d make a stop at the hockey rink, or if Mom was with us, we’d drive to our friends’ house some ten minutes away. Or, we didn’t make any stops, we’d just drive around the city, and talk, me sitting in the middle of the backseat, my head between the front seats, making comments and asking questions every once in a while.
At Christmas, the tradition was to get in the car and drive to downtown Helsinki to see if we could see any Santas or maybe take a look at Stockmann’s, the big department store’s Christmas window one last time.
Of course, when I was five years old, I was so nervous about Santa that I mostly just lied down across the backseat – still allowed then – and tried to sleep. Or read comics. The backseat of our Vauxhall Viva was like the room I always wanted but didn’t have in our apartment. All mine.
I didn’t get my driver’s license on the day of my 18th birthday like most of my buddies. I thought it was cool to not have one, and to just do whatever I damn well pleased, go against the flow – or something. (This is something I still do, something that Wife likes to call “a Risto revenge”: the only one caring, and getting hurt, is me.)
How stupid of me.
Then, one January evening, I found myself standing in front of the Main Post Office in Helsinki, waiting for bus number 63 to take me to the hockey rink on the outskirts of town. And as my face had completely frozen, and about to fall off, I managed to whisper, “enough.” And right there and then, I decided to get a driver’s license, and maybe even a car.
A couple of months later, after the semester’s last exams at the university, I was standing outside Dad’s store, waiting for the driving school teacher to pick me up for my first lesson. I had actually never really driven a car. Or a motorcycle. I had had a little moped – two actually, the first one was stolen during a hockey tournament – but I don’t think I ever even rode them to the city. Just outside our house.
It was a late May afternoon. A white Mercedes stopped in front of the store, and an older gentleman stepped out, walking by me and into the store, to look for my Dad. I saw them speak, my Dad said something, then pointed to me, and the gentleman turned around and walked back to talk to me. We shook hands – his name was Mr. Gröhn – and I jumped to the backseat of the Mercedes, already packed with other students.
I sat in the middle, but unlike ten years earlier, when I was riding with my parents, I didn’t say a word. Just sat there. About 15 kilometers outside the city limit, halfway to Mr. Gröhn’s office in a neighboring town, he asked the kid driving his Mercedes to pull over, and told me to get in front and drive.
And so, the first time I drove a car, I was taking four other kids to their driving lesson in a white Mercedes Benz. I drove the rest of the way, then parked the car in front of Mr. Gröhn’s office, pulled on the hand brake, and exhaled.
We didn’t always drive to his office, most of the times we drove around my city, a bigger city, but I drove to his office a good dozen times. One time he pretended to be taking a nap, but when I passed another car on the highway, he – still not opening his eyes fully – said, “you’re supposed to be under the speed limit even when you pass another car.”
I slowed down.
On the last week of May, I passed my exam, and got my driver’s license. My Dad made me buy a car of my own because the family car was “too powerful” and if I drove that I’d “never learn how to switch gears properly.”
He had already handpicked a car for me. It was a sky blue 1966 Beetle that saw an immediate increase in value when we installed the car stereo in it. Since that Beetle, I’ve had a Nissan Sunny, an Opel Corsa, a Peugeot 205, a BMW 313, a Renault Clio, a Volvo V40 (when Son was born) and now the Volvo V50, a hybrid that allows us drive around Stockholm toll-free. And one summer, I got to borrow Dad’s orange Citroën 2CV.
I’ve driven around Scandinavia, up and down Finland and Sweden, in Manhattan – way up in Harlem, but still – across the US from New Jersey to Atlanta to Memphis to Las Vegas to Klamath Falls, Oregon, to San Jose to LA. I’ve taken a car from Germany to Switzerland, I’ve gone through a storm in New Mexico, and I’ve slid my Dad’s car into a ditch.
I’ve been on the road with buddies, and I’ve been on the road on my own. I’ve been on the road with my parents, and I’ve been driving my own family around.
I remember sitting at traffic lights listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Night.” I remember driving on a highway late on a summer night listening to Foreigner’s “Break It Up.” I remember driving on the Dixie Highway listening to a Sherlock Holmes audiobook on a tape. I remember driving around Helsinki on a November night, listening to the Cars’ “Drive”. I remember sleeping in my BMW after a Bryan Adams show in Oslo, and for some weird reason, I remember driving from Gothenburg to Malmö, one late afternoon in the summer of 1996, listening to Jimmy Barnes’s “Driving Wheels.”
I don’t know why I remember it. There was nothing special about it. No rainbows, no storm, no racing with a Ferrari in the next lane, nothing.
All it was, was a moment. It was me driving my car, on my way to nowhere in particular.