Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Zen and the Art of Destroying a Rental Car

Driving in Ireland is fun. Really fun. The most obvious and initially striking difference between driving on the island and most of the rest of the world is, of course, that cars utilize the left side of the road, and the driver's seat is on the right (although improper) side of the car. This is at first, unnerving, and after only a week in-county we never did quite get the hang of which side of the car to approach when holding the keys, or from ineffectively glancing over our right shoulders when turning in that that direction. In fact, from the early moments in the rented Opel Something-or-Other the putative rule of thumb was more or less, "check every blind spot you can think of every time before doing anything especially turning left or right and you're going to want a spotter if you need to parallel park it really is harder than it looks all backwards and everything."

The novel fright of turning left in a five lane intersection in downtown Dublin by relying finally on motor-memory (despite having made the conscious decision not to make that mistake only seconds before entering the intersection and then once again as the turn was initiated) and finding yourself facing a row of headlights and unimpressed tour bus drivers and making a last minute correction only to nearly but not actually strike a cyclist  loses said novelty rather early on. Fortunately after only one or two faux pas your globetrotting Horans matched pace with the predictably steep learning curve and made it out of the city without incident (or at least with plausible deniability that there was any incident worth mentioning). Also, Rick Steves told us to be sure to spring for the full coverage insurance, so, you know, fuck it. In any event, the right improper side drive thing isn't really that tricky to get the hang of, and only begins to explain why driving in Ireland is so much fun.

The baseline adrenal trickle that comes from driving in a foreign country stems from the same basic uncertainty and nervousness that accompanies all of those mundane activities that are taken for granted in home life when they are attempted abroad. A routine trip to the domestic grocery store incites only an astringent distaste for the fellow blurry-eyed shoppers and what seem like unnecessarily long lines due to understaffed checkers because Jon is on his break and the last thing we need is for those guys to unionize so they might as well get a break if that keeps them quiet and besides the line isn't really that long except for when stuck behind that one morbidly obese lady with the ten-gallon perm and the one lurking curler still in and the five or so children but who's only privy to the whereabouts of about three at any given time, who insists on checking the receipt line item by line item to make sure that all of the ten cent coupons she spent Sunday afternoon clipping over the din of her stories and her three accounted for children are accounted for themselves on paper to make sure she gets what's right, even though you only have like one thing of Ballpark Franks and a six pack of beer and she has two whole carts of Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls Et Cetera and it really should have been a photo finish to see who got to the check line first but she had way more inertia and so out of self-preservation you got the heck out of the way and just let her go first (then the line gets sort of long). Those reassuring home life inconveniences pale in comparison to the fear and loathing that well and constrict a wayward diner's breathing at the prospect of approaching an overwhelmed butcher's counter over an inland sea of four-foot-tall local women in colorful regalia all pining for the finer cuts while Our Fair Foreigner only wants to get something that isn't a kidney or a gall bladder or something and is thumbing dumbly through a phrase book but the stupid thing only has things like, "I'll have what she's having" and said Foreigner sure as shit isn't about to pay for whatever it is that that lady right there just bought, that's for sure (I mean, is it supposed to be that color?).

To be fair, traveling in a mostly English speaking country is much less intimidating than in a land where the tongue is alien, and since being admitted to the Euro Zone and especially after the tech boom of '95-through-aught 8 -- and let's disregard what happened in aught 8 out of politeness -- it's probably fair to call Ireland a First World country. And a tourist friendly one at that. But with that said, the ante can't help but get upped when the Traveler has some skin in the game, and I don't mean by accidentally eating something that sort of felt like an artery and now he has the burden of going down to the tienda to look for some floss because whatever-it-is won't come out from between molars fourteen and fifteen and he's starting to think that it being an artery might be best case scenario. No, driving is a different thing, and while the prevailing advice for foreigners in Ireland, should one run over a child or something, is not to keep driving and "don't stop for God's sake because those people over there who just saw that will pull you out of the car and light you on fire with the gas you paid for, right there on the spot: judge, jury, and hangman, I shit you not just hit the gas and let the cops come find you," the foreigner's status quo is still somewhat unsettled and never entirely at ease.

Adding the very narrow asbestiform roads that wind through the countryside with no regard for sight lines through corners or intuitive route finding, the predominance of small and sporty (in comparison to a 2000 Ford Ranger with sloppy suspension and a wet/unimpressed pound dog as copilot) cars, and the relative unavailability of anything but a six speed manual transmission, well, it isn't very difficult to see why the British and the Irish are so fond of their motorsports. And so through the stifled-but-not-really and ultimately infructuous gasps and well-meant-but-not-entirely-constructive criticism that seeped forward from the rear passenger section Opel's cabin from our self-appointed driving supervisors (who politely declined any offer to try a hand at steering, when the opportunity was presented), my father and I set gaily about destroying a rental car.

After waiting for two or so hours through the constant assurances from a smiling but un-helpful Hertz attendant that our vehicle could be no more than, say, thirty minutes away, as the car that we were supposed to have received was carted away on one of those 8-car double-decker flatbed car-trailers with extensive cosmetic damage to the passenger side (of the car), we finally took possession of our eventually damningly spacious Opel Something-or-Other. Also the full coverage insurance and the additionally insured (Yours Truly). "Incident" is such a nebulous word, so in the interest of truth, if not transparency, I will say that we left Dublin without collision.

It was not until we found ourselves hugging the 3/2 lane tarmac that meandered through the Irish countryside like a long ribbon held against a stiff breeze that our chariot began to suffer. We learned early on that the impossibly dense hedgerows which served to dash any hope of knowing what lay around the hairpin corners to which we were wholly committed were left to be pruned by the cars themselves. When no traffic was incoming we would frequently find ourselves borrowing a score or two centimeters of the opposing lane. However, when confronted with oncoming cars and the remarkably frequent tour buses which drive what is left of Ireland's economy, we were left with no recourse but to graze the encroaching flora. Such was the consistency of this sort of barter that we noticed the hedges bore an extra, waist-height indentation where the side mirrors of countless Opels before had torn at the still green frayed woody ends.

That sort of phenomenon explains the lion's share of the damage, which I maintain may buff out. The plastic side mirror cover fell as an early victim to an unnaturally robust twig, and we spend most of the week with exposed red and while and yellow wires and an electric mirror than could only be manipulated by hand. This proved especially inconvenient because at about the same time the passenger side window began to decline to ascend. The party line is that this was not our fault, and that only very circumstantial evidence could insinuate our guilt. This was fixed halfway through the week by a different and friendly Hertz attendant who covered the electric window buttons with duct tape and asked us not to use them. Later, when we glanced off of a very well camouflaged stone wall at somewhere between sixty and seventy-five kph we hypothesized that we might have saved Hertz a great deal of money, and ourselves a great deal of time, by simply taking charge of the badly damaged car that was intended for our use on day one.

In the end I believe that it was primarily the low speed collisions that were our undoing. The full coverage insurance explicitly excluded damage to the wheels and tyres (sic), and through several attempts of mirror image parallel parking we did quite a number on the front passenger wheel. The tyre (sic) seemed ok. 

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