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Italy Roundtable: Driving in Italy

This is the second installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the first, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Rice Crispy Treats, and join in on the conversation.

Driving in Italy

When “Driving in Italy” was selected as this month’s theme, I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed. Not because I don’t think it’s an interesting topic—indeed, rivers of ink have been spilt discussing the ins and outs of navigating the Bel Paese’s much less Bel Traffico—but because I simply couldn’t think of anything new or compelling to add.

My history of driving here has more or less followed the typical expat trajectory: driving with my American license for the one year legal grace period after relocating, letting those first twelve months pass without getting around to applying for my Italian license, driving for an—ahem—undisclosed period practically illegally, finding religion (in my case, through the nascient sense of responsibility that comes with pregnancy), finally sitting down to study the daunting Italian Driving School Manual (roughly the size of the Manhattan White Pages) and taking the written exam, passing that and taking the practical exam (my oven was full of bun thus that I had to slide the seat back so far I was working the brake pedal with my tippy-toes), passing that and officially becoming a smug licensed driver to all the newly-minted expats who were still back at stage one.

My feeling about driving here is that Italian drivers display roughly the same measure of aggressiveness, attitude, and skill as the Chicago drivers with whom I came of age behind the wheel, the only difference being that they are unlikely to resolve traffic altercations with automatic weapons.

And then I had an inspiration. A creative epiphany. A comic stroke of genius. I would write a haiku about driving in Italy! It would be hilarious. In an ironic hipster sort of way.

Coleridge’s knock at the door arrived in the form of the realization that I’m not smart enough to write a haiku about driving in Italy, ironic or not. (I was so enamored with the idea that I was momentarily tempted to have someone else write the haiku for me. However, after a quick reality check, I decided that though I haven’t signed any sort of contract with my fellow Roundtable bloggers, my gut feeling is that farming out the second post in the series to a ghost writer is smack in the middle of the ethical grey area and would probably speed my inevitable ousting.) So, no haiku.

Serendipity being what it is, however, the same afternoon in which I discovered I am a literary dunderhead I ran into an old friend who told me he’d been spending his evenings in the garage restoring his father’s vintage Vespa. I realized that despite having lived Italy for almost 20 years, I had never driven this icon of Italian culture and history. And, boom, there it was. I was going to drive a Vespa.

I challenge you to look upon this and not smile. It's like a smile machine on two wheels.

I may lack the basics for composing poetry, but I do have access to the basics for driving a Vespa: my friend, Claudia, who rents out bright yellow scooters from her “Vespa Oasis” on the shores of Lake Trasimeno. When I called her up, she said, “Sure! Stop by anytime and I’ll loan you one for the day. You know how to drive a Vespa, right?”

Oh.

Well, a writer can only have so many knocks interrupting the creative flow before she starts to take extreme measures, so I did what was only necessary. I lied.

“Sure! I mean, a long time ago. Long. Probably rusty, but it’s just like riding a bike, right? It’ll come right back to me. A snap. I’ll be fine. No worries. Be there on Monday at nine. Kaythanksbye!”

(Sorry, Claudia. I know you’re only finding out about this now.)

Huh. How hard could it be?

Huh. How hard could it be?

 

It turns out that Claudia is right about checking first with drivers about their experience, because though the average Italian manages to navigate a scooter through Roman traffic whilst smoking, talking on a cell phone, and balancing his entire nuclear family and their weekly grocery purchases on the back with effortless finesse, apparently it is a talent included in the Italian genetic package that the rest of humanity—or, at least, me–lacks. To wit, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Further complicating the matter, when you hop on and buzz out of the Vespa Oasis toward Castiglione del Lago (Luckily I faked it enough to convince Claudia that I was good to go. Sorry, Claudia. I owe you a drink.) you undergo an immediate baptism by fire: the ring road around Lake Trasimeno, which has a heavy, steady traffic flow. After about ten minutes of erratic weaving, sounding the horn instead of the turn signal, braking instead of accelerating, and taking bugs in the teeth (I had forgotten to lower the visor on my helmet and was too terrified to let go with one hand to do it while driving), I turned off at a scenic overpass and realized I had my shoulders up around my ears, my elbows out like chicken wings, and my chin resting on my sternum. This was no fun.

The scenic overlook where I stopped to take stock and rethink my plan of attack.

Luckily, Claudia is not only cautious but also well organized and supplies maps and itineraries. I had envisioned toodling around the perimeter of the lake (the most popular itinerary), but upon further thought realized a) I didn’t really care that much about going around the lake since I’ve already done that drive and b) I was very close to the turn off for Panicale and Paciano, two hilltowns I had never visited and that were along a much quieter country road.

With newly gathered courage, I jauntily flipped down my visor, sounded my horn-uh-put on my turn signal, had a near miss with a Peroni truck (Sorry, Claudia. I’ll make it up to you.), and was off.

It became immediately and dramatically clear that I had chosen the right road. The gently climbing country highway winding its way to Panicale was deserted, so it took me just a few minutes to feel comfortable with my new ride and relax enough to enjoy the lovely countryside and views of the lake below. In fact, I was almost disappointed when I arrived at the city gate leading to Panicale’s pretty piazza less than 15 minutes later. I did need to fill up the old cappuccino tank, however, so I pulled in for a break. And quickly learned two things:

  1. If you are one of those people who frets about blending in, roaring into a quiet, provincial piazza on a shiny Vespa the color of egg yolk with little duckie stickers decorating it and proceding to make it very clear to one and all that you have no effing idea how to put the kickstand up may not be for you.
  2. Old geezers love Vespas. Love them. Crowd around you and regale you with stories of their first Vespas, which leads into stories of their first love, which leads into stories of their subsequent marriage, which leads into stories of their grandchildren, which leads into snapshots being busted out and compared. Which leads to a much longer cappuccino stop than intended.

The short drive between Panicale and Paciano was one of the prettiest, and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

I finally did break away and continued the short drive along the tree-lined lane to the tiny medieval walled village of Paciano. Map consulting–aided by a quick gelato–ensued, and I decided to dive into the uncharted (for me) territory to the north, trying to make Castiglione del Lago by lunchtime. It was perfect…the hills were just hilly enough and the curves just curvy enough to really start having fun on my trusty Vespa and I began to understand why the scooter has had such staying power over time. The softly undulating countryside (Tuscany is just a few kilometers from here, and the landscape reflects that) is a patchwork of tilled fields, vineyards, and woods and there was almost no traffic as I buzzed through tiny hamlets like Villastrada and Vaiano, Gioiella and Pozzuolo.

Choices, choices. Ah, what the hell...left.

The thrill of the open road.

My frequent stops to snap pictures (and dig the insects out of my cleavage…next time no V-neck t-shirts) meant that I barely made it to Castiglione before it was too late to grab a plate of pasta. I chose an outside table where I could enjoy my lunch while keeping my cheery Vespa in view, and gazed upon it with newfound affection.

“Damn,” I thought. “It sure is lucky that I can’t write a haiku.”

Toodle-oo!

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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