Finding Dante’s 10th Circle in the UK

Having never driven in England before, I’m not sure what we were thinking when we recklessly decided to rent a car for two days to drive around the Cotswolds. We knew we wanted to visit Jane Austen’s house, Winchester Cathedral and random castles along the way, and there wasn’t a direct route with subways or buses to reach those places, so we went online and booked with Enterprise, designating Craig as our sole driver.

However, the night before picking up the car, Craig got a text on his phone and groaned, “No! Enterprise said they’re all out of automatic rental cars and they only have a manual transmission left.”

Not only would he be navigating driving on the left-hand side of the road from the right-hand seat of the car, he’d also need to shift gears while doing so.

He started to panic. “Is the clutch on the left or the right in British cars? Can I get used to shifting gears with my left hand? Should I cancel the car?”

Once we reviewed our options again, we realized we had to bite the bullet and go through with the rental car. Ever the optimist, I said, “It’ll be fine.”

Of course, we didn’t even know that the worst obstacle of all on our journey was something we hadn’t even considered: traffic circles. Imagine this: you’re not only driving from the right-hand side of the car on the opposite side of the road, but now you have to merge into a circle from the left and exit from the left. It felt like our heads might explode.

We just happened to be making this journey on July 4, and I said to Craig, “Do you think traffic circles are Britain’s way of getting back at Americans for the whole American Revolution debacle? You know, like their passive aggressive way of saying F.U. but with flowers around the border?”

Needless to say, our “drive through the countryside” felt more like our own private Waterloo, and the air was blue inside the car with language I rarely hear out of my husband when he’s stateside.

To be fair, I was zero help as his wing man because the directions made no sense to me. In one situation, I sent him around the same circle THREE TIMES while I tried to tell him where to go. He gave me a look that said, “I know exactly where I want YOU to go right now.”

Which is why later that day at a pub in Bath we wondered if traffic circles were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The fifth circle is anger, and Dante tells us that angry souls of this circle spend eternity waging battle on the River Styx. Well, did you know the Thames River is also known as the River Styx? And I’m pretty sure we crossed that river multiple times that day, going in the wrong direction, of course.

We went to England to celebrate our 30th anniversary, and as we look back on the last 30 years as a couple, the landscape is spotted with shots across the bow, landmines we skirted and battles we survived. But it’s also filled with memories of our wedding day, the births of our children and tender moments as a growing family.

When we dropped that car off at Enterprise, we felt a little like Churchill at the end of WWII — exhausted, spent and ready for a nap. But also like him, we found a pub, grabbed some fish, chips and cider, clinked glasses and committed to “keep calm and carry on.”

Here’s to 30 more.

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Eileen Gault Burmeister

Eileen Gault Burmeister

Storyteller, writer, editor, photographer, fascinated by words, forever reading the room.