Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fury on the Freeway

There I was, all 158 cm of me standing outdoors on the exit ramp, with clenched fists, yelling at a man I did not know.
How on earth did this happen?

I'm going to tell you a true story, a story I debated about sharing.  It might give you an insight into the locale where I hang my hat.

This happened just a few days ago.  The scene: Boyfriend is driving me to work.  It is around 7am.  There has been a light dusting of snow the night previous, and so we've left early knowing that people will be driving a little more cautiously.  We are about half-way to our destination, and just after making our way through a turnabout (rondpoint), we find ourselves behind a car that is moving at about 15 kilometres per hour, brake-lights on every 20 metres or so.  My first thought is that it's a very old person... (Because did you know that before a certain date here in Belgium a DRIVING TEST was NOT part of the licensing process?  Yeah, you just showed up, paid, and got a license that doesn't expire... which means that there are still people on the roads today who never had to take a test here in Belgium... explains some of the notoriously crazy driving here a bit, doesn't it?)  Old people driving slow don't bother me much.  They should be extra careful; studies show their reaction times are slower, and I won't hold it against someone if they are a little nervous driving.

But... you should pick a lane at the very least.  The car in front of us was in the right lane, and we were in the left as we approached a turn onto a bridge.  As we turned onto the bridge, the car in front decided to occupy the centre of the two lanes, which didn't give us enough space to complete the turn in our lane without moving over into the path of an oncoming transport truck.  Boyfriend was not amused.  Boyfriend finished the turn (thankfully the truck saw what was going on and stopped before squishing us,) and then honked the horn.  He doesn't like slow drivers, but he likes even less incompetent ones that almost get us killed.  I was not impressed, as at this point the slow-car was blocking us, driving in the middle of two lanes, and moving slower than most people do in a parking lot.  Boyfriend leaned on the horn.

The DRIVER... while rolling along at an incredibly slow speed, opened his door and looked backward to stare us down... so he wasn't looking at the road at all at this point though he was still moving.  We both gesticulted for him to carry on driving but to pick a lane.  He kept staring us down menacingly, rolling now at about 5km per hour.  At this point I was getting a little ticked off.  I was going to be late for work because some guy wanted to posture after getting 'called' on his poor driving and lack of concern for others sharing the same road.

The man closed his car door, looking forward again and kept rolling, increasing to maybe 10km per hour.  We were almost at the other side of the bridge, and he moved over to the left, seeming to pick a lane (albiet the wrong one since you are supposed to stick to the right if you are rolling slowly and pass on the left here.)  Boyfriend and I were relieved.  At least we could pass him and be on our way.  Whew.

Except it turns out that this wasn't what the driver had in mind.  As we moved from the left lane to the right to pass, the driver suddenly and quickly swerved his car to block us.  My mind at this point was something like WTF ARE YOU TRYING TO DO?!?!  Quickly, it dawned on me that this had turned into an issue of bruised ego and testosterone.  Man in the car ahead was trying to show man in my car (Boyfriend) who was boss, and to let him know that he was pissed off about being honked at... enough to pick a fight.

What he didn't count on was that now I was SERIOUSLY ANGERED, and testosterone had nothing to do with it.  You do NOT use your car as a tool for THREAT or as a WEAPON... ever.   I got out of the car, and began storming, fury crackling off of every part of my small frame, toward the car.  I could see now there were others in the car.  I didn't care if I had to take on 4 people.  I knew that at the very least a woman leaving the passenger side of our vehicle might take the "cockfight" energy of this confrontation down a notch, and confuse the driver.  It did.

The men in the back seemed alarmed at my angry face as I approached the car.  The car began to roll forward, and I continued walking toward it.  It rolled a little faster, and I took a few jogging steps to indicate that this was no joke, that I had something to say to the driver and that either he'd have to drive off and F-off, or deal with me...  which meant choosing to break the law further by harming me with his vehicle deliberately, or taking things down to a human level and dealing with me face to face.  The car slowed to a stop and I approached the driver's window.

He seemed surprised, that I, a well-dressed and made up woman at 7am on a weekend morning could be possibly be standing outside his door, on the offramp, raging.  I yelled (in French) WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?  He unrolled his window as I yelled the same again, looking at me with cowish glazed eyes, and then I got a waft of his problem: alcohol.  I paused slightly as the air from the car hit me, becoming even angrier at the realization that a man who was obviously heavily drunk had decided to get in his car, endangering everyone on the road enough BEFORE he'd taken things further by deciding to pick a fight using his ton of metal as his weapon of choice.  My face twisted "You're DRUNK!?!?"  The man, still a little surprised by my fury shook his head and muttered "Non, non."

This is the point where my fury and language skills mixed things up a little.  I wanted to say "It's obvious you're driving drunk, you reek of alcohol!"  Instead of saying "Ç'est clair" I made an old mistake I haven't made in awhile and said "Ç'est obvieux tu roules tout saoul, tu pues l'alcool!"  (The "tu" was deliberate... I wasn't going to use the more respectful "vous" to address him.)

At this point I became aware that boyfriend had left the vehicle after me, and was standing just behind me to my side, trying to make sure nothing really scary happened.  He said "It's true, man, I can smell you from here, you stink of alcohol."

French brain kicked in just then and I added "Ç'est clair".  The driver's friends get out of the back-seat, on the other side of the car, and for a moment I didn't know if it was for good or bad.  To be honest in the moment though it worried me a little I was furious enough not to be too concerned...  I may be small, but during my 30 years in and around Toronto, there have been one or two men I've encountered who have understood after trying to back me into a corner that I am quite capable of defending myself.  I'm not violent by nature, but at this point my adrenaline was pumping like crazy and I was ready to defend myself if things turned ugly.  I didn't move, other than to acknowledge with a quick glance that I saw the friends.  Their body language was tentative, it was clear they were on edge but weren't looking for a fight.  They seemed worried.

I yelled at the driver that he'd made a few big mistakes.  First: deciding to drive, while drunk.  Second: deciding to try and cause an accident because he didn't like someone honking at him and his f-ed up drunken antics behind the wheel.

I will say to you, the reader at this point in the story that though I am not a mother, I understood a little better the fury behind all the mothers who have lost their children or had the lives of their families forever changed for the worse due to drivers like this.  I thought in that split second of all the damage this man in the state he was in could cause to others, us aside.  You hear sometimes of people walking or cycling along the shoulder or even on the sidewalk who get hit by irresponsible people like this.  Lives of other people and their families get changed forever thanks to idiots like the one who was in front of me. With these thoughts in my head, my fury mounted further.  I could have decked him I was sooo angry (though I did not.)

The jerk, realizing his friends had left the car, must have figured that it was because they were ready to back him up.  He got out of the vehicle, and looked over at boyfriend.  "It's you who's going to talk to me now, IN FRENCH" the man said.  (He probably figured from my mistake and accent that perhaps we were Flemish... which given the tensions between the two linguistic regions in this country didn't help.)  He lurched toward boyfriend to push him.  Boyfriend stood his ground, and the friends advanced, grabbing the man, and another getting between he and boyfriend.  One friend told us he didn't want a fight.  The driver had a confused look, somewhere between betrayal and rage as he fought against the hold of his friends, yelling at us to "go home."  I mouthed a "merci" to the friend who made eye-contact with me and who'd spoken up in all of this scuffling about.  It was written all over his face that he knew why I was pissed off, he was worried about the whole situation, and he just wanted it to be over.

I yelled at the driver "You've obviously been drinking all night, and you're an IDIOT for getting into a car to DRIVE after that.  My problem is people like YOU, who aren't just a danger, but who are also frustrating as F*&% when people like ME who have to be at WORK on time get stuck ANYWHERE NEAR you on the road!"   I continued yelling "NOW... YOU are going to SHUT your MOUTH, and get BACK in your CAR, and MOVE to the SIDE of the road so WE and EVERYONE ELSE can pass you, because the LEAST you can do after BEING SUCH AN A$$ is to get the F*&% out of our WAY and LET ME get to WORK ON TIME!"

And, seeing his friends weren't going to back him up, and that we weren't going to back down, grumbling, it's what he did.  One of his friends even reminded us as we got back into our cars that the trunk of our car was open.  They moved to the correct side of the road and let us pass along with the others who'd got stuck behind this little scene.

I'll stop again here for a moment in the story to say that I've never left a vehicle before in this manner.  The only other time in my life I've ever left a car in the middle of the road was to jump out of my car arriving at an accident, because I was worried someone might be hurt.

As we drove away, I was a little shocked at myself, but I also knew why I'd done what I'd done.  It was a calculated risk to think that a lady leaving the passenger side of the vehicle might give everyone a second to think about how messed up the situation was.  I don't think that if it had been a direct confrontation between Boyfriend and the driver that it would have ended with nobody hurt.  You may think it was dumb, and yes... it's definitely dumb to get out of a car on the autoroute, and to approach a strangers vehicle to yell at them after they've been driving in a threatening manner.  But given that we were already in the thick of a confrontation that was rapidly amping its way up to something that could have been dangerous for everyone involved, and given that I just generally have little regard for my safety when the safety of others is at stake, it's what I did.  Boyfriend was definitely shocked, asking me later what was going through my mind, why I would possibly think to leave the car in a situation such as that.  That's the answer he got.

The drive the rest of the way to work was fairly silent.  Boyfriend kept looking at me with concern as I sat, fuming.  "Are you mad at me?" he said.  I said that no, I wasn't, that I was just mad, period, and that I was trying to calm down before getting to work where I must try to be nothing but flowery speech and relaxed smiles.

I arrived at work 3 minutes early, saying a quick hello to my colleague.  It was only as I took off my coat and scarf that I noted my legs and hands were still trembling as a result of all the adrenaline.

Though I'm not shaking-mad anymore, I am mad.  I've been bothered the entire time I've been here, knowing that around Liège the police are so infrequent in their checks for drunk drivers, and that *somehow* everyone knows where and when they'll be doing these checks on the odd occasions that they do.  I'm mad that drunk driving is something that is seen by so many as almost normal here after a night out, rather than a disgusting lack of regard for others.  I am glad that there is the push for designated drivers (what is called a "Bob") here, it's a fine social effort but I'm mad that it's not well connected to the idea of what horrific things can happen when a "Bob" isn't used, and I'm mad that there isn't a two pronged approach with a real (enforced) penalty that causes drunk drivers to seriously reconsider getting in their cars drunk.  On the books in Belgium the alcohol limit is low, and the penalties are harsh.  That looks great on paper but it means nothing if I can, EVERY Saturday morning in the span of 15 minutes, spot at least one drunk driver trying (erratically) to make their way home while I and the rest of the more responsible world are on our way to breakfast, or work, or whatever.

After this face to face, and already knowing that there are so many otherwise responsible people here in the area who are irresponsible when it comes to this, I believe I'll be looking for a lobby organization here in Belgium like M.A.D.D to support.  While the "Bob" (designated driver) campaign has had some success here, I really feel that this country needs more than just rewards for designated drivers to cause people to realize it's really unacceptable to drive under the influence, that it's not acceptable to be so drunk that you have no regard for others.

In a place that is supposed to be more socialist in mindset... why are people here NOT thinking about each other when they get in their cars?


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog a couple months back, upon arriving in Brussels & searching for Belgian blogs, to try to demystify this place -yours was an especially good find as boyfriend & I are Canadian too!
I don't really ever comment on blog posts, but have to say that reading this one made me SO angry on your behalf, what a complete asshole! Also, though of course it could have been dangerous, I think it's great that you stood up for yourself & confronted the idiot... hopefully he'll remember it when he sobers up and be too embarrassed to drive drunk again in the future. Anyway, glad it at least worked out safely in the end, Merry Christmas!

Jennifer said...

Holy FUCK! That is unbelievable that someone would drink and drive in such a state. Could you have called the police?!

Good for you for calling them out and confronting them; I applaud you.

Were you speaking in French the whole time? That's pretty impressive too.

Jessica said...

Ayia - Welcome to Belgium & welcome officially to my blog! Where in Canada do you hail from & where in the .be do you find yourselves? Merry Christmas to you too!

Jenn - The one thing I should have done was to note the license plate number before jumping out of our car... the police here at 7am on a weekend? Pffft... good luck on getting any kind of satisfactory or timely response for a "jerk drunk-driver" call.

Other than the slip with "obvieux" I was yelling exclusively in French, lol. I was pretty glad afterwards that I hadn't stumbled over words while telling him off too, (sign of weakness, you know.)

Mons Ben said...

Blimey, this country eh?!

I think it was 1973 that the driving test first came to Belgium. Incredible isn't it? I can't drive but my wife contiunouly tells me that (with respect to your boyfriend!), Belgians, on the whole, are truly awful drivers.

I have indeed seen it with my own eyes on many occasions. Now, imagine what they're like under the influence. No wonder they launched the Bob campaign. I'm always staggered at how bad they are.

So, what's the difference if you say: c'est obvieux?

Anyway, good for you for doing all that in French (although you must be near fluent now, as I think you use it all the time). The kind of thing where I can imagine my French going to pot as soon as I get angry.

Jessica said...

Ben: obvieux isn't a real word in French. It's just one of those ones that at the beginning of my being here I thought would work since other words ending with "ous" are similar (ie: fabulous = fabuleux.)

It was just a little franglais creeping in as it sometimes does when I'm flustered.