There are worse places to drive than Italy. But for yours truly, a few thousand clicks up and down the roads of the boot, earlier this month, proved enough of a challenge to satisfy my urge for merit badges for a while.
A search for Hannibal and Caesar took Marcia and me on a two-week driving trip from Milan to Bari to Rome.
Whoooosh! we went down the freeway, silently praying whenever a motorcycle decided to invent a new lane beside us or a semi charged ahead into the left lane, going uphill. Whoooosh! Or was it a secondary road? The degree of tailgating was about the same. How often did I look into my rearview mirror and gulp? “Keep one car length behind for every ten miles per hour of speed” is a slogan that is not likely to be translated into Italian.
But Italians have complaints of their own. “Whenever I drive in America it seems that I am behind an old lady in a Cadillac,” a Roman friend of mine said, when I raised the hair-raising subject of driving in Italy. Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.
“We Italians haven’t got used to roundabouts yet,” another friend commented. I noticed. I noticed the Stop signs that seemed to say, “Stop…if you want to.” I noticed the cyclists weaving in and out of traffic while talking on their cell phone, the Smart Cars playing chicken with Mercedes, and the motor scooters going the wrong way on one-way streets.
“We Italians lose every war,” my friend said, “so we take it out in our driving.” Yes, I suppose so.
I sighed at the road signs that were a maze of arrows, often pointing in directions other than that of the road. I winced at the tiny print of the road numbers. One night, I was tempted to stop the car and get out with a flashlight in order to read them.
But the truth is, I enjoyed it, from the cobblestones of the winding, hill town streets to the signs that simply ended well before you reached your destination, to the trucks that appeared out of nowhere and slowed traffic to a sudden crawl. Driving at home is a chore; driving in Italy is a challenge.
The chaos of the Italian road, I realized, was more apparent than real. It was organized chaos, with its own rules. And its own charms: for instance, the interlocking network of highways that means you can get on in Torino and never pay a toll until you get off at Bari, 1000 kilometers later (http://www.autostrade.it/en/). Or the endless patience of the cars behind me, who never seemed to mind when I pulled over on a narrow street to ask directions and thereby stalled traffic. Or the wonderful restaurant chain on the highways called Autogrill (http://www.autogrill.com/Default.aspx), where the service people are friendly and smiling. And where they serve bagels!