Ur-Turn is your weekly opportunity to contribute to TTAC. Every Saturday we select a different piece submitted to our contact form, and publish it as a showcase for the diverse perspectives of TTAC’s readers. In the spirit of Halloween, today’s contribution from Bobby Wayland takes on the scariest scenario a driver can face: motoring in Italy.
I recently arrived in Italy, stationed in Naples for a two year tour. When the topic of driving in Italy arose, most passed on stock advice they’d heard third hand from those who’d actually done it: the Italians are crazy drivers; get a beater and forget about exploring Europe in anything zippier or more comfortable than a Fiat Punto. Possibly good advice, and buttressed by simple observation of many Italian (especially Neapolitan) cars – they’re nearly all dinged, dented, scraped or deformed in some fashion. There’s even a term for it employed in used car advertisements; “just a few Naples kisses,” they read, to describe a bruised VW Polo as if the fist-clenching scrape of another car against your own is somehow comparable to pleasant lip to lip contact. The phrase is actually a reference to the palms-turned-upward, eyes aloft, “who, me?” gesture that accompanies most Neapolitan smooches, a cheerful way of dismissing the frustration and inconvenience of 430€ of body work by swaddling it in “isn’t that adorable?” Since lots of Neapolitan cars would only be worth 430€ if they were transporting 615€ of socially inadvisable narcotics, they go unrepaired and their owners grow further unconcerned about a little bit of contact driving.
Despite that, the Italians are not crazy drivers. They certainly do not adhere to American standards of driving. They don’t abide by lane markers, stop signs, or yield signs; their traffic circles burden vehicles in the rotary with the obligation to yield to entering traffic, they drive at inconsistent speeds and they all overpaid for the unused plastic stalks sprouting off the left side of their steering columns. Yet, they’re perfectly rational. Italians are remarkably existential drivers, drivers concerned solely with getting to their destination in a manner of their choosing, and not bothered by much else.
Americans are bogged down to a greater extent than they realize by discipline and a genuine respect for the law. Italians suffer no such bonds. Take, for example, the case of a missed exit. To Americans, errors of navigation are a personal defect and a mistake paid for with wasted time. To an Italian – “Hey! My exit is just 50 meters back that way! Why should I drive ten minutes out of my way just to get back to that road – that one right over there?” And that guy driving the Alfa 147 TSpark backwards at you in the right hand lane has a point. He’s not stupid; he won’t pull this maneuver in fast-moving traffic of a density unlikely to avoid him; he’ll do it as you pass him at 80 kilometers per hour in the middle lane, hands at the ten and two, gaping over your right shoulder as if he’d done something awful, like purchase a BMW 1-Series.
Or perhaps you’re offended at the general lack of courtesy, such as the time you waited sixteen minutes trying to make a left hand turn in heavy traffic, indignant that nobody, not even that Tuscan soccer mom driving in that absurd Fiat Multipla, took sympathy to your plight and parted the seas. Except, as they see it, they want to be home sipping wine just like you, but unlike you, they’re not going to delay it by as much as eight seconds by letting you pass. Rude? It might be, save for the fact that they expect you to cut them off just as much as you hope they’ll let you in. This, in fact, is a central tenet to Italian driving: do unto others as you expect others to do unto you. Given that Italians simply want to get where they’re going, it’s easy to guess what they’re going to do: cut you off, speed around you if you dawdle, and invariably fail to yield.
Italians are also quite rational when it comes to getting the most from their highways. Specifically, they realized that lane markers are a fairly arbitrary and inefficient division of the road. The average Italian car is a bit more than five and a half feet wide. The lanes are at least eight feet wide, if not ten. That’s more than two extra feet of roadway, totally wasted! Why, you could… put half a car in that space! And they do. Americans are initially unsure of what to do when the rusty Citroen – the French still make cars? – in the slow lane impinges on their lane, paralyzed with confusion and fear. It’s as if a stranger at a movie theater wanted to share the armrest – absolutely out of the question! This is an instance where adherence to the law is a bad idea, especially if the Italian in question is invading your lane because his lane is becoming overcrowded. He’s switched to collision avoidance mode and probably noticed that the lane to your left is remarkably free of cars – and he expects you to inch over accordingly.
The Italians drive like minnows – they flit this way and back again, and without communicating to each other, generally avoid serious collision. Once you’ve adapted, driving becomes new again – and it’s a refreshing experience.