LYTHAM, England –- A nice Japanese woman with a perpetual smile apparently spotted me in the Hertz parking lot Monday morning and deduced that I didn’t exactly get off to a flying start upon landing at the Manchester airport.
“You were in the car at the airport a long time,” she said to me Tuesday morning in the media breakfast room at the Open Championship.
“Yes,” I said. “Long time. Longer than you know.”
You might say the annual United Kingdom adventure/tragicomedy began slowly. But at least it began. For a while it looked like it never would.
First, a word about the rental car. It felt like one needed to go through airplane pilot training or to astronaut flight school just to figure out how to operate the Volvo SUV. Hertz just tossed me the keys when a slide-show tutorial was needed.
Safe estimate, it took at least half an hour for my traveling companion and me to get out of the rental-car parking lot. First I made the annual mistake: I opened the left door out of habit, only to remember the wheel is on the right. Then the car didn’t move. Wouldn’t budge. Being stuck in place went on for 5-10 minutes. Then we finally figured out how to release the parking brake. The owners’ manual didn’t help. The brake finally released after we kept pushing various buttons and pulling levers.
Then getting the GPS system to operate took about 20 minutes. We looked in the manual. No help. We stopped an attendant in the lot. He helped show us that the confusing navigation buttons were hidden on the side of the steering wheel.
One task was to change the French on the screen to English. Driving over here while sleep-deprived after an intercontinental flight is challenging enough. Driving while sitting on the right side of the car and going down the left side of the road is tough enough without having to read French on a confusing popup monitor. Then there’s the matter of an SUV being wider than some of the roads.
Happily, after much trial and error with a toggle switch, we somehow changed the language option and inputed our destination.
Then it took 3-4 minutes to get out of the parking lot, partly because of a missed turn and partly because the exit gate didn’t go up. Pushing the “Help” button turned out to be a good idea.
As it happened, all that was just foreplay to the main event – a Monday night drive from Hoylake to Lytham St. Annes. That trip is supposed to take about an hour. It lasted more than twice that, primarily because we pulled over to the side of the road five times.
Just getting out of Hoylake was troublesome because setting the destination on the complicated navigational system remained challenging and required two visits to the curb. Then we pulled over and spent 15 minutes troubleshooting because the GPS system malfunctioned when the passenger’s leg inadvertently hit the DVD player under his seat and dislodged an important disc.
The fourth roadside stop was to check whether the lights were on. They weren’t. After about five more minutes of looking at and punching buttons, we figured out how to turn them on.
The last stop off to the left side of the road wasn’t by choice. It was a policeman’s idea. All of a sudden, a cop car with the flashing lights pulled over in front of us.
“He’s not after me, is he?” I asked.
And so he came up to the window and sternly asked, “Can you please tell me why you went through two flashing red Xs?”
“I didn’t realize I had,” I responded nicely.
I told him I thought they were blinking red caution lights that meant to slow down and proceed carefully. He said they indicated lane closure.
He asked me if I had a UK driver’s license. I said, no. I wanted to add, “And I don’t ever want one. You couldn’t pay me enough to drive over here all the time.”
Anyway, I apologized and acted like the ignorant American I am and promised I would never go through any flashing red X lanes again. Then I made the mistake of telling the cop I knew the left lane is the slow lane.
“It’s not a slow lane,” he said sternly. “It’s a lane.” The word “lane” was emphasized.
Anyway, he let us off without citation and gave strict orders on how to proceed back onto the motorway.
Had he stuck around longer, I could have said, “Hey, while we have you here, please run us through what all these other signs mean. Such as, “No fouling.” Such as those three lines in a circle. Such as, really, just about every sign.
I am supposedly a seasoned traveler. This is my 18th consecutive Open Championship. I’ve driven all over Scotland and England over the years and have learned to abide by three rules: Stay left, be safe and take it slowly. Whatever, it’s never really easy over here. Fun, yes. Easy, no.
Nor was it simple getting through an unmanned toll booth on the motorway on the way to Lytham. The toll called for 1 pound 50, so I reached into my pocket and grabbed a handful of foreign coins. I pumped 1 pound 50 into the tray, but the gate arm didn’t rise. Another 50p and the gate stayed down. Another 50p, nothing. Another 50p, nothing.
I felt like John Daly feeding slot machines in Tunica, Miss.
Finally, inexplicably, the arm ascended after one more 50p. (Note to bosses: You’ll see this on the expense account. Note to British government: You owe us money.)
So I got a ride to Royal Lytham this morning and gave the SUV a rest. Needless to say, I’m ready for the golf to start and the driving to stop.