There I was in Islington, England, in 2004 BR (Before Rodent), my first time in the UK.
I had chosen Islington on the whim of it being Tony Blair’s as well as Sir Walter Ralegh’s sometimes home. My trip’s purpose was to visit sites I was writing about for a play about Shakespeare the woman.
After a brief night’s hotel sleep in Islington, I was down in the lobby awaiting a rental car to drive from London up north to Salisbury where I’d arranged a three-week stay in a B&B. The 2 ½-hour drive ended up taking 5 ½ hours—-and I was WAY alert the entire time.
The rental car deliverer handed me the key to a 5-speed Vauxhall, showed me where to put the key in the ignition and said: “You’re driving to Salisbury . . . and you’ve never driven on the left side of the road . . . seated on the right side of the car?” Exit a head-shaking rental guy.
Since the taxicabs behind me had begun blinking their headlights and honking, I did a quick seatbelt buckling, found the windshield wipers switch (it was raining, of course), headlights switch, heater switch, clutch, brake and gas pedals—-but not the gear shift lever. AH . . . on my left, of course! So I shifted up and left as the diagram showed for first gear, goosed the gas, and the car died (I later found out I’d shifted into third gear).
More big black taxicabs entered the little roundabout and piled up behind me. To get out to the street, the only way was to squeeze to the left. So I did, fully expecting a collision and arrest. Then I remembered The Rule: ALWAYS DRIVE ON THE LEFT.
Now I was at a traffic light with no car to follow and imitate. And I’d been told to turn right. Rolling down my window, I said to the poor man about to walk in front of me: “When the light turns green, can I turn right?” (I had too much pride to add: “Even though all the cars in those lanes are FACING ME!!?” He looked at the signs and said, “Yes, there are no signs prohibiting a right turn,” and walked past me as the light turned green. All I wanted was my mommy. Despite being dead, she encouraged me to proceed . . . perhaps so that I could more quickly join her.
The only way to avoid all those cars facing me on the right was to go beyond them nearly onto the pavement across the street—-which I did. I then was in the far left lane and at another light . . . again with no one to follow.
The car died again as I started up in third gear. Cars passed me (on the right) in frustration. A white van got ahead of me, and I followed its every move through central London (and several red lights) to Lewisham, where I lost it.
I’d gotten used to the strange first gear, but then became aware that I’d gone through Lewisham twice, so I stopped at a 7-11 kind of place for directions. A couple of men stood at a tall table drinking coffee.
“Does either of you gentlemen know how I can get to Salisbury?” I said.
“SAWLSBREE?” said the neatly dressed older man.
“No, Salisbury . . . spelled S A L I S B U R Y.”
“Right, Sawlsbree. I used to live there, but couldn’t tell you how to get there.”
“No problem,” said a much younger, work-uniformed man. “First take EYE TOY—-”
I had expected motorway letters and numbers, not body parts. So I pointed to my eye, and said, “EYE?”
He said, “No, no: EYE, EYE!”
“You mean “H”?” I asked.
“No, EYE!” he said.
“The first letter of the alphabet,” interrupted the other man.
“Oh! . . . ‘A’!!” I said.
“Yes, EYE TOY to M25 . . .” and the young man wrote very good directions on the back of my business card.
Then I asked where the loo was and thanked them.
On the way out I remembered not being able to get the car into reverse, so I stopped another man waiting to buy a bottle of soda.
He met me at my car and watched my futile efforts to shift up and to the left. We traded places, he fiddled around, then said, “Pull the shifter’s collar down, then do as you did.” Sure enough, it worked.
I then followed folks leaving the place (at the left exit) and aimed for EYE TOY.
I got lost several times and asked for directions, but at last, at nightfall and in vigorous rain, I was on the M1 motorway from London to Salisbury.
I hugged the left lane with huge lorries, and prayed, as cars speeded past in the right lanes. Lorries passed other lorries (on the right of course) and I continued to pray. At one point I thought my panic would overcome me, but I couldn’t imagine negotiating a stop on the side of the motorway. Then I noticed right in front of me a lorry with “NORFOLK” printed on the back. I knew it was Norfolk, England, but took it as a sign of hope representing my home in Norfolk, VA.
Nothing could break my optimism after that. I arrived safely at the B&B several hours later and had a marvelous three weeks in England.
I also racked up £200 in parking fines.