Monday, January 21, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I’ve been in Pymble about five days now. I’ve spent most of my time sleeping, reading, meeting people. And investigating: each day I have sort of poked around one area or another, trying to find my way. Friday I wandered the building, all the nooks and crannies. Saturday I walked ten minutes along our main street, Mona Vale, to a neighborhood mall. (Interesting differences: along with the usual clothing stores, snack and fast food shops (including McDonald's), CD/DVD/Electronics, they had two supermarkets, a couple doctor's offices a sort of a mini-mart, and a library. On the main floor people would walk around steering what we would call supermarket carts indoors from store to store.)

Sunday I took my first walk in the wealthy suburban neighborhood in which we live. Within about 45 minutes, I was lost. So lost, in fact, I ended up in another township, going pretty much the wrong way, and had to have an old woman tell me how to get back to our house. (I know this will receive immediate laughs from pretty much everyone reading. Just remember, God calls the weak, shall we say the disoriented.)

And then on Monday, I thought, what’s the next step? Could get on a train to Sydney – that’s a bit far. Probably time to start driving.

Driving: Australia is a Commonwealth, which is to say it’s of 16 countries that acknowledge Great Britian’s Queen Elizabeth II as their monarch. From the standpoint of governance, this does not mean a heck of a lot. Australia is a sovereign state, it has its own two-house parliament and prime minister who run the country. And there’s a strong desire among the people to put aside the commonwealth notion entirely and become a republic.

But in terms of culture, of course there’s been lots of influence over the centuries, from the popularity of sports like tennis, cricket and rugby, to turns of phrase, the standards of measurement…and the fact that Australians, like Brits, drive on the left side of the road. And in the cars, the steering wheel is on the right.

This is a very minor difference from us, really – it’s not as though you’re driving backwards or in space. If you hit the gas a little too much, you won't find yourself hurtling by Pluto. Still, being on a one-lane each way highway with cars on the right hand side hurtling toward you, well, one's instinct is to immediately swerve completely off the road.

Likewise, turning right from the left hand lanes, that is across traffic –- well it’s actually very easy, as you can see the cars coming, just as in the States. But still, you're expecting them to come from the other way. And so making that turn, you feel like you’re a slickbacked hotrodder in a 1950s car flick, playing chicken with a semi while you smoke your menthols.

Still, you get used to that impending sense of doom. It even becomes fun. Or funny, anyway. On an Australian car, the wiper lever and the turn signal are in the opposite locations from what we’re used to in the States. Here, your wiper is on your left, your turn signal on the right. And every time I turn, every time, I end up instead turning on the windshield wipers, which then slide across the very dry windshield with a wonderful SCREECH, SCREECH. Every time, I do this. Every time. Those who have driven by my car at these moments have probably been frightened at the strange driver within, who seems to be hysterically laughing while he turns without a signal and uses his windshield wipers on a dry day.

Unexpected things are very difficult, like staying in the center of your lane. I’ve never had trouble with as a driver, and one wouldn’t think this has anything to do with what side of the street you drive on, but it does. Probably out of anxiety that I’m about to be hit by the cars coming from the opposite direction (who are DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD, my brain hollers), I’m invariably too far over to the left.

The other challenge is the mirrors. In this new world, I find myself having to remind myself to use the main mirror; it’s in the wrong place, you see, and so usually I find I am looking out the little right hand mirror to gauge the traffic behind me. It actually took me about a half and hour of driving to figure out how that main mirror is supposed to go. Am I supposed to be able to see myself in? I don’t think so. Is it too far up? Down? Again, you’d think I’d never drove, but it all seems so…different.

So far, no accidents. Drove on a very busy road, not yet a highway, but not just a street, and had no problems. Even listened to the radio. Right hand turns still horrify me, but I’m getting there...