My turn? I thought. Do we all agree about whose turn it is?
In her experience, yes. In mine, not always.
If you haven’t been to Cornwall, though, you need some background. The roads are narrow enough that in places cars going in opposite directions share a single lane. And it’s a narrow lane. So two drivers will sometimes end up radiator to radiator and have to wrestle with one of life’s deep philosophical questions: Who backs up?
I learned to drive in the U.S of get-out-of-my-way A., and my early experience of British driving destabilized me deeply. Forget about driving on the wrong side of the road. Forget about the steering wheel being hidden on the right-hand side of the car, where I kept forgetting to look for it. Forget the narrow roads, even. They were nothing. What threw me was the courtesy drivers showed each other. I’d see two lanes of traffic merging into one and they’d slot into each other as neatly as the sides of a zipper, with no one jockeying for position. Or I’d see some poor soul stuck in a side road, waiting to cross a lane of traffic, and someone would stop and let her or him across.
Now, that is mind-scramblingly amazing. And impressive. It takes the competitive sport of driving and turns it into a cooperative enterprise.
Back in Minnesota, long before I’d been destabilized by British driving, I got so pissed off at a driver who wouldn’t let me in when two lanes were merging that I allowed his car to slice open my wheel well rather than back down. I was holding out for that zipper arrangement and he was holding out for a him-first arrangement. And in case I’m in danger of sounding noble here, the one-from-each-lane arrangement favored me as surely as the him-first arrangement favored him. But he was driving what I remember as a very large a pickup and I was driving a VW beetle. If his pickup was even scratched, I couldn’t see it. Interestingly enough, neither of us stopped and neither of us reported an incident. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to explain my part in it to anyone, least of all my insurance company.
The papers here carry the occasional road rage story, and people are duly horrified. And people I know have met some true nutburgers on the roads (as, come to think of it, have I), but all that, I think, is outweighed by the cooperation.
On the other hand, yeah, it’s still the real world, isn’t it? It’s never all sunshine and light. Mr. Slice-my-wheel-well-open has relatives on this side of the water. Where a bit of road has a sign giving priority to oncoming traffic, they ignore it. Where they’re closer to a wide spot, they still want the other driver to back up. Where an oncoming car’s already in a narrow stretch, they enter it—not because they just came around a corner and didn’t have time to react but because they own the world and the rest of us had damn well better make way. So although I’m usually happy to back up, it becomes a point of honor not to. I had a standoff here as well, but it’s a longish tale, and I’ll write about it another time.
Other people I know feel the same way. H. told me a tale about doing refusing to back down in Camelford—a narrow town with serious traffic and two spots that pinch two-directional traffic to a single lane. She turned off the engine, turned up the radio, and made herself comfortable. When T. got into a standoff, he unfolded the newspaper on his steering wheel and poured a cup of tea from the thermos he’d had the foresight to bring along. Mr. Slice’s cousin must’ve been mad enough to chew his steering wheel and spit the pieces.
Note: I’ve been writing madly since I started this blog, and posting twice a week. It’s been great and all that, but Wild Thing reminds me that there’s an entire world outside this house and away from the computer screen. Which is kind of funny, since I remember times when it’s taken two cats, one dog, and a small, fierce person to detach her from her own screen. But in the interest of sanity, and of seeing what’s left of the sun before winter snatches it away, I’m going to post once a week for a while. I’m not sure how long “a while” is, but least in theory I’ll post on Fridays.