What Are You Driving At, Anyway?

WHOOSH. Woosh. Woosh. WHOOSH whoosh whoosh whoosh WHOOSH tinkle clatter Crash.

The scene in my rearview mirror.

Somehow I’d ended up down a lane clearly not meant for driving. One second it was a road, the next it was outdoor cafés. Fancy umbrella-ed tables with silverware and wine glasses.

My wife and I are traveling in Italy right now. It’s our 20th wedding anniversary, and that’s the only reason a whole week went by last week with no updates to this blog (for the first time––not likely the last). It has been a special privilege indeed to enjoy a vacation without kids (thanks to my folks and Ruth, the kids’ Xi’an auntie). At the moment I’m typing on a train somewhere between Florence and Venice, which is just about as lovely as it sounds.

For three days we had a rental car, which we took from Rome to the Tuscan countryside to the sea and then back to Florence. While in the charming city of Siena, we found ourselves between ancient stone buildings on an ancient stone street: lots of people but no cars. Except ours. The people were huddled around their guides, or looking at maps or in our windows as we crept through their midst. The shops were selling gelato and postcards and trinkets. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way out, and the road wound ever downwards, everything in the bowl funneling us to old city Centro. Every time I tried a turn, it seemed to be a road that was only more inappropriate.

Finally, the warning signs informed me the next pass between stone was only 2.0 meters. I longed for a digital option where the sign told me how wide my car was. At last, around the next bend there was a teeny garbage truck, a handicap parking space, and “P” signs. I wasn’t crazy. “Parking” up ahead. We emerged, blinking, into a large open square surrounded by churches. I saw the green-and-white-striped marble monstrosity on a postcard later.

Off to the side was a pile of compact cars like ours. I pulled up to the bumper of the last one in a row, the final “space” they’d formed in between the two rows of real spaces. At last I felt lucky, and we got out ready to walk around a bit.

I noticed a lady in a nametag watching us. She wasn’t wearing any kind of uniform, but she came towards us a few steps to scrutinize my license plate. “Blah blah blah blassio?” she asked in what I assume was perfect Italiano. “Um…no?” I replied in flawless English.

Thankfully she spoke English, too, and she kindly told me that not only was this resident parking only, but that driving within the city walls of all the cities in the whole region was illegal. Only residents and those with hotel reservations inside the wall.


“There are cameras everywhere; they will put a €150 fine on the credit card connected to this rental car.”

Oh, my. This wasn’t even my first violation, then. Tickets surpassing our restaurant bills for two weeks was not my idea of a priceless vacation. We thanked her for the information and hightailed it out of there.

That’s when the WHOOSH story came back to me. The WHOOSH story didn’t happen on this trip. But the WHOOSH (an umbrella around a restaurant table spinning and spinning until it fell) story did happen in Italy. I’ve been here once before. For one night. 1994. One year before getting married. Only that time while driving, I’d found myself so deep into old stone roads that I’d left them altogether with only restaurants as far as the eye could see. Plus, that time it hadn’t been a Fiat 500C I’d been driving, it had been a diesel camping van. Six-sleeper.

Like on the current trip, then I had long been stressfully looking for an escape route. At the moment of my umbrella disaster, I’d actually judged the space wide enough, but…I’d forgotten about the double bed cannister above, extending out wider than the driver’s cab. That’s what swiped the umbrella.

It was bad enough to see a couple of Italian waiters running out into the street waving their arms and shouting, even though I got out and even though they told me not to worry. It was far worse, 100 meters later when the road truly became impassable, to have to throw the camper into reverse and go by them again backwards while they covered their mouths in a weak attempt to conceal their laughing.

Did the “beep beep beep” that day really sound like “I.Di.Ot” or is that just my memory?

Here’s what I will say: if those ticket violations from this trip really do show up on my visa card? For my next trip to Italy (which, if things follow the current pattern, I guess will fall in 2036) I’ll stick to trains.