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CLINE: Life on the 'wrong' side of the road

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

Now I know how my grandfather felt. Each time he and my grandmother visited our family here, he'd pull into the driveway, park the car and give me his keys for safe keeping.

Undone by the Atlanta traffic -- both the speed and congestion -- he'd say "I'm not driving again until we go home." Then he'd instruct me to take him to the nearest liquor store, a bottle of whiskey proving to be the perfect tonic for traffic-worn nerves.

I didn't fully appreciate that feeling until my stint last week driving the highways and byways of Ireland. It was the perfect storm of driving delirium -- foreign country, unfamiliar routes, precarious roads with driving on the "wrong" side of the car on the "wrong" side of the road thrown in for good measure. It was enough to drive a man to drink.

Fortunately, I was in a good place for that. For those first couple of days, the only thing better than putting the car in park for the day was the taste of a cold Guinness to soothe the psyche. At least on the walk to the pub you could be on whatever side of the road you wanted, weaving be damned.

By the end of the trip, I had become decently adjusted to life in the left-hand lane and on the right-hand side of the Suzuki Alto that seemed to be hand-picked for me by the fine folks at the rental car facility because, in my opinion, they weren't necessarily worried about getting it back. But it certainly didn't start out that way.

While vehicles with recognizable names like BMW, Saab and even Ford were brought out for others, my rental seemed specifically selected for the American who had purchased the "full" insurance. As the guy handed me the keys, he began to walk around the car to look for dings and dents but quit when he learned of my insurance option. Do with it what you want, he seemed to say, though I noticed he didn't linger as to be in the clear when I drove away.

The nice gentleman standing just outside the exit wasn't so lucky. There's a reason Irish taxi drivers make quips -- "Oh, you're driving to Kilkenney? Just give me 10 minutes to get out of the area." -- and my near annihilation of an innocent bystander was one. As I tried to get used to the awkward combination of side of road and side of car while trying to navigate through my first roundabout as I searched for my way out of the airport (always fun, even when driving on the familiar side of the road) I slammed the side of the curb and nearly took out the pedestrian. A literal bumpy start.

Later the stakes would get higher (for me, not the poor pedestrians) as the impediments turned from people to stone walls, ocean cliffs and the occasional sheep on country roads narrow as a catwalk model. I'm told it is equally harrowing for the passenger, who has the best view of the wall you are about to hit or the cliff you are about to carom off. That combined terror quotient can lead to testy exchanges, it being hard to take the high road when you are on such a perilous one.

But the more I drove the better it got. My death grip of the steering wheel loosened, my mood lightened; I actually flirted with the speed limit. The tour buses that initially caused me to panic like a flowerless man on Valentine's Day were passed in routine. (Save the one near the Cliffs of Moher where the road was so narrow I had no choice but to stop dead, the vehicular version of playing possum.)

I was never in danger of qualifying for the Formula 1 circuit, but I did improve enough to be aggravated by other motorists, even passing cars on a couple of occasions. It was hard to believe I was no longer the worst driver in Ireland. The passenger agreed.

By the time I returned the car to the Shannon Airport, I had become fond of the vehicle that had initially caused so much dread. As I pulled into the parking lot the gas light pinged on, signaling a reversal of roles. It was finally time for the Alto to have a drink.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.