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Dear Jeanne Charters,
Having recently returned from my own dream trip to Ireland (September 21 to October 5), I can’t resist asking you, “How’d that minivan work out for ya, Jeanne—on those narrow in the extreme winding country ‘lanes’ upon which people of many different nationalities maniacally speed at least 60 km/hr?” If I know anything about your pluck from reading your columns, and if your daughters inherited it, you did fine. As for me, I have never been more terrified in my life! More scary than hang gliding, than sitting with a Cherokee friend at the very edge of a high, high cliff while she taught me the saying, “Today is a good day to die,” and even more frightening than a shy person having to give a speech. Could my high school classmates even hear me over the papers rattling in my trembling hands?
It is a testament to our relationship that my marriage was not torn asunder by the time my spouse and I turned in the little brown Nissan Note at the Dublin airport. Those roads approaching the mountain passes outside Killarney are narrow to say the least, and probably have at least an eighth of an inch shoulder in the good places. The hedges long to scratch the car, and often succeed as you listen to the scratching screech against the metal. If the passenger window is open, whiplashing from the shrubbery is a distinct possibility. Best to put on gloves and cover your face. Probably more heart stopping are the silent rock walls standing defiantly close. We took turns screaming at each other, “Watch out for the wall! Move over to the right!” This was in contrast to our more calmly delivered mantra, “Stay to the left, stay to the left,” uttered whenever we reached an intersection or traffic circle. I only turned into the wrong lane twice, and both times the other drivers were ready for me and very nice about it. They say the Irish are some of the friendliest people on earth.
In over 17 years, I have never heard such fear issue from my spouse—uttered in the form of heart-breaking moans, shrill cries, and wordless shrieks. Then we switched places and I quickly learned that the only thing more alarming and tension producing than driving was sitting helpless in the passenger seat while instant death sped along next to you, singing a siren song of “Come to me—just another inch or two over my way.”
I’ll spare you the descriptions of our arguments over each other’s driving. Suffice it to say that I know I would have felt guilty for the rest of my life if I hadn’t yelled “The sheep! The sheep! STOP!” loud enough to penetrate the driving daze of my spouse to enable her to finally apply the brakes harder in time (eons later) to avoid those two innocent lambs standing in the middle of the road around a bend. OK, I’ll admit that they were full-grown ewes. They sported paint marks on their backs that had been applied there by rams with paint on their bellies. This method let the farmers know which rams had sired the lambs to come. At least that’s what they told me. There are some leg pullers over there though to be sure.
Speaking of identity, I must admit that my ego played a role in our driving woes. Several friends strongly suggested that we use public transportation, which is very good and affordable in Ireland, rather than renting a car. We told ourselves and each other that we wanted the freedom to explore the most remote destinations of this green and bucolic land. But subconsciously, or on some level, I didn’t want to picture us as tourists, and old bus-riding tourists at that. (I’m not a tourist after all, I’m part Irish and I’m returning home.) Our travel agent told us that we’d be hard-pressed to find a car rental company that would let Jo, a lively 77, drive. I (61) was willing to take on that responsibility even though I’m the flaky one while she has nerves of steel in most driving situations. One of my pet peeves is car rental companies charging extra for two drivers. If both have a good driving record, wouldn’t it be safer to take turns on a long trip? As it turned out, the law that prohibited people over 70 from driving had been repealed—judged illegal. The bubbly young clerk at the rental desk said that that was only fair and right. We left the Shannon airport in a confident glow and joined the other compact and sub-compact cars on the highway. The glow dimmed and was soon extinguished upon our first venture to the countryside of County Kerry.
I couldn’t understand it. I have driven many steep and curving mountain roads in WNC and Vermont—why was this so difficult? The ego imp had struck again. I couldn’t bear having a long line of cars behind me, me—I couldn’t be the old lady driver travelling at her own comfortable speed on such a skinny slip of a road (with few places to pull over). So I foolishly drove faster than I wanted to the detriment of both of our peace of mind (pieces of mind?). Next time I’ll make them wait.
Or better yet, next time we take the trains and busses. After our friends back home finished laughing at the fright that we had suffered they told us you can meet lots of interesting people while riding peaceful public transportation.
An avid fan of your columns,
I am only one fourth Irish and mostly, i.e. half, German—Bavarian to be precise). In preparation for the trip I read McCarthy’s Bar: a Journey of Discovery in Ireland, a best seller in Ireland, Australia, and England. Can anyone tell me why Pete McCarthy makes such fun of Bavarians? One glance inside my home and you’d know that I’m not a cleaning freak. And what’s wrong with keeping a place as a hallowed shrine filled with glorious, life-celebrating, wisdom-imparting books? Right? As long as you still have wide pathways through them and save room for the “little people”, so that they won’t hide the book that you’re looking for.