When I first landed in Europe last month with my family, I had lots of goals. I wanted to drink wine in France, beer in England, and whisky in Scotland. (I had a few cultural goals as well, like having a glass of champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower, hoisting a pint at the Globe, and enjoying a “wee dram” in the shadows of Edinburgh Castle. That sort of thing.) By the time I left, however, I only had one goal: to somehow make it back home in one piece. As it turned out, this was the hardest goal of all to achieve. Or, at least it was for me.
As soon as we arrived in London, I had lectured both Clyde and Clementine about the importance of realizing that, in the U.K., cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and how it was therefore vitally important for them to look both ways every time they stepped into a street. I think my exact words were, “In the U.K., you never know where the next car is coming from.”
And then I stepped in front of a bus that was being driven on the sidewalk.
Luckily for me the deafening horn inches from my face propelled me out of harm’s way (literally—I don’t think I actually moved; I think the horn itself knocked me back a few paces), but still, it was a valuable lesson for all of us. ( As it turned out, this was a section of “road” that, in the interest of traffic flow, allowed cars—and trucks and buses—to “sneak” across a small section of sidewalk. With no warning. In a Latin American country such a dangerous piece of sidewalk would probably be marked by the collection of crosses and floral offerings left for the souls of the departed pedestrians. In London, where it rains almost every day, there was not even a trail of blood.)
Still, even though I could plausibly blame that close encounter on the bus driver’s lack of sidewalk etiquette (according to Emily Post, it is bad form to speed up on the sidewalk), my other near death experiences were not so easily explained away. Let’s see: after the bus in the center of London there was the black taxi cab outside of Wembley Stadium, the tractor in Glastonbury, an antique Citroen in the heart of Paris, and a Land Rover being driven by a man in a kilt in Edinburgh. It got so bad that the only time I felt completely safe was when I was either in my bed or on the toilet, and even then I had a sneaking suspicion that my sangfroid was slightly misplaced.
The truth was that even after a month overseas I had no idea how to cross a street safely: I could neither figure out which direction cars would be coming from, or where they were allowed to drive, so that, in the end, I was reduced to waiting on street corners and hoping that someone would come along and cross first so that I could follow. (Although even that was no guarantee—unless I literally inserted myself into their back pocket I was still a goner: that one step behind them was sometimes all it took for me to be left out in traffic like the proverbial deer in the headlights.)
In fact, it got to the point that eventually the only way I really felt safe crossing the street was when I was with my son, Clyde; even though he’s only nine he somehow seemed to have the traffic situation figured out about five minutes after we got there. Some people might think that’s because his top three goals didn’t involve drinking, but I know the truth.
It was simply a case of beginner’s (sober) luck.