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December 7, 2021 · OPINION

Stops Along the Way: The shortest distance – Part I

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By Don Bachmann

In his play A Zoo Story, Edward Albee states, “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” I believe that quote is applicable to the story I am about to tell.

Many … many years ago, I was on a business trip to London. And, after my work was completed, I decided to do some sightseeing – starting with a trip up to Scotland. I suppose I could have signed up for a bus tour, but somehow that seemed too passive. Instead, I took a more active approach; I chose to rent a car and experience the countryside between London and Edinburgh firsthand.

The concierge recommended a nearby car rental company in London’s city center. A veteran cabbie negotiated the trip there and, having identified me as an American, he offered me advice on how to drive in the city. I was appreciative; it was to be my first time driving in London.

He cautioned, “Now, first thing you Yanks need to keep in mind is we drive on the left side of the roadway. Second thing is we use roundabouts to keep traffic moving.

I inquired, “What’s a roundabout?”

He explained, “It’s sort of a spinning wheel that turns you around in a circle until you decide to jump off. It’s really quite simple.” He continued his instructions for the entire 20-minute trip to the car rental facility.

Once there, a rental associate worked up my contract. And, when completed, the associate took me to my rental car, which was located down one level in the parking garage. He performed the obligatory walk around, provided a brief orientation, and then offered initial instructions on leaving the city.

He smiled at me, “Actually, it’s all rather simple.”

And, while pointing out two steep ramps on opposite sides of the large parking garage, he said, “That one is the entrance from a parallel street; you don’t want that one. That’s the one you want. It exits onto a different street that will take you to the roundabout which in turn will take you to the A1 motorway.”

He pressed on, “One must shoot up the ramp – stop at the top – turn left – travel one-quarter kilometer – merge right into the roundabout – go around the circle – move into the left queue – and then take the indicated A-1 North exit.

“It’s really quite simple.”

I thought, “OK, how tough could it be?”

I was to find out.

I got behind the wheel, familiarized myself with the controls, and put the car into first gear. It made a grinding sound – my stick shift skills were a bit rusty. But, under the concerned gaze of the rental associate, I crawled up the slope without stalling the engine.

I sat at the top of the ramp with my feet jockeying between the clutch and the accelerator searching for a traffic break in the continuous parade of cars. After a couple of false starts, I entered the heavy traffic flow.

As I dodged cars, I looked for the roundabout; it was on me in a heartbeat. I merged into the clockwise spinning wheel, and avoided the mandatory first exit by immediately forcing my vehicle over three lanes into the inside ring.

I went completely around the circle once looking for the A-1 North exit. I found it on my second time around. On the third time around, I made my calculations. And, on my fourth time around, I tried to cross the three lanes at just the right time to gain the exit.

I failed.

With horns blaring and angry shouts directed at me, I got into the far-left lane – one exit too late. I missed the A1 turn-off and, now being pinned in by unyielding drivers, I was forced to take the wrong exit.

It was one of the more traumatic experiences of my life.

Now, one might suppose that this failure would have deterred me, but you would be mistaken. I drove one-quarter of a kilometer, turned left, went down a ramp and arrived back at the rental car garage.

I went upstairs – back to the rental associate and confessed my difficulties. I offered a solution and asked, “Would you be so kind as to have one of your valets simply lead me to the proper exit with me following directly behind?”

He smiled understandably and obliged.

This time I was ready.

We were like two Ferrari drivers waiting to take the green flag at the start of the race. I rolled down my window, checked my mirrors, and signaled OK to the valet. We both gunned our engines in anticipation. When the moment came, he burst out onto the track with me right behind. And, when we entered the roundabout, we jumped the necessary two lanes and missed the mandatory first exit.

As we zoomed around the traffic circle, adrenalin surged within me; I shouted out a hearty, “Yahoo!”

And, in response, a nearby car angrily honked its horn, and its driver shouted back, “Bloody Yank … learn how to drive!”

I ignored his protestations and drove on.

We successfully negotiated the full circle, dodging cars in our way, and shot onto the A-1 with nary a bone of contention. In my mind, an imaginary checkered flag confirmed our victory. It was a glorious moment; but, as time passed, the moment faded – faded, but not completely forgotten.

I was reminded of that long-ago moment just the other day. I was in Culpeper driving to a friend’s home, when I was almost blind-sided by a car entering into my lane inside the traffic circle. Obviously, it was driven by someone unfamiliar with the rules of circular driving.

And, at that very moment, my mind jumped back in time, and I involuntarily exclaimed, “Bloody Yank … learn how to drive!”

The columnist lives near Orlean.
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