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What did putting the wrong fuel in my car teach me about mistakes?

Living abroad is a scary thing, especially when you’ve never done it before and it’s all shiny and new. And lets be real, you’ll probably make many, many mistakes. 

one of my first mistakes while living abroad was a pretty big one. I put diesel in a petrol (unleaded for you Americans) engine. Let me share with you my tale of woe… 

(Disclaimer: I’m still a little raw about this so if it reads like a tragedy, a kin to Titanic, you are welcome).

I'm in love with my car

After days of scrolling through though cars, and cars, (and clothes) and cars, we finally found and bought the perfect little car for me – a blue VW Golf, pretty low mileage, 2017 and only just over budget. Perfect. 

I’d been driving it for 2 days with the widest grin on my face, reveling in the joy of being able to take myself somewhere without relying on someone else. It took me back to those glorious first few days after passing my driving test when I’d go to the garden centre and buy as many house plants as I bloody well could. No adults to tell me I didn’t have any more floor space. (What? That isn’t what angsty teenagers do when they get their first car? I guess it’s just me then…) 

I had been engulfed by a kind of existential euphoria at being able to go from A to B. I’m telling you, living out of a hotel room for a 2 weeks does crazy things to you.

I thought I knew what to do

We were on our way to drop off the rental car, David had gone on ahead as I needed to refill my car. I checked with him where to go, how to pay, our zip code, where we were going after this, his blood type, how to get home, my birthday, the meaning of life, the age, weight and name of of my car. (It’s called Elderberry). So I was pretty thorough and sure I wouldn’t make any mistakes. Little did I know…

I did not know what to do

Already slightly nervous, I drove up to the pump.  Low and behold, I was on the wrong side for my fuel cap. That’s OK I tell myself, already starting to panic for no reason, you can just go to the other side. Once I had debated this for 5 minutes, everyone else filling up had left so I was free from their judgemental eyes.  Shaking off this inital mistake, I pulled forward and backed up into the spot on the other side.

I got out, put in my card and the zip code as advised by David. No mistakes so far. Then I pressed diesel and put in the nozzle. Except it wouldn’t go all the way in. 

WHAT THE HELL?? WHY WONT YOU WORK AMERICA? Was the first thought which ran through my brain.

I was just some stupid Brit who couldn’t even put the fuel nozzel in my car.

When will the job hunt end

Help was what I neded. I looked around in case there was a friendly face who I could muster up the courage to ask. Not a soul to be seen.

Maybe I should call David? But he was driving and I should be able to fill up my car on my own. It can’t be this difficult… Maybe the nozzle isn’t supposed to go in and this was just how it worked in America.

This was my first time getting petrol/gas in America so I had literally no idea what it was supposed to look like or that different nozzles are different sizes. If I wasn’t so stressed and if I had been thinking clearly, I might have realised this clearly wasn’t right. Buuuut I was stressed. And I wasn’t thinking straight. So I just went for it. YOLO. 

(If I had a penny/nickel for every time YOLO got me into a crisis…. Let’s just say Empress Ellen would not simply be a nickname).

The scene of the crime

So I pulled the lever for fuel. Fuel came out.  Nothing crazy happened and it didn’t go everywhere. 


I looked around, reluctant to continue. I must have seemed like a normally well behaved kid about to steal some sweets – nervous and scared out of my wits. Nothing alarming happened when I pulled the lever again. Surely it would be pretty obvious if I had made any mistakes with this.

So I filled it up. Paid and headed off on my merry way. 

For about five minutes.


For a few minutes I was moving along nicely, congratulating myself on my accomplishment of the day (it’s all about the small victories people). But I soon realised my car was making weird spluttery noises and getting slower and slower and slooooower….

I had to stop. But WHERE? I was going over a bridge, about to go on the highway, in the far lane. Basically, I made my peace with the fact that this is where it all ends and my car was about to explode. 

It did not explode and somehow I navigated past the crazy Maryland drivers, (who should not be allowed to drive by the way) and safely pulled over on to the side of the road to a chorus of horns ringing in my ears. (What do you want me to do??? Break down in the middle of the road??) I then started wondering if I’d made yet another of my many mistakes and pulled over correctly. I questioned whether I could actually stop here and if everything worked differently in America. But then I remembered that I’d seen multiple cars pulled up on the side of the road already who ahd all made various mistakes leaving their cars in varying states of ruin. (Again, they should not be allowed to drive). 

Once I’d stopped, I pulled over and broke the news to David who quickly sorted out the breakdown recovery for me, where the car needed to go and basically saved me. I’m gonna say this one time and one time only, David you’re my hero. 

I've made a terrible mistake and it's all over

The car was dropped off at a garage and we were told we would find out whether it could be salvaged the following week. If I’ve learnt anything over the last few months, nothing comes quickly or easily.  

However in the time I spent waiting, I did a very good job of convincing myself that no, I am not capable of living abroad, being an adult, or tying my own shoelaces. All I do is make terible mistakes and maybe I should just go home, get some Velcro shoes and sit in a box labelled failure. 

I felt awful and so guilty, especially as we’d only just bought the car. I was not consoled by being told that lots of people made the same mistake, as I could not bare the fact that I was now one of these ridiculous people.
(Quick feminist side note: Despite what I was being told, IT IS NOT JUST WOMEN WHO DO THIS OK. My father, who was a very successful naval fighter pilot, did this to my mother’s car).

I've been saved

However, despite all evidence to suggest I had slaughtered my own baby (car), it had been saved by the magical people at the VW dealership. I now firmly believe they are the angels who heard my prayers. 

And after just a few days (and an eye watering bill), my beautiful Elderberry was driving along perfectly once again. There was no sign I had ever made such a huge mistake. While I had convinced myself that everything had been ruined, it had all been fixed. 

I had been saved. While it wasn’t perfect and we could have done without this pretty big and expensive mistake, everything had worked out ok.

The moral of the story is:

I will mess up and make mistakes, but that’s ok. As long as I learn from them. 

Like I said at the start, living abroad is hard and it’s scary and you will make many, many mistakes. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to have some absolutely amazing experiences, challenge yourself and your resilience (mine needs some work…) and to learn. 


    • Become more aware 
    • Accept that I am new to all of this and I will have stupid questions to ask 
    • Ask those stupid questions
    • If I make a mistake that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything
    • Bad days dont define me
    • And most importantly, my car does not run on diesel…
my having just moved abroad


  1. Kathleen Kiehn Kathleen Kiehn

    Hi, I also made this mistake but in the opposite direction. I put regular gas in my diesel car. I was all stressed out at the time going through a divorce. No excuse about not knowing the system at the pups. So it happens to the best of us. Take Care. Kathee

    • Ellen Ellen

      Oh no! On top of everything that must have been so stressful.
      It really does happen to the best of us… we’ve just got to try not to do it again!!

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