Spots of Time

March 11, 2003

From the Left, To the Left

Skippy and I were lost. We’d only been driving for an hour, but it was clear that I had somehow missed the M5 toll way that would take me to the Kangaroo Valley. Each of my five maps (two tourist, two Avis, and one purchased) was somehow incomplete. Either they covered an area too large, or one too specific, or a different city altogether. I’m not sure why Avis thought a map of Canberra would be useful to me in Sydney.
The first time I stopped to ask for directions, I was accosted by an elderly Italian-Australian woman. She seemed harmless enough, standing in the doorway of her garage, talking on her cordless phone. But, while trying to provide me with directions to the M5, she repeatedly hit me in the chest. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who would slap you lightly on the chest, every five words, for emphasis? Even though she seemed to know what she was talking about, my mind was so focused on her emphatic “taps” that I thanked her and left without having heard a word she said.

I was near tears when I decided to go back toward my starting point, hoping that I had somehow missed the sign in my excitement of driving, for the first time, on the left-side of the road. I say the “left side” and not the “wrong side” because in Australia – like Great Britain – driving on the left side of the road was completely normal. To me, however, it was like going to a theme park on and getting in one of the cars that loop around a pre-existing track. Except here, there was no middle bar to keep you safely on the road.

One hour later, back to almost exactly where I had started, I left again. “The first hour was practice,” I said to myself. I had determined that my issues finding the M5 stemmed from not having bonded with my car, a white Holden Commodore. This is how my car came to be christened “Skippy.” I named him after the Australian Kangaroo mascot. I figured it was appropriate. A Holden and Skippy the Kangaroo are as Australian as you can get – and in my experience, both of them were all over the place – seeming to have no personal sense of direction.

Confident that my problems were behind me, Skippy and I continued our journey to Kangaroo Valley, a dairy valley getaway that was about two and a half hours outside of Sydney. I’d given up on the M5 at this point and decided that I’d take the back roads. I was in no rush. I’d given the B&B a wide “tentative” arrival time – sometime between 12 noon and 3 p.m. I was sure I could make it. Besides, I was beginning to think the M5 was the equivalent of the high school “elevator pass” – an initiation joke the resident upper class played on the newbie freshmen for a good laugh.

At first, I was completely paranoid that everyone else on the road was looking at me - that everything I did screamed “Yank Driver On The Left Side Of The Road For The First Time – Wide Berth Needed!” But, after 30 more minutes on the road without incident, I started to relax. I even managed to look out the window at the passing landscape. I realized I had missed driving.

After a while, I decided to turn on the radio. I hadn’t up to this point because I wanted to concentrate on driving. Over the course of the past week, I’d had two separate nightmares about driving on the wrong side of the road and they had made me understandably nervous. However, driving on the left was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. It was surprisingly easy to become accustomed to lane positioning, and in the city, with cars all around me, I just went with the flow. Turning was a little bit of an issue, but an American friend of mine studying in Sydney had told me his secret was just to remember “from the left, to the left.” This became my driving mantra – at first aloud, and then silently. When I finally turned on the radio and heard Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” playing, I figured it was smooth sailing.

And, it was, for the most part. Using the rear view mirror was a bit of an issue at first – it seemed very awkward to look left instead of right. I solved that problem by not looking back and just using my side mirrors to maneuver. This worked for me until I happened to look back and notice the long line of cars behind me. I was in the right lane – the “slow” lane – and had been going at least 5-10 km below the speed limit. I figured better safe then sorry. All of a sudden I noticed a sign that read, “Keep to left unless passing.” This is when it dawned on me that the “slow” lane in Australia was actually the left lane. I quickly turned on my blinker, to indicate my intent, when the windshield wiper began to work. It was not raining. It took me a minute to realize that the blinker was to the right of the steering wheel, not the left. I indicated, properly this time, and moved over.

It started to rain at about the same time that I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. I’d been in the car for nearly four hours and was hesitant to stop until I reached my destination. The light rain soon turned into a full on downpour. Lucky for me, at this point, I knew EXACTLY where the windshield wipers were located.

Skippy and I made it to the B&B without incident. And, I had a lovely weekend. The drive home was considerably faster and less dramatic – by now driving on the left side of the road was old hat. That is, until I got to the parking garage at my apartment. Somewhere between the Kangaroo Valley and Sydney, I thought I didn’t need my mantra of “from the left to the left” anymore. I pulled into the garage and stopped, wondering why the path wasn’t clear for me to enter. I got out of the car, thinking I would ask the attendant to move the sign, when the woman in the lane next to me said, “What do you think you are doing?” It was then I realized I had pulled into the wrong side of the garage. “From the left to the left.” I sheepishly got back into my car and moved into the proper lane. I’m guessing I should keep the mantra handy for a little while longer.