I have a celebrity car. Wherever I drive in these parts I attract curious looks and pointing fingers. I have to admit that I quite enjoy the attention. So what do I drive? A Ferrari perhaps? Or maybe one of those amusingly customised Volkswagen Beetles? No, it’s a 1995 Nissan Sunny Sequel in a rather stylish metallic blue. There are no eccentric decorations, no home-made paint job, not even an attractive blonde in the passenger seat.
What puzzles and charms the locals is that the steering wheel is on the right-hand side because I bought the car in Britain. As I live in Switzerland this marks the car out as an oddity, and all the more so because it now has Swiss number plates. When I stop at a pedestrian crossing (something of a regular habit here, unlike in certain neighbouring countries) the road-crossers realise that the driver is on the wrong side of the car and check the number plate suspiciously. They see that it is a local Swiss plate and look again: the double-take. For added amusement it’s best to have somebody in the passenger seat who makes faces out of the window and does anything but pay attention to the road ahead. My advice to any attention-seeking British expat in Europe is simple: for instant celebrity status bring your car with you. In Monaco or Marbella it might take something grander than a Nissan to get noticed but in small town Switzerland any old car will do.
Of course the joke is on me in car parks. If I am lucky I have a passenger who can pick up the ticket from the machine through the left side window. Otherwise I am caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If I am feeling adventurous I manoeuvre as close as I can to the ticket machine, gambling recklessly with the wing mirror’s paintwork. Once close enough it is just possible to stretch across the passenger seat to reach for the ticket. Once I even did it without getting a hernia. In mature, sensible moods I park at a safe distance, climb out of the car, pick up the ticket and get back into the car, which involves incurring the wrath of the drivers queuing behind me.
Worse still are the motorway toll booths to be found in France and Italy. For these I almost always have to walk around the back of the car, waving sweetly at the motorists honking in complaint at the 20-second delay. Sometimes the cashier sniggers and affects sarcastic surprise that I am able to pay with euros.
Switzerland has a large international community and number plates from numerous other countries are to be seen all over the place but they almost always have the steering wheel on the left. In my experience all continental Europeans are glad to gang up against Britain and Ireland when it comes to driving on the right. Many of them believe that in the whole world only Britain and Ireland (usually shortened to “England”) drive on the left. In fact we have about one in four countries on our side. I used to cite Australia or India as examples but this approach tended to leave me open to an attack on colonialism. Left unchecked, the smug European is then all too eager to launch into the familiar catalogue of British exceptionism: pubs closing at 11pm; feet and inches; mad cows; and incessant rain. Nowadays I use Japan as my example instead, which is particularly appropriate as my car is a Nissan, albeit one that was built in Sunderland.
To challenge the European consensus I have concocted an elaborate but dubious argument that it is safer to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Statistically, most drivers favour their right side (hand, eye, foot) and if you drive on the left it is the right side of the body which carries out the more important functions: looking down the middle of the road, steering, accelerating and braking. Despite this rather desperate theory I have reluctantly had to accept that it is safer to drive on the right in Switzerland.
In fact the origins of driving on the left do seem to be related to the majority preference for the right hand. Several internet sources, all seemingly quoting each other, explain that travellers on horseback liked to gallop on the left-hand side so that they could hack at oncoming riders with their favoured right hand. The ensuing slaughter of the luckless left-handed riders presumably explains why they are still in a minority today. Apparently we can blame the French Emperor Napoleon, an early advocate of European integration, for spreading his personal predilection for driving on the right to the countries he conquered. America, keen to cast off any reminders of British rule, soon followed suit.
Switzerland fiercely defends its independence but has happily sided with the surrounding European Union countries on this issue. Given its neutral status you might think they would have tried a middle way. On reflection perhaps that wouldn’t be such a good idea.
To tell the truth, I have become rather attached to my celebrity car and I would be sorry if I had to replace it with a local model. I am used to being seated next to the kerb now and it rarely causes difficulties. I tend to avoid mountain driving because I don’t see as well around tight bends from the other side and those sleek sports cars are always impatient on their way to a weekend of skiing. The view for overtaking is not so good but, frankly, in a 1995 Nissan Sunny that is rarely an issue.
Otherwise it’s a pleasure to drive and (touch the wood-effect dashboard) I haven’t had any accidents. The car which carried my worldly possessions and me from London to Switzerland has clocked up the miles (it doesn’t do kilometres) in Europe from France in the west to Slovenia in the east without the merest complaint.
In order to pass the strict Swiss equivalent of the MOT I had to buy new headlights that incline to the right instead of to the left. I have the old ones in a box in the cupboard, waiting for that triumphant day when the car re-emerges at Dover to be reunited with its beloved left side of the road. Oh, how I will savour winding down the window at that first car park and reaching out gratefully, longingly for the ticket that is once more within my grasp.