Where I come from, there are couple of running jokes. One is that there are more cows than people living on my road. The other is that when people come to visit, they have to check their passports at the border of civilization. While these are indeed exaggerations, they are not too far from the truth. It was a big deal a few years back when our road got paved with real asphalt and rocks. This was a step up from the layers of ash from the local paper mill that some bureaucrat thought would be a fantastic idea. (Just for the record, it was not.) Autumn mornings you are quite likely to see men in camouflage converge in wooded areas and grassy fields, hoping for a white-tail buck to fill the freezer and perhaps a set of horns to adorn the living room. (This is a part of Southern culture. Don’t judge.) Because we live in a rural community, most people work in the big city about an hour away, and the twice-daily bumper-to-bumper commute can be quite gruesome. Out here in the county, however, it’s only about a ten-minute drive to the nearest small town, which is a lovely old faded beauty currently being revitalized through some sort of Revitalize Cute Old Towns Grant. A traffic jam out here is most likely to happen when you get stuck behind a tractor driving down the road at 11 MPH, chugging from one hay field to the next, or perhaps a school bus-turned-convertible hauling large quantities of said hay. There are also what we refer to as “crop inspectors”, old men in old trucks who have nowhere to go and all day to get there.
Now I had heard of the autobahn before. It is spoken of in hushed tones of great awe by prepubescent students bouncing along on a school bus most likely older than they are. Years after being enlightened about this wonder, even my wildest fantasies of zipping along at such speeds were no match for my initial encounter with real, live European drivers.
My first year flying into Poland, I remember being incredibly impressed with the Chopin Airport in Warsaw. It was bright and welcoming. Though the pace was fast, the building is organized and well-marked, so locating our bags was a breeze. We met our guides who took us on a tour of the city for a few hours while we waited for the other half of our delegation from the US to arrive. After introductions all around, we piled into a 15-passenger van/minibus hybrid and away we went. And, man, did we ever GO!
As we shot into traffic, the first two minutes were better than a ride at Six Flags. The allure wore off quickly, however. Leaving Warsaw was simply an experience I was in no way prepared for. There were no discernable speed limit signs in the city, or perhaps they were uniformly ignored. People changed lanes at will, and a gap of about four inches was enough for them to squeeze their vehicle into – regardless of size. My Polish consists of about five phrases, but even my inexperienced ear could easily determine that our driver had an extensive vocabulary of Slavic profanity, which he exercised liberally, accompanied by a couple of hand gestures that are recognized on six continents.
We flew – or should I say, careened – down the highway, and our group of European first-timers foolishly thought that we would be able to enjoy the sights of both the city and the countryside on a leisurely three-hour drive. Rookie mistake. We moved as such a break-neck speed that what might have been interesting highlights were little more than a blur.
The inside of the minibus was lacking in certain accruements that I have become accustomed to. Since Polish summers are incredibly mild by South Georgia standards, there was no AC. (Did you even know that they still make cars without air conditioning??!!) This happened to have been a rather warm day and the only two opening windows in the vehicle were for the driver and shotgun passenger. As the vehicle barreled along in a herky-jerky motion, we all tried to time our sway so that no one fell from his seat. My seatmate, who later became a dear friend, was at the time a stranger to me. After about the third or fourth time I bounced off her left shoulder, I quit apologizing. Add to this, all of us had been awake for approximately 30 hours. Between the exhaustion, the heat and the bouncing around, I was fighting car sickness. I closed my eyes, hoping against hope that I could fall asleep and the ride would mercifully seem to end sooner. Nothing doing. I curled up every way imaginable in my portion of the seat and even considered lying in the floor. As soon as I would drift off, there would be another snatch of the steering wheel, and my head would snap awkwardly. By the time we arrived at our final destination, I was, as my grandmother used to say, “plumb tuckered out.” Kissing the ground would have been a tad melodramatic. But I did consider it.
My other experiences with European drivers have all been interesting, but not nearly so traumatic. It seems that red lights and stop signs are merely helpful suggestions and that use brakes is entirely optional. Whether the drivers were simply in a hurry, or were trying to shock their inexperienced passengers, they certainly did wonders for my prayer life! That being said, in my three summers of visiting Poland, I don’t recall ever having seen an automobile accident. Perhaps those European really are onto something after all.