How hard can it be?
Today, Lauren and I are driving from London to Cambridge. This will be our first time driving on the left side of the road, but how hard can it be? In fact, as a southpaw, I might even find it more natural than driving on the right. We've spoken to some American friends of ours who have driven in the UK before, and they advise that, whenever we make a right turn, we should both loudly say "Wide right turns," to make sure we don't end up driving into oncoming traffic. Other than that, they are sure we'll find it easy.
Admittedly, there's one thing we haven't mentioned to them. We are renting a manual transmission, and the only experience we have driving stick was a single weekend some five years ago in New Jersey. And that weekend was made less stressful by the fact that my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Gerry had lent us a car that they were going to get rid of a few days later. If we happened to destroy their auto, insurance would cover everything, and save them the hassle of dealing with a buyer. Still, we managed to get through the weekend with the automobile entirely intact.
I am therefore brimming with confidence when we arrive at EasyCar and sign out our vehicle. Before we take it out on the road, I figure I'll need a minute or two to remember how to drive stick. So, I take 'er for a few laps around the parking lot.
Or, actually, one lap.
Well, actually, I get 'er out of the parking space. Bit by lurching bit.
This whole gearshifting thing is much harder than I remember it, and the car seems determined to stall out every few moments. I don't remember having this problem back in New Jersey; maybe it's because I've forgotten most of what Uncle Gerry taught me about driving stick, but I prefer to think it's because cars need gasoline to function properly, and this British car has been filled with petrol instead.
Eventually, I make it out of the parking space, and I begin to develop a feel for the car. I soon find myself going ten, even twenty feet without a stall. Within less than half an hour, I am making loops around the lot, and only stalling out on every other corner. Having reached that Mario-Andretti-like pinnacle of expertise, I deem myself worthy to head out on the road. As we signal left and begin to merge into traffic, Lauren seems oddly tense. I can't imagine why, but I am too focused on pushing the right pedal at the right time to ask her about it.
We make it to the first traffic light without incident. As we both chant "Wide right turns," I manage to turn onto the correct lane of Kensington High Street. I'm doing pretty well, in fact, for another 10 yards, at which point the car stalls as I try to make a tight left turn. I frantically pump petals, and manage to get the car going again. And then I'm fine for another 20 yards or so, at which point, I crash the car.
Really, it's just a mild crash--there's nothing more to it than shattering the passenger side mirror on a parked car. Still, I deem it best to pull over and consult with Lauren.
We sit there for a moment, calming ourselves. Then I get out and check the car whose mirror I have just crashed my own into. Miraculously, it is unharmed, and so all Lauren and I have to discuss is whether it makes sense to drive for another two hours, given that I have already shattered part of the car in the first ten minutes. On the one hand, I've only shattered a small part of it, and there's plenty of car left. On the other hand, I don't want to die. So I am happy to agree with Lauren that we should return the car to EasyCar and call it a day.
The problem is, English road layout being what it is, retracing your steps is often easier said than done. I manage to get back onto Kensington High Street, but I can't make the left turn I want to, and I end up turning onto a dead end. A narrow dead end, I might add; I can't just make a U-turn. I soon realize that driving a manual transmission on the wrong side of the road really wasn't that hard--at least, not when compared to driving a manual transmission on the wrong side of the road, backwards. After considerable stalling, I have the car turned around, and it's only a small matter of fifteen minutes of additional terror before we are back in the sweet, blissful safety of the EasyCar parking lot.
As I hand the keys to the attendant, he sees my shamefaced look, and says, "Don't worry. This happens all the time."
That's the best news I've had all day. I brighten. "Really?"
Unable to lie outright to a face full of such hope, he bites his lip. "Well... no."