The Land Where Left is Right – Sometimes
Navigating jetlag and learning to walk safely down the street in a new place have a lot in common – confusion — especially with traffic circulating on the left side. In both instances, perceptions and memory are a bit fuzzy. We took measures this year to not be so overwhelmed by sleepiness on our first days in Europe – fairly successfully. But our measures didn’t help much with other jetlag effects, such as slowed perception, mental confusion, holes in our memory banks, and a dramatically lowered level of tolerance for the unpredictable. We’ve ridden a bit, in taxis and buses and of course they are driving on the left side. I’ve always thought that driving on the left would be intensely confusing. But London has enough vehicular traffic that it would be relatively easy to just follow the car ahead. Being a pedestrian, on the other hand, can be life-threatening, especially at street corners. At big intersections with traffic islands, the authorities have taken this into account and stenciled directions in big white letters in front of where toes would be: “LOOK LEFT!” or “LOOK RIGHT.” Ordinary streets in London, however, are extremely narrow, with just a couple of inches between cars going in both directions. Baron von Haussmann, who designed the straight, broad boulevards of Paris never made it to London. Therefore, the cars on the side of the street where one is walking are rolling along right next to the curb. Everyone here, on wheels or on foot, seems to move very, very quickly – lightning fast reflexes are a definite plus (never mind the soporific effect of jetlag on reflexes). When one is about to cross the street on foot, it is essential to look back around one’s right shoulder to see if any cars might be about to make a left turn, hugging the curb. After a couple of days of this confusion, it becomes difficult to believe – even though I can see it — that the car behind me barreling toward its tight left turn really is going to pass right next to the curb on my side of the street – there is no time or space tolerance, and my toes had better be behind the edge of the curb.
Yesterday, our second full day here, we ventured on foot into the famous central areas of London, around Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square. There are cars, but not in the congested knots one would expect, because the government has imposed hefty traffic surcharges for driving in central areas during the day. It seems a fairly successful strategy. One consequence, however, is a mass of red double decker buses – buses everywhere — weaving in and out, stopping and going. The other consequence is a mighty river of pedestrians, on every side. Shoulder to shoulder, toe to heel — but sometimes heel to toe — we all move together, a mass of ambulating humanity.
These areas are heavily visited by tourists whose habitual traffic patterns may favor either right or left. And no absolute laws about left or right for pedestrians seem to apply. Therefore, the flow of traffic resembles nothing so much as a weaving. There is not a column of walkers on the left and another, flowing in the opposite direction, on the right. When approaching someone coming from the opposite direction, there is nothing predictable about the side to which they’ll turn in moving past.
But enter the subway stations, and the masses of always running, hurrying passengers have strict rules on the lengthy escalators – stand to the right or be mowed down! The escalators descend to truly impressive depths in the underground stations — sometimes four or five stories in a single flight. Those who prefer to ride quietly line up along the right, while a massive stream of others sprint alongside, either down or up, on the left side. If pedestrians followed the same rule as vehicles, the slow movers would stand to the left, while the constant flow of sprinters would pass on the right – I think.
In large cities, walking stamina is always required. In London, however, speed is an added requirement. Long distance speed walkers rules the sidewalks and thoroughfares. Needless to say, it’s a city full of young people. The average age in these central districts of the city seems between 20 and 35.
At moments like these, I become aware of the intense degree to which my daily movements normally are governed by habit. I usually don’t have to apply reason to questions like which side to select or which direction to choose. One of the benefits of travel is the need to challenge even such ingrained physical habits. Habits can save a lot of time and energy, but every once in a while, it’s good to revisit basics and re-examine what works best in the present moment.