The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


Driving is not compatible with me. I failed the practical test. Eventually I was granted a license, but not entirely in a manner that would work in countries with a lower corruption index. Nevertheless, I make a serious effort to avoid menacing the population with my driving skills.

Not having a car in my immediate vicinity, my grandparents sometimes allowed me to drive their sacred Peugeut 205, which was about fifteen years old at the time. Nobody else was ever permitted to drive this miracle of the “West”; it was obtained through borderline legal methods from Austria a few years before the fall of the Communism. The car was great. The mechanical components reached a point in their life cycle when I no longer had to use the clutch to change gears, saving me a fair deal of work while driving. I navigated the car through treacherous roads in the country once or twice a year without major accidents, earning me a reputation of being an excellent driver by my grandmother. Then one fine foggy day, with a splendid hangover and a fresh breakup fighting one another in my head, a dead cow manifested itself on my projected trajectory, and I duly ran over the carcass. I have not driven this marvel of French engineering ever since.

Go-karts in Singapore

The only four-wheelers I drove in Asia.

Leaving the country excused me from driving for a couple of years. Living in Singapore means no driving: only the über-rich drive, plus a couple of enterprising souls who make a sport of maxing out their credit cards. Not that there is anywhere to go in Singapore by car. There was one exception when there was a discount for students to learn go-karting. They taught us all sorts of cool stuff like how to overtake our opponents and then keep our position. I overwrote the advise with false mathematical calculations and always managed to finish last, no matter what.

An Ambassador parking in the shade

I did not live the Indian dream.

When I was working in India, I briefly mooted the idea of buying an Ambassador and live the Indian dream, but I did not stay there long enough to make it worth fighting through the bureaucracy.

Rental car with no number plate

Our car in Alaska did not have a number plate. Its unique identifier was the pattern of deceased mosquitoes on the bumper.

I spent a blissful seven years without driving anything that had at least four wheels, with the exception of the go-kart. I even managed two visits to the States without driving. Then, on my third visit, I could no longer avoid it. I had to give a talk at a conference in Alaska, then I met up a friend and we rented a vehicle for a road trip up to the wild, unspoilt north. The car did not have a number plate for some weird Alaskan reason. My driving license had expired the year before, so the rental agreement permitted only my buddy to drive. Alaskan roads, however, are pretty endless, so when my friend started to doze off, I offered to take over the driving duties. There is nothing like the pleasure of driving a car without a number plate and with an expired license. My skills of staying on the road in the correct lane were so outrageously bad that my friend could tolerate me driving for about fifteen minutes, and took the wheel back with a much reinvigorated brain.

A 4WD in a small river

Off-road driving in Iceland with a sufficiently large vehicle is fine, as long as there are no sheep around to be accidentally overrun.

A former classmate of mine fell in love with Iceland and decided to open a 4WD rental agency in Reykjavík; what else could a half-mathematician do? Knowing that I was geographically independent, he invited me to help launching the business, which involved much driving. I was dying to see Iceland, and ignored the warning bells inside my head that were saying something about suicide and skewered motorists. We procured two gigantic 4WDs, rented out one, and used the other one to go around Iceland. I did not have to care about lanes, ditches, pedestrians, or other cars, as none of these annoying things existed in the country. I could also be quite arbitrary in my usage pattern of the gear shift, as the car was so big it could take anything. Ever since I am craving to buy a tank, preferably a solar-powered one.

A holiday rental car in Barbados

A Barbadian wonder car.

The holiday season found me unprepared in Barbados, as I had nothing booked when I landed. I could not find a vacant room, but a friendly surfer from Texas offered to split his twin room which he was renting alone. I gladly took the offer. He rented a car the same evening, and could not start the engine the following morning. ‘Let me try it, miracles do happen’, so I said, having zero faith in myself. It was an automatic car and, as a good European, I had no clue how to start such a beast. The gear shift was decorated with letters that did not make any sense: N, D, L, 2? This could have been the control panel of a washing machine. I had faint recollections that if I pressed one of the pedals, held my breath, put the gear shift to one of the letters, and turned the key, the engine might start. So I chose a pedal at random, also a nonsensical letter, held my breath, and turned the key, and voilà, the engine roared up. This left my surfer friend puzzled, and I decided not to share the heuristic algorithm that lead me to the success.

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