This week, I am going to share with you one of the most important things I have learned about travelling. Are you ready? It is this:
Travel books are not written by people who have actually set foot in the country under discussion. They are produced by tourism boards that gloss over the scary bits.
This must be true, because if my guide book for England had actually been written by a real tourist, it surely would have included a section titled: Royal Mail Vans and How to Avoid Being Run Over By Them.
Royal Mail vans are, as far as I can tell, red, and are used to deliver the post here in England. I can’t be sure though, because their average speed ranges between Mach 1 and Speed of Light, and they have this magical tendency to appear out of nowhere — usually, just as I step out onto the road. I’m getting very good at leaping long distances from a standing start.
I have yet to determine exactly how it is that these vans are able to travel that fast. This is because the English have developed a serious obsession with speed bumps, and they install them every 10 metres (metric conversion to American: 1 tenth of a football field). This must mean that England spends huge amounts of tax dollars on road maintenance to:
A) Pave a road
B) Pave it again with speed bumps
C) Pump extra cash into the National Health Service to treat all the people hit by flying hubcaps.
And people must be getting hit by hubcaps, because it’s not that easy to run for cover on English sidewalks. Brits also appear to have a long-term fascination with types of paving surfaces, so you could find yourself tripping on stone, brick, aggregate, concrete, rock or blocks.
They even post public questionnaires about new surfaces, asking pedestrians to send in their feedback. (Although they miss asking the most important question, i.e., “Ladies, do you find these cobblestones easier or harder to walk on than, say, the moon, while wearing high heels?”)
I honestly think this preoccupation is a historical leftover: ever since the Romans laid down such good roads here, Brits have been suffering from Paving Envy.
If being a pedestrian here is hard, being a driver is harder. This is not because the English drive on the opposite side of the road to what I’m used to — that’s fairly easy to adjust to. It’s all the other hazards that are, naturally, never mentioned in the guide book.
For instance, most English city streets were built when “traffic” consisted of small carriages pulled by skinny horses. Today, this means that at any given moment, at least 25% of British motorists are quickly driving backwards, because they’ve just come nose-to-nose with a big Royal Mail van coming the opposite way down a very narrow street.
Then there is that wonderful thing called the “roundabout.” In England, (and to be fair, in Europe as well), converging streets do not meet up in an intersection like they do in North America — they’re joined up with a big circle. So instead of doing something sensible to get from one street to the next — like, say, turning a corner — you have to get on this circle with about 3000 other cars and drive around and around until you can cut through traffic and onto your next street.
Actually, now that I think about it, I’m wondering if this isn’t just a clever answer to the problem of “gridlock.” This is because A) If streets don’t end in 90 degree corners, there’s no grid and B) Drivers on roundabouts get quite dizzy after a while, and will probably veer off onto random streets, thereby distributing traffic fairly evenly.
This is not to say that British motorists are in peril every time they take to the streets. Indeed, officials here have gone out of their way to warn drivers of hazards with signs that read: “Warning: Adverse Camber” or… “Danger: Rising Bollards.”
And it’s about the time that you’re braking and wondering whether you just read something faintly obscene … that a Royal Mail van will schmuck into the back of your car at relativistic speed.
Next Week: 10 Easy Ways to Remove Red Paint Chips From Your Legs and Arms and Why Double Chocolate Stout Makes Risking Death By Mail Van Worthwhile.