Some people think food is the clearest window into a culture's soul. Others say music or art, architecture or folk tales. To truly know a people, travel guides admonish, one must sup and quaff with the natives, keep an eye out for the placement of angels, the everyday use of herbs, the color of the roof tiles or of the doors. All of which are helpful in a back-lit, Merchant Ivory sort of way. But if you really want to understand a city or a country not your own, just get behind the wheel.
Nothing says more about people's relationship with time, nature and each other than their driving habits. And for good reason. Driving is the one public behavior we all engage in practically every day. It also involves the use of a potentially deadly weapon.
So the rules of our on-the-road conduct, and the subsequent social mores, are possibly the most essential that we have. And this is never clearer than when visiting a place that follows a completely different code.
I thought of this as I clattered over the O'Connell Street Bridge into the heart of Dublin, Ireland. Actually, "thought" is probably too strong a word for it--I wasn't so much thinking as reacting, not so much reacting as panicking.
For one thing, I am not used to driving alongside double-decker buses and amphibious vehicles filled with tourists wearing Viking hats.
For another, none of the drivers around me seemed to comprehend the concept of lanes.
We were not so much driving as converging, now hurtling along streets that suddenly and without warning became one-way, now skidding to a halt to avoid jaywalking pedestrians who took any infinitesimal gap in traffic as a personal invitation to cross the street.
Add to this a random and very vague use of arrows on signs and traffic lights, the narrow and crazy-angled streets and the fact that we were driving on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car, and perhaps you'll understand why my husband was speaking to me in the even tones previously reserved for the labor and delivery room.
After two weeks of driving around Ireland, I should have been better prepared. Dublin was only a more congested version of what I had encountered everywhere--communal driving. It wasn't so much driving as it was negotiating, like making your way through a very crowded party without spilling your drink or burning a hole in anyone with your cigarette. People smiled and nodded, even as their side mirror banged yours, even as they cut you off.
In the small towns, it is not unusual for the car in front of you to stop in the middle of the street while the driver chats with a friend she has just seen passing. You are just expected to go around. Or if it is a case of two drivers, approaching from opposite directions, who need to have a chat, thereby blocking the entire road, you are expected to wait. They would do the same for you. On roads so narrow that two vehicles can not pass, there seem to be no rules about who should give way, except whoever is closest to a turnout, or even a wide swath of grass, usually backs up first. Smiling and nodding.
Like walking down a street, like moving around the kitchen at Christmas, people are aware of each other--driving is just another form of society, just another movement in the dance.
Imagine trying to live that way in Los Angeles. Anyone still clinging to the myth of laid-back L.A. clearly has never driven here.
The rules applying to personal veracity or box-office spin may be fudgable, but the driving laws are not. Jaywalking? You can spot an Angeleno from 20 paces in any city, state or continent--she's the one who stops at the curb when the sign begins to flash. Lane sharers, tailgaters, double-parkers, sure we have a few, but then again, too few to mention.
By and large, we give each other plenty of space, use our signals, trundle onto offramps in an orderly fashion.
For one thing, we have to. There are just too many of us to leave driving up to a general spirit of conviviality (which the Irish are also finding as cars proliferate and cities begin to bulge). But more than that, for Angelenos, driving is something to be done anonymously, the journeys we take private ones.
In place of more fluid interaction, we have rules. When someone breaks these rules, we are outraged, enraged. Mostly for safety reasons--people who run red lights can easily kill someone. But also because reacting to someone else's deviation means we have to think about someone else. For a whole minute.