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February 18, 2011

It only took five months, but I’ve finally nailed driving in the UK. Mind you, I’ve been driving since I was 13… that’s 50 years, and still, I was intimidated by the thought of driving here in Wales. Let me explain…

People in the UK drive on the “other” side of the road.

People in the UK have the steering wheel in what I call the passenger seat.

People in the UK shift gears with their left hand.

People in the UK drive on roads that seem two feet wide.

People in the UK drive on roads and lanes that aren’t lit at night.

People in the UK are used to HUGE trucks (lorries) coming at them in the opposite direction that don’t move over causing the People in the UK to swerve to the edge of the road and throw their passenger into the bushes, scratch the car, ruin the tires and then inch slowly back into the traffic ahead calming their racing heartbeat all at once.

I am now, proudly, a People in the UK.

When we first moved to Wales, we bought a small, very old, very used car – a 1995 Toyota Corolla. The price was right – about $700US. It was the perfect vehicle for me to learn in. I wouldn’t have to worry about all the branches and leaves that would embed themselves into the paint on the passenger side. I wouldn’t have to worry about the side mirrors that would fall off as I scraped by cars parked on the left side of the road. The transmission had lasted this long, it would survive my frantic searches for the right gear. It had been a long time since I drove my 1974 Ferrari and my lack of expertise showed!

All I wanted was a sticker for the back of the car: “Yank driving. Please be patient.” But couldn’t find one.

A gift from my daughter, Cashley, after she read this post!
I started slowly. Paul would sit nervously on the passenger side (originally known as the driver’s side) and I inched my way through the lanes, over the hills, towards my friends Malcolm and Pat’s house. Those two miles seemed an eternity. Why? Because of the oncoming traffic. Even in the little lanes, edged by high hedges, cars would come barreling toward me, and yep, Paul would end up in the bushes.

There’s an art to driving in the lanes. When faced with a car or van coming in the opposite direction (not to mention school busses or trucks, err, lorries) one of you has to move over. This is a very polite dance of manners as one driver or the other decides who has the best opportunity to pull aside. It usually means backing up into someone’s driveway or a small pocket of road, and allowing the other vehicle to pass. A flurry of hand waving and thank you’s follow, and both continue on their merry way. Finding reverse was my only problem.

Once the lanes were mastered, I ventured into our local town, Usk. That meant turning onto roads that had traffic. I became paralyzed again. Paul grimaced and closed his eyes. I charged forward, or rather, rocked forward, maiming first gear. But the lovely People in the UK, manners at the forefront, waved me through the traffic and I made it!

Next – Abergavenny. Roundabouts. Horrors! When Katie and I went to France a few years ago we encountered roundabouts. The good news was that we were driving on the side of the road that we were used to. But reading the signage, in French, and figuring out which exit off the roundabout we were to take often meant driving around, and around, and around, until we could make a decision.

There’s a technique to driving the roundabouts here in the UK. It’s called closing your eyes and praying!  There I was, driving clockwise, switching lanes, finding my exit, signaling as best I could without the windshield wipers flapping in front of my eyes because I couldn’t find the right lever to pull. Not too many cars were left in the dust. Maybe a few angry words were politely muttered, but we all made it.

Next? I had to pull all the elements together and drive into Cardiff.

I prepared for my trip to Cardiff for days. I had the maps, the location, a sense of where I had to go. Even the sat-nav (GPS here in the UK) was on standby. I got into town, dropped Paul off, and sat in the parking lot prepared to put the information into the little box that speaks English with a British accent. But the maps were missing. Not in the back seat. Not in the trunk (boot), not under the seat.  I’d left them at home!!! I was stuck. Lost. And the only thing I remembered about where BBC Wales was, was that it was near the Cathedral.

I made wrong turns. I headed out of town. I was hopelessly lost. I asked for directions. He pointed me towards France. I whizzed past Cardiff Castle. I waved at the majestic Norman Ruin. It laughed — at the crazy Yank and her attempt to navigate the town.

The good news? I was so concerned about finding my destination that I forgot all about driving on the “other” side of the road. I forgot about the roundabouts. I forgot about the busses lumbering toward me. I only scraped one parked car. Remembering the words of my golf pro, Valerie, who said, “Don’t think. Just do.” I did. And I got there!

Full of confidence, I even got to my favorite Chinese restaurant after the meeting. And then on to the library. I picked Paul up at the bridge club. I was on my way!

I’ve now driven at night. Down dark roads, over narrow lanes, through big cities — well, kind of big. The transmission is still intact. The car chugs on. Paul may be in the bushes every now and then, but aren’t all husbands?

So, watch out, People in the UK. This Yank isn’t just coming and wearing a red coat. She’s arrived!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 2:40 pm

    Love it! Congrats, girl. You’ ll know you have finally ‘arrived’ when you come back to the States and complain that we drive on the wrong side of the road.

  2. Sal Davis permalink
    February 18, 2011 3:26 pm

    Oh congratulations! I didn’t learn to drive until I was over 40 and I STILL haven’t driven round Cardiff. As far as I’m concerned that’s what trains are for! I’m very impressed at your bravery.

    I’ll drive anywhere on country roads, though, and if I want to enthrall visitors from the US I take them to Hay on Wye via Llanthony and the Gospel Pass. The exclamations they make as we top the pass and the whole of Herefordshire, lush and gorgeous, is laid out before us is well worth the scratches on my paint work.

    • Malcolm permalink
      February 18, 2011 4:32 pm

      Understand about the driving and very proud of you. But nothing new about Paul and the BUSH

  3. February 19, 2011 12:42 pm

    Well done Jann, I am so proud of you. You are much braver than me!!

  4. Peggy & Shane permalink
    February 21, 2011 4:25 pm

    Another great read! When I see your email I save them until I have the time to read them through, (maybe with a cup of tea) and then print them off for Shane to enjoy. We can just picture Paul sitting beside you enjoying the drive! 🙂 So enjoy hearing from you and living through your experiences. Take care! Cheers!

  5. March 1, 2011 3:31 am

    I love this Jann! Everytime one of my friends takes up residence in a foreign land I always encourage them to write about it; the stories are so fun and universal for any of us who love the thrill of being the total “foreigner.” I really wish you could make your own bumper sticker that says “Yank Driving – Keep Back.” This is all very entertaining – I intend to read more!

  6. Sharon permalink
    March 6, 2011 2:44 pm

    You are much braver than I. Glad you are adjusting to life over the pond.

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