Cars

“We really have to think about buying a new car,” T. said thoughtfully, eyeing my burgeoning stomach. It was the spring of 1971, and I was already pregnant with our second child. Two years of marriage, two pregnancies. My bump was still quite neat, but T. was thinking ahead, as always. We were still riding around in the Austin 1100 bought at university and were experiencing all the problems of driving a British car abroad.

The steering wheel in the wrong place, for one thing. The fact that the car seemed too – well, low-slung – for another. It had been designed for smoothly-surfaced British roads and didn’t cope too well with the bumps and potholes of your average Algerian carriageway.  I somehow had the feeling that there was only about about four centimetres’ clearance between my rear end and the road. The car was also fitted with an efficient heater that had served us well in the harsh Sheffield winters, but was too stifling in the relatively balmy Algerian winter temperatures.  There appeared to be no middle ground between “boiling hot” and “off” on the temperature controls.

Then the engine began to overheat on a regular basis. One nightmare journey to Algiers in the first months of our marriage took place in summer and with the needle on the engine temperature gauge hovering around the “Ready to Explode” mark, T. thought the only way to counter this, and to arrive in Algiers in one piece, was to put the heating on full blast and roll the windows down.  When we finally staggered from the car in Algiers, our faces were scarlet from the heat and our hair, full of dust, looked as though we had spent the day in a wind tunnel.

Another time, I had baked a lemon sponge cake, slathered in lemon butter cream, for my mother-in-law, having already discovered that she had a sweet tooth. For once, my attempt at baking something had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It rose perfectly, its fluffy deliciousness just begging to be bitten into. We put it carefully in a box and then in a corner of the boot of the car, so that it would not be crushed on its journey to Algiers.

On arriving at the family villa, we carried it in triumph into the kitchen under my mother-in-law’s greedy gaze. Her mouth was already beginning to water. Not waiting a moment, she plunged a knife into the thick butter cream and carved off a large slice of cake for herself. Her expression of bliss turned first into surprise, then disgust as she spat out her mouthful. We weren’t to know that the car had sprung a petrol leak and the fumes had permeated the boot, impregnating the beautiful cake with the smell (and taste) of fuel. I will never forget the look of regret on T’s mother’s face as she binned the rest.

After T. had lent the car to his brother and the latter had enjoyed it so much he returned it to us with one of the doors bashed in, all the inside ashtrays broken off, and the oil gauge flickering on red, we regretfully sold it to a British coopérant going back to Britain for practically the same price T. had bought it four years before.

We sold it because T. had his eye on a new R16 TS, still rolling off the assembly line at the Renault plant near Oran. I remember us becoming increasingly impatient because it took a whole MONTH to be delivered, and we could have any colour we wanted as long as it was mustard – and a particularly bilious mustard at that. T’s lip curled in distaste at the thought of driving a car of that colour. He was obviously still in British mode, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He was flatly told that it was that colour – or no car at all.

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Apart from the paint job, though, the Renault 16TS was perfect for Algerian roads. Compared to the Austin, its rear end was raised so high that it had a marked slope from boot to bonnet. The suspension was markedly better, though, than that of the Austin, and I sailed happily through my second pregnancy, carefully cushioned from the uneven Algerian road surfaces.

Unfortunately, this was the car in which T. had his almost fatal road accident just after our son’s birth, and, although its sturdy frame had probably saved his life, I couldn’t look at it without thinking how close my husband had come to death whilst driving it. It was time to find a new car, because, although the TS had been repaired after the accident, I didn’t trust it anymore.

By then, however, the Renault assembly plant had closed down – one of the many unfortunate consequences of the quarrel between Algeria and France over the nationalisation of the Algerian oil industry, and so anyone wanting to buy a car had to look to the secondhand market. No new cars were imported  — except of course, by a chosen few.

So, every Friday, every male between the ages of ten and seventy would go down to the secondhand vehicle market in Oran, on a piece of waste ground near the football stadium — serious buyers hauling a sack full of dinars and window shoppers alike. Every car would have a group of “specialists” clustered around it, nodding their heads sagely and scratching their chins as they debated the pros and cons of that particular model.

T. was lucky in that, as one of Sonatrach’s top managers, he was allowed to buy a used company car. We were soon the proud owners of a white Peugeot 504, sold off by Sonatrach when they imported a new fleet of vehicles. Peugeot had a reputation of being more reliable than Renault — the Volvo of the French car industry — but I am afraid that our vehicle had been mistreated badly by careless Sonatrach drivers and mechanics. I am practically sure that it had also been involved at some time in an accident. A bit of welding, slap on some paint to cover the joins — et voilà!

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After a few years of breakdowns and astronomical repair bills, T. gave in to his longing for a really super-duper car and we bought a second-hand white Citroën DS 21. This was the car used by most French and Algerian ministers and was the quintessence of  French automotive luxury — supercilious sneer, complete with flaring nostrils, (the headlights) on its front grill and all.

Unfortunately, its spare parts were at luxury prices too, as we were to find when an English coopérant, with the same kind of car, borrowed our carjack and forgot to re-fasten the bonnet when returning it. It flew back and smashed the windscreen when T. was driving along at over 100 km an hour. With no spare parts being imported at the time, a new bonnet cost us 5,000 dinars – the equivalent of £500 at the time.

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Then there was the saga of the windscreen. Even more difficult to obtain than the bonnet, we finally had to send a driver to Constantine to get a new one. The journey was a mere five hundred miles (nearly eight hundred kilometres) each way. On returning, he had left it on our front veranda, and Titan, our German Shepherd, discovered, to his delight, that it made a very comfortable bed.

Shooing Titan off the plastic-wrapt windscreen, I raised one corner and it gave an ominous tinkle.The windscreen had been smashed beyond repair under his considerable weight. So distraught was I that I fled into our garden and hid amongst the rosebushes. This may seem to have been an overreaction to you, and it does to me now, but it was such a struggle to find anything in Algeria, that material things took on much more importance than they should have done. Once something was broken or stolen, there was no hope of replacing it.

Once the DS sold, we then bought a brand new Honda Accord, about which I have already spoken, and then finally, when Algerians were allowed to import cars, a Peugeot 505. The latter had a peanut for an engine, forcing us to turn off the air-conditioning every time we wanted to overtake. We sold the Peugeot and imported a Nissan Sunny that we left behind when we went to Qatar. T. tells me it is still trundling around the roads near Arzew – a bit battered but still going strong.

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Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Driving is not easy in Algeria. That must be the understatement of the year.

Although an Algerian Highway Code exists, it has little effect on the way Algerians drive. I have talked before about the need for a new code, based on Algerian reality. One that gives priority to the biggest car, especially if it is black. One that stipulates that you must screech away from traffic lights with a smell of burning rubber as soon as the red traffic light flickers, before it even has a chance to turn green. One that allows you to sail serenely through red lights as soon as night falls.

This new Highway Code should incorporate, above all, a rule whereby women drivers must be shunted out of the way, overtaken on dangerous bends, tailgated and pursued, insulted and harassed by male drivers. So you can understand T’s lack of enthusiasm when I told him that I wanted to learn to drive.

In sixties Britain, very few women drove. In fact, there were not very many drivers at all. Owning a car was beyond the reach of most ordinary people. So when T. bought his first car when we were still at university in 1966, it was a dream come true for both of us. So proud was he of the car that there was never any question of who was driving. Any other possibility was almost an affront to his masculinity.

He had already obtained his Algerian driving licence, although his driving experience until then had been confined to driving his father’s tractor around the fields of the farm back in Reghaïa. He had told me, with a wry smile,  about his one attempt at driving a car in Algiers. The car had belonged to the father of his friend, Mus, and the two friends were enjoying a drive around Algiers, sunglasses perched on their noses, eyeing up all the pretty girls in their summer dresses.

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T. on the left, with friends in Algiers just after independence

Mus, however, was a martyr to dental problems and on that particular day, his toothache  had rendered him incapable of driving, as his eyes, half-closed with the pain, could not focus on the road ahead. He handed the steering wheel over to T with great reluctance, giving him strict instructions on how he should just tap the accelerator lightly, not stamp on it, and how he should be careful of the sticky clutch and the elusive third gear.

After five minutes of T crashing the gears and driving in a stop-start fashion around the steep, winding Algiers streets, Mus grabbed the steering wheel back, muttering between gritted teeth, “No, no, no!! Give it here! Your driving is worse than my toothache! ”

Luckily, T’s driving had improved by the time he bought the car in Sheffield.  He passed his British driving test successfully, keeping the date of the test secret from me. I knew he had been having driving lessons, but the first thing I knew about him passing was when I went to a friend’s house to meet him after the lesson and found him there, proudly brandishing the little red booklet. We had only a few unfortunate incidents after that, including scraping the hubcaps on the edge of the pavement and tackling curves in the road with more brio than caution.

In Algeria, the idea of me learning to drive became an ever more distant dream. Quite honestly, I never really gave much thought to it, occupied as I was with two small children and adapting to life there. Our driving excursions made me even more reticent, as other drivers seemed to do what they wanted – overtaking on bends, undertaking, cutting in front, braking without warning, running red lights and so on.

Once, coming home late at night from a family wedding, our headlights had lit up a line of prone bodies on the road ahead.  It turned out that local villagers had found it too hot to sleep within the confines of their homes, and so had decided to sleep out in the fresh air under the stars. In the middle of the main road.

Gradually, though, I began to feel like a prisoner in my own home. I started to dread T’s frequent absences even more, as, although drivers were available, I just couldn’t decide to go and visit a friend or family member on a whim. It all needed prior planning – ringing up T’s office, talking to his secretary, pacing up and down waiting for the driver to appear, and the ever-present guilty feeling that this was taking advantage of the system. Before you say anything, there was no functional public transport system, and so this was really the only option.

I had finally had enough and announced to T. my wish to learn to drive. I know that they say that your husband (or wife) should never teach you to drive, but T. became my first driving instructor – with all the pitfalls that entails. Every weekend, we were to be found on the back roads around Arzew, with the two children, too young to be left at home alone, on the back seats, fidgeting and complaining.

T. was the most patient of teachers, only shouting at me once when I got confused in the middle of a roundabout, mistaking the brake for the accelerator, with a lorry bearing down on us all the while. I complained tearfully that it was difficult to distinguish between “all those pedals.” T. threw me an exasperated look, pointing out that there were, in fact, only three.

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I passed my driving test, anyway, after a few official driving lessons, the test consisting of driving round a piece of waste ground in Arzew a couple of times. I was now authorised to be let loose on Algeria’s roads. It must be said that I would offer up a little prayer before setting off anywhere, never sure whether I would arrive home in one piece.

My little mustard-yellow, four-gear Fiat 128 was forever breaking down. Once, I gave a lift to T and he, thinking that I was still in third gear at one hundred kilometres an hour, such was the grinding and straining of the little car, yelled at me, above the roar of the engine, to move up into fourth gear. Frustrated, I screeched back that I WAS in fourth gear.

Some mornings, when the Fiat would refuse to start, I would climb, with great trepidation, into the Honda Accord that we had just acquired. These Hondas, originally destined for Belgium but rejected by the latter as not responding to European norms, had been sold to Algeria in 1981 instead of shipping them back to Japan. Of course, government officials made sure that all their friends and family were supplied with new cars before a few filtered down to top executives in national companies – like T.

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A typically Algerian piece of doggerel did the rounds. “Les Hondas Accord – pour l’Etat major: Les Hondas Quintet – pour les grosses têtes: Les Hondas Civic – maatchi alik.” In other words: “Honda Accords – for the Chiefs of Staff; Honda Quintets – for the fat cats; Honda Civics – not for you.” The extreme resentment felt by the public at large was summed up in those few terse lines. Our new car had subsequently been keyed and the wing mirrors smashed when we had once parked outside by mistake.

As time went by, I drove the Honda more and more, revelling in the quiet whisper of its engine compared to the deafening roar of the Fiat. One day, coming home from Arzew, I overtook a battered Renault 4, gliding soundlessly by like a stealth bomber. Glancing into my rearview mirror a few seconds later, I saw the R4, belching out black exhaust fumes and straining every rivet, trying to catch up with me.

Looking more closely, I saw it was packed to the roof with men, moustaches bristling, eyes popping out of their heads and lips peeled back from their teeth in a rictus of hatred and injured male pride. Obviously, being overtaken by a mere woman and, what was even worse, a woman in a Honda, was more than they could bear.

This attitude was confirmed a few weeks later, when, stepping out of the car in Arzew, I overheard a muttered conversation between two men standing outside a shop. “Eh ben,” said one, “Même les femmes conduisent les Honda maintenant!” (Well, well, well … even women are driving Hondas now!)