Monday, May 24, 2010

Italian journal, 16: Driving in Europe

via Eumelo, Siracusa, May 24
CURTIS REMINDS ME of a few driving-in-Europe stories. My favorite was told by an acquaintance who'd got a job in Rome where he'd be posted a couple of years at least. His wife hated Rome and said she didn't think she could stay. He was terribly upset. After a couple of months the container arrived with their furnishings, books, and other things, including their car.

She immediately went out for a drive and was gone a few hours. He was afraid she'd left, driven off for France or, more likely, England. At length she came back, though, beaming. I love it here, she said. I love the way they drive here in Rome, it's like being in a boat, everyone goes the same way, when necessary traffic parts, then flows back together again. Now I understand.

This is exactly what I like about driving in Italy: you always know what's going to happen next, at least in the cities. You never look behind; you only look a little bit alongside, primarily you look forward, and drive ahead into the space that's there, until you've got to where you're going, and then you stop in such a way that people behind you can get around you.

I think I've only had two little accidents, er, incidents, while driving in Europe. Once, years ago, we were driving through France in a bit of a hurry. A frenchman was right on our tail, never able to pass because there was never enough road ahead to see if anyone was coming. We'd come to a town, slow down, drive through it or rather around it following the toutes directions signs that lead you around the center of town, come out the other side, and continue; he'd still be on my tail.

Once I decided to gain on him by ignoring the toutes directions and cut right through the center. When I came out, there he was, right behind me.

Finally he passed me at an intersection in the open country, just when I decided at the last minute to turn left. He clipped my fender and we both stopped and jumped out of our cars. You must be in a hurry, msieu, I said, you're driving pretty fast. Exactly as fast as you, he responded, and you're always in front. No great damage was done; we jumped back in our cars and went our ways.

The other time was in Spain. I'd stopped at a gas station, realized I was at the diesel pump instead of a gasoline pump, and backed up to the other pump, not realizing someone had pulled in behind me in a brand new Alfa Romeo. I hit the car pretty hard. I jumped out to look: no damage to my car, some dents to the other.

Oh my god, the woman who was driving the car said in English, my husband is a Spaniard, he's rich, he loves his cars, he'll kill me, I don't know what to do, I'm so sorry about this. Relax, lady, I said, there's not much damage to my car, things like this happen every day, I'm sure it'll all work out. And I continued on to another gas station.

The main thing about driving in Italy is that you not stop, and you slow down only as much as you really need to. When pedestrians cross, for example, even at zebra crossings, you don't stop for them, instead you drive around them. Pedestrians follow the same rule: they step out into the street, gauge the speed of the oncoming cars and the amount of room the cars have to veer into, and walk briskly forward.

On the other hand, if you're driving up a narrow street and a car has stopped in front of you to let a passenger off, or readjust the straps holding a mattress to the top of the car, or check something under the hood, or simply to have a conversation with someone walking by, then of course you stop and wait for him to finish whatever he's doing and resume his own journey. After all you're likely to be in the same situation yourself, you wouldn't want anyone getting impatient with you.

It is true that in the country Italians (and not only Italians, viz. my Frenchman at the intersection) do tend to pass in circumstances Americans think of as risky. If they can't tell whether someone is coming from the other direction, at a hill or a curve for example, they assume there isn't anyone coming from the other direction, and the odds seem to be with them. If they pass without enough distance to cut back into their own lane when traffic is headed for them, three lanes magically and immediately appear where before there were only two.

On country roads everyone clips curves in order to minimize distance; you can count on it. I adjust to this by keeping well to the right on curves, even if it means down-shifting; it keeps peace in the family.

Photos: Campania, including Caserta, Herculaneum, Amalfi, and


Tràpani, Erice, Segesta and environs:


Sicily: south coast:

As always, our meals are recorded at Eating Every Day


1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Our worst incident was in Carrara, where we had gone to check out the marble quarries. When we arrived in town, we came to a big intersection of four lanes in all directions--probably very near the center of the city. The light turned green, I stepped on the accelerator, and the engine died. I tried starting it, but it wouldn't budge. Cars began to pile up behind us, and people began to honk. After a few minutes, people approached the car, spewing out advice and frustration and expletives. Neither of us knew a word of Italian, but even if we had, it wouldn't have helped a bit. I thought: I'll leave the car here, and see if we can't find some place with a phone to call the Hertz people and ask for a tow or something. I left my wife in the car to fend for herself, since we had luggage aboard, etc. I walked two blocks, and found a large auto repair shop, with a big office. I strode up to the counter, and began in pidgin English, or pidgin French, or pidgin German, to inquire if someone might generously call Hertz (I had a number) on our behalf. The woman behind the desk was extremely suspicious, and also seemed not to believe what I was saying. After about 20 minutes, and the intercession of two other customers (one of whom spoke a little German), she finally came to understand what was needed. But she simply refused. Would their shop be obligated in some way? In due course, I gave up and returned to our car.

In the meantime, the Italian police had arrived on the scene, and were trying to arrest my wife. Because we had failed to set up the little bright red delta behind us on the roadway. But we didn't have the little red delta--Hertz hadn't put one in the car. Ah, but Mister, you are still at fault. In another 10 minutes of so, after lots of pointless arguing, the local tow-agency vehicle arrived, and our car was carted off. We rode with the tow driver all the way to Pisa, where the Hertz office was. When we arrived, we were given a new vehicle, and the kind lady behind the desk assured us that all would be taken care of.


Back in the States a month later, we received our credit card statement, and discovered we'd been charged for the tow. $850.00. We tried calling Hertz in America, but they told us we'd have to deal with Hertz Italy. But of course Hertz Italy was of no help at all. The charges had been levied, they were indisputable, and nothing could be done. We considered not paying them, but in the end, there seemed to be no reasonable choice.

Thus ended our romance with the quarries of Carrara, which we never saw.