Expat Chronicles: Carless After Seattle

Sometime during the afternoon of July 31, 2019, I pulled into a car rental place across the street from the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle and dropped off a car we’d rented for a few days. We’d taken the car on a road trip down to Portland and made a return trip back to Seattle. It was the second leg of a two-part swing through the U.S. that also took us to the Carolinas.

That’s the last time I’ve driven a car. About 11 months. For all I know it might be another year or so before I drive a car again. We had planned to head back to the States for a trip this past April, but the coronavirus squelched those plans. Who knows when we’ll get back to the States again? Who knows when I’ll next drive a car?

In London, I don’t drive. We don’t have our cars here. We left them back home in the States when we moved here two-and-a-half years ago. I do not drive here. Not a rental, not a Zip car, not a stolen car, nada.

The traffic is too psychotic in London, and there’s too much road work going on, and the drivers are maniacs, and they drive on the left hand side of the road, for f**k sake. I have no plans to ever drive here. Too many things can go wrong. Too many variables at play.

Did I mention they drive on the left-hand side here?

Roughly two-thirds of the countries in the world drive on the right-hand side. But even that stat is misleading because most of the really, really big countries drive on the right-hand side, which means the actual percentage of right-hand drivers is probably bigger than two-thirds.

Of the 20 most populous countries in the world, these are the ones that drive on the left:

  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Pakistan
  • Bangladesh
  • Japan
  • Thailand

That’s it. Six out of 20. Compare that to those that drive on the right:

  • China
  • U.S.
  • Brazil
  • Nigeria
  • Russia
  • Mexico
  • Ethiopia
  • Philippines
  • Egypt
  • Vietnam
  • Congo
  • Iran
  • Turkey
  • Germany

Most of Europe drives on the right. So does most of Africa, North America and South America.

This is why I don’t drive in London. Because I’m too old and lazy to learn a new system. I don’t want to adapt to taking a left on red, if that’s even allowed. I don’t want to adapt to having to wait for traffic to clear to take a right-hand turn – to keep remembering, over and over, that I need to be on the left side of the road. And if we cross over from the UK to France? Then you drive on the right! So you have to adjust all over again. Yes, I’m lazy.

So: we take trains or buses or planes. Or, we walk. Or, I ride my bike. I’ll never drive here.

The last time I’ve gone this long without driving – 11 months and counting – I was 15 years old. If you want to know how long ago that was, here’s a hint: Richard Nixon had only been out of office a few months. The top-selling single on the music charts was “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Barack Obama was still in junior high school, and John Wayne was still alive. So was Elvis. Hip hop hadn’t been invented yet. Nobody knew who the hell Bill Gates was.

Even when we lived in New York City for a few years back in the 2000s we kept a car parked in Manhattan for a bit, then wised up and kept it in Westchester County, where we could take the Metro North train up and grab our car out of the parking garage and drive up to Connecticut or someplace woodsy and quiet.

There are things I miss about driving and things I don’t miss about it. I miss the freedom it brings, being able to just hop in and crank the engine up and tool away without sticking to a train or bus schedule. I miss long road trips, where you can spend days in a car just motoring forward and onward, seeing the landscape change right in front of your eyes. I’ve been on six or seven cross-country journeys, and there’s nothing like waking up in Memphis one morning and then waking up in Amarillo the next, when you feel like you’ve landed on an entirely different planet.

An old friend of mine and his wife are on a cross-country drive from Georgia to California right now, and they’re posting about it daily on Facebook. It’s very cool seeing their pictures of Taos one day and then the Grand Canyon the next and then Mammoth Mountain in California. I do miss that.

I don’t miss the traffic. I don’t miss the interminable waits at traffic lights, or cruising down a highway somewhere and then seeing the parade of red brake lights up ahead, telling you there’s been an accident or highway construction that will keep you sitting on your ass, inching ahead bit by bit, for how long you don’t know.

I do miss cars. Do you know I can remember every car I’ve ever owned or partially owned, from when I first got my driver’s license to this very day? I can’t remember teachers or bosses or friends or girlfriends or even some of my long-lost relatives (I remember Aunt Verna, Aunt Emma, Uncle Stacy, Uncle John, Uncle Frank. But wasn’t there another great aunt from Gan-Gan’s family? Maybe not.). But I do remember every car. Here’s the list in chronological order:

  • Pontiac Firebird
  • Pontiac Ventura
  • Plymouth Duster
  • Ford Mustang II
  • Renault Alliance
  • Dodge Shadow
  • Nissan Sentra
  • Hyundai Santa Fe

Of all those, the best from a strictly performance standpoint was the Firebird, which was a used ’69 model my brother and older sister shared in high school. My memory is that it had a 400cc engine that could burn some serious rubber. A friend of mine also had a muscle car at the time, and we always argued over which was quicker, but I can guarantee you that Firebird could outrun any of the other cars my friends had.

The only car of the bunch I bought new was the Alliance, and it was a piece of shit. Or, as the French would say, un morceau de merde.

I had a kind of odd affection for the Duster, because it was lime green and had a big white rally stripe on the side. It was the first car I paid for with my own money. I drove it in college. It was just ugly enough that I never had to worry about anyone stealing it.

But my favorite ever was the burgundy Nissan Sentra. Four doors, automatic, about 110 horses. I bought it used at a CarMax in 1998 when it had about 30,000 miles on it. By the time I’d given it to my niece about a decade later it probably had more than 200k miles on it, but I never was sure because the odometer broke around mile 150,000 and I never bothered keeping track after that.

I bought the Nissan in Charlotte. I had it when I moved to Wallingford, CT, and then to Rumson, NJ, and then to Los Angeles, and then to Norwalk, CT, and then to New York City, and then down to Huntersville, NC. I gave it to my Mom when my wife and I started a family and we needed a family car, then gave it up to a niece after my Mom was no longer able to drive it with anything approaching a safe or reasonable level.

I drove that Sentra all over. Literally. Dozens of road trips up and down the East Coast. Permanent moves from the East Coast to the West, and then back again. Long treks up and down I-5 in California to Sonoma County and back to L.A. It was my constant companion, my trusted friend. A good old buddy. I maintained it well and it never let me down. It had a cassette player and I had dozens of homemade mix tapes I’d play to while away the long hours on the road. It had a roomy trunk and back seat for a small car, which did a good job of holding all my worldly possessions on my constant moves.

One night at a hotel in New Mexico some asshole(s) tried to steal my bicycle off the Sentra’s bike rack, but failed because I had that mother chained down nice and tight. One November day in 2000 I drove through a blinding snow blizzard near Flagstaff, Arizona, and then a couple hours later I was in the California desert, where the temperature was in the 80s or 90s, and all that snow on the car just melted right off in minutes. When I reached L.A. the Nissan was about as dirty as a car can be, so I took it to a car wash and it got cleaned up nice and pretty.

To this day, I still miss that Nissan Sentra.

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