THE IRELAND DRIVING EXPERIENCE
I am confident enough to say that I am good at many things, great at a few, but generally good at the essentials required to carry me through life. I want to start with the positive, because this whole post is going to be an essay highlighting one of the areas where I do not excel. Now that I've softened the blow, I am a notoriously bad driver. I think a little self-awareness is good for for the soul, and I am definitely aware of my awful driving skills. It all started when I was a teenager learning to drive with my first car, a manual transmission Nissan Sentra. I was so scared of the car stalling on the highway that I became a timid, anxiety-ridden driver. There were many tears.
Fast-forward 15 years and I’m still a nervous driver, but I’m also terrible at directions, ignore road signs, and have a hard time focusing when I’m driving. This leads to a lot of near misses on the road, although, only one accident. Most of the time I avoid driving, and toot around in the smallest vehicle I could find. I feel like I’m a little more agile in my Mini Cooper, and it may make it more difficult to crash into me. Now that you know the back-story and my driving handicap, you can hopefully fully appreciate the struggle associated with me driving in a foreign country.
I easily avoided renting a car on my two previous trips to Ireland. Great bus systems, day tours, and trains got me where I needed to go. In Scotland last year, I did drive for a total of three minutes before I quickly decided it wasn't for me. Since I think it’s important to face fears in order to grow, I decided to tackle this challenge on my most recent visit to Ireland. It was a quick trip and I would only have a few days of short distance driving, so I thought it would be my best chance to overcome my driving paranoia.
I rented a car on the outskirts of Dublin to avoid driving in the city. The cab driver and I discussed my strategy and exit route on the way to the rental place. By the way, Ireland has the best taxi drivers. If you ever find yourself lonely in the country, just hop in a taxi and you will have some of the best conversation outside of a pub. But back to the story at hand. I was originally going to rent a manual transmission car because it's cheaper, but at the last minute decided to upgrade. Money well spent! Fumbling over the stick shift with my left hand would have just added to my hardships.
My first challenge came when I couldn’t figure out how to put the car in drive…I kid you not. The minute I sat in the car I became a bumbling idiot. May I remind you that I frequently travel all over the world by myself and I come out on the other side unscathed, but this had me perplexed. After what felt like a lifetime trying to figure it out on my own, I swallowed my dignity and asked the sales guy to show me how to PUT THE CAR IN DRIVE! Thank goodness it was Ireland, and everyone is so friendly that he didn’t laugh in my face. I’m sure he just waited until I left the parking lot.
Contrary to most beliefs, including my own, driving on the left side of the road was the easy part. It was everything else I found difficult. I made it out of the city fairly easy but anxious, and headed to a little town south of Dublin. The minute I exited off the main highway is where the fun began. It came as no surprise to me that secondary roads in Ireland are narrow streets, flanked by stone walls overgrown with greenery, and full of hairpin turns with no visibility of oncoming traffic. At best, I was very slowly making my way to my destination with white knuckles on the steering wheel. At worst, I hit a tall curb with my tire and scratched up my hubcap trying to squeeze past an oncoming car. It could have been way worse.
After less than an hour of driving I met my friend and spent a pleasant day catching up and enjoying the charms of Ireland. Distracted by fun, I took off towards my guesthouse pretty late and with very little fuel in my tank. To be fair I picked up the car nearly on empty, and in my fumbling earlier in the day, I overlooked refueling. After missing my turn to get onto the main highway, I made my way on the scenic route through Wicklow National Park with no service station in sight. The whole time hoping I wouldn’t run out of gas. To make things worse, I had no cell service. My only saving grace was that the sun was still up so I didn’t have to drive in complete darkness. Lets be honest, I don’t think I even knew how to turn on the headlights. I miraculously found my guesthouse in the middle of nowhere, and I arrived without a scratch (besides the hubcap) but a nervous wreck.
Are you bored yet? Hold on, I’m not quite done. The next day my only goal was to locate a service station. I went into the nearest little town to try my luck. After receiving directions from a man painting his storefront in the rain, I had lunch and FINALLY pulled into a gas station. It was just a few pumps off of a side street with no attendant, but I was extremely relieved. The relief quickly dissipated when the pump rejected both of my credit cards. In a mild panic, I moved the car and tried another pump...declined. Damn American credit cards.
I decided my best option was to politely ask the people at the adjacent pumps to put my gas on their card, and I would pay them back with cash. The first two women I asked declined my unusual offer, but my charms wore down an Irishman. I will forever be indebted to the kind gentleman who not only let me use his credit card, but pumped my gas for me. All the while listening to me babble and apologize non-stop, because that’s what I do when I’m in an uncomfortable situation. Did I say how much I love Ireland? I've been stranded more than once, and someone always comes to my rescue.
After all of these mishaps, on the last day I finally found my stride. I followed behind a tractor going super slow, and I was actually able to enjoy myself and the scenery. When I arrived back in Dublin, I was all too happy to hand over the keys. A little worse for the wear but still in one piece, and infinitely proud of myself. Now that this experience is checked off my list, I’ll be hiring a private driver the next time I visit this lovely country. Any takers?