Ur-Turn: Driving In Italy
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.
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I went to Italy in June, didn't drive, we were in Puglia, Rome, Padova and Vicenza. I didn't find it scary nor saw many dented cars. In the south cars are more in beater status than in the north, but that is expected. I was surprised at how new were the cars around, and how many Opel Kadett still survive. They go fast (when there's no cameras around). We were on my uncle's Phedra and he was doing 100 MPH, on the highway, with a diesel motor. My friend gave us a ride and was doing 85 mph while it was raining, this time a Yaris diesel with the fancy flappy paddles fancy tranny. A BMW passed us faster that night. When I was reading, I remembered Tehran. That is a scary place to drive, and cars have small dents everywhere. 1 month down there and I think it's enough.
I did a three year tour for the Navy in Naples back in '91. As a single guy with no one to look out for but myself - I loved Naples. The girls, the food, the history, and the driving like a maniac ALL THE TIME. In fact - I'd still go back today and bring my family. A better duty station might be Gaeta (50 miles or so north) where live is more sane and still offers easy access to the craziness of Naples and the Amalfi Coast. You know how some people talk about high school the rest of their lives as the best time of their life? Or college? Naples was that period for me. I've learned to rein in the stories a little though. GRIN! I recognize the glazed eyes of my listener more quickly than before... (can't do that here so forgive me if go a little too long). Anyhow - there are only a few rules to driving in Naples. Don't pass on the right. It always made my Italian friends a bit scared if I did that. They didn't look over their right shoulder much on the Autostrada or Tangenziale. Everybody behind you is supposed to pay attention to what is going on in front of them. That doesn't leave much excess attention for worrying about what is going on behind you. Merge left and the dude riding in your blind spot is supposed to react and they always did when I was there. They might honk a little... Next rule - the larger vehicle always has the right of way. A city bus taught me this in Agnano (neighborhood) one day. I was sitting by the right curb/corner at a red light waiting to turn right when a city bus came up behind me, passed me on the left and proceeded to turn right driving straight into moving traffic (which was quickly stopping). His rear wheels were going to run over my Beetle's nose so I hung a hard right and took off down the sidewalk. Naples has HUGE curbs along some roads to keep drivers from parking on the sidewalk. I was able to drive up on the curb at the corner but when I leaped back onto the road the curb was perhaps 18"-24". No damage to the Beetle. Try that in a modern American sedan. My buddy's 2CV could make that leap and you'd never feel the landing. GRIN! Another Naples rule - as long as you don't hit anything or cause an accident it's legal. The Polizia don't come to an accident unless there is blood spilled. If you did something stupid and caused an accident they are going to throw the book at you. I was military police and dealt with this often. One night we RACED to an accident near "newspaper park" (think of Inspiration Point on Happy Days, the newspaper was to block out the view of any peeping toms). Drove like a madman with the engine bouncing off the rev-limiter in 3rd an 4th gear to get there in an Opel Kaddett 1.6L. Blood and brains on the road where a drunk American ran over an Italian pedestrian. Was a complicated night. American was an ass - drunk AND sober. Should have let the Polizia have him. Hope that dude grew a conscience since then. Lots of little rules that make sense real quick. It's true that you can get across town really, really fast chasing a Polizia car responding to a call or escorting a VIP. Don't get too close or they might literally shoot at you - especially if they are escorting a VIP. Remember the Camorra (mafia)? They ambush VIPs every now and then. That's why the Polizia are there and why they are so touchy. Never, ever chase a Carabinieri vehicle. Think State Troopers with fully automatic weapons. They are even quicker to respond. Chasing a firetruck or ambulance works if there isn't already 9 other locals chasing that emergency vehicle. One way streets work two ways - sometimes. Depends on how busy the road is and how big your vehicle is. Big vehicle, more slack you get. Tiny vintage 500 - you can slip between parked cars until the road empties out a little more. Wrong ways on one way street seldom make much time. See why scooters are so desireable? Ur-Turn's comment about so few bicycles? Absolutely. I was a big bicyclist when I arrived in Naples. I rode my bike ONCE down Via Domitiana (La Strada di Morte one Italian called it). Two miles out and two back and I never rode that bike again in Italy. Never try Naples driving habits in Rome. It doesn't work. Somewhere just north of Naples the south becomes the north and suddenly the rules of road are enforced and people drive more sanely. I got T-boned by a taxi in Rome while I was making a U-turn breaking all the rules. In Naples people would have expected something unexpected like that. The taxi driver just hit my Autobianchi A112E. Ruined the car (which was already ruined by any standards outside of Naples). The Polizia came, saw that there was no blood, never even got out of their car, and left. Two more Polizia cars came over a period of 30 mins and left too. Eventually I just climbed through the broken driver's window and drove off with the Taxi driver yelling and trying to hang onto my car. Like he's going to hold back the mighty 900cc of raw Italian power. What could I do? Wait there forever hanging up Roman traffic? He had my info. Drove my bent little Italian car home catty-corner (didn't track right anymore) and parked it. Was a long ride home. Like 165 miles at ~45 mph wandering all over the road. In retrospect I should have just parked it somewhere, pulled the American military license plates and paperwork and rode the train home. The rules said though that all American licensed vehicles had to be disposed of via the base junkyard. I tried to live by the American rules most of the time so the idea never dawned on me. I miss that car. Was a hoot to drive hard.