Friday, December 31, 2010

A Need For Speed

A few years back, the zany folks at Disney produced a movie entitled “Cars”. It was a kid’s movie with a cast of animated characters that took the form of vehicles of every sort. Disney does this sort of thing well, so well that its success led to a sequel entitled, you guessed it, “Cars 2”. My six-year old grandson, Dominic, tells me that Mater, a tow-truck character from a fictitious nowhere place called ‘Radiator Springs’, saves the world in this installment. "Cars 2", now bigger, grander, and international in its scope, could be a winning formula. Will they spawn a "Rocky" and manage to parlay it all the way to "Cars 5"? I’m standing by for further reports from my car-loving Dominic.

Dominic’s Italian heritage may have a hand in his love of autos, for Italians have an ongoing love affair with their màcchina (machine, but often used for automobile). Companies like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo have hedged on Milan’s smart aesthetic styling and fashion savvy for years. Today, theirs and other automaker’s successes are measured by the more than 33 million cars on Italy's roads in a country of 60 million. By way of comparison, the U.K. with its 62 million inhabitants caters to only 28 million cars. Italians clearly have a fixation with sleek lines, shiny chrome and powerful engines.

While they fawn over their cars, especially when small and sporty, Italians operate them at a level approximating irresponsibility. Their individual rules of the road would give pause even to a madcap keystone cop. That individuality may in fact be one reason for their sometimes risky actions behind the wheel. They are individuals at heart and convention and rules be damned. This is true especially in the big cities where a free-for-all, no holds barred temperament is more apparent and individual patience further strained. As a result, visitors to Bella Italia are, to say the least, averse to driving in this fracas, be it real or imagined. All may be fair in love and war but for an Italian, they may as well expand the expression to include driving. As crazy as they can drive, I’ve seen few accidents. Instead, I’ve witnessed near mayhem and many near misses that can catch your breath. Driving from Calitri to Naples and back, for example, can serve as a human laboratory on this type of behavior. Unfortunately, there is no remuneration for it, unworthy of even a college credit or two.

No matter how fast you drive, there is always someone who wants by. For me, life in the far left lane is parlous with little warning of a fast mover, but for a surprising flash from his headlights. Where they materialized from and so quickly, I had no idea. While it may be all clear to move over one second, your check on reality can bounce moments later when someone suddenly appears on your rear bumper, if not already in your trunk! While I’m not accustomed to this, it really isn’t so bad, at least they restrain themselves from simultaneously mashing their horns. Their impatience has at least some restraint. I recall driving out of the Catania Airport in Sicily once, just after arriving. It was truly a baptism by fire as I not only tried to negotiate a road buzzing with cars and motorcycles to both my left and right, but at the same time, tried to read signposts plastered with countless 'this ways and that'. Pure sensory and information overload it was. I was essentially boxed in, unable to turn either way. I wound up a prisoner much like that "European Vacation" character, Clark Griswald, stuck in a round-about, condemned to watching Big Ben go by for a few laps. So much for the movies, but it was hair-raising real life in Sicily that day. More often, it is the passing that is hair-raising, even for an observer further back in the line of traffic. This is more along the lines of the Pamplona running of the bulls with much zigging, zagging and last minute dodging. Even on a two-lane highway, I can certify that their impatience often gets the better of them, with or without a broken, white dividing-line signaling that passing is permitted. I can only marvel at how much they will chance just to get a few cars ahead. At times, when I expect to witness a head-on crash, the defensive drivers seem to accommodate the wayward passer, somehow managing to squeak by, on one occasion three abreast. It seems that even the flagrant sinner is given absolution. Just don’t try it with the trailer trucks, especially when loaded to spill-over full with tomatoes from Puglia on their way into the many sauce making plants around Salarno! They simply won't tolerate any early squeezing action!

While in Calitri, we may have many Marios, Antonios and Guiseppes, there are fewer Alphas and Romeos. The Fait, Lancia, Opel and the ever utilitarian Ape (pronounced "ah-peh" and meaning Bee in Italian) appear to dominate. I just love those three wheeled Apes, which, not being really autos, are more like an affair gone wrong between a motorcycle and flatbed truck! Unfortunately, I’m a bit too tall to comfortably fit inside one (recall that photo above). No matter what the size or shape of their vehicle, not all of their roadway antics occur while driving. Some surface in the creative ways Italians choose to park their vehicles. When people really need to do something, like park a car, they will figure out a way to do it, giving fresh meaning to the idiom that "necessity is the mother of invention". Can the way they park be a further reflection of their impatience? For instance, in the Italian section of Boston, called ‘The North End’, in addition to double-parking in the middle of Hanover Street, which is common, about as bad as parking manners get is how the parking spaces themselves are reserved by their presumptuous owners. No one really owns these curbside spaces but don’t try to object because that would, at the very least, be like fighting City Hall – you won’t win. At worst, that's when you could come to understand that there are very few personal problems that cannot be solved through the judicious application of a sharp knife into the sidewall of a tire! You don't want to go there either. In Boston, a common tactic is to place a chair, trash barrel or rubber cone to signal, no, better I say warn, that a space is reserved. But here there is still fundamental order. In Calitri things are different. Here, self-parking on the streets is simply a marvel to behold. There are just so many ways you can park a car. You’d think so, right? And who ever said you needed to stay in the road? The adage, "think outside the box", or should I really say, "think outside the street", acquires artistic expression here, if not throughout Italy. One day while out and about I took pictures of how the native Calitrani satisfy their parking needs (see photo album). The different parking maneuvers are striking in their variety, almost comical to behold. Here are a few, as best I can recall and describe them:

• The ‘cut or turn’ where the driver parks on the side of the street facing oncoming traffic. Either they do a u-turn or cut across oncoming traffic when departing.

• The ‘tilt’ where they park with two wheels up on the sidewalk while two remain in the street.

• The ‘wheelie’ (a variation on the tilt technique) where the two front wheels are up over the curb and the rear wheels remain in the road.

‘Russian roulette’ where someone decides to park so that two vehicles now face-off, nose to nose.

• The ‘quick getaway’ with the empty car facing almost perpendicular, plus or minus, toward the curb with the driver’s door wide open.

• The ‘squeeze play’ where the auto is totally up on the sidewalk to the extent that a pedestrian has to squeeze between it and any adjacent building. Care must be exercised not to pull a Pamplona and impale oneself on the mirror when squeezing by - ouch!

• The 'peek-a-boo' where a car is parked on a corner, with or against the flow of traffic, such that half juts into both streets, hindering pedestrians in the process.

• The 'raft' where the auto is parked some distance from the curb. Essentially double-parked but with no other car near them as when classically double-parked.

I tried to imagine streets lined, both sides, with parking meters with pretty Italian meter maids issuing tickets for both expired and rebellious parkers, but failed. Had the municipality thought of this yet as a means to raise revenue and institute some order? A nice, practical thought indeed, but somehow I couldn't see that boat floating at a town council meeting. It simply belies the true nature of things and reeks of big city strong-arm tactics.

Sinner that I am, I confess I’m getting into the habit myself. I'm still leery of passing, however. The road would need to be empty for I know that as soon as I pulled out, I'd see flashing headlights from someone more impatient then myself in my mirror. In a way though, I like to look on my gradually morphing behavior as a form of assimilation, if not adaptation to the Italian lifestyle. Hopefully, my actions are not a reflection of my impatience or frustration, although you can be assured, I can and do go there on occasion. This is Italy after all. Frustration can get stored up, like static electricity and in proportion to a general dynamo of malaise over what they perceive as a jaded system, not known for clarity and let me add, simplicity. I suspect driving can cleanse their inner spirit, releasing that pent up energy in a therapeutic spark of road rage, expressed in a need for speed, free from the shackles of jam-packed traffic. On the parking side, I've 'pimped the style' as they say and I love it, though I do feel some guilt when I do, even without my conscience, Maria Elena, aboard! I'll look around just in case the polizia (police) may be nearby. Actually, from the degree this goes on, I doubt that the local constabulary even care. No one ever seems to get a ticket for their infractions. In my defense though, I will say that I haven't yet succumbed to the 'quick getaway' technique, but I may soon. Life is short, you need to break the rules now and then just to feel alive!

That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “The Streets of Calitri”.