Archive for July, 2005
Hello again from London.
Just a quick note to let everybody know we’re a-okay. In fact, as the news has probably reported by now, pretty much everybody in London is doing fine. Sounds like the city got lucky, the terrorists got stupid, or some happy combination of both.
I tried to post a note yesterday afternoon, but a funny thing happened: police stopped two buses out front of this very Starbucks! They then proceeded to evacuate the street of all pedestrians. What fun!
Several of the patrons kept a wary watch of the events over their lattes. I saw things differently. Falling back on the journalistic instincts I have honed as the newspaper sponsor at Colegio FDR, I knew that I might soon witness history. Full of new purpose, I closed my laptop, went out into the street, and bravely fled the scene. (Do not keep tabs on this blog for breaking news. This is purely for “innocents abroad” material).
As it turns out, there was nothing to report anyway. The city is rightly on edge, so if anyone forgets their umbrella in a Taxi, the police cordon off a two-block radius.
So, our trip continues pretty much normally. I’ll leave this at the top for anyone kind enough to check in on us, but if you want to track the rest of our time here, new posts will appear below. (And thanks to those who sent emails, posted comments, or tried to call).
When Tom and Kathie Wilkinson told us that, on the Welsh border, there was a “town of books,” we knew we had no choice but to go. For a town of 1,200 people, there are 39 book stores. We liked those odds.
What we did not realize was that once you get lost in the English countryside, you might as well buy a house, because you’re not getting back any time soon.
Luckily, though, we did make it (there and back!). And, though short, the trip was well worth it. Once I had overcome the pure, disorienting horror of 50-mile-an-hour on-coming traffic passing within three inches of my right side, I even had a moment to enjoy the gorgeous country that we passed through. This moment was immediately followed by my running up on to the curb (on the *#!$ing left-hand side). Anyway, you can check out my impressions of driving in England (and a little in Wales) below.
Hay itself is a quaint little tourist-infested town. The neat thing, though, is most of the tourists are themselves British. So you feel sort of like a local tourist. Weird.
Well, books were bought, and sights were seen. More soon.
In Britain, people drive on the left side of the road. It’s one of those things that you always know, but never really absorb. Everything’s backward, steering wheel on wrong side, etc–easy stuff to remember. I did not, however, expect the constant hum of small and terrifying details that conspired to create my most stressful driving experience since the heady days of the Region IV Driver’s Education Program. Here are some highlights:
You have to shift gears with your left hand.
Every time you try to shift gears, you *will* grab the door handle.
When backing up, you will look over your right shoulder. Your right arm, reaching for the passenger seat head-rest, will hit the driver’s-side window. On turning your head, you will be rewarded with an extreme close-up of the seat-belt mechanism.
Every time you look into a passing car, you will see a calmly relaxed passenger sitting next to–MY GOD!! The driver’s seat is empty!!! For just a second.
You must pass 18-wheelers on the right.
There is, literally, a ton of car to your immediate left. This amount of car is useful for clipping rear-view mirrors, frightening pedestrians, and leaving tire-tracks on curbs.
Pro tip: always exit the car with something in your hand–a magazine, satchel, or whatever. When you return to your car after gassing up or buying your sunflower seeds, you will accidently open the passenger side door. As soon as you get over the shock of realizing that one of those damnable football hooligans has nicked your steering wheel, casually toss whatever you were carrying onto the passenger seat. Then cross over to the right side of the car, and drive away as normal. Feel free to whistle tunelessly, if you feel it will help to carry the moment.
I have received one piece of advice on driving in Britain: “do what the signs tell you.” I trust it because it came from a London cabby, and, as he was alive, I recognized him as among the greatest wheel-men in the world.
In practice, unfortunately, I found Her Majesty’s Royal Highway Signs to be either bafflingly abstract or, worse, bafflingly clear.
In the former category, is the pan-British campaign against blue circles. I’m not sure if it’s political, environmental, or what, but every few miles, we came across a blue circle with a red slash throuch it. Apparently, some areas stand doubly against blue circlism, as their signs had a red X. Once, right before a roundabout in Gloucestershire, I saw a tolerance group had thrown up the same blue-circle-with-red-X above a white square reading: “Zone Ends.” It brought a tear to my eye.
Kirsten thinks the sign tells you that you are not allowed to park, though why a no-parking zone woud end in a traffic circle, I have no idea.
Warning signs are easy to spot, as they are simple red-bordered triangles around a single exclamation point. The exact translation of this sign is, I believe, “shit!“. Beneath such signs, usually follows an explanation of what the Highways Agency was so worked up about. These explanations fall into the second category of road signs.
One, which stands as the most egregious use of ellipsis that I have every come across, warned the following: “On-coming vehicles in middle of road.” Oh, the possibilities for that missing verb! “Are,” “will be,” “might be,” “should at all costs avoid being.” In our case, it turned out to be “…are not present, and you may drive…”–a great relief to all.
Occasionally, the British use their signs to exercise their famously dry wit. While hurtling down a one-lane road that someone had satirically divided into a two-lane highway, I spotted one of the ominous exclamation points. “!,” it said. And then went on to explain that the road was narrowing (ho ho!), the speed limit was increasing from 30 to 50 miles per hour, and that there was a “blind peak 150 yard.” I assume the speed increase was designed to help you jump over any traffic cresting the hill in the other direction.
But, of course, nothing comes close to the pure surreal oddity of the mobile warning signs.
In the end, we survived, as did all of the drivers and pedestrians I almost hit.
We’ve tubed, towered, scoured the Brick Lane market for unlocked cell phones, and suffered the ugly end of a brutal exchange rate. Much more of an update is due, but right now Kirsten is alone with le kid while I happily tip-tap in the air-conditioned comfort of a Starbucks. So, I leave with the first of what will undoubtedly be a bazillion pictures.
Our Texas vacation culminates in Riley’s first trip on the open water. Donning her sun-hat and delicious plastic redfish, Riley took to the waves like a true fishergirl. She did throw up a couple of times, but that is pretty much normal, and not attributable to seasickness. Also, check out pictures of me on the boat, looking as comfortable as a bear on a unicycle.