One of the surest signs that you are driving in Italy is the observation of other drivers around you. If you see other drivers with both hands in the air in wild gesticulation, and both feet on the accelerator, with their head turned backwards talking loudly to someone in the back seat, then you know, you are somewhere in Italy. Driving is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous ways to discover Italy, bearing in mind that the speed limit in most places is 80 MPH, and no one actually observes traffic rules, lights or stop signs, let alone mothers with babies in crosswalks. The basic rule is: drive and get on with it. No rules are involved. Everyone turns whenever they feel like it. Push or you don't get anywhere. When I decided to spend spring break vacation with my 17 year-old son Sam in Sicily last March, I had no idea that I would be taking our lives in my hands when I signed the rental car agreement. What was I thinking? I even declined extra insurance when I rented the vehicle thinking that this was a piece of tiramisu. No problems here. How hard could it be, after all? We rented a rather large car for the area. It was a brand spanking new FIAT 500. It was small, by American standards, but gargantuan for Italy. The car had a grand total of five miles on the odometer, and we felt so regal in the state-of-the art FIAT. The car was also a hybrid and it sipped diesel at a Southern sweet tea pace. Mileage was phenomenal.
Prior to our trip, we had carefully downloaded all European maps on our new Garmin, whom we lovingly dubbed Carmen. Thankfully, as we pulled away from the airport rental parking lot, Carmen locked in on our position, and began an immediate conversation with us. Just hearing her familiar voice (one I had chosen over the internet to have a sarcastic Australian accent) was quite reassuring, in and of itself. I slithered through the rather inadequate exit lane, and simply flowed into traffic, content that I was on my way. Onward to Catania, ancient ruins, fishing villages, erupting volcanoes, and the splendor of all that is Italy. I came upon roundabout after dizzying roundabout, and noticed that other drivers were blasting me with their horns. Honking at me? What could I be doing wrong?? I forged ahead, nonetheless, and drove continually as I searched for our hotel. We seemed to have arrived in a frenzied rush hour in our first destination, and as I realized there was no asking other drivers in a polite hand gesture if I could gently merge, the path to success lied in accelerating greatly into any new street and then driving madly down it in a purposeful fashion. Up and over a curb, sometimes through a blood orange vendor stand, or a clump of elderly men chatting by a church. As long as I didn't harm anyone, I just kept the pace going, and it seemed to work.
One thing to remember when in Sicily, is that road trips are actually about double the time it should take in normal conditions. A 60 mile trip might take as long as three hours, taking into consideration the hairpin turns, the inferior pavement, and the Herculean trucks which demand passage only at the precise moment you enter one of those hairpin turns. While we were staying in the ancient city of Ragusa, we desperately wanted to explore the oldest section of town called Ragusa Ibla. From a distance, like from Cleveland, this town looked welcoming and easy to manage in our swarthy new FIAT. However, there were several times when we proceeded down a street, only to find that we simply did not fit. Bringing in the exterior mirrors would occasionally solve our dilemma, but most often the only way down a street was by reverse, something that incited road rage in considerable numbers. Likewise, when arriving in Taormina, a town situated on top of a mountain near Mount Etna, we soon realized that the road up was only one way, which meant there was no room for mistakes. Nevertheless, we made one anyway. We turned one street too soon and ended up in the driveway of the radiology department of the local hospital. We were soon surrounded by ambulances with sirens blaring. We were not the most popular tourists when we had to force a long line of nine other vehicles to back up so we could extricate ourselves from the mayhem. After ultimately reaching the tourist section of old Taormina, I expertly scanned the area to decide how to maneuver the car to our hotel. In absolute horror, I saw a sign that said the entire historic section of town was pedestrian only. In a panic, I parked the car outside a gelato shop, and left Sam to go into a sugar coma while I figured out what to do. I saw no solution and was almost ready to go back down the incredibly long mountain to find parking several miles away when I spied a man in charge of a small parking lot. He told me there was one space remaining at our hotel, a fact that he oddly knew and which made me feel like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone. He said that the streets were all only one way through the entire town. I carefully followed his directions down a five foot wide alleyway and quickly located our hotel where, indeed, there was one space remaining, and where I left my car untouched for three days.
Most of the time, Carmen was honest with us, and she told us where places really were located. But there were a couple of times when she lied. Not sure why, but we suffered for her quirky dishonesty. Returning from exploring the 2500 year-old Greek ruins at Agrigento, the sunset came too fast and anxiety set in. We simply stayed too long at the Temple of the Gods and were forced to drive in the DARK! This was when Carmen decided to play with our sanity. She sent us through a fruit orchard, which at first was a lovely detour, but then came a frightful noise as loud as a sledge hammer on the right side of our car. We weren't exactly certain what caused the noise, as there were, inexplicably, several locals dressed in black, riding bicycles with no lights, aimlessly down dirt country roads. We didn't hear a scream when the loud noise came, nor was there any blood or body parts on the side of the road, so we proceeded to drive. We did see tree branch pieces protruding from our side mirror which was now dangling in mosaic fashion, shattered like a broken arm down the side of our car, so we realized that a tree branch had come out of nowhere to thrust itself into our car. Relieved as we observed there were no dents anywhere else, we went on our not-so-merry way. Stopping for fuel an hour or so later, a gas station clerk came out to look at our disfigured mirror. He said in a loud voice, "Scotch??" Yes, we thought with a bit of joy, we could surely use a drink after our harrowing drive. We thought he was going inside to bring us a swig of whiskey when he returned with an enormous Costco-sized roll of Scotch tape. Sam quickly got out and positioned the mirror so I could safely utilize it, and the attendant rolled the tape around that sad, tattered mirror for at least 30 times. The attendant then proudly beamed at me, smiling as he said in broken English, "Now is FIXED!"
Parking in small towns is also cause to remember the Excedrin bottle when you pack. Space is at a premium in towns and Sicily's traffic wardens are annoyingly efficient. Don't forget that petrol stations close daily between the hours of 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM. We found we usually didn't require fuel until after 3:30 PM, so that normally worked out for us. Most city centers are off limits for cars and the paid parking lots fill up quite fast. Italian drivers are fast, skillful, and aggressive and I soon found that after only two days I had a silly sense of euphoria when I got behind the wheel. I felt that I was suddenly Italian and that I could drive any way I liked. I felt invincible, super-human. It is a mindset. I didn't ask permission to merge anymore. I just merged. I stopped expecting other drivers to slow down for me or let me out. I seized the moment. I became a Carpe Diem driver. As soon as I saw a gap, I went for it. Italians do not like ditherers, so I did what I had to and I did it decisively. It worked. For the record, if you do travel with children, even older children in their teens, remember to travel with plastic bags. I speak from experience when I say that car sickness is an all too real possibility on winding country roads and things can turn messy on a dime.
Most of the driving etiquette comes from unwritten rules. Flashing the headlights to a car in front means "Don't pull out cause I am not stopping!". Similarly, the car horn can mean everything from "Ciao", to "Watch Out", to "Let's Celebrate, the Light is Green!". Yes, driving in the larger cities and towns can be a white knuckle experience for both driver and passengers. Watch out for those scooters (or tree branches) that come out of nowhere. But alas, driving remains the only true way to not only see Italy but to actually experience it and genuinely feel Italian by the end of your stay. If you don't have the skills of a Formula One driver when you arrive, you most surely will by the end of the trip!
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)