Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Adventures in Italy - Driving

There are so many things to love about Italy. The food, shopping, architecture and history make visiting Italy repeatedly all worthwhile. But, and this is a big but, the driving leaves you with a really bad taste in your mouth (a mix of bile and blood from biting your tongue and being frightened).
When we visit Italy we like to rent a car for a few reasons. We do a lot of traveling and enjoy the freedom to do so without having to worry about schedules etc. The moment my husband steps behind the wheel of a car in Italy I see a change come over him. He becomes intense, on edge. He never smiles, never seems to enjoy himself. I am always amazed at the litany of foul words that spew from his otherwise polite mouth.
There is something about driving in Italy that requests that you have some level of insanity to deal with the streets and the folk who drive on them. Of course driving in big cities like Rome, Napoli or Palermo is always worse. The congestion is just mind boggling. Some streets are so narrow that barely two motorcycles can pass each other, but these roads are used by cars. We scraped our car mirrors twice, once in the medieval streets of Ragusa while looking for parking, and once in Napoli while a bus tried to pass us. Cars weave in and out of traffic with little regard for those surrounding them. If you are a pedestrian trying to cross the street, say your prayers and be quick and observant. I can assure you that drivers do not care that you are crossing the road, so you must be vigilant. On many occasions I saw senior citizens trying to cross the street. This one old fellow with a cane broke my heart. He stepped off the curb several times only to be nearly hit by motorcycles and cars who did not even consider slowing let alone stopping to let the old man cross. My husband stopped for this guy and the driver behind us honked furiously! I was surprised. I always thought Italians had great respect for their elders. I guess that when it comes to driving, they respect no one.
Then there are the motorcycle and vespa drivers. They may be the worst. They weave in and out of traffic, pass on the roadside, have little patience and seem to think they are invincible!  If you are stopped at a red light, the bikers all swarm like killer bees to get to the front. There will easily be 20 bikes that will jokey for first spot. Speed limits in Italy tend to be a bit higher than they are in Canada, which for a guy like my hubby, he loves. Regularly he will drive 130 – 140 km per hour. Like at home the right lane is intended for slower traffic, the left for faster and those who want to pass. One time, Hubby was driving at 140 km/hr when a motorcycle came right up behind us. He flashed his light, then not even giving us time to react, he passed us on the left...on the shoulder! Within half a minute, the guy was no longer visible. He must have been going about 200km! On the autostrada, everyone drives too fast, they tail gate and honk. When you give some passing driver the evil eye, they just shrug their shoulders as if to say “Meh” and keep on going.
Parking is a whole other can of worms. Parking is really difficult. Spots are few and small. The bigger the city, the harder it is to find parking, but that is not to say that the small towns don’t have parking problems too. When we were in Napoli, we tried to find a spot for a good hour. Thank goodness for GPS locating a parking garage, but even still, with all of those one way streets and aggressive drivers, if you miss your turn, it could take a good 10 minutes just to get back to the spot you originally wanted.  There is also a problem with double parking. There are those people who think they are so friggin’ important that it is ok to trap another car by parking on the road right beside the legally parked car! These are the bastards that drive me nuts. They make travelling down already narrow and congested streets a nightmare. Every time we found a parking spot with relative ease, we would be nervous. Italian road signs are often misleading and you are never quite sure if you are parked legally. We did give up a few times and acted like locals and parked illegally. We were never ticketed.
What bothers me most about Italian drivers are the seamless disregard for safety and laws of the road. My father in law, a native Sicilian, insists that there are laws on the road, but I have never once seen a driver pulled over by the police. I did see a police car on the side of the highway, with its “officers” sleeping in the front!  As a mother living in Canada, I am thankful for all of the laws we have to keep us safe. Car seats for our kids, seat belts,and children not being allowed to sit in the front seat until they reach a certain age or height and weight requirement. In Italy, I saw nothing like all. As a matter of fact, we even saw some of our family members whipping around town with their very young children in the back with no car seat or seat belt. We saw the car seat sitting in a back room of my husband cousin’s house, not in the car. The number of times that we saw parents driving vespas with a young child standing in the front made me ill. It was not uncommon to see an adult in the front seat of a car with an infant in their lap either. Really, why not just strap the kid to the grill of the car; it is just about as safe!
And finally there are the road signs. Often you will find way too many signs bunched together. If you sit at the intersection to read these signs, surely you will piss off some motorist. My advice, use GPS and listen to it, even if you think it is leading you down the path to hell. You will get to your destination....eventually.
As I write this post, I feel myself becoming anxious. Every time I was in the car I felt anxious. So here is a word to the wise. When in Italy, seriously consider using public transit (if you can figure it out). You will be somewhat safer and have fewer worries!

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