Playing by the (Italian) Rules

Learning the rules of the road: it’s all in the DNA.

A friend of mine has a very valuable car. It’s a Fiat Punto with over 250,000 km on it, a dent on one side and a door that doesn’t close properly on the other. That might not seem very glam, but here’s the thing: it’s still registered to his ex-girlfriend, an Australian who left Italy in 2008. He parks it wherever he wants.

You wouldn’t think that using a car in a town like Siena (60,000 people) would be particularly problematic, but Bernardo devotes plenty of time to devising ways to drive under the telecameras at the city gates without getting a ticket (for example, with the hatchback open, so the camera can’t see the license plate number) or park near his office in the center of the pedestrian zone without paying. Most of the time he uses (illegally) one of the half-dozen spaces in front of the pricey hotel across the piazza from his office. He once told me he “knew some guy” there, who kept an eye on his car. You can park in the public lot next to the hotel for 60 Euro cents an hour, so it hardly seems worth asking the favor, but I guess for some the principle of free parking matters a lot.

If Bernardo arrives late, and the hotel slots are full, he parks (illegally) around the corner in front the courthouse, putting a handicapped-parking pass on his dashboard. The original pass belonged to his Aunt Silvia’s neighbor, Lucia, a blind woman who lives across the hall in their apartment building near the Duomo. Bernardo had his aunt borrow the pass now and then on his behalf, and when color laser printers became relatively common, he made himself a pretty good copy.

Despite his connections, last year, Bernardo’s car with its photocopied handicap pass got towed away. He asked me to help him recover it. That night, we went round to Aunt Silvia’s, and Bernardo borrowed the real pass. (“L’ultima volta, promesso!”) Then he had me drive around Siena to the north and out into the country to a lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. He spotted the Punto, climbed over the fence and, with his spare key, opened the car and replaced the fake pass with the real one he had brought. The next morning, we went to the police station, where Bernardo asked after his car. Towed for an apparently fake pass! He insisted that this was a mistake and challenged the officer in charge to prove his crime, which is how I wound up driving out to the towed-car lot for the second time in two days. The lot’s guard opened the entry gate for us and took us to the Punto. The officer pointed to the pass in the windshield, which the guard removed and gave him. He looked it over carefully for a few moments, and then looked up at Bernardo.

“Sir, I’m terribly sorry for this mistake,” he said. Eventually, Bernardo got back his keys and drove the Punto off the lot, and back to one of his usual parking spots in front of the hotel. He sued the city for damages. The next time he borrowed the pass, he kept it by explaining to Lucia that it had gone lost. After all, the city would simply issue her a new one. No one was worse for the wear!

I’m no saint when it comes to driving. I conveniently kept my German driver’s license (they are valid for life) for the first thirteen years I lived in Italy, even though I should have exchanged it for an Italian one after a year. When I was stopped by the police (as one inevitably is in Europe, there being, in what feels to this American like a creepy echo of Fascism, no necessity of wrongdoing for a policeman to pull you over and check your papers), I would greet him or her with a loud “Guten Morgen” and invariably be sent on my way. And I renewed my two-year permit for driving within the city walls the month I moved to the country: I’ve never felt quite as at home as when navigating Siena’s narrow, hilly one-way streets in a car, and I decided to hang on to that pleasure for as long as I could. Still, I’m not sure I’ve learned the real rules of the road.

Bernardo’s mother, for example, is fully dialled in. She’s 84, and this fall she was worried about the vision test she was going to have to take in order to renew her driver’s license for another four years. She recently had a botched cataract operation and is now essentially blind in one eye. She was sure she would fail. I ran into her at the market last week, ready to offer to drive her places in what I presumed would be her car-less future. “I passed!” she told me excitedly. “I cheated,” she confessed immediately. “I wrote the letters on my hand and again on my leg,” she explained. “That way, if the doctor was on this side of me, I could look at my hand, or on that side, my leg.” She had foreseen every eventuality: this was no high-school math student with a pair of formulas scribbled on her wrist, but an octogenarian Italian, practiced in playing to win.

Author: Jem Macy

I am a winemaker and writer.

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