Just when I think I’m starting to feel a bit more settled, yet another opportunity to unwittingly baffle, confuse and/or piss off a Brit presents itself. This usually occurs when I’m driving, but it can happen when I’m just walking down the street. Seriously, if I’m not concentrating, my first thought when faced with oncoming pedestrians–stay to the right–can get me tangled up in a stroller or nose to nose with a chap in a plaid hat.
On the most recent occasion, I was simply trying to be a courteous driver. As I was weaving along one of the skinny streets in our village, I saw a woman waiting to cross the road to her car, so I slowed down to a stop and waved her across. Nice thing to do, right? Right up until I accidentally threatened to run her over.
Let me explain.
I wish I could say that my motive was purely humanitarian, but truth be told I was also quite interested in taking a break from all the swerving. My elbows were starting to hurt. Driving in the village is a bit like boarding an endless Washington State ferry, except that there is no guy in a reflective parka waving you down the appropriate lane. There are also cars parked randomly on both sides of the road facing whichever direction they like. There appears to be some sense of order, with the cars staggered appropriately as to allow for a vehicle to pass between them at a 45 degree angle. But, with most driveways approximately the size of a picnic blanket, you can imagine that anyone with a potted plant or a friend over will add to the number of cars clogging up the street.
Not only are you expected to avoid these obstacles without a scratch, you are also required to abide by the rules of yielding to oncoming traffic, apparently designed to make this annoying fact of village life more tolerable. Until I locate an official copy of said rules, I’m going with these tidbits I’ve gathered whilst alternating between stopped and 30 mph as fast as possible: Keep one hand on the gear shift at all times. No smiling. Accelerate into and out of the swerves. Lean forward and look like you are on your way to the hospital, obviously in labor.
I have found many things to take forever in England, from buying a stamp to getting food at McDonalds, but there are two things that the British definitely do faster than Americans–make a cup of tea and drive. With their 240 volt electric kettles, you can boil a thermos full of water in less than a minute. Coupled with the finest grind of tea ever to grace the inside of a tea bag, it usually takes longer to select your mug than it does to brew the tea.
Due to the fact that driving falls into one of these highly selective endeavors, your eyes need to be constantly scanning the road ahead with your foot poised to switch pedals in record time. You must calculate precisely whether you should pull over to let the lorry (truck) pass first, or speed up, then stop after you swerve around the Fiat Punto (a rediculously popular supermini car). The timing is key, an improper pause or lackluster acceleration will earn you sideways glances and/or outright head waggling from drivers and pedestrians alike. Even if they don’t own a car, all Brits seem to know that driving is an art celebrated by any true patriot.
I can’t even imagine trying to talk on a cell phone or eat a burger while driving in this country (not that I did either in the states, we’re just discussing the realm of possibilities here). Even trying to have a conversation with a passenger can often pose a threat to your safety. I attempted to eat a few crisps (potato chips) on my way home from the store yesterday, but between swerving and shifting I ended up with more crisp bits on my lap and around the gearshift than in my mouth.
But I digress, back to the pedestrian crossing incident.
She smiled and stepped off the curb. We were both pleased with the whole symbiotic situation until she passed the midway point in the street. That’s when the trouble started. I unconsciously assumed that she was heading around the back of the car to get to the driver’s side, and wanting to keep up my end of the bargain with the aforementioned rules, started to engage the clutch. However immediately it registered that I was making a grave error, it was not fast enough.
You may assume it would be obvious to someone currently sitting behind the wheel of a right hand drive automobile that she would be opening the door on the street side to get into her vehicle, but four months of being in England hasn’t overridden the 20+ years of driving experience I have. As she reached to pull on her door handle, she heard the engine rev and looked up with wide eyes. The look on her face turned from fear to a bit of a glare as I hit the brakes and I could see her contemplating whether I was completely mad (crazy) or simply messing with her. Either way, I was clearly not getting the friendly wave at the end of this encounter.
I grew up in a small town, so I know how it goes. I’m doomed to be discussed at the local newsstand or church function over a stiff breath mint. You should see the way she drives… Paranoid, you say? Maybe, but since everyone I meet says, “oh, you’re the American”, I think not. The best one I’ve heard is that we are in the witness protection program. Well, they have to talk about somebody, maybe it’ll give the French a break.
But for the record, I was just trying to be nice.