Sunday, July 31, 2016

La Macchina

La Màcchina
There are fish stories and then there are fish stories.  This isn’t one of them.  It’s a car story, a màcchina story, and going against the grain of a typical fish story, this one didn’t get away.  Nor is it a prize worth mounting, preferring instead to sit quietly in a garage.  Hopefully, it’s also not too exaggerated like your typical fish story, and with any luck it’s here to stay, even after appearing to flop around like a fish does in the bottom of a boat.  In any case, I offer you this tale (no pun intended). 
Maria Elena and I had talked about buying a car in Italy for some time.  After ten years, it had progressed from a dream, to beyond nice to have, to an outright need.  It was only after a three month stay, the length of a summer that included the visit of our daughter and her family, that we finally conceded, having convinced ourselves we had to have one.  Four rentals of various sized vehicles later and a bill approaching $3000, and it was time to reconsider, time to get serious about owning a vehicle of our own. 
But we worry about things.  Personally, I often over-worry.  As the driver and the guy with his name and address on the Libretto di Circolazione (registration document) in the glove compartment, something the Carabinieri always ask for when they stop you, I'd initially hesitated because, for a long time, I thought I'd need to take an Italian driving test.  When I say an Italian driving test, the operative word, for me at least, is "Italian".  I wasn't worried about the "show me how you drive" part of the certification; It was the written test.  Unlike in the good old USA, where you can request a test in your native language, it just isn't so in Italy.  Not yet at least.  Even on a good day, with a multiple choice format, I couldn't imagine myself being able to understand the questions sufficiently to cull out the nuances couched within the questions.  Those ‘trick questions’, we all remember them - there are always some.  That plus the number I'd normally miss and I couldn't see myself ever passing.
Then there was my worry about documentation, for as I said, the Libretto had my address in Calitri.  On the other hand, my driver's license was from the USA and would reveal a different address.  To confuse things further, the car would be registered in Italy but insured through my American insurance pass-through company in London.  My experience was that of the physical address, plates/registration, and driver's license, at least two had to be the same.  About the only things that would match would be the photo on my driver's license and my face grinning from the driver's window at the policeman.  I could see them impounding my car and me being hauled off the nearest station for questioning under the heat of a dangling lamp, just like in the movies.  Such is life imagined on a very bad day, and such were my worries, enough to put off any car buying decision.
But ignorance, or better yet the lack of information, can sometimes stymie us.  It definitely had in this case, my thoughts moving faster than the reality of the situation.  Were my preconceived beliefs actually valid?  I did some checking or at least my friends did, even before we returned to Italy.  They talked with the driving school instructor, people in the insurance office, even Vincenzo at the local Automobile Club d'Italia (ACI) office about my concerns.  They were able to assure me that because I didn't actually live in Italy, my American license would do just fine along with a current International Driver's License.  My fears about a driving test and documentation melted away like gelato on a hot day, with or without the added heat of a dangling lamp.
Our concerns now in the rear view mirror, we next had to decide on what exactly we were looking for in the four wheel department.  We would have to settle on more than just the color, which in Italy to the average observer seems to be limited to four colors - black, gray, silver, and white.  Whatever the color, it would need to be a used vehicle.  Our brief stays wouldn't justify something new.  Besides, if it was brand spanking new, I'd worry about every scratch so why not start with some.  Let’s face it, considering the way Italians drive, scratches, if not dents, are inevitable.  And it wasn't as if we were asking for the moon.  Our preference was for a four door vehicle, with a manual transmission, and air conditioning.  Beyond this, any additional whistles and bells would be considered luxuries.  Another prime consideration was economy.  Economy began with the cost we'd have to pay and continued with fuel economy, since gasoline in Italy approaches $6/gallon.  If we were going to save money by no longer renting, we first had to pay ourselves back for the sunk cost of the vehicle itself and recurring costs to include inspections and property taxes.
We started our search by putting out feelers with various area dealers and word-of-mouth by way of friends.  In a short time we were looking at cars ranging from the newspaper man’s car he admitted he wouldn’t risk driving out of town, to an Alfa Romeo that had sat in the grass by the side of a road for months.  In our search we found that diesel powered vehicles were popular and for a while concentrated on them.  Diesels, unfortunately, came at a premium, even in the used car lot.  I attributed their appeal, and hence their higher cost, to the lifespan of this type of engine, the resulting extra mileage per liter they produce, along with the price of diesel fuel in Italy.  Simply put, they were in demand.  Contrary to the States, diesel fuel in Italy is less expensive than regular gasoline.  Go figure.  In any case, even with odometer readings on the high side, 200,000 km mileage diesels seemed to run about €1000 higher than the same vehicle with a gasoline engine.  We looked at a few of these locally, but their €4000-4500 price-tags were disheartening.  This seemed simply too much for a holiday car.  We decided to cast our net farther and look beyond diesels. 
Outside of the local word-of-mouth market in Calitri, it seems that most used cars are imported, not from Japan or the like, but from northern Italy.  The common belief was that with wealth concentrated in the North, northerners could afford to trade-in their cars every few years.  Their cast-offs were then trucked south to the used car lots of the Mezzogiorno. 
Our broadened search began on the Internet, starting with suggested  Thank God for filters for there were overwhelming numbers to choose from.  In the final running we settled on two makes, Peugeot and Fiat - Peugeot simply because we liked their look and this being Italy, Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, literally the Italian Automobile Factory, Turin), because there were just more of them (and parts too). 
There was one added twist, the engine.  For some it may be a surprise to learn of a relatively new type of automobile fuel; in Italy it’s called GPL.  Rearrange the letters and it stands for Liquefied Petroleum Gas.  Think of it on the order of the stuff in your barbecue’s gas bottle.  Like those "chips" only now beginning to appear in American credit cards, in the supposed “Old World” they’ve had them for years.  So too with GPL.  We were familiar with GPL, having driven a vehicle years earlier, duel-fueled with both standard gasoline and GPL.  GPL was also readily available at gas-stations throughout the country, their numbers growing daily.  In any case, run out of GPL and the engine automatically switched to regular gas.  Flip open the flap to the gas tank and find two receptacles, one for the gas nozzle, the other for injection of the liquefied gas.  Though the GPL tank is small, limiting our range on GPL to 200 km, the nicest part about liquefied gas is its cost, only about 50 cents a liter.  Since most of our driving would be in and about town, the savings afforded by GPL was too much to pass up.  It wasn’t long and our Internet search filter was set to GPL!  
Of the few hybrid-fueled, used vehicles in our area that would occasionally pop-up, Fiats dominated.  After a month or so of looking, one in particular caught our attention.  It was a single owner, 2010 Fiat Punto with 89,000 km (55,000 miles) for the asking price of 2700.  Now we were talking.  To see it, beyond the photos posted online, we needed to drive to Cerignola.  The town of Cerignola, an exit off the A16 Autostrada when heading toward the Adriatic, is in Italy’s heel region of Puglia between Foggia and Bari.  About an hour away from Calitri, it is known for more than its giant red Bella di Cerignola olives.  During WWII, the Giulia Airfield, a former German base, was located four miles northwest of Cerignola.  When the Germans skedaddled, it became home to a 15th Air Force bomber group.  Once its rough runway was clad with pierced steel plank, better known as a Marston mat, the group flew B-24 Liberator bombers on raids into France and Germany.  But there was more to its notoriety.
Seemingly as part of some congenital Italian wait and see attitude of non-interference, a characteristic of that conspiratorial silence of the south, no one said a thing about the dark side of Cerignola until after I made a deposit.  Only then did we learn it had a reputation along the lines of Batman's Gotham.  According to the talk, it was the Sodom and Gamorrah automotive sin city of Italy, even worse than Naples, one of those stay away from places when it came to all aspects of cars.  Unfortunately, though apparently common knowledge to everyone else, we heard this all after the fact, including how every odometer there, had without a doubt, been rolled back.  Could the 58,000 miles be even close to the truth?  Could we believe in a former single owner?  We were told they didn't even offer theft insurance in Cerignola unless the vehicle had an alarm system! 
I should have caught on a lot earlier though, well before we starting to drive off to Cerignola one afternoon with a little cash and our good friend American Joe, Joe for short.  Joe is an expat from neighboring Pescopagano who loves cars.  He agreed to come along and help us out as translator and all-around confidant.  When it came to buying a car in Italy, I was out of my depth, beyond naive.  I needed help.  Exiting the Autostrada, I recall remarking about the number of auto graveyards, car lots, garages, dealers, and parts places lining the avenue.  It seemed every building had a car related function, if not a visible car lift.  Still dumb as a rock and yet unsuspecting, I recall remarking that if you needed a part, this was certainly the place to get it.  But ignorance was bliss as we looked for someone named Vito in a supermarket parking lot. 
Vito arrived, and preliminaries concluded, we followed him to the car.  He was a young lad, I'd estimate in his late 20s.  Broad-faced, with a easy smile, and seemingly just as easy going, he was man and boy alike.  Though listed online as a “private seller”, verses an outright dealer, like man and boy, he seemed a combination of both, occasionally as he explained, he dabbled with buying and selling cars as they came along.  That in itself seemed a little deceptive seeing all along I thought Vito was that "single owner".  Why he wasn’t driving the car to begin with also concerned me, but he explained it away to the fact that it was not registered.  That would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it, if I decided to take a test drive.  We arrived to find the car parked along the side of a busy street.  It was love at first sight, only the music was missing.  Though it only had two doors, one headlight was dead, and it was missing the radio, it looked great even with a scratch here and there.  Joe remarked that the state of the interior, which was immaculate down to the look and feel of the seats, said a lot.  The interior was mint.  We only needed to drive it to be convinced that it was time to stop looking.  Ready to pull away from the curb, Vito advised that we U-turn immediately, away from the police station just across the street, due to its lack of documentation!  The road test went well, thankfully without police intervention, even considering my U-turn.  Everything seemed to work and I gave Vito a deposit along with a promise to return the following week with full payment.  Since it hadn’t the required insurance and the property tax hadn’t been paid, Vito promised to fix the headlight, get some dealer plates, and drive it home for us. 
A week later we returned, but not without issues.  First off, Joe was on vacation and our friend, Antonio, agreed to come along in his place.  I especially needed him to drive one of the three cars we anticipated in our convoy.  Only I could drive our rental, Antonio would drive our 'old-new' Fiat, and Vito would bring up the rear in his car, which he needed to get back home along with the dealer plates.  During the few days’ time between trips to Cerignola, I also checked on the official status of the car at the ACI office, for about then I was knee deep in a flood of negatives about Cerignola.  It was "a place to avoid", "not to be touched with a stick" (a loose translation), where you had to "watch your wallet", and the like.  At the ACI office, Vincenzo tapped into the master vehicle database in Rome and checked the car’s pedigree and legal status.  He was able to quell my apprehensions by confirming the vehicle indeed had only one previous owner, a man up north from Asti in the Piedmont region.   Thankfully he hadn’t reported it stolen!  I also had to gather enough cash to pay Vito in full.  This proved to be a chore for it isn't easy in Italy, even when you have the cash, and all you need to do is make a withdrawal.  I’d given up on the Post Office bank years ago when I wanted to do something similar.  This time, anticipating we might actually buy a car while in Italy, I had set aside funds in a kind of debit card arrangement.  All I needed to do was visit our local ATM machine and make a withdrawal.  However, limits on the amount of money I could withdraw per day meant I'd need to make multiple visits in the few days we had.  It was these daily recurring withdrawals that caused me problems.  For my part, in an effort to open the faucet to my funds, I'd visit three different money machines in Calitri on the same day, some within minutes of each other.  Each would dribble out their daily limit that in the aggregate would allow me to accumulate what I needed in time.  Maybe clever on my part but clearly problematic to the computer security overlords whose job it is to monitor these things.  One withdrawal after another looked suspicious, so much so that they had cut me off, well short of what I needed.  Though the money machines hadn't confiscated my card, thank God, none of them would talk to me any longer.  Clearly a problem, it took two phone calls back to the States before the pipeline opened again.  Problems aside, when we returned to Cerignola, I had what I needed in a small bankroll in my pocket.
Again we met Vito at the market, closed this time, and were soon following him through busy streets to where the car was garaged.  It looked great alongside an original Fiat Cinquecento, something he wouldn't consider selling.  From there, with Antonio behind the wheel, our three ship convoy, in tight formation, made its way to an office where car ownership transfers occurred and Libretti are born.  Telling from the welcoming handshakes and friendly chatter, they seemed to know Vito.  He appeared to be a regular customer, moored to the place, which I interpreted as a good sign.  The formalities concluded and the Fiat now officially ours, though not yet paid for, we headed back toward Calitri.  As a further inducement to make it there, I informed Vito that I'd pay him in full when we arrived. 
Vito, playing pathfinder, took the lead guiding us out of town.  He was followed by Antonio, while Mare and I took-up the rear position.  We started off just fine, but it wasn't long before it went sideways and deteriorated into a scene right out of a farcical Keystone Cop movie with us going off in different directions.  It began when Vito pulled over to the side of the road.  Antonio for some unknown reason kept going.  We were spread out with some cars between us.  I hadn't noticed that Vito had stopped and kept going.  We must have driven right past him.  When I'd caught up to Antonio and couldn't see Vito anywhere, we called Antonio and learned that Vito had stopped by the side of the road.  As Antonio took an exit toward Torre Alemanna, a thirteenth century Teutonic Knights complex, the phone started buzzing.  It was Vito in a rant, a very Italian rant, which we couldn't understand but could easily interpret as being damned upset.  With my advanced degree in hindsight, I could understand him easily concluding we were attempting to run off with the car without paying him.  After all, he didn't know us or where exactly we were going.  What he didn't know was that we weren't the type, nor had we the inclination for such shenanigans.  We soon stopped, Antonio talked to Vito on the phone, and it wasn't long before Vito rejoined us, his irritation plainly visible.  Aligned once again and apparently Vito set right, we were soon, once more, underway.
When we reached the autostrada, now familiar territory, I took the lead.  I knew where we were headed and could also easily watch everyone in my rear view mirror.  If that excitement wasn't enough, the weather turned bad.  I could see thunderstorms ahead, marching to the horizon, their positions seemingly directly along our route.  The massive spine of the Apennine mountains rose in sharp relief to the storm, while the blotted sky presented a sinister armor gray cast growing darker and darker by the moment.  As it presented itself, we were headed for trouble.  From a distance this mammoth storm looked like a mushroom rising from the earth, the rain so intense it appeared solid beneath the billowing muffin-top of the storm-clouds.  In a way it was beautiful, its beauty the least threatening of its features.  What daylight there was gave an ominous cast and although we were familiar from a lifetime of thunderstorm experience, this one literally had the added wrist of a funnel cloud.  Did they have tornados in Italy?  Apparently yes, because we could see it through the downpour.  Like a spinning needle, it stuck out the bottom of one dramatic cloud that seemed to shadow us all the way back.  It would change shape, telescoping toward the earth but never actually touching down.  Moments later, as though searching for more energy in the cloud, it would constrict to a fattened stump, before repeating its downward plunge.  All that was missing was a fusillade of hail stones, like popcorn escaping its massive stovepipe cloud-top.  Years back, a windstorm had sandblasted and pitted my car's finish.  I've also seen what hail can do.  With nowhere to hide, hail would have been disastrous.  I consciously slowed us down hoping it would soon pass as the storm's early mist began to pearl on my hood.  It had begun.
Still together, we continued west toward Candela before being forced to turn directly toward the heart of the storm.  We were embraced by the tempest.  The storm was all around us, the needle coming and going almost with a rhythm, the rain so intense that I wished the wipers could have moved faster.  It was a relief to eventually see the sign for Pescopagano.  We exited toward this cluster of dwellings clinging to a mountaintop, home to American Joe, and began the climb.  Even though he was away, Joe had arranged for a garage where our car could sit until the next time we returned.  Things like insurance and property taxes could wait until then. 
The rain was still falling when we finally reached the safe harbor of Pesco and I paid Vito through his half open window - I never did get Vito's last name.  He was on his cellphone as I walked in the rain to his car and passed him what I still owed him.  A quick count, a handshake, his relaxed smile, and with that he was off.  The drama had ended but Antonio wasn't so sure for he swore that a car had followed us from Cerignola all the way to the outskirts of Pescopagano.  Ever observant me, I hadn't noticed.  Could Vito have been that devious and called for back-up after our snafu in Cerignola?  Slow to attribute it to conspiracy, I found it easier to believe in coincidence ... someone from Pesco needing a car part sounded far less threatening, but Antonio, likely bolstered by Cerignola's negative repute, couldn't be convinced otherwise.  He saw conspiracy, some coterie of gangster carjackers afoot.  Conspiracy aside, Mare and I learned a little more about Italy from our car buying experience - saw its shiny exterior, as well as its grimy undercoating.  If I hadn't heard the horror stories, half my worries would have never materialized.  Though I'd had many dark moments over the course of this transaction, at times as dark as storm clouds themselves, I consoled myself that thus far things had turned out just fine.  While I hadn't driven the car, Antonio had proved that the windshield wipers certainly worked, it could make the trip even without a snorkel in a furious storm, and climb a mountain all on GPL. Bravo!
Only a few days earlier it had been my birthday.  In fact, it had been at my surprise party that I'd first contacted Vito by phone with Joe's help.  In a way, this little Fiat had been sort of a birthday present to myself as I once again began another annual orbit of the sun, the actual number of orbits being classified.  My birthday present will also mean some changes.  In the future we'll need to better plan our arrivals.  In the past, when we arrived, we rented a car at the airport.  Now to get to Calitri we needed to either use public transportation, rely on a friend to meet us, or rent a car for a couple of days just to get us there before returning it.  This will require that Maria Elena drive in Italy, something that until now the chief navigator has never done.  Hopefully, it will not be a case of buyer’s remorse, where we grow to regret the purchase, or to get back to my fish story analogy, wishing instead ours had been a ‘catch and release’ story.  If we do, I'm sure to mention it sometime soon.
It may be hard to believe but like a fairytale ending, the skies began to clear as Maria Elena, Antonio, and myself drove down the mountain, and home to Calitri.  Dizzy from it all, I felt about then that we could all use a Café Macchiato Vodka Valium Latte, but as yet I don't know of any combo bar, pharmacy, and coffee shop in Italy offering them.  If you know of one, please let me know, subito!  Such are our Italian adventures.
Oh, did I mention, our FIAT is standard issue white!

From That Rogue Tourist