Lynn and I found our hire car, an eggplant-coloured Citroën Picasso. My computer is still set to British English for the proposal I worked on to UK Aid. I’ll leave it that way, since the next events took place in Britain.
First, a little primer on UK terminology for anyone out there who may be confused. The United Kingdom is the nation that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Those are four separate countries, but together they are United. Britain means the same thing as the UK, while Great Britain is the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales—not Northern Ireland. If you ask a native where exactly the Scottish or Welsh borders are, you will get a confused look. That’s probably because they are so jagged, unlike say, the border between Wyoming and Colorado.
Then there’s the Commonwealth, which includes a bunch of former colonies like Canada and Australia and Belize. Those countries are independent but Queen Elizabeth II is their sovereign. Then there are the Crown Dependencies, like Jersey; and the British Overseas Territories, like Gibraltar. I hope that clears up any confusion.
England has 48 counties, or shires. When you say the word shire independently, it’s pronounced like in The Hobbit, “shyr.” That’s not an official pronunciation; the official Oxford English Dictionary one is ʃaɪə(r). When shire is added to the end of a county name, like Oxfordshire, it’s pronounced “sure” (by Americans) and “shuh” (by Brits). Some of the county names are shortened up for convenience; for instance Buckinghamshire is nicknamed Bucks, Peebleshire is nicknamed Tweeddale, and Berwickshire is Duns-shire. Simples!
Lynn and I were driving to Cornwall, also known as Kernow in Cornish, the local language which has about 350 native speakers. As far as I know, Cornwall is never Cornwallshire, just Cornwall. The red-outlined section in the far southwest of the map below is Cornwall.
It’s 208 air miles from London to Cornwall. If we could have driven in the air, we could have been there in a little over three hours. With traffic and the twisting roads of the last bit of the route, Lynn reckoned it would be about five hours.
What she hadn’t reckoned on was not being able to figure out the gear shifting. The west country of England is so beautiful, in part, because of all its gently rolling hills. Hills that were lined for miles with cars full of holidaymakers, as people on vacation are called there.
The Picasso had a manual transmission, and Lynn’s method for not rolling backwards on hills was to engage the parking brake. I drive a manual transmission but I had always just kept my foot on the brake while engaging the clutch when on a hill. The parking brake on this vehicle was a button on the dashboard, but nothing appeared to happen when Lynn pressed it.
I slouched in the passenger seat binging on cough drops and blowing my nose between bouts of wracking coughs while Lynn did her best to keep the vehicle from rolling backwards into the car behind us.
“And of course they all pull up within inches of my rear bumper!” she growled. “Don’t they know I have a manual transmission?”
Then the burning smell began. “I think I’ve burned the clutch,” Lynn said.
“It could be the brakes,” I man-splained unhelpfully. We were back to where we’d been the year before, on our road trip to New Orleans. This time we were in a rental car, but it was still the case that neither of us knew diddly squit about cars.
“I don’t even know how to open the bonnet of my car,” Lynn said.
The smell persisted but we ignored it and drove on. We emerged out of the traffic jam onto a series of gigantic connected roundabouts and went in circles for about 10 minutes, then plunged off an exit and somehow had chosen the correct one. Another 10 minutes and we pulled up in front of our cottage.
It was none too soon; my Ethiopia trip was catching up with me. I made a dash for the cottage and spent my first hours in Bodmin, Cornwall, in the bathroom.