I imagine that, on the day we left—a Friday—those of us who went on the trip went a bit mad. The Drunkard—who, despite always carrying a whiskey flask and being slightly wobbly half of the day, was normally the most sensible out of us—didn’t say that renting a car would be a bad idea. Why should it be? We were going to be going for a pleasant drive to just north of London and we had each prepared a CD or two for the trip.
I am not one to make a claim out of habit. I believe that every time I form an opinion, it is built upon experience and fact. I can now say that you should never rent a car unless unless you are in a country with a very clearly marked highway system, or you are driving with a native of that country. I am sure that there will be some Brits reading this who will knock their tea and crumpets over in shock at that statement. “What?” they will ask. “It is the clearest thing in the world! Why, to get to London, one simple must go up the A-1, meet the A-123, then get back on the A-1 at Cheltsbuckworth, follow the roundabout until the poppy field, then get on the M-1, at which point there will be another roundabout and you’ll take the third exit to get on the M-2. Simple!”
For the English, it may very well be. However, I say to the Englishman: Drive in the United States. We have straight lines that you follow for the length of England before you have to make a connection with another straight line at a slightly different angle going across the country. The inherent difference between the Briton and the American is that, in the U.S., roundabouts are something out of a Monty Python sketch.
Do I blame The Traveler for our journey of four hours—when it should only have taken two and a half? No. I blame society.
We left Canterbury at eleven o’clock and started on the labyrinth of roads and highways around eleven thirty. Everything started well, aside from The Drunkard’s musical fare of hardcore punk. (This wasn’t a big deal, though, as the 60-track CD only lasted twenty-five minutes.) It was around the time that we found ourselves in Dover that I realized that something was wrong.
I drummed the Ford’s dashboard and glared out at the sunlight reflecting off of the ferries at the port. “Traveler,” I said.
“Mmm?” he asked. He, like everyone else, was staring in disbelief at the ferries. He dug a map out of the sideboard.
“We seem to be in Dover. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t London in England, and not France?”
I heard the unmistakable snap-hiss of a can being opened from the back seat, turned around, and started saying, “You are putting that Guinness away right now,” and stopped at “putting.”
“What?” asked The Drunkard. He took a sip from a Coke can. “If you’re going to blame me, forget it. You’re shotgun, you’re the navigator.”
I grumbled. The CD started playing again. The first track—from a L.A. band called Rancid Sinkhole, the track was called “Fuckfuckfuck”—screeched into existence, bounced around the car for ten seconds, and stopped. Seagulls flew around outside. “Why a red Ford Fiesta?” I wondered. “We should have gotten a Toyota. Toyotas have good gas mileage. Petrol mileage. Do they just say ‘mileage’ over here? ‘Petrol’ is too many syllables.”
“Right,” said The Traveler, balling up the map and chucking it at The Student, who had fallen asleep right as the engine started. The map bounced off his forehead, his eyes fluttered, and he began snoring again. “I know what we did wrong,” said The Traveler.
“Went to Dover?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yep. Keep your eyes on the lookout for signs reading ‘North’ this time. Can’t be hard.”
He started the car again, the second song (“Rage, Death, and Pancakes,” a thirty-second magnum opus by the same band) soared out of the speakers, and we pulled out from the port’s car park.
Around the time when we hit a medium-sized town after leaving Canterbury for the second time, we came across the utter, utter Hell of trying to decipher a roundabout exit sign for the first time. Imagine, if you will, an interstate sign that shows the upcoming exits. A roundabout sign is about the same size, except white and with a diagram of the roundabout in the center. The diagram shows exits in the form of lines jutting out of the center circle. The trick of figuring one of these things out lies in understanding which line you’re coming from and which line you’re going to. The first time you come upon one of these, driving in a circle at twenty-five miles an hour, it is a very confusing concept. We circled the roundabout five times before we finally figured out which way we needed to go.
“Guys,” said The Drunkard, “for the love of God, you need to figure this out.”
This was on the third orbit. “If,” said The Traveler, “you have any hints as to how we can do this, then please let us know. Otherwise, shut up.”
“That’s the one!” I shouted, leaning forward and jabbing my finger at an arrow-shaped sign that read ‘London.’
We drove past it that time, but, by God, on the next orbital, we made it. The three of us who were conscious cheered and briefly woke up The Student, who shouted, “Gah. What? Pen—” and fell back to sleep.
After this, we hit the M-25. The M-25 is a giant, roughly circle-shaped ring that runs around London. It’s eight lanes of traffic, with signs every hundred yards warning drivers that they are being recorded by CCTV cameras—for their safety. During the day, it looks like every interstate in the United States. During the night, the CCTV warnings illuminate the drive with red neon lights. The day we drove into it from the South, the M-25 was in its usual state of immobile traffic. The British, it seemed, loved queuing so much that they decided to queue on their motorways for no reason.
We pulled onto the M-25, drove ten feet, and stopped. “Fuck,” said The Traveler.
I grunted and put my feet up onto the dashboard. “Wouldn’t be a road trip without a traffic jam.” And then, the gray skies opened up and torrential rain attacked the M-25. “And it wouldn’t be England without rain.”
The Traveler took The Drunkard’s CD out of the drive (The Drunkard didn’t complain, as after we left the roundabout, he, too, fell asleep) and replaced it with his roots rock album, put it on shuffle, and the opening licks of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “I Put A Spell On You” came on. “I spy,” I said, “with my little eye—”
“No,” said The Traveler.
“There are some things that should not be spoken over. Creedence is one of those things.” He reached over, turned up the volume, and let the music wash over him. I watched the wipers move back and forth over the windshield.
Traffic moved a few feet. I noticed the distinct lack of honking in the traffic jam. I shuddered. Lately, I’d been feeling homesick. Hearing Creedence come from car speakers did it, but the absence of any sign of driving aggression did it even more. “This isn’t the way people behave,” I thought. “Drivers should be leaning out of their windows and screaming obscenities. They should at least be honking. What kind of civilized country doesn’t have road rage?” The song ended and I leapt at the silence. “So where are we staying?”
“Rickard—the guy from Munich—has a friend going to Oxford. She’s letting us crash at her and her roommates’ apartment. Shh, I think I kno—yeah, it’s Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.” He turned up the music. This one sounded like some meth-fueled shine-stillers had picked up some instruments and formed a band. Still. Pretty good.
The traffic crawled along the M25 and we passed by places that looked a lot more interesting than sitting in a car. As we passed Super Fun Land—a place that looked like a castle, but was crawling with children, I thought back to my childhood and remembered a place not unlike that in Tennessee. Of course, the difference was that this was England, and there was torrential rainfall, and still the children continued to play. You had to give it to the English: they were resilient. “Traveler,” I said. “Why don’t the English just leave this country en masse, get away from the rain, and go to, say, Marseille.”
“Ah,” responded my companion. “Well, in order to find the proper answer to that question, we must turn briefly to genetics. There is a rare gene. So rare, in fact, that it really only appears in people whose roots in this country go back two hundred years. This gene, which forms as a result of generations of people drinking hard water and legitimately enjoying black pudding, is responsible for hating the French. And, if the English were to leave England, they’d find that the closest land is France. And that, to them, is unbearable.”
“Fascinating,” I said.
The traffic moved on, my head nodded forward, and when I woke up we were in Oxford City Center.