I drive in London.
Now that sounds like a simple enough statement. But you would not believe how many ex-pats are shocked that I do so. And probably for good reason.
My husband and I moved to London two months ago. He had been offered a temporary job and we both felt like this was a chance of a lifetime, living abroad for a year or two. We came to London not sure if we would need a car. Were we accustomed to jumping in the car and going wherever we want? Were we accustomed to being in control of the times we want to be somewhere, or for that matter, be late somewhere? Well, yes, we were. So, what made us think London would be any different, aside from the fact that almost to a person, we were advised not to get a car, as the public transportation in London was terrific?
So, we did without a car…for about 3 days. Long enough to realize that it was better to confront driving on the left hand side of the road (with a right hand steering wheel) than dealing with a sudden tube strike, a bus strike, exorbitant taxi rates or god forbid, blisters.
My very first foray into driving on the left side of the road occurred about 4 months ago, thirty minutes after I had deplaned from a transatlantic flight. My mother and I had come to the UK for a twofold purpose. 1.) travel to Bath, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight (where she hoped to meet Queen Victoria’s two illegitimate sons, whom she was convinced were still alive…do the math, Mom.) and 2.) end up in London whereupon we were meeting my husband and we were house hunting for a flat.
Even though I had used my trusty MapQuest for directions to Bath from Gatwick, and was assured that it was only two hours and 128 miles or so, I also reserved a portable GPS, (NavSat for you Brits). I loved and trusted and possibly would have married (had it been legal) my GPS in the USA. It had gotten me safely through San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston while driving our 35-foot diesel motor home and towing a Ford Explorer.
So, at 9 in the morning, after a rather uncomfortable, sleepless flight, and a rather uncomfortable, long and grueling check-in at the rental car counter, I slipped behind the wheel of a sleek, black two-door sports car. What?? This is not what we had ordered. Did I mention my mother is 94, a remarkable 94, but nevertheless 94. I return to the counter, asked for a four-door, and we are off to Bath. Well, in a manner of speaking.
My mother was the navigator. (I told you…a remarkable 94). We had a five-year-old Michelin UK/ Ireland map as well as verbal instructions from the clerk at the rental car counter on how exactly to get out of the airport. We were ready to start our adventure. I also had my trusty rented GPS which amazingly, much to my delight, incarnated as Sean Connery.
And as we left the rental car parking lot, Sean’s first instructions were perfection personified with a Scottish accent to die for,
“Turn right”, rrrrolled off his lips in rrrripples. Whatever you say, Sean.
We found our way out of the airport terminal and were headed to Bath. My mantra began and continues to this day: “Left side, Susie, left side!”
I was quite proud of myself. The motorway was totally different than inner city streets. We were zoom, zooming along. It didn’t take me long to figure out that in addition to everything else ‘left’ in the UK, the slow lane was also on the left. It merely took a few cars angrily flashing their lights, a couple of honks, and a few uncalled for, I thought, hand signals and I knew my place.
My mother, silly girl, insisted that we were going the wrong way. I wisely advised her that Sean was telling us to “veer left” for the M4. Mother, being her usual stubborn self, said in an infuriatingly calm manner,
“Susie, the highway sign plainly says, M4 is to the right.”
“Mother”, I replied in a most uncalm, frenzied, nerve-wracked manner, (consistent with first time ever, left hand drivers),
“Sean is plainly saying, “veer to the LEFT.” My voice possibly rising.
And Sean wouldn’t lie to me. I just know he wouldn’t. Damn, I had paid good money for Sean and he was going to perform!
Alas, he didn’t. Sean had failed me.
I think my first clue, other than my navigator’s constant insistence that we were going in the wrong direction, was a sign that said, “London, 20 miles ahead.” I, being a rocket scientist, understood this to mean that more than likely, we were traveling towards London. And, as I recalled, we recently had just left London and were definitely not wanting to return. Obviously, Sean was not a rocket scientist. (but who the hell cares with legs like that??)
So, we take our first exit and stopped at a pub for a pint…. er, for directions. Big mistake. I also learn that not only do they drive on the left side of the road, they speak only using the left side of their mouth. We told the nice pub owner that we were somewhat turned around and could he help us find our way to Bath?
“You want to go where??”
You could tell from his tone that we were not just somewhat turned around but mightily turned around.
He drew us a map. And what a map it was. The twists and turns, the signposts, the markers, the boulders, the “old hanging tree”, and we were to follow this? Mother appeared to understand it much better than I. Damn. I guess they were right. I was now forced to listen to my mother.
We arrived in Bath around 3 in the afternoon. Our two-hour trip to Bath became a 6-hour random tour of the countryside, and I might add…England is lovely! The one lane paths through over hanging trees and between overgrown hedgerows was eye opening.
Arriving in Bath was the easy part. I said we arrived in Bath, as in arriving in the ‘city limits’. I didn’t say we found the hotel or found the ‘car park’ for the hotel, which fortunately, was in the same county, if not in the same neighborhood. As we exited the car, mother held up various brambles and hedgerow leavings that she had pulled out of the car door on her side, the USA side.
“Susie, perhaps you’d like to put these in water and give them to the hotel receptionist?”
Bath was worth every wrong turn we took. We had a fabulous time. And Sean? What became of Sean?
Alas, I had to divorce him. And he is probably right now giving some other woman wrong directions. GPS’s! …can’t live with them, can’t live without them.