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Doug Lewandowski column: 'Round and 'round in Europe

My knowledge deficit of British driving ways and navigating roundabouts was complicated by having to drive the vehicle on the right side.

Doug Lewandowski
Doug Lewandowski

Before COVID-19 put the kibosh on travel outside of the United States, I was fortunate to spend some time in Europe. Getting around there is relatively easy once you get used to navigating the rail services.

But there are some locations where renting a car is a must if you want to explore off the beaten path, especially in the United Kingdom. There are a lot of things to learn about driving in the U.K. besides driving on the left side of the road.

On a first trip to London, after landing at Gatwick Airport, I tried to familiarize myself with light switches, windshield wiper levers and radio and window controls in our Peugeot rental. Unfortunately, before I could even drive away, I had flashing hazard lights, windshield wiper blades zipping back and forth on the front windscreen, and a loud “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” on the radio, all at the same time.

Then there are the roundabouts.

My knowledge deficit of British driving ways and navigating these merry-go-rounds was complicated by also having to drive the vehicle on the right side. I have always enjoyed driving vehicles with a manual transmission; rowing through the gears can be fun.

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But driving in the British Isles requires a whole new level of concentration when trying to get through a town with roads narrower than my alley. With a driver on the right side and the gear pattern the opposite of what you learned as a kid, it’s a steep learning curve.

My first experience of entry into a roundabout was in Ireland. It’s trite to say we are creatures of habit, but we are. Climbing into a vehicle with the steering wheel on the right side requires some practice and a memory that functions: “Remember Doug, the right side of the vehicle is where you get in the car if you’re the driver.”

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My mentors are leaving and I will soon be left without their tangible presence. They are of an age where life and sickness have worn them down.

After leaving the airport outside of Cork and driving north to Galway, I had to plot a course through several masses of swirling of cars with drivers that knew what they were doing. I was clueless.

There is only one way to deal with the rotating throng and that’s to keep moving. To get off this carousel at the right place requires a good co-pilot who can yell out which road you’re supposed to take. One saving grace about the whirl around the circle is, if you miss the exit the first pass you can catch it the next time.

In some ways, the European roundabouts cut the driver some slack by not channeling the car between predetermined curbs, like here. Roundabouts here in the States are a relatively new thing. I still find them a bit intimidating when approaching one.

Recently, I heard that when you reach three-quarters of a century, you can’t rent a car in the U.K. A quick search online found this to be untrue. The cutoff point is 80. That gives me four and a half more years to wheel around the northwest coast of Scotland, if I can just get back there and remember to drive on the right side.

Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and psychologist. Write to him at  lewandowskidoug@gmail.com .

Related Topics: DULUTHEUROPETRAVEL
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