Driving like it’s 1998

//Driving like it’s 1998

Driving like it’s 1998

I haven’t been in a manual transmission car in years. What could possibly make me go back to driving like it’s 1998? Only travel.

stick shift

I still remember how to use this…

When I put together a list of my ten favorite things about the USA, my adopted home since 2002, one of them was cars with automatic transmission. I wrote that “I could not imagine being stuck in Chicago traffic and having to deal with the stick.” The words made me wonder if I’d still know how to do that. And they took me right back to my early driving days.


Having grown up in Poland, where standard transmission seemed the only available option at the time, I first learned to drive on a stick shift. I spent many hours in vacant parking lots and on obstacle courses, practicing clutch control, changing gears, and using the handbrake on a hill start. The latter was never much fun, but I somehow managed to do it and pass my license exam.

Despite having driver’s credentials, I didn’t get behind the wheel much. I didn’t need to. My school in Krakow was ten minutes away by bus, the city center about the same. If I had to go farther, public transportation was there too. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago a few years later that I got serious about driving. This time automatic cars, which are so common in the States.


It didn’t take me long to embrace this type of driving – and never want to switch back. It’s easy, comfortable, works well in traffic jams, and lets me focus on changing radio stations instead of gears. What’s not to love? Fans of driving stick say it allows you to control the car better. Perhaps, but to each their own.

I probably would not give manual transmission another thought if it weren’t for travel. In many places, e.g. Europe and Latin America, renting a stick shift car is often cheaper than automatic. Planning a trip to Argentina’s back country is what made me take another look at driving stick.

driving stick

Fans of driving stick say it allows you to control the car better. I look in control here, right? ;)


Easier said than done. Where do I get a car from? How long would it take to brush up on my skills? Not having operated the clutch in about 15 years, my biggest concern was that I’d cause the car to die in the middle of a street. I can handle screams from angry drivers, but safety is a more serious issue. Is it really worth it then?…

After some consideration, my curiosity took over. The decision was also made easier by my friend Zuzanna of Zuzapix Photography, who owns a manual transmission car. When she said that I could use it – and that her husband would give me a brief refresher course – there was no turning back.


As anxious as I was about the experience, I also couldn’t wait for it. Stretching my comfort zone is a challenge I often gladly accept.

It turns out there wasn’t much to worry about. My instructor was patient, I quickly began to remember what I had learned so long ago, and after a while I even enjoyed myself! The ride was by no means smooth at all times and controlling the clutch took some getting used to. On the bright side, no neighborhood squirrels or mail boxes were hurt in the experiment.

I was glad to be back in my own car. Driving home, however, I had time to reflect on the manual session and even started planning another one. I don’t anticipate a permanent switch, but feeling comfortable driving stick can come in handy in future travels. And what better reason do I need to keep practicing?

Thanks Zuza, Yimmy, and Argentina!

Driving stick

I still prefer my car’s automatic transmission, but I admit – this was fun!

Have you driven stick? Both? Which do you prefer?

By | 2014-02-06T00:34:36+00:00 March 13th, 2013|STORIES|27 Comments

About the Author:

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.


  1. avatar
    Jaillan Yehia (@SavoirThere) March 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

    It always makes us Brits laugh when people refer to it as a ‘stick’ – we drive manual by default dontchya know! Well you’re right though it is better to learn manual first, makes it easier to pick up again later.
    Jaillan Yehia (@SavoirThere) recently posted..Where To Get a Soya Latte In Berlin – The Michelberger HotelMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 16, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      Agreed about learning manual first! I didn’t think these skills would come in handy again, but never say never. :)

  2. avatar
    @mrsoaroundworld March 17, 2013 at 6:48 am

    I am so with you, Pola! Also learned to drive with manual transmission cars but after some nice rentals in the USA I was intrigued. When I moved to England, it was obvious I didn’t want to deal with the gears with my left hand, so I switched. Life is good. Kills me when I go back to continental europe, but after a couple of hours, it is all good!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..Introducing The Luxury Travel Blog NetworkMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 17, 2013 at 3:10 pm

      Oh right, you also have the added entertainment of gears on the left… :) Come to think of it, I have yet to drive in England.

  3. avatar
    Tawny of Captain and Clark March 17, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Ahhh Pola! You look great behind the wheel! We can’t wait to follow along on your adventure. You’re going to be great driving manual.
    Tawny of Captain and Clark recently posted..A London apartment fit for a king.My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Thanks!! It sure puts me a bit out of my comfort zone, but that’s also why it’s exciting. :) I can’t wait for the trip, as you can imagine.

  4. avatar
    Miret March 17, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Looks cool! Although I do have a driving license, I cannot drive…
    Miret recently posted..UNA Hotel Scandinavia, Milan, ItalyMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I hear you, Miret! When in Poland, I didn’t drive much despite the license – glad those days are over. :) Then again, I bet it’s nice to live in a place with good public transportation.

  5. avatar
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin March 18, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    No, I’m terrified but have always wanted to try. I feel like it would make me just a little more badass. LOL
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted..My Career Break Ends TodayMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      Haha, that’s a good enough reason to try! ;)

  6. avatar
    Raul (@ilivetotravel in Twitter) March 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I drove stick shift, first and last, in Chile over 20 yrs ago! It was in hilly Viña del Mar where I committedd myself to never do THAT again (after getting stuck in a traffic light on an uphill with many cars behind me!). Glad it was easy for you to re-pick up stick shift for your trip!! Have fun – and be safe!
    Raul (@ilivetotravel in Twitter) recently posted..Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 2 – The Moorlands and Shira CampMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      What a story, Rauli!! Well, I didn’t get a refresher on a hill – I live in flatland after all… We’ll see I guess. ;)

  7. avatar
    Traveling Ted March 19, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    I have automatic, but I learned driving stick. It is not easy learning stick, but I am glad I did when I was young. I still feel comfortable when I have to go back. I prefer stick, so I will probably go back to it for my next car.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Sucking wind and a dripping booger at the American BirkebeinerMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 20, 2013 at 1:13 am

      It’s definitely good to learn stick first. People keep telling me that this is something you don’t really forget. You’re another example that they’re right. :)

  8. avatar
    thelazytravelers March 20, 2013 at 11:47 am

    neither of us ever learned how to drive stick. definitely one of those things that’s not necessary in the states! maybe one day… with you as our inspiration, of course.
    thelazytravelers recently posted..jetsetters: @mytravelaffairsMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 21, 2013 at 11:07 am

      Happy to be your inspiration, ladies. ;))

  9. avatar
    Clare March 21, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I’m another who has never driven anything other than a manual – I guess when you’ve never known anything else, you get so used to it, it’s second nature – I wonder if I ever drive an auto I’ll decide that’s the future instead – I’m intrigued now!
    Clare recently posted..Travel Beauty Booty: Make-Up Bags on the MoveMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm

      I had another test drive since publishing this post and this time it was even easier. Like you said, once you do something enough, you just get used to it. I’d be curious to find out how you like driving automatic, if you ever do.

  10. avatar
    Sofie March 22, 2013 at 7:22 am

    For me, it was the other way around. Livind in Europe I’d never driven an automatic before going to the States. During my trip to Los Angeles last year a friend and I rented a car, an automatic, of course.
    Sooooooo easy!
    Like you say, traffic jams because so much more ‘do-able’.
    Unfortunately an automatic is still much more expensive in Europe and definitely not the norm
    Sofie recently posted..In search of the light: Chasing a shepherd in UmbriaMy Profile

  11. avatar
    Mariella (Bridgekeeping Traveller) March 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Honestly, I never feel quite comfortable with an automatic… I’m not the world’s greatest driver on any car, but with a stick shift I have the feeling of having more control over what’s happening. And when you drive overland it’s not as boring!
    Mariella (Bridgekeeping Traveller) recently posted..What’s in a Word?My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 29, 2013 at 7:50 am

      Hi Mariella. I wonder how comfortable I’d feel with dtick had I not switched to automatic. I’d probably hate it in traffic and like it on the open road. :) I’ve really enjoyed comments here and how everyone has had a different experience!

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  13. avatar
    Kristin @ KEEN Digital Summit August 4, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Only once, while writing my first guidebook for Frommer’s in Spain, and it was terrifying! I seriously broke down in the middle of some random mountain town, then the car rental agency drove me a new car up there and then I had to drive in the Pyrenees not knowing which gear was which! Never. Again.

    • avatar
      Jetting Around August 5, 2013 at 7:50 am

      What a story, Kristin! No wonder you’re not a fan of driving stick…

  14. avatar

    […] the Argentina trip, I hadn’t driven a manual transmission car in years. But re-learning it helped me save on car rental fees and resulted in an unforgettable, […]

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