When in Italy - Don't Look
In the 1980’s I was in the Air Force and I got stationed in Aviano Air Force Base, Italy. It was the first time I had travelled overseas and I had managed to land only an hour north of Venice, Italy for the next couple of years. To say the very least, it was quite an adventure. I was from a small town in Maine and spent my first four years in the Air Force in Montgomery, Alabama. Suddenly I was in Northern Italy. Everything was overwhelming in the best possible way. The people, the language, the food, the culture, the mountains, the history, the cars, and the overall atmosphere of just being in Italy was life changing. And as wonderful as all of those things were, it was the day to day things that began to change who I was and how I dealt with life.
In Italy they drive on the same side of the road as we do in America, but they drive completely different than we do. For instance, I recall as an American looking for a parking spot in a city could sometimes be a challenge. Everything in Italian cities is a tight fit and there are more cars than there were parking spots. On the other hand, Italians didn’t seem to struggle with the problem as much as we did. It wasn’t unusual for an Italian driver to pull up in front of a café and get out of their car and go inside. I don’t mean like pulling into a parking space. I mean like pulling up beside a parked car, stopping their car in the driving lane, and getting out and going inside for a cup of coffee or a drink. People would honk their horns and yell things at the drivers when they were walking away and the drivers would throw hand gestures without so much as looking back, and then life continued as normal.
Also, the method that many Italian drivers used on narrow roads was a game that Americans often called, Playing Chicken. Italians just call it driving. I recall crossing a long narrow bridge up in the mountains. I was driving in my lane and the Mercedes coming in the other direction was driving in the center of the road. Since I’d been in Italy for a while by then and I had adapted to the proper driving etiquette, I continued across the bridge at a good speed while the Mercedes did the same, neither of us giving ground. Eventually, we passed each other and at fifty miles an hour our side view mirrors banged against each other. We both threw up a hand gesture and no doubt both mumbled something negative towards the other driver, but neither of us so much as tapped the brakes. It’s just how it was done.
I once read an article titled something like, How To Drive In Italy, written by an American expat. It was a funny but informative story that I barely remember all these years later. But I do recall one piece of seemingly absurd, but completely accurate driving advice about driving on the Autostrada. The Autostrada is the Italian version of the interstate and it has on-ramps and off-ramps, just like we have. But in America, the on-ramps have yield signs that make it clear that when entering the interstate, the cars on the highway have right away. To be honest, I don’t recall if the Autostrada has yield signs or not, but it does not matter. This was the advice, based on real world experience, that the writer shared about getting on the Italian highway.
“When driving down an on-ramp to the Autostrada, do NOT look to see if there is traffic in the way. It’s a sign of weakness that Italian drivers will take advantage of. When you reach the end of the on-ramp, simply keep going without so much as glancing to see if it’s clear and act as if you are the only car on the road. Other drivers will move out of the way and likely flail hand gestures and possibly honk their horn, but that is the correct process to be followed. Simply, return the gesture and mumble something in their general direction and keep going.”
Italian driving, like Italian culture, is a unique blend of crazy mixed with passionate logic. The people are passionate about everything, even their driving. But their passion is linked to thousands of years of victorious and tragic history and culture. The passion flows through the men and women and children of Italy like no other group of people I’ve ever experienced. Yet, somehow, after they have almost run you off the road and honked and yelled and gestured, their day is not ruined. A few minutes later they sip on espresso or a glass of wine and all is forgotten. Old women walk down cobblestone streets with the arm looped inside of their husbands arm. Children play soccer in the middle of the town square. Men and women stand in cafés and sip coffee or wine and laugh or talk or argue. And drivers on the road, gesture in your direction and insult you and mean nothing by it. This is Italy and nothing is going to change them and I love it. The world could learn a thing or two from this ancient culture.