Although, as part of this weekend off I also bought a car. As you do.
It’s funny. I managed to survive nearly two years living in Texas, a state of wide open spaces that is famous for its aversion to anything resembling public transport, and with heat that makes it unthinkable to consider cycling on a regular basis. And yet it was possible to get by using what little bus and train service existed, and by riding to and from anywhere else. The fact that an annual pass for students cost $5 also kind of helped.
However, I’ve been in the high-density suburban commuter corridor of Connecticut for barely over a month. And I wasn’t just swayed in my decision, I felt compelled to get hold of my own four-wheeled transport.
There were a few reasons to do so. First off was my job. As a consultant I work longer hours, often irregular in nature. I may be in the office before 7am to finish a report in time for a meeting, but can stay back until 8pm to be able to conference call with our Seattle office, and then there’s the meetings with clients at their offices, which may be miles from the nearest train station or airport. All in all, it means that you need the flexibility to be able to drive.
However, there is a train station outside the office. And it’s still good if you want to go to New York, an 80 minute ride away. Given traffic and parking there, it’s quicker and cheaper than driving. But for the daily commute to and from Black Rock, even if it’s only 7 minutes from station to station, the trains are so infrequent and irregular that you often spend twice as much time waiting for the trains than actually being on them. So it’s an inefficient way to get around.
Finally, there’s the issue of wanting to have a social life here in Connecticut, and do things like enjoy the arts, go to the gym, and play some rugby. Black Rock is at least good on the coffee and beer front, but the nearest gym requires traveling to Fairfield. And the arts center at the main intersection in town has lain abandoned for years, in a state of development limbo. I’m hoping that they’ll do something with it soon. In the meantime, you have to travel.
Anyway, this all leads to the conclusion that getting a car was inevitable. It was actually obvious from the day I arrived, but it has taken this long to get everything sorted out.
First, there was the process of finding the right car. Being a region with notoriously high levels of income inequality, there is a polarization of used cars available on the market. You can either find high-end German cars and SUVs, which while not unaffordable to buy, cost almost as much to maintain (I am convinced that the German economy is being propped up by income from BMW and Mercedes-Benz spare parts purchases from Fairfield County). Otherwise, you have dirt cheap cars that are falling apart and may not make it off the lot without being pushed. Neither were appealing. Finding a reasonably priced car that was likely to be cheap to maintain and run was a tough search.
And then, to compound things was the insurance issue. You see, despite all our technological advances and globalization, international driving records still aren’t recognized by insurance companies, even if that company has operations in your home country. Which means that for insurance purposes, I am treated as if I got my license yesterday. This amounts to doubling the insurance premium, not because of my risk as a driver, but because of a technicality. It reduces the options, because you discover that it costs more in insurance repayments than car repayments to own most cars.
Related to this is the license issue. Again, foreign licenses can’t be automatically transferred to a local license. Instead, you have to go through the whole process of getting a learner’s permit, then an 8 hour course on road rage and drink driving (which a fellow expat tells me is composed of 17 year old locals and exasperated adult foreigners in equal measure), then a driving test. Never mind that with an international permit it’s possible to legally drive here on a foreign license.
So all of these factors delayed the process, making the hunt for a car far tougher than it should be. However, after much searching and some false starts that included scheduling a test drive to find the car had been sold in the intervening hour, I picked up a used car that is all too familiar, but for the right reasons.
I know what you’re thinking. A Corolla? Isn’t that an old lady car? Well sort of. But that’s not a bad thing. Yeah, they won’t turn a lot of heads, and the engine isn’t exactly powerful. But they are legendary for being solid, reliable, and efficient cars that are cheap to run. That’s why they are the top selling compact car in the world. And it turns out that in this part of the world they are not hugely popular (read: not German or Swedish), which makes them cheaper to buy.
My first car was a Corolla. 1982 model. It cost $2,500. When I got it, it was already 17 years old. And yet it never broke down on me, despite my terrible tendency as a youth to forget to change the oil, monitor the coolant levels, or keep the revs at a reasonable level. It even stood up to the abuse of long summer roadtrips and country driving through southern Australia. It got me where I needed to go every time.
In the end, I only got rid of my first Corolla towards the end of my time as an undergraduate, when I misjudged a corner one day and managed to shred two tires on a kerb. The car was fine, but when I got new tires for it the mechanic noted that the transmission was going to give out in 16,000km or so. An easy enough replacement, but by then it would have cost more than the car was worth to get one. At this point, the (modest) aftermarket stereo system I had installed in it was worth more than the car itself.
The Corolla (who I had named Amelia) was over 24 years old when I drove her across the border to a Queanbeyan scrap yard to be broken up for parts (aside: this is one of only three things for which you should ever go to Queanbeyan, the other two being the Q Theater, and to play Texas Hold’em which is illegal in Canberra outside of the casino). The engine was still running so smoothly that the scrapyard decided to pay me an extra $100 for the car.
I’m hoping my new car will follow in those footsteps and serve me just as well. The only thing left to do now is give the car a name. Suggestions welcome!