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The Car that’s Going to Kill You Is Coming from the Right (and if that doesn’t kill you, zebra crossings will)…

….because, as we know, in the UK (and in some of its ex-colonies) you drive on the left. This is not confusing just for drivers but also for pedestrians for whom cars will appear on unexpected sides of the road, going in unexpected directions. For the first few days, when stepping into the road, you will automatically look left and then right, because that’s what you are used to doing. After a bit you will remember that that is the wrong way to go about it and will start making an effort to do the opposite of what instinct and habit tell you. A few days after that you will reach the peak of confusion: you know you should look the opposite way to what you are used to, but after two days of correcting a life-long habit you are not sure which is the way you are used to looking any more. So you look randomly from one side to the other, so confused you don’t actually take in anything around you and end up stepping blindly out into the road.  In these situations (yes, I still find myself in them) I repeat in my head something that an EFL teacher once said to my class during a school trip to Kent: ‘The car that is going to kill you is coming from the right’. This reminds me to look right first, and then left, and it has saved my life (well, perhaps just a limb or two) on a few occasions.

But there is another potentially deadly aspect to intercultural road habits: zebra crossings themselves. In the UK a pedestrian standing on the side of the road within two metres of a zebra crossing has, for approaching drivers, the same significance as a red light. You will see cars stop to let you pass as though an invisible barrier had just come down in front of them. For an Italian this can be quite confusing. I often find myself waiting on the side of the road for a car to go by without realizing that the car has stopped and is waiting for me to go by. How strange! Of course you quickly get used to this almost reverential respect for the zebra crossing. Needless to say, I now strut across the road , thanking the drivers by raising a hand like a Hollywood star on the red carpet waving at the crowds of fans.

If you stood by a zebra crossing in Italy and just waited for someone to stop you would be waiting all day. On a busy road, where there are no lulls in the flow of traffic, the only way to cross is to give drivers no choice but to stop. How do you do this? You walk out in front of them. You basically have to say to them: ‘You either stop or you kill me. Your choice.’ Of course you have to do so in a conscious way. Assessing the speed of the car and state of mind of the driver you are stepping out in front of is essential. You don’t want to step out in front of someone who is in such a hurry, so engrossed in their own thoughts (or phone conversation) that they are not going to see you. The drivers with shifty eyes are your best bet: they are consciously trying not to look at you precisely because they have seen you but do not want to stop and are hoping that you will not decide to step out in front of them, of all people. That’s exactly the kind of driver you can step out in front of – at least you know they are paying attention to the road.

It just takes a bit of practice and courage, but anybody can master the art of crossing the road in Italy. The problem is that when you have lived in the UK for a while you get used to owning the road, even as a pedestrian. The red carpet feeling goes to your head and you start to enjoy the power a small shifting of your foot has on a whole column of traffic. Eventually you get used to catwalking across the road with barely a glance on either side.

Needless to say, this is a bit dangerous in Italy. I doubt any Italian driver would think twice about holding their course even if Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt in red carpet attire appeared at the side of the road. So perhaps you are thinking 1-0 to the U.K. as far as pedestrian life goes. Sorry, I think not. There is a kind of beauty to crossing the road in Italy: it’s a skill, you have to be good at it or be prepared to waste a lot of time waiting for the elusive considerate driver or confine yourself to crossing at traffic lights.

Of course it’s not really zebra crossings I’m trying to get at. What I’m really thinking about is rules in general and how they are enforced and perceived in the two countries. In England rules are RULES, in Italy they are often just guidelines. Once again I cannot say that one country’s take on rules is better than the other, although you could argue that as far as something as dangerous as driving is concerned rules should be RULES. Perhaps I should agree, but I think rules can be just as dangerous as a lack of them. Where rules are not sufficiently enforced you risk an abundance of idiots who think they are above the rules, and where rules are enforced too strictly you risk an abundance of idiots who are only capable of thinking ‘by the book’ and believe that ‘the book’ and its rules are all that matters. I would like to think that we all have the same set of inner rules – of humanity or of consideration for others – that we abide by, but, unfortunately, so many things that go on in the world tell me this is not the case.


Don't forget, if you are interested in translation, or writing or literature, take a look at my other blog.



Lukas's picture

Yes it coming from the right here. One friend of mine lost her legs under knees because she looked to the wrong side then. Fortunately she managed to get back on her feet again, even if using artificial legs. Respect for her.

Would be perfect to have the wisdom to know when is better to use rules and when is better to use just guilines and your own head at every single time.

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Translation Chronicles's picture

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. Crossing the road is just such an authomatic thing, it's hard to stop and think which way cars are coming. All humour aside, that sentence is actually a great one to remember, I myself was surprised at how useful it turned out to be.

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Lukas's picture

It is great to remeber you are right. However, as my memory is soo great, I rather look to both sides. Especially while on, or after, a holiday at the continent...

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