Tuesday, September 20, 2005

No, actually, the right side of the road is the RIGHT side of the road

I don't like to make sweeping generalizations about other people's cultures, but I've decided this one deserves a broad brush stroke.

Driving on the left is insane.

I realize I lack any sort of actual evidence or justification for saying so, but I don't care. It's borderline psychopathic.

Or maybe I'm the nut, the one who spaced out a little today test-riding a bike and executed a neat swoop into oncoming traffic. Oops. Luckily, most people here are used to inept international students, so the bikes swerved around me and the car ahead slowed down long enough for me to u-turn hastily. My husband helped by yelling, "Wrong way! You're on the wrong side!" as if the sudden apparition of headlights hadn't signaled a judgment error.

To his credit, he was also polite enough to tell the stricken bike shop owner that we really were fresh off the plane -- and, I assume, to promise that we'd pay for the bike should it become embedded in the bonnet of a Volkswagen.

Seriously, biking around here requires serious skill, attention, and a healthy dose of "to hell with it"-ness. Picture narrow, 10th-century roads now overrun with double-decker buses, top-heavy lorries and cars going at least several times the speed of sound. Add in even narrower, 10th-century sidewalks which frequently overflow with pedestrians, who unexpectedly step into the three-inch strip of bike lane. It isn't the pedestrian's fault; more often than not, he or she is being forced into bike-and-car traffic by someone coming the other way, as medieval Brits apparently failed to foresee the wisdom of walkways where people could pass shoulder-to-shoulder.

Consequently, one would assume, helmets and bike lights would be the rule of the road. However, this is not the case. The far more interesting reality was ascertained in a random sample conducted by my statistician husband and I as we staggered the length of town with new room supplies protruding ominously from plastic bags. By our calculations, approximately 10-20 percent of cyclists wear helmets, and perhaps 60 percent use lights. The bike shop clerk actually seemed pleasantly surprised when I asked if he sold helmets. Of course, people here also ride in anything: miniskirts, or long, flapping trenchcoats, or stiletto-heeled boots. I've seen Yorkshire terriers balancing on bike baskets, grannies slinging plastic bags of groceries over their handlebars, and more than a few students riding what looked like buckets of spare parts stuck together with twine. I'm not sure why there aren't hundreds of bikers lying dead in the streets, what with the swerving to avoid cars, pedestrians, dogs, stray chip vans, and a motley assortment of trash bags, but it defies reality.

We've also learned why 1 of 3 Camford students loses their bicycle to thieves. Yes, there are bike robber barons roaming the worn brick streets, but it probably has more to do with a very simple fact: no one knows how to use a lock. In general, bikes are locked in one of three ways: to themselves, freestanding on the street; to a finger's-wide railing, with only the frame secured; or not at all. Most people seem quite content to leave their bikes on the sidewalks with the locks coiled around the seatposts, then can't understand why they disappear. If I were a morally ambivalent person, I'd probably have amassed a collection of dozens of cycles by now -- I could walk down the street and scoop them up by the armload. It's hilarious, but a little disturbing, as this is the Mother Country for many of us and thereby should be a beacon of logic and wisdom. Makes me glad I'm just a Guinness-fed Irishman.

So, I realize I'm going to look ridiculous on my beater road bike with a helmet, two LED lights, a hefty lock and reflective clothing -- but somehow I think I prefer "dork" to "curiously squishy thing on the windshield."


Anonymous said...

Hello my love,
Kweb told me about this latest post, so glad you and Bryan have arrived safely. Please be careful driving that bike of yours.

Meg said...

Hey there! I know I should know who you are...but, erm...someone from THP?

Never fear. I'll be careful! There are way too many crazy cars and pedestrians out there, so the blue streak (my bike) is reserved for long, empty backroad riding!