Driving in the UK is like trying to fit your feet into shoes that are one size too small. Squishy, uncomfortable, but possible. To all of my British friends, you are amazing drivers, far superior and more patient than drivers in Canada (I love you Canada, but it is true). I had no idea how spoiled we were with the size of our roads, the size of our parking spaces, the availability of parking- I am looking at you Alberta!
My first day driving in England was the Friday after we arrived, jet-lagged and exhausted. I arranged for Enterprise Rental Car to pick me up at our temporary apartment near High Street (Dear North Americans- this means downtown). I made a lot of jokes with the young lad who went through the paperwork with me, obviously to calm my nerves. As I was just about to drive away, he yelled, "Don't forget to drive on the right side!" Confused for a moment, I yelled back, "don't you mean the left?" He just laughed... and thus began my UK driving career. I relied heavily on my *GPS, to navigate back to our apartment (it only failed me at least five times), drove far under the speed limit, and bumped a curb more than once. I repeated out loud, "stay left stay left stay left," and tried not to cry. Backing into an angled parking spot from the "wrong" side of everything was extremely difficult and took multiple tries. We had a party at a fellow Canadian's house the following day. I drove SO slow and Husband was terrified at sitting on the opposite passenger side and feeling like he was going to hit everything as we crawled past at a snail's pace. Honestly though, being a passenger on the "wrong" side might be more terrifying! Everyone at the party congratulated me for driving so soon after arriving, and assured me that I would be used to it before I knew it. A friend said, "One day you will realize that you are singing along with the radio and speeding and wondering how you got to this point." Dear Friend, I was certain that you were fibbing to make me feel better, until this exact thing happened to me!
There was a period of time when my oldest was in school and we were still staying in the apartment, that I had to get all three boys dressed, down 4 flights of stairs, across a street, into their carseats, and drive across traffic/town. This occurred twice a day, only two hours apart. What I really remember is the screaming and the tears (MOSTLY from the kids), but what happened during this time is that, while my boys were fighting in the backseat, I got comfortable driving in England. Thank you to my English bestie who texted me advice when I was desperate. Her advice, pull over anywhere if you need to. I texted back, WHERE DO I PULL OVER?? SOMEONE'S FRONT GARDEN? I was completely serious. The roads here are extremely narrow, no shoulder to speak of. My Friend told me to pull over anywhere, as long as it was not marked with a giant X or zig-zaggy lines, do whatever you want. Best. Advice. Ever. Once I realized that there is not room for everyone on the road and we are all sharing and taking turns getting out of each other's way, something clicked, and driving felt much more possible.
When you are heading down a two way street and suddenly there are cars parked on either side and only room for one car to pass, you must quickly judge if it is better to get out of the way for someone else, or maybe they are pulled to the side waiting for you. As a method of communication, people blink their lights to signal that they are waiting for you to go. The problem is, people also blink their headlights as a way of saying thank you. It is slightly confusing. Confession, I still have not figured out how to blink my lights, well I have, but in the moment I panic and turn on my windshield wipers! Luckily it rains so much that I can play it cool and pretend I saw a raindrop... is what I tell myself as I see people's bewildered faces. When driving at night with the family last weekend, I was practicing blinking my lights, and someone was actually coming. Husband said, well now you have to move out of the way for them, which I had not planned on doing, but I did. Maybe I will stick to communicating with the wipers to keep myself out of trouble.
In England, you can park wherever you want. At first I thought this was weird, but now I think it is absolutely brilliant. You can park on either side of the street, facing in any direction, pull up on the curb, whatever. Just don't block a driveway and heed signage. The first time I pulled my car up on a curb to park at school pick up, I felt like I was almost as cool as an English person. When you are brand new at driving here, this parking every which way business is frustrating, as the direction cars are parked does not in anyway help you to understand the direction that traffic is going. Which reminds me, there are no yellow lines on the road to signify two way traffic. Two way traffic has only white lines, one way traffic has only white lines. You must take your best guess and follow the car in front of you (hopefully they know what they are doing).
The streets here are tight. I have seen buses get though spots that I was not comfortable driving through in my Ford Focus, which is a compact car in Canada, but a midsize car in England. I have seen literally **centimetres of clearance on either side, and they go for it. In London, at which time I was a passenger in a bus and not driving, this squeezing through small spaces was especially impressive! At least once a day, I encounter a spot that feels too tight and I hold my breath because it feels like that might help. Every once and a while I am met with someone who feels that they can make their vehicle and my vehicle fit and force me into an uncomfortable situation. This happened with a delivery truck on a small (one car at a time small) gravel road that leads to our friend's house. He decided to go for it instead of pulling to the side. I had nowhere to go, so I cosied up to the brick wall to my left, bumped my front left tire into a step leading to a gate, and was stuck. He inched by, head out of the window to see what he was doing. I am still surprised that we both got out of that situation unscratched! It's probably because I was holding my breath. Most people fold their windows in when parked on the street, because things happen. You can't always fit! Even when holding your breath!
Everyone wants to know about roundabouts. First of all, I only recently switched to calling them roundabouts, as they are called traffic circles in Canada. Secondly, I don't find them that difficult? Instead of intersections, you have roundabouts. You yield to the people on your right, and it usually all goes very smoothly. Some roundabouts are tiny and some are so big that you must change lanes and stop at lights in the middle of the circle. I think I actually prefer roundabouts to intersections to be honest. I drive through 16 roundabouts on the school run twice a day. So I am a pro (absolutely not true).
Some other differences... Lights here turn red, then red with yellow, then green. Red with yellow means, "get ready, start your engines," is what I imagine. Every day is an exciting race here in the Cotswolds, says the lady that routinely drives below the speed limit. Pedestrians do not have right of way, and jaywalking is not illegal. They spell curb, kerb, because it is cuter.
I must state, that all through my learning to drive in England, no one has ever honked at me, and people are kind and courteous and patient as drivers in general. It really is admirable. I routinely open the passenger door when heading to my car to drive. Sometimes I even plop down in the passenger seat and then must muster the energy to get up and go to the correct side of the vehicle. Thank you to all the English people who have witnessed me doing this and smiled instead of laughed. You are gems.
Driving in England after driving for most of my life in Canada is uncomfortable, but my too small shoes are stretching out nicely, and it will be okay. I hardly even notice anymore.
*What do they call GPS in England? I can't remember and Google search is failing me. It's like the tombola all over again.
** I am so Canadian, I love my metric measurements.