Category Archives: cars

Snowmageddon 2012

It snowed last night in England. The sort of snow that I actually quite like, because it takes place at temperatures not too far from freezing, and is thus fun to build snow-people with. And the temperatures not too far from freezing means that while it’s happening, a girl can go outside and enjoy the experience of catching snowflakes on the tongue, a la the Peanuts characters in the Christmas cartoon special. No big deal, right?

Wrong. This is England, so snow is treated as the Snowpocalypse. As of yesterday afternoon, before it was actually snowing, 1/3 of today’s flights at Heathrow airport were cancelled. Warnings were issued. Grocery stores took on that air of menace whereas people were cleaning the shelves.

I am familiar with this phenomenon, because I have also experienced snow in Virginia and in Washington DC, where it is as infrequent and as difficult to manage as in England. There is a lack of infrastructure for dealing with such things that causes any flakes that fall to turn into a major incident. And this amuses me, as a girl from Minnesota where we are far more accustomed to such things.

I have these flashbacks to Minnesota days, in which a prediction of snow came with a great deal of organizing. For one, a “Snow Emergency” was likely to be declared, which meant concerns over which side of the city street on which to park for days after the event. None of which was helped by the requirement that my car be not in my apartment’s car park over an eight hour stretch in order for that to be cleared. The logistical challenge of parking one’s car in three different places after a snow-storm was always taxing. But it reminded me that at least in Minnesota we did something about the snow. As far as I can tell, in England it is just something to talk about.

It stopped snowing overnight, and as such by this evening was a thing of the past. Except for the fact that it all, at this point, is sitting largely where it fell. No effort has been made to clear the car park at my flat, nor has anyone even bothered to shovel the walkways leading into my flat. I can see now that walking to work tomorrow will be a slippery and dangerous challenge.

And here we have the great irony of snow in England. Much talked about, but little acted on. The BBC website this morning was full of stories of people trapped in cars on the major freeways at a dead standstill for hours, and even overnight. But we all knew it was coming, the forecasts were quite clear. Why was anyone out in a car on a motorway, knowing full well that it was coming? And having happened, exactly as predicted, why has no one made any effort to remove the snow? Shovels are not exactly expensive. Ice in the coming days will only be a hazard because no one bothered to move the snow that did fall.

And really, it was not that much. A few inches here, and in temperatures, as noted above, not too far from freezing. As far as I can tell, England collectively loves the drama of the “chaos” caused by a few inches of semi-frozen precipitation. Twitter was, this morning, full of photos of back yards with a light dusting and snow-people having been constructed in public places. But in the grand scheme of things, it was only a hugely dramatic event because people wanted it to be that way. In England, people love to talk about the weather. And the joke is that normally the weather is quite unremarkable. Apparently when it is ever-so-slightly remarkable, the taste for hyperbole overwhelms even the most sensible of persons.

My evidence: the result of “heavy snow” in my neighborhood. It apparently paralyzed all but the mouths and typing fingers of the locals.

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

On Roads

This is the side of the road directly outside my office in England:

This is instead of some sort of covered sewer or drain; the reason it amuses me is that people parallel park along this road as there are several restaurants just up the street. So on any given day, I walk by and witness clueless drivers whose wheels fall into the trench during an attempt at entering or leaving a parking space that may or may not suit the size of their car. I’ve never seen someone truly stuck, so I assume if one wheel goes down the trench the other three can compensate.

This is, of course, the same road where I’ve seen another real parking crime that I still can’t quite get used to: that of nose-to-nose parking, where someone had to be driving on the wrong side of the street in order to enter the space. Of course, I was coming home from a work dinner last night and my taxi encountered a car coming at us and thus driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. And people wonder why I’ve hesitated to get a British driving license?

It’s a fact, the roads here are too narrow to accommodate all of the car travel and car parking that take place on them, and thus a bit of anarchy plays out on a regular basis. Cars driving in reverse to make way for oncoming traffic. Cars pulling in to strange driveways to make way for oncoming traffic. That sort of thing.

In order to protect a few narrow roads from regular traffic (and parking, I’d guess), the local council has installed “rising bollards” on one of the streets in town, in both directions. In brief, a bus or taxi who is allowed access through the barrier has to pull up to a card reader and wait for the bollards to descend into the road. I was walking home one night recently when I saw police cars, lights on and sirens going, pull up to the access points in both directions and then have to stop and sit there waiting for the bollards to descend into the road. I don’t know why they had to stop–surely the technology is available to signal the bollards from emergency vehicles from afar. I seem to recall that in the US emergency vehicles can often make stop lights change in order to allow them to pass more quickly. But I digress–availability and deployment of technology not being the same thing, my local council has a situation where police cars have to stop in order to prevent the hoi polloi from driving on a road.

In a final note about my continuing refusal to join the cars on the roads of Britain, I watched the movie “Happy-Go-Lucky” last weekend. If Britain’s road rules weren’t enough to scare me off driving here, the driving instructor in that movie most certainly was.

I’m off to walk to work, and during my work day to book my next flight to the US, where I will happily rent a car and drive along freely on roads that are big enough for cars to drive and park and where the rules of the road make complete sense to me!!!

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

There are no bumper stickers here and I just noticed

I have now passed my expativersary and thus have lived here more than three years. I do not own a car and I walk to work, to the gym, to the store, anyplace I need to go within my town. But somehow it had completely escaped my notice that the cars in England aren’t likely to have bumper stickers whereas many cars in America do. I certainly noticed lots of bumper stickers on my drive down towards the beach and back in August. And many of them were political, religious, or both. It was interesting at the time because I had forgotten that aspect of American culture–the proudly displaying one’s views on abortion on the back of one’s vehicle. And it took several weeks back in the UK for it to dawn on me that I don’t remember ever having seen a bumper sticker here. Or car art of any sort. No University stickers in the rear window, none of those silhouettes of barbie-figured girls on the back of trucks. Certainly no “OBX” stickers, which were on most cars heading in that direction. So clearly this is just something that has not caught on in the UK, the sticky things must not be available for sale the way they are in the US, with the end result that I spend very little time in the UK reading someone’s unsolicited views about abortion while stuck in traffic. And I have absolutely no clue if your kid made the junior high honor roll.

To drive or not to drive…

That is the question. For various reasons, the question of getting a car has suddenly cemented itself on my brain. This is something I had been avoiding in my time in England thus far; circumstances are such that my walk between home and work is a pleasant 15 minutes and I’m even closer to a wide variety of shops and restaurants, including a Sainsbury’s at two blocks away and a John Lewis about three blocks away. So you could argue that I really do have everything I need quite close, and my longest jaunts are off to the health club which is about 20 minutes’ walk away. However, what I don’t have much of in this little urban bubble is a social life. I’ve been really fortunate to make a couple of friends recently, but in both instances a car would be really handy for getting out of town to their villages (although I admit in both instances there are buses, so it’s not a completely lost cause without a car). In some ways, I really don’t miss the fuss of owning a car, paying for a car, keeping a car insured and paying all associated taxes. Without all of this, my life is quite simple.

But I confess, I’m an American girl who has always been a road-tripper. Every time I return to the states I rent a car, and sometimes drive longer distances than is truly necessary just because I love the feel of the open road. It was instilled in me as a child to be a road-tripper, we did lots of driving between the family homeland in Minnesota and the east coast where we lived for a time, and while east we also drove all the way south to Florida and north to I can’t even remember how far. When my sister and I were both based on the east coast as adults, we did a memorable jaunt into NYC as well as a bittersweet trip back to MN when I abandoned my post in Virginia for what would eventually be my job here.

I have lots of travel coming up, so this is not necessarily something I would do until after my summer trips to other continents, but starting to try and understand the UK rules of the road might come up in about September. I’ll have to take lessons and pass a test here, and obviously save up some money and look for some wheels. And finally, I’d have to sort out a place to park the thing in my urban environs, making a very small car (Smart! Mini!) look appealing. But it’s starting to really tempt me… so I’m going to have to do some serious soul-searching on the whole car vs. public transport question not to mention the “oh dear, this would really be sticking down roots in England” issue… thoughts?

Nose to nose


I’ve been meaning to snap a photo of this bizarre phenomenon for quite some time–I see it all around the UK and it is certainly something that I do not recall ever seeing in America. Does some Brit want to make an attempt at explaining why nose-to-nose parking is so common here? (And it must not be illegal or it would surely be less common?) And how do you actually do it, since you must have to pull over to the “wrong” side of the road to get into the spot?