Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road – Part One

May 28, 2009 – Derby, U.K.

(Part Two may be found on my bicycling blog: http://www.lostgears.blogspot.com)

The Magic of the Tardis and other Reality Shifting Devices:

I’ve just had one of those unfortunate flights. Seven hours in economy class; knees braced against the seat in front of me. No sleep possible, none given. I’m dispatched at Heathrow Airport with my bags and a sharp pain behind my eyes. It’s 7:30 AM…in this time zone.

Due to some issues back in the states I haven’t yet received the full details about my destination. I know approximately where in England my client is, (Derby – about 200 miles north of London,) but that’s about it. Not enough to book a hotel, or even calculate my ground transport options. All this weighs on my mind as I emerge from the doors into the bleak cacophony of the arrivals level.

There is some usefulness in ubiquity. As I thrust my bags through the arrival gates, an island of normalcy appears in the form of a Starbucks. I tug my little train of luggage through the line, order a quad latte’ and find a seat. A few moments later my laptop is sparking itself to life and greets me with a Boingo log-in screen. Already my headache is receding. This Boingo account has saved me hundreds of dollars over the past year. For $9.95 per month, I get to log-in free to hundreds of thousands of hot spots around the globe. Just a tip for you travelers out there.

Still I’m in a bit of sticky wicket here. It’s Tuesday morning in the U.K., and my client, Rolls Royce, is on holiday. So there’s no-one answering there. It’s still only 2:30 AM in New York, and my partners won’t turn their phones on for another few hours. I decide to start calling everyone anyway. Oh, and there’s another indication of things looking up….my mobile phone is working perfectly. I’d had to have my alternative service, Brightroam, Fed-Ex a new SIM card to me on Saturday. Upside of that is the new SIM card has data. Text messaging is handy to have here in the U.K..

While leaving frantic messages across four time zones, I also pull up Google maps and begin to make my best guess at where I need to go and how I just might get there. It quickly becomes apparent that I can take a series of trains to Derby, but it’s pouring rain here and I’ve got a lot of luggage. Against the advice of several friends, I decide to rent a car. I’ve got all day and can take my time.

An hour or so later, after making my best intuitive plan of action and catching up on email, I get a little KIA Ceed and pay the extra 27 pounds for a TomTom GPS navigator. She’s got a lilting British accent and is quite cheery. A definite step up from the gal on my Blackberry. I think we’ll be getting along just fine.

60 of Her Majesty’s seconds after leaving the airport my lessons in driving on the wrong side of the road begin. “Go right on the roundabout and take the fourth exit….then stay in the left lane.” Oh my, roundabouts, they may be the end of me. I’m having a very hard time learning to simultaneously look over my right shoulder for oncoming traffic, and shift the little five speed with my left hand. Thank God the pedals are all still in the same positions on the floor. Several times I careen across the roundabout in jerky motions hazarding anyone who might come near. I’m sure they know I’m tourist from a thousand yards away. Somehow I manage to only miss my turn once, which of course sends me round for another lap before I fling the little car towards the proper exit.

A few scary and embarrassing minutes later I’m on the M-25 motorway heading to “the North” in fifth gear and things settle down. I’ve got a two and half hour drive ahead of me. About half way into the drive I start to get a road weary. I’m afraid I might make a mistake, so I find the English equivalent of a truck stop, a “service,” and find a place to park. Bam! I go right to sleep and it feels good. I’m startled awake by the sound of my phone ringing. It’s my contact at Rolls Royce confirming some details. I walk to the service area to get something to eat and I’m beginning to relax a bit.

This service area might as well be on the Ohio Turnpike. The names of all the business are unfamiliar, but the layout and purpose of the place feels right at home. No frills here, just a few shops, a Wimpy Burger, a Costa Coffee – the U.K.’s version of Starbucks, a newspaper stand and public restrooms. About the only real difference I can see is the big sign that reads, “Parking Limited to Two Hours – A Charge Will Be Proffered for Longer Stays.”

By the time I get to Derby, a quaint little hamlet in what are called “the Midlands” of England, I’m beat. I manage to quickly find a hotel – a Holiday Inn Express – where I happen upon a sign asking Rolls Royce employees to announce themselves. I ask for the Rolls rate, and get it without question. It’s 60 pounds, or about ninety eight dollars US. I take the key, walk to my room, put the “do not disturb” sign on the door and crash.

A Thing of Beauty
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
John Keats

In the morning I end up taking a Taxi to the Rolls headquarters. I don’t need the headaches of driving during rush hour in a foreign country before a long day’s work.

The facility is beautiful. It’s specially designed for training. The people here are surprisingly upbeat and gregarious. They quickly extend a welcome to me and make me feel at home. We were warned that they might be reserved in that British way, and a bit difficult to read. I’m relieved the truth is otherwise.

At the end of the day I go back to the hotel and sleep for while again, still trying to catch up. Then I rise, freshen up a bit and head out looking for a pub to experience. As it turns out, tonight is the European Cup Championship League Football game. It’s the Superbowl of European soccer and the match is being played in Rome. England is fired up as they’re being represented by Manchester United, a very popular team here. On the other side is Barcelona FC, from Spain.

I sidle up to bar in the Harvester Pub and Grille. There are no stools. Just a crowd of revelers vying for a place to see the small TV screen. I shout to the barman the name of the first beer I see on a tap. “Make it a Worthington.” “Right then!” he says, and I begin to truly settle in to this new place.

The first ten minutes of the match are very exciting. Manchester United’s famous captain, Ronaldo, is controlling the field and making it look easy. Then, suddenly, the momentum shifts when one of the chaps from Barcelona scores a goal. The waves of blue-clad Man. U. fans in Rome are silenced. They never get a chance to celebrate again. A lot of tears are shed in England.

I’m very happy to be here for this event. It’s my first time in the U.K.., and I’m looking forward to spending a few days as a tourist in London at the end of the week.

Remember, this is my business travel blog, part two may be found on my bicycling blog: http://www.lostgears.blogspot.com