Driving in Italy is like a sport. Actually, it’s more like a back alley, black market, underground, live-or-die “sport” like chicken-style, to-the-death drag racing or subterranean cage fighting. It’s fast, it’s furious, there are no commonly observed rules, and it’s definitely survival of the fittest.
I knew all of this well before we moved to Italy, having witnessed it from the passenger seat during my college study abroad and again when I visited with my husband a few years back. Plus, the car insurance quotes we got were so high, the companies were basically saying, “When you get in a wreck, here’s the coverage you’ll get.”
Not if, but when.
I also knew that, unlike the last two times, this time, I would be behind the wheel, experiencing it all firsthand.
So I studied up, took my driver’s test, got my Italian license, re-learned how to drive stick in the safety of an abandoned parking lot, and geared up to go.
Except, I didn’t. I delayed. After all, it wasn’t really essential that I drive yet. Why rush it, right?
Here’s the thing about illicit back-alley “sports” – in addition to being abjectly terrifying, they’re also largely mental. I’d done all the groundwork to get out there on the road, I just had that pesky mental aspect remaining.
Unfortunately, the only way to get over that is by doing the terrifying thing – and doing it A LOT.
At first, I did not do this. I happily cruised around Italy with my husband (or ANYONE else) behind the wheel, telling myself that it was a good opportunity to get the lay of the land.
The truth is, I was scared. And every time I went out, I got even more scared.
In one trip alone, I saw:
- Two cars passing another car at the exact same time, side by side, against oncoming traffic on a narrow two-lane road.
- I saw pedestrians riding bicycles without helmets directly inside the lane of a 70 kilometer-per-hour roadway.
- I saw mopeds using the dotted center line as their own personal lane.
- I saw every rule of the road I had just learned be completely and utterly discarded. For example, in the states, you can generally go over the speed limit by about 5 mph without getting pulled over. Sometimes people do 10 or even 15. But in Italy, speed limit signs seem to be purely decorational. Most people double them, if they’re feeling leisurely.
So, I did not drive.
But with one shared family car and three kids that need to get to and from school, the fact of the matter remained – I was going to have to drive in Italian traffic – A LOT. So, I finally decided that the time had come to wrap my fists in old cloth and jump into the ring.
I started with a short 10-minute drive from our house to the beach. It was three left turns and one right turn, with a search for parking at the end.
On one straightaway, I came upon four cyclists riding in my lane, side-by-side. I slowed, so as not to hit them. Because I’m American. Then, I checked behind me, in front of me and beside me. And then I checked again. And then I passed them, going about halfway into the oncoming lane. As I did, someone roared up behind me and passed me passing them on the shoulder of the oncoming lane.
I also parallel parked the car, which I was pretty proud of because, as you may remember, it’s a manual that I had just learned how to drive.
The next time, I drove further – this time all the way to Pisa. There were a series of events along the way. For example, once, an oncoming car passed the person in front of them along the white dotted line, while I was passing them in the opposite lane. In other words, the three of us were momentarily lined up along the width of a two-lane road, me going one way, the first car going the other way, and the passing car traveling between the two.
Also, mopeds everywhere, in every direction, doing whatever the hell they wanted. I soon learned that before I did ANYTHING I had to check every side, not just the side other vehicles should be on. This includes the right side on a one lane road because mopeds will pass and linger wherever they feel like it, even right next to you, in your lane, in your right-side blind spot.
At one point, on a roundabout, which are plentiful, I shouted a few choice words at a tailgating car, which was tailgating not the rear of our vehicle, but the side. Like a slow-moving T-bone. Yeah.
My daughter gently reminded me, “Mom, be nice. Remember, they might be having a really bad day.”
Out of nowhere came what might have been the truest words I’ve ever spoken, “Look sweetheart, I can either be mad or I can be panicked – and mad is more likely to get us home safe.” So mad it was.
And it worked.
Pretty soon, I was actually – dare I say it – having fun.
Turns out, the secret to driving in Italy is never expecting anyone else to follow any rules ever. Once you do that, it’s not as scary.
Still scary – just not as scary.
Expect a free-for-all and you won’t be disappointed. Turns out, even cage fighting can be a little fun.
It reminds me a bit of that famous Alice in Wonderland quote:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
I’m glad I came. Bring on the madness.