Life  |  Travel

The wrong side of the road

Posted on August 7, 2015

I was introduced to my adversary, a tiny white hatchback car, in a nondescript parking lot in front of a bland-looking low-rise office building. It would have been the most unremarkable, non-threatening encounter ever, had the parking lot not been in Ireland and the office building not an outpost of a car rental company. But, as it happened, I was about to rent the car for four days, which meant that I was also about to drive on the opposite side of the road for the first time. The car, with an overall style that edged more towards adorable than aggressive, suddenly seemed like the most menacing thing I had encountered in a long time.

Driving in Ireland hadn’t been part of the original plan. I was headed there for a friend’s wedding and had therefore spent more time worrying about how to pack a formal dress and all required accessories into a carry-on suitcase than about the transportation situation. I had neglected to give more than a cursory glance at the hotel’s position on a map; I had assumed that it would be close to the town and that a robust network of buses would make getting around a non-issue.

A couple of days before flying out, I found myself sitting in front of my computer with Google maps and the Irish bus company’s website open, rapidly realizing my mistake. The hotel was in the countryside. There was, apparently, one bus that passed by, but it did so once a week, and only once a day at that. And so, in a moment of ill-advised false bravado (“Of course I can handle it! I’m sure it’s not actually that difficult.”), I booked a car. Manual transmission, because apparently I like to add insult to injury. Prepaid and non-refundable, which meant that a few days later, when I confidently pulled open what my brain insisted was the driver’s side door and instead was confronted by an expanse of smooth, steering-wheel-free dashboard, I couldn’t back out and opt for transport exclusively by taxi, which would have been the sensible thing to do.

I spent a solid ten minutes sitting in the car in the parking lot, trying to get used to the feeling of the gearshift under my left hand and frantically trying to visualize which side of the street I should point the car towards when I pulled onto the main road. When I finally edged my way out of the parking lot (slowly, so slowly), my hands were slippery with sweat, sliding over the steering wheel as I promptly directed the car towards oncoming traffic then jerked it back towards the other side, fumbling for the gearshift with my right – but in this case, wrong – hand and feeling it butt up against the door handle instead.

The GPS started to bark out unintelligible directions. A roundabout was looming immediately ahead of me, and there was honking – persistent, exasperated honking – from somewhere behind me. I circled the roundabout six, seven, eight times, increasingly confused, not sure where to exit, when to exit, how to exit, before taking a deep breath, selecting an exit at random and, clutch down, exactly like every driving instructor will tell you not to do, swerving out of the roundabout, around a corner, into a parking lot and to a shuddering, dramatic stop. At some point, I had managed to turn on the windshield wipers, which were now screeching back and forth across the perfectly dry glass.

I began to consider how appropriate it would be to approach a stranger and convince them to deliver the car and I back to the rental office (“I’m sorry, but there seems to be a problem with this car. The steering wheel is on the wrong side”). I contemplated whether the all-inclusive, zero-deductible insurance that I had opted into, the one that would free me from having to worry about paying for scrapes and dings, happened to cover roadside abandonment. I cried. And then I turned the car back on, got back onto the road, and proceeded towards the hotel at a speed that made a tractor look fast, praying that the rental company’s sticker on the rear window would somehow explain my situation to the convoy of cars accumulating behind me.

The next morning, I fetched my adversary from the hotel parking lot (despite wanting to leave it there, permanently, pretending it didn’t exist) and pointed it at a pre-wedding event an hour away; twice that time if you program the GPS to choose only the back roads, which I did, operating on the misguided theory that the country roads would be the tranquil and easy option. The thing about the roads in Ireland, though, is that they are ridiculously narrow, incredibly curvy, and have a speed limit so high that a tiny twisting ribbon of a road zig-zagging its way through a hilly landscape allows you to travel at the same speed as a wide, straight highway in Canada. It would be disconcerting enough to drive it on the right side of the road – wild hedges encroaching on the asphalt, tractors pulling out of hidden driveways, and the most massive trucks imaginable flinging themselves around corners, covering the centre line and inspiring pure terror as they approach – but doing all of this on the opposite side while trying to shift gears and not sideswipe trees (I was surprised to discover that I suddenly lacked the ability to position the car properly on the road) was madness.

The brain, though, is shockingly capable of adapting to new situations in moments of necessity, particularly when a healthy dose of survival instinct is thrown in. By the end of the second day, I was able to look at the car without feeling the beginnings of a panic attack. At some point on the third day, in which I drove an hour and a half just to see the Atlantic ocean (and then another hour and a half back again), I realized that I had relaxed to the point where I was no longer white-knuckling the steering wheel and had stopped reaching for a phantom gearshift with my right hand every time I needed to change gears. The next day, I drove several other wedding guests to and from the ceremony, putting on a convincing charade of being calm and confident even when the GPS stopped working and rain started lashing down around us.

By the time I dropped the car off at the rental office on the last day, I was mentally planning a series of road trips throughout Ireland, Scotland, and England (in which I handle all the driving), and confidently assuring the woman behind the rental desk that everything had been fine – great, actually – no problems at all.

Later, one of the wedding guests, who had been in a car directly behind me on the way to the rental office, approached me with an incredulous, almost awestruck look on his face: “You should have seen just how close you came to sideswiping that parked truck!”

Perhaps the brain does not adapt so fast after all. Perhaps I should stick to driving in countries where the steering wheel is on the right side of the car.

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