Sharon and I did the calculations and were surprised to find this was our fifth trip to England, and the third time I would be driving. So what could go wrong?
The flight over was routine and long — made briefer by the fact that both Sharon and I were carrying new iPads. I had my own, and she was carrying Derek’s, which we were delivering to him. I had loaded some simple games before we left, and Sharon quickly learned how to play Angry Birds. I had also purchased Scrabble for my own iPad, and we played several games. I don’t remember who won, which means I probably didn’t.
Once we arrived, our first stop was Enterprise rental, where they took our money and showed us to our Peugeot van, which had the steering wheel in the wrong side of the car — as do all cars in England.
We thought about renting a GPS unit, but at 10 pounds day, it seemed too costly for 14 days, and we would have had to return the unit to Gatwick Airport (which is south of London) when we were planning on returning the car to Heathrow Airport (which is northwest of London and closer to Derek and Helen’s home) and relying on the Tube during our three days in London. Because only crazy people want to drive in London.
I had to spend some time familiarizing myself with the car. It was a stick shift, which meant shifting with the left hand. The well where my feet went was small, which made it easy to miss the clutch and hit the brake — never a good move on congested streets. The car had six forward speeds and I couldn’t find reverse without some help. And you just need a few minutes to psychologically prepare yourself to drive on the left side of the road after a lifetime of doing it the other way around.
Then we were off, and it went OK at first. For one thing, you hit the motorway right out of the airport — wide lanes and traffic all moving in the same direction. If you just focus on keeping that lane line next to the driver’s side of the car, things aren’t too bad.
But you can’t stay on the motorway forever. Sooner or later you have the face the reality of negotiating English roundabouts (which bear little relation to the simple roundabouts in the USA), and for us, that happened less than an hour into our road trip.
The single biggest problem I have driving in the UK is not being on the left it is the narrow lanes and the difficulty of judging where the left side of the car is in relation to the curb. It’s just so easy, no matter how much attention you are paying, to drift to the left rub your tyres on the curb.
And in our first tricky roundabout, I did more than that.
Trying to follow the unfamiliar road signs and make a complete turn, I drove the front tyre on the passenger side into the curb and flattened it.
Here we were less than an hour into a trip, and I was pulled into a “lay by” trying to change a tyre in a French-made car. I couldn’t figure out how to release the spare from the underside of the car and the jack looked like an object designed by aliens.
We were hungry, in a foreign country, stranded and stressed. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We did have a number for the AA however (the UK’s answer to Triple A) and a kindly truck driver let us borrow his “mobile” to make the call.
After about half an hour, the AA showed up and a very young nice man (I sound old, don’t I?) was able to release the tyre, make the change, and direct us to a nearby tyre station (Kwik Fit) where they replaced our flattened tyre with a brand new one, returned the spare to the bottom of the car, and sent us on our way.
While they made the repair, we took a short walk down a quaint street to the local fish and chips restaurant and ate our first meal in England. It was tasty. We’d made our first memory.
Then we were on our way and hunting for hotel. But that’s another blog.