Thursday, July 10, 2008

Left is Right and Right is Wrong!

On a sunny morning in February eight years ago, my flight from the USA landed safely at Melbourne airport. This was to be the beginning of my Australian adventure. I was relieved I did not have to use the boomerang in the seat pocket in front of me to alert the air hostess of kangaroos on the runway (see my post Boomerangs on Planes? to read what I'm referring to). I had passed through all the requisite check points, collected my bags and been reunited with the Handsome Australian. As we left the airport, I took my first deep breath of fresh Australian air. I liked the look of the place. The people I'd met in the airport and all the Customs officials had been very friendly. The Handsome Australian and I were busy chatting all the way to the car. He was asking about my trip and I was thanking him for his sage advice regarding the kangaroos he reckoned were all over the runways here.

When we finally arrived at the car I helped the Handsome Australian load my luggage into the boot (that's Aussie for trunk) and then I walked confidently to the right front door of the car and waited patiently to get in. The Handsome Australian looked at me and smiled before he said, "So you reckon you're ready to drive already?"

Me: Confused, "What? I'm not driving, you are driving. What are you talking about?"

HA: Laughing, "Well, then why are you trying to get into the driver's side then? That's my seat."

Me: Looking through the window and seeing the steering wheel staring back at me, "Oh, right. Yes, you drive on the right here. I'm sorry. I knew that. I'm just really tired from the flight." Then I walked slowly around to the other side where the Handsome Australian was waiting with the door open for me. I climbed in and began to adjust to what life as a passenger on the left was like.

I spent my first year living in Australia studying at a local University and working part-time in a retail shop. The Handsome Australian and I lived relatively close to the City and had public transport on our doorstep. For those of you who have never visited Melbourne, there is an extensive train and tram network that is quite easy to use. The location of our apartment meant that neither of us needed to drive to work or school. We could easily walk, take public transport, or ride a bike. As a result, we didn't even own a car. So I never drove in Australia. We did from time to time borrow a car from a member of the Handsome Australian's family and take a drive down the coast or into the bush somewhere, but the Handsome Australian did all the driving. I was merely a passenger--on the left!

After a year, the Handsome Australian and I moved to the USA for an extended period for work purposes. At the end of our time in the USA, we moved back to Australia for what we knew would be a longer term stay. This meant we had to find a new place to live in Melbourne and we had to buy a car and I had to drive--on the right!! I was terrified. I'd become very comfortable with our previous arrangement of me as the passenger and the Handsome Australian as the driver and I'd never quite gotten used to the idea of driving on the right side. It all just seemed so wrong somehow.

The best way to conquer my fears, argued the Handsome Australian, was to simply get on the road and drive. So, drive is what we did. We started with driving along some quiet residential streets near our apartment. The strangest thing to me about driving on the right--other than actually driving on the right--was that I felt like the car should extend away from me on the right and not the left. It was weird that there was very little car on my right side and a whole lot of car on my left. It's a very hard sensation to put into words. I just couldn't get used to all that space inside the car on the left side. Odd. Very odd.

Once I'd learned to navigate the quiet side streets, the Handsome Australian determined I was ready for some main roads. In Melbourne the extensive tram network runs down the center of many of the main roads. This means that you not only have to navigate your way through the standard traffic of cars, trucks and bicycles, but you also have to be aware of the trams. There are specific rules relating to when to yield to the trams and certain methods for passing them, etc. It was a whole lot to take in and it took a bit of time to get accustomed to.

I'm happy to say that I've been successfully driving on the right hand side of the road for seven years now and it's become second nature...well, almost. I still walk out of petrol stations (that's Aussie for gas stations) from time to time after paying for my petrol and climb into my car on the LEFT hand side. I close the door behind me and look up to put the key in the ignition to start the car only to find myself staring down at the glove box. Glancing to the right I see the steering wheel on the other side of the car. Hmm, I think to myself, this is embarrassing. People are going to wonder what the hell I'm doing. So in an effort to save face, I open the glove box, rifle through it's contents and pull out something as if I've been looking for it. Then I open the door, get out and walk very confidently to the RIGHT side of the car and get in, trying to give off the air that, Yes I know where the steering wheel is, I was just doing a bit of filing over there." Then I start the car and get the heck out of there as fast as I can. You can laugh dear reader, but this still happens to me about every six months or so...even after eight years on the RIGHT it still feels wrong sometimes!

***Please note, I'm speaking about the position of the steering wheel in the car--ie the right side of the car. In Australia we drive on the LEFT side of the road, but we sit in the RIGHT side of the car to do so. Confused?? Try driving here one day!!*************
Learn the Lingo
air hostess = flight attendant
boot = trunk
petrol station = gas station
petrol = gasoline


KLS said...

I think you have a funny in there - you've been successfully driving on the LEFT. Right? Right?

Annelise said...

I would rifle through the glove box as well!

Tristan said...

I'm not sure you get email updates on this, but...

I'm an Australian currently living in Germany. I don't drive, but I do have to cross roads on foot. I've been here a year, and yet, all I can do is remember to look the right way when I'm crossing roads I often cross. But whenever I cross a road I've never crossed before, I always look the wrong way/assume traffic will be on the other side of the road.

How was that part of it for you? How long did it take to adapt?

suzinoz said...

Hi Tristan. I do get e-mail updates. Thanks for your comment. I can't really remember how long that process took, but I can tell you this--I still, to this day, after 10 years of living here, get in the car on the wrong side to drive. Not often, but I'd say once every 6 months or so. Amazing. Good luck. Hope it sorts itself out for you soon!

suzinoz said...

And Tristan, it appears I already said that very same thing at the end of this post! Sorry for repeating myself. This was written last year and I didn't read it again until after I responded to your comment. I really don't remember having that many issues in crossing the road. I think I just knew it was something I had to be very conscious of. Best of luck and thanks for stopping by!