Galway, Ireland. I tried taking my taxi driver’s advice, and booked my rental car through the internet in order to avoid being screwed at the Budget counter. (The cab driver used a more colorful Irish or English word for the act, but although the meaning was clear, his enunciation wasn’t.) I had to check in through the counter anyway, and the price managed to jump from a reasonable 40 euros for two and a half days to over 250 euros, and when I asked about the difference the thief behind the counter said it was for the fuel that will be returned to me when I bring the car back full. Over 200 euros to fill up a car no bigger than a giant’s fingernail? I’ll try to work it out when I bring the car back, probably unsuccessfully, or 3 weeks later when my anger reaches its pitch.
I have been to Ireland several times before, and have driven here, but the last time was about 25 years ago when the kids were little and annoyingly disinterested in castles. (I guess I should have been more compassionate with the notion that when you have no history of your own it’s difficult to be interested in the history of others, but I wasn’t.) I confess that I took the wheel with more than a little apprehension, given that my own mental state has deteriorated since the cancer treatment, and I feared that with age my coordination and reaction time had as well. Nevertheless, with a touch of the Brooklyn chutzpah that occasionally surfaces when needed and an opportunity to save five euros, I opted for a stick shift, making the challenge of driving on the left just a bit more alluring.
My wife, beside me in the left seat (which made no sense at all), had no control over what was happening to her, so was understandably more terrified than I was as we watched cars incomprehensibly barreling right toward us before vanishing in a whoosh that should by all rights have ended in a collision. She kindly kept repeating, softly but urgently, firmly and gently, the word “left,” which was at once reassuring and annoying. The word “left” became simultaneously an injunction and a prayer, and while my wife was saying it out loud, I was repeating it subvocally to myself.
The thing I most want to tell you, and the whole reason for this post from abroad, is that it has been thrilling to drive on the left side of the road. First, entirely unexpectedly, it feels a lot like flying. I haven’t flown since I grounded myself due to the effects of my cancer treatment, and I have been curious about what my hopefully eventual return to flying will feel like. Now I suspect it will feel much like driving a 5-speed peppy Ibiza on the “wrong” side of the road.
The first thing that is awkward is the fact that the stick is in your left hand, and not on the right. For a right-handed person—as most people are, that itself is a bit of a challenge. But when flying from the left seat, as most pilots do, the stick or yoke that controls both the pitch and the roll (the elevator and the ailerons) are continually operated with the left hand, while the right hand usually hovers somewhat lazily over the throttle, or throughout most of cruise flight, in the lap. Right-handed pilots quickly train their brain to “steer” with their left hands, but it isn’t natural.
Almost immediately after realizing that pushing on the steering wheel doesn’t actually shift gears for you, it is important to remember that the third pedal somewhere down there on the floor isn’t a rudder. But driving with a clutch requires the use of both feet, refreshingly similar to flying an airplane. After a few attempts at coordinating a turn in an Ibiza with a clutch pedal, it doesn’t take long to learn that it just won’t work that well, and in a car the human foot has a distinctly different purpose.
But the most important thing about driving on the left side of the road is the most ineffable. It is, I suppose, partly the thrill of mastery—simply doing something different and getting to the place where the awkward becomes mundane. Accomplishment unto itself (“because it is there,” says Mallory) is sweet. But it is considerably more than that. I imagine—although I know nothing about it, that it’s like playing the piano. I tried it more than a few times, and I have yet to get to the stage in which the left hand manages to coordinate with the right, but it must be wonderful when it happens.
There is also the feeling that, having successfully returned home after a day driving through the countryside in a mirrored reality, one has gotten away with a minor crime. Those of us who have spent countless hours in darkrooms know the frustration of accidentally printing a negative that has been flipped to the wrong side, but in Ireland the wrong side is the right side, and as most hormonal adolescents can tell you, that can feel really good.
I should add, simply for the sake of justice, that I no longer have the slightest interest in castles. Been there, done that, and they’re too damn drafty. But getting there, now that can be a blast.