Roadkill Walking

May 14 - It's an old joke that Britain and the United States are two nations divided by a common language; I spent a few bewildered days in Dublin just a few years ago and expected to be just as baffled in London.

English wasn't my problem: Danish was. After just seven weeks in Denmark I'd become accustomed to being unable to communicate. In London I spoke to merchants and waiters in the universal language of gesticulation abutted with short, simple sentences (by "sentences" I mean one or two nouns strung together with simple verbs, almost always in the present tense).

The people I met must have thought I was some kind of brain case--or German, which would amount to the same thing in London.

I also noticed signs of this weird stupidity in my relationship with the DMB. Going into a bakery for breakfast, for example, I stepped back from the counter, eyed the various rolls and muffins, and whispered to the DMB that I wanted a ham-and-cheese croissant and a cup of black coffee. She gave our order to the kid behind the counter, in English, and I nodded my approval.

I was so used to having the DMB interpret for me at restaurants and in stores that we had both slipped right back into our routine in the middle of London.

Another routine we both had problems shaking was the habit of expecting oncoming traffic to come from the left. I suspect the British have a secret name for visitors like myself: roadkill.

It's a cliche to complain about their driving on the wrong side of the street, but it's such a significant and ubiquitous difference that you can't get around it. If you do any walking about at all, the car thing is going to make a powerful impression on you--hopefully only figuratively. The DMB and I did a lot of walking in London, but much of it was just around the block because we lacked the nerve to cross the street.

It seems simple enough: you step up to the curb, look down, observe the words "Look Right" painted on the street, look left, step into the crosswalk, leap out of your skin at the eruption of horns and squealing brakes, and scramble back onto the sidewalk.

You take a moment to collect yourself and try again, but the American neck will not turn to the right when attempting to cross a street. It snaps automatically toward the left, and it requires Herculean strength or Zen-like self-possession, or both, to rotate it back toward the right. Even if you succeed in glancing to the right before crossing, your head will snap back to the left like a rubber band the moment you actually step into the street.

On nights we'd been drinking (i.e., at night), the DMB and I would only cross streets by first insinuating ourselves into pedestrian herds, ensuring enough bodies on either side of us to absorb the impact of any oncoming traffic.

* * *

Skylab was launched 30 years ago this very day.

The first inoculation against smallpox was administered on May 14, 1796, by Edward Jenner, whose descendant Bruce would become an Olympic decathlon champion. This medical wonder came only four days after Napoleon's army defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Lodi.

Exactly twenty-two years prior to that, King Louis XV had died of smallpox (on May 10, 1774). When he died, Louis XVI became king, and only five years later (on La Quatorze Juillet, French for "the Fourth of July"), the Revolution began (mostly because Louis's wife kept telling everyone to eat cake), which resulted in the Rain of Terror, which resulted, eventually, in Napoleon.

Which practically brings it all full circle, if you're not a stickler for circularity.

George Lucas turns 59 today. It's also the birthday of Bobby Darin (1936).

Liberia celebrates National Unification Day today. It's Kamuzu Banda's Birthday in Malawi and Independence Day in Paraguay.

Happy Wednesday.

2002, The Moron's Almanac™

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