|What might have been. (That's NOT us.)|
When people who have never been outside the U.S. ask me where they should go as an introduction to international travel, I always suggest England. The common language, familiarity with British history and highly recognizable landmarks like Big Ben, the Tower Bridge and the queen's ever-present purse make it fairly easy to acclimate to their culture. Then they ask about the driving. Yes, that whole driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road thing does take some getting used to. But you also have to be careful what kind of rental car you're getting.
My first time to Europe was a trip with Ann to France and England in 1996 for our first anniversary. After a few days in Paris - sans auto - we made our way to London. First stop: the car rental counter at Heathrow Airport. Like the good travelers we are, we had already made our rental car reservation well in advance. But in an effort to save a few pence, and since it was just the two of us, we reserved a compact car. We approached the rental agent - a good-natured young Brit - and handed him our reservation. Without a word, he gave us the once-over; looking at our two oversize suitcases, two carry-ons and my substantial six-foot three-inch frame. Moving his gaze back to the reservation and spotting the word "compact", a wry smile came across his face. Still looking at the paper, and with a chuckle in his Monty Python-esque voice, he said, "Oh, one of THOSE."
Much the way clothing sizes vary from country to country, a "compact" car in the U.K. isn't what you know as a "compact" car in America. If you attached a telescoping handle to the front bumper of a British compact, it would make a perfectly suitable carry-on and fit quite nicely in the overhead compartment. The rental agent immediately realized there was no way I was going to fit into the four-cylinder Samsonite, much less all our luggage, and was nice enough to give us an upgrade.
Our first vehicular tragedy averted, it was time to tackle the left-side driving... with a manual transmission! Oh great. Not only do I have to sit on the right side of the car, drive on the left side of the road and navigate the crowded, narrow, unfamiliar streets of London, but I have to do it with the gear shift in my left hand. Sheesh! Why didn't they just give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice in it? OK, it wasn't that bad. Ultimately, we got the hang of it and soon were enjoying the freedom of being able to travel around southern England at our own pace. That's probably the best part of having your own transportation; not being beholden to train schedules, not having to tip a cabbie, not having to walk to the nearest public transit station. Just get in the car and go.
And go we did. Across the nearly-deserted country roads of the Salisbury plain where Stonehenge appeared on the horizon like a rocky mirage. To Anne Hathaway's house (that's Shakespeare's squeeze, not the Hollywood actress) in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon where William may have found inspiration for his love stories. And to Dover on the southeast coast, where we stumbled upon the unexpected gem of Dover Castle, on our way to view the magnificent white cliffs. You never know what you'll find when you're able to get yourself off the beaten path driving through a new land. Just don't get yourself stuck with "one of THOSE."
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