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First Person


Cyle Talley

‘Start, stop, start, stop. And I’m sure we’re gonna die.’

Matt Hert, on touring Ireland in a rental car and a manual transmission from hell
Ar 170719938
Courtesy of Matt Hert

Matt Hert at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
Ar 170719938
Courtesy of Matt Hert

Matt Hert at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Matt Hert has the timing of a stand-up comedian. As he tells me about driving in Ireland, he pantomimes shifting and steering beautifully, makes flawless engine noises, and punctuates his story with pauses so elegant that I find myself leaning into his story. He had me laughing hard enough that I was distracting a table nearby. I tell his story here, in his own words.

When I was 15, my dad taught me how to drive a manual [transmission], and then he sold that car and I didn’t do it again until my wife and I went to Ireland. It went ... OK [laughs]. We rented a car and in preparation, I drove my father-in-law’s truck for a day. It’s one of those old trucks that, even if the clutch doesn’t hit quite right, it sort of meanders through it anyway. Not the case with the Ford Focus we rented at the Dublin airport. If you didn’t feather the clutch just exactly like it wants you to, it just stops. It’s this very tight, frustrating little car.

So my wife and I are in the parking lot – they call it a car park there – and we get in and get our stuff all situated and we’re excited because we’ve never had a car in a foreign country and so we’re excited for the freedom to not take so many extra hours waiting for and taking public transportation. I start the car up – and remember, this is a right-hand drive car – and put it in gear and kuh-kunk [makes a clunking, dead engine sound]. There are people all around us, watching me – kuh-kunk. I’m still in the lot of the rental car place where the guy at the counter specifically asked me, “You can handle a manual, right?” And of course, I was like, “Yeah, I got it. It’s fine.” Kuh-kunk.

I get it going, and I’m so relieved. My wife asked me if we needed to take the car back and get an automatic, and I did the dude thing – brushed it off. “No, I got this. I got this.” She probably had more comments as the day went on, but I was too busy [grips wheel tightly]. We’re going, and it’s fine. Except that we have to stop at a gate. “Oh no.” So we’re at the gate, and I’m feeling a little more confident. I can do this. The gate opens. Kah-kunk. I don’t understand. I thought we had this figured out. This is ridiculous. Five minutes later, I figure out that the parking brake is on. So that’s good. I pull the stupid little lever down, and we actually get going.

Then we get to our first roundabout – and it’s one of the bigger ones that has a stoplight. I still have not figured out how to feather this clutch. I can’t decide if I need more gas, or if I need less gas, if I should let off the clutch faster or slower. We’re at this roundabout with the light and we’re stopped – for two full lights. Two full green lights of kuh-kunk, kuh-kunk. [rubs face with both hands as though stressed] Start, stop, start, stop. And I’m sure we’re gonna die.

When I got out onto the highway, it was fine. It was a blast, actually. But then we get into the first town where we’d planned to stay, Kilkenny, and the streets are narrow and packed. So we go to park and I’m better at not stalling it, but the streets are so narrow that they’re terrifying, and so I’m driving really slow. Everyone’s waiting at this light – there’re lines at both ends – and it takes me 30 seconds to get from a stop to a go because I’m trying so hard to not stall it – and the lights are short, so it takes me pretty much half the light to get through, and the people behind me are honking and yelling. So I’m stressed and shaking.

We get out of the car and I said to my wife, “Can we get a beer?” and she said, “It’s like noon. I thought we’d go for a walk or something.” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m shaking, and I need something to calm me down, so I either need a beer or a cigarette, or I’m not going to have a good day.” My wife asks me if I’m OK. “No, I’m not OK. I’ve never been this stressed out before!”

In hindsight, the people were pretty nice about it – very Irish about it. I looked in the rear view mirror a couple of times when I’d stall the car and, at first, the driver behind me would lift their hands up, appalled, but then they’d sort of get resigned to it. I could see the look on their face as they thought to themselves, “Well, I bet this kid just sucks at driving. Oh well.” By the third day of driving, I was happier. By the end of the trip, I thought, “You know, I should get a manual. This is more fun!”

Cyle Talley drives a manual. And it is more fun. Email him at: cyle@cyletalley.com