I just received an email from Redroom editor Huntington Sharp imploring me to blog about Italy. Specifically my most vivid memory of Italy. I suspect he and his minions are anticipating a plethora of postings about pizza in Piza and milliners in Milan and romance in Roma. And of course all that flawless white marble sculpture. Well, that’s just great. But it ain’t my most vivid memory. At least not at this moment. It’s not that I have any objection to perfectly prepared pizza, fashion, sensuous sculpture or amore, but right now I’m a little steamed about Italy and Italians. Okay, I’ll refine it. I’m steamed at Italian drivers and the Italian government. I’ve been to Italy a half-dozen times. And most of those times I’ve piloted a vehicle. I’ve got issues. Issues that need airing.
Why? I’ll tell you why. A couple months back I received a series of three registered letters from the Comune di Roma. An official looking letter in each of the elegant gold-embossed envelopes informed me that I was in violation of one of their traffic laws. Traffic laws? They have traffic laws in Rome? Well, if they do, then why aren’t more people in jail for traffic offences. My puny vehicular indiscretions were nothing compared to the behavior I’ve witnessed on the Italian roadways. Italy is a nation of motorway malefactors. I was cited for “driving in a bus lane.” Bus lane? You mean those white and yellow stripes on the pavement mean something? I thought they were just decorations. That’s certainly how Italian drivers treat them.
My first experience with Italian drivers was as a pedestrian. My wife and I had journeyed from Milan to Florence to Venice to Rome via train. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience combining swift train travel with leisurely pedestrian strolls.
That all changed when we ventured to Naples. Apparently Naples is suffering from an excess of humans and because of the Catholic Church’s edict prohibiting birth control, Neapolitans have decided to use automobiles and armored scooters to impede the swell of population. The elderly, slow, inattentive and hapless are systematically culled from the humanoid herd by motorists. This is done in a couple different ways. The most effective way is during peak traffic times when sidewalks serve as additional traffic lanes. Substantial numbers of the unswift meet St. Peter by this method. This early earthy termination is known locally as Vespacide. The second most effective method is the use of a red octagonal sign known in the United States as a stop sign. The English word “stop” apparently translates to “close your eyes and speed up” in Italian. Although this method of population control is largely limited to the tourist population, now and then a lurching Lamborghini eliminates a resident Italian.
Armed with this information I decided that on my next excursion to Italy I would rent a car and change my role from prey to predator. We rented a peppy Peugeot in Geneva and I installed myself as pilot and my wife served dual roles of navigator and screamer. We practiced our roles in pacifist-centric Switzerland and postage-stamp-centric Liechtenstein before dropping down to Italy.
We aimed towards Genova with the intention of continuing on to Monaco (another civilized and pacifist-centric nation). I was cruising comfortably along the Autostrada at 110 kilometers per hour when I got in my mind that perhaps I could pass the bus in front of me. After all we were in a 130 km/h zone. I might as well take advantage of all the Autostrada had to offer. No sooner had I drifted into the fast lane than a previously unseen vehicle dropped out of the sky, landed directly behind me and settled two feet from my rear bumper. He flashed his headlights at me then took both hands off the steering wheel and gestured at me in the classic Italian shrug of aggressive anguish. I quickly sped up to over 150 km/h and cut in front of the bus which had joined in the event and was now cruising at 140 km/h. My pursuer acknowledged my kindness with his index finger and little finger held high. Being an avid baseball fan I knew that signal meant two outs and I couldn’t quite figure out why he flashed it at me. Later I found out the double-digit gesticulation meant something about my wife that doesn’t bear repeating.
For the next 100 kilometers or so I continued to make tentative forays into the fast lane only to be met seconds later with flashing lights and hand gestures. I never did figure out where the other drivers materialized from. They certainly were not there when I drifted into the fast lane.
I’ve driven in many counties and I can attest to the fact that Italian drivers are no worse or better than other drivers. It’s just that they drive badly at high speeds.
Nevertheless, I have continued to drive during subsequent trips to Italy. I’ve learned that the Italian motorist’s habit of hanging on your bumper and flashing their lights at you is some sort of national sport. Apparently awards are given for how fast you can come up on an unsuspecting driver (extra points are given for tourists) and how close you can get to their bumper without actually making contact. And, of course, it’s not personal. It just seems personal.
That brings me to my most recent encounter with the Italian road ethos and the government. Simply put, “why ME?” Why was I singled out? C’mon, give me a break. I was just doing what everybody else was doing. If fact, one of my passengers, a Dutchman of some experience, actually applauded me for becoming an Italian driver after only a few days.
Oh, well, life’s not fair, is it? The artistically embossed letter (or should I say all three letters) from the Comune di Roma sat on my desk for a few weeks gathering dust. A couple days before the grace period was supposed to end I picked up the clutch of letters again. The letters said I was captured on video driving in a bus lane and on two occasions driving in a restricted area. I was also instructed of my rights. I could protest the fine and pay double if I was found guilty or I could simply go on the Internet and pay three one hundred Euro fines with my still-smoking Visa card and be done with it. I smelled a scam, so I trolled the Internet seeking other victims of Italian traffic fines. Sure enough there were legions of people from all over the world voicing their distress about the hefty fines. I was somewhat comforted by a kinship of mutual suffering. A world united against the Italian traffic department. The question most posed was what will happen if I don’t pay the fine? Alas, I couldn’t find much of a consensus.
I toyed with the idea of not paying the fines, but since the Italian government had my home address and phone number and people named Bruno working for them I decided to pay up. After all, I said to myself, my daughter and son-in-law live in Rome and I would like to see them again and when next I visit I’d like to have all of my limbs intact.