Keep Left, No Right

There are few aspects of the process of air travel which are anything approaching a pleasure to endure. The check-in queue, security clearance, the scrum at the gate, immigration, baggage reclaim. They all involve rather more standing around and in unpleasant surroundings than one would ordinarily be prepared to tolerate. But we are a captive market at airports and so we endure it. Or face arrest I guess.

I’d be tempted to now add “going to the car rental office” to that list, my first ever experience of paying to drive someone else’s car as part of a holiday trip began as so many of them do, standing in the queue at the Europcar offices whilst the people in front acted as if having to produce identification, documentation, licences and sign their name on insurance agreements was something that only happened in films. Meanwhile I’d planned ahead and clicked the “speedy rental” option on the website when booking, the net result being the entire process once I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue took no longer than about 6-7 minutes.

“It’s that one just over there”, stated the lady at the car park office, tossing me the key over the counter and gesturing over her shoulder to the row of gleaming vehicles lined up through the glass behind her. I climbed inside the Toyota Pulsar which detected my key, lit up in welcome and invited me to PRESS START.

The location was Toulouse-Blagnac airport and the next two hours were to be a succession of interesting firsts. I won’t lie, I was nervous. I’ve been driving for over 25 years now but the prospect of taking a rented car on unfamiliar roads through an unfamiliar country had been causing me a small number of sleepless nights. In the end I was glad of the nervous energy, for this would turn out to be a exceptionally stiff learning curve. The issues, I discovered, were threefold:

1) Left Hand Drive

We’ve all had foreign guests over who spend the first 48 hours attempting to get in the wrong side of the car to occupy the passenger seat. But nothing can prepare you for the first time you sit on the ‘wrong’ side of the car to drive. Changing gears with the ‘wrong hand’, groping fruitlessly for the handbrake which too is on a different side. Window controls, even the indicator stick, all of them not where you expect them to be. And once you exit the airport car park and are spat out onto the public highway there is no ‘training level’. You have to get it right as quickly as possible.

The hardest part for me however was repositioning myself on the road. Because when you’ve spent your entire life sat on the right hand side of a car, your spatial awareness senses assume the rest of the car is to the left of you. Only now it isn’t. I discovered that within minutes, ramming the kerb as I wound my way of of the car park exit. Because I was just too far right. Most of the first part of the journey consisted of Mrs Masterton shrieking DISTANCE every time I overtook a lorry on the autoroute, passing within inches of the wheels of the other vehicle as I occupied the middle of the adjoining lane, rather than its extreme left. Even towards the end I was self consciously checking my position on the road each time I made a turn or changed lane. Because my mind never quite dealt with the change.

2) Drive On The Right

Yeah yeah, this is an obvious one surely. Everyone who has never done it before worries about just how they will cope motoring down the roads in reverse, and everyone who has done it reassures you that it is easier than you might think. Which is correct. Once you’ve cautiously approached a few junctions and noted exactly where you are supposed to be pointing the nose it all seems to come naturally. And after all you are for the most part just following everyone else. Roundabouts take some getting used to, naturally. Driving around them clockwise and in particular overcoming the muscle memory which means you have the urge to check your left mirror just before peeling off. When naturally this time it should be the right. Over the course of the five days of driving around I became very glad that the French are not as enamoured of major multi-lane gyratories as the British authorities seem to be. Roundabouts (outside of major cities) are single lane entities. Pop on, pop out. Job done. Just go the right way round.

3) Change Up, Change Down

Oh now this was the really fun part. Because the car had a manual gearbox. And I’ve just spent the past four and a half years driving an automatic car. “Are you sure you will be OK with that” was the question asked when we first booked the transport. I assured the master of the house that all would be and in any event I noted that to hire an automatic adds about £100 to the cost. So that was out of the question. And how hard could it be really? Until I bought the current family car (it was a damn good deal) I’d never contemplated doing anything other than changing my own gears. Yet I still forgot to tell myself to do it. To drag back to the front of my mind the silky smooth clutch action I had developed ever since the age of 17. I proudly eased the car forward with the family on board, approached the junction, indicated and lurched forward in a stall. Because the “change down” muscle memory had vanished completely. In fact I spent the first hour of the journey almost totally disoriented. This wasn’t any old stick shift car, this was an ultra modern model with a flash six speed gearbox of a kind I’d never stumbled across before. I swear if engines could talk mine would have been screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU FOOL” as I wrestled with the stick, missed gears, all but made the engine jump out the bonnet when losing track of where I was and shifting 5-2 without warning. It wasn’t until three days in that I noticed the onboard computer had a display telling me which gear to change into at the appropriate moment. Although as Mrs Masterton noted “if it is intelligent enough to know what gear it is supposed to be in, why can’t it just do it anyway”.

The really run part though? Handing the car back in immaculate condition *proud* and climbing back into the comfort zone of my own which had sat waiting at Gatwick airport for a week. Only it wasn’t such a comfort zone, as I’d now forgotten how to drive an automatic again. So I approached roundabouts groping for the invisible gear stick and doing sharper brakes than planned at traffic lights as my left foot went for a non-existent clutch pedal.

We men define ourselves by many strange things. Our ability to cook meat over fires (pass the meths), the potency of our genitalia (mustn’t brag) for example. But most of all it is our ability to handle a finely tuned piece of machinery. We’ve been back from holiday for a week and I’m still ironing out the kinks in my manhood. Never again (until next time).

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