So, this whole driving on the wrong side of the road thing: where was I? Oh yes, the Devon country roads so narrow and twisting they could have been a Tea Party policy seminar, with ten-foot high hedgerows crowding in on either side. The likelihood of instant death seemed as high to me as if I was a motorized courier in the Somme trenches, where artillery shells (or, in this case, an oncoming car) could randomly drop in on my position and thoroughly ruin my day.
Now the last thing I wanted was the shame of receiving an innocent question from my three-year-old in the back like: “Daddy, why do you drive so slow and Mummy drives so fast?” So I focused on my task, reminded myself that I’d seen far worse as a UN Peacekeeper in Syria, and made it successfully to the motorway.
The motorway is just like a freeway, only faster and the cars drive on the wrong side. I figured the motorway lane rules were the same as at home: slower cars stick to the outside lanes, faster cars stick to the inside lanes. With three lanes this worked really well: the heavy trucks (or lorries) rumbling along on the far left interspersed with newbie drivers, old drivers and gutless cars pulling camping trailers; the middle lane held the general flow of traffic trying to get by the slowpokes; and the third, inside lane was reserved for the speed demons. Confident in my new, spacious road surroundings, I was cruising along in the middle lane with the lame and the weak to my left and the suicidal zipping past me on the right. Sometimes there were empty lanes on either side of me, but since I was maintaining a constant speed I knew that pretty soon I’d be passing more wheezers in the slow lane. All very North American – just mirror-imaged because we were, as I mentioned, driving on the wrong side of the road.
But then it all fell apart. I’m alone in my lane, no cars on either side of me, and I see Mr. BMW fast approaching behind me. No worries: I expect him to slide over to the speedster lane on my right and flash past me. No. He screeches up on my tail and flashes his lights at me. I think to myself, what’s his problem? He finally hauls to my left (yes, into the slow lane) thunders past me and then retakes my lane up ahead. Indignation all round.
I protest my innocence, noting that I kept my speed constant throughout and there was a clear overtaking lane on my right. My English born and raised wife then speaks to me as one speaks to a particularly dim-witted child. There was a clear lane to my left, she explains, so I should have moved over to get out of his way. But there was an empty passing lane to my right! He should have moved. No darling, you should have moved. But he’s overtaking and I’m the stand-on vessel – I have right of way! (I was a naval officer for 15 years, I know these things.) Sigh; no darling, in England we move out of the way of faster cars. Well, that’s stupid!
Having ably defended my stance and distinguished myself in cultural sensibility, I sulked for the next 20 miles. But in the silence I reflected on the labyrinthine Devon country roads where I’d cut my English driving teeth, and realized that those winding paths were much more a part of English driving than these new-fangled motorways. It was unreasonable of me to expect such dynamic, thrill-seeking drivers to stay in one lane at one speed for mile after mile: they needed to move. As other fast cars zipped down the motorway, I watched as they would overtake in the fast lane, slide back into my lane for seven seconds or so, cut back to the fast lane to overtake the car they could see the entire time, cut back into my lane for another five seconds, and so on. It was a restlessness that needed to be expressed, a fundamental urge to dodge and weave. It was a high-speed ballet that worked beautifully, except when dumb-ass foreigners like me didn’t play by the rules.
Slowly I learned, and within days I was hauling left and right through motorway traffic. On the country roads I was tailgating and flashing timid, slow foreigners until they finally pulled over so I could roar past them. As I manoeuvred down one single lane hairpin turn that dipped into a gully between the hedgerows, I slowed down to 55 mph (yes, the legal limit on American freeways) because things were “a little tight”. I didn’t break any traffic laws, and I came to appreciate the unspoken rules of the road.
In other words, I became an English driver. And I learned that cultural differences aren’t always found in art or food, but if you try hard enough, you can come to understand a foreign perspective that may seem absurd at first glance but in fact makes perfect sense. That, in my opinion, is truly seeing the world.
Motorway courtesy of Wikimedia