I may have mentioned that driving in Italy is like playing Grand Theft Auto. I’m already a timid driver, with a strong interest in not getting hit or hitting others. So, Italian driving is a bit of a challenge for me.
Recently, my son asked to go visit a friend in Florence, about an hour away. I always tell my children “we can do hard things,” which often backfires by them telling me I can do hard things – like driving to Florence.
So, backed into a corner, I said yes.
But first, I did a little recognizance. I scouted out the main roads, found a circuitous route that allowed me to avoid the main city center (I can do hard things – not stupid things) and enter from the north. This path also happened to pass by one of the Medici villas (they were like the Hiltons of the 1500’s) so I decided to make a day of it, visit the Medici villa with the kids, and then take my son to see his friend.
With that rock-solid plan in place, we set off.
As it turns out, driving on the main highways in Italy isn’t so bad. You just have to keep an eye out for drivers kamikazeing into the road from a few incredibly short on-ramps. Otherwise, people more or less behave themselves. Plus, there were no mopeds!
As we cruised easily through the Tuscan countryside, I was feeling pretty great. Then we encountered our first round of road construction. Unlike in the States, where they use traffic cones to guide cars away from construction areas, they were using full cement barriers, forcing everyone into two distinct and impenetrable channels.
After some consideration (and after witnessing one failed attempt to circumvent these barriers), I think it’s because if they don’t use cement barriers, people will ignore the cones and do whatever they want. Because that’s the general vibe.
Speaking of which, the speed limit in this particular construction zone was 40 kilometers per hour. Yet, everyone was going at least 80. Well, everyone except me.
Because I’m a rule follower. And I’m afraid of the Carabinieri (Italian police). Also – it was a narrow concrete channel with lots of twists and turns and I don’t like hitting things or things hitting me.
This meant that within minutes, everyone in front of me was gone and everyone behind me was attempting to drive up my tailpipe.
When the concrete channel finally ended, the first person ripped around me gesturing wildly out of his window. Oh geeze, I thought, here it comes. I’m going to get flipped off in front of my kids.
I realize this is a silly thing to be concerned about. After all, it’s just a hand gesture. But I’m a conflict-avoidant people-pleaser by nature so getting flipped off by a stranger always kind of stings.
Then I realized something magical: they don’t do that here. Instead, we got some kind of waving thing, flapping his arm like a bird.
I don’t know what that means. So, it didn’t hurt at all.
I felt invincible.
As I contemplated this small triumph, we passed over a bridge where I noticed a row of Do Not Enter signs (but in Italian) posted along the center, in between the two lanes. Now, this is noteworthy because there were already barriers along the majority of both lanes and in between the two was a sheer drop to the water below. Why would you need to post Do Not Enter signs? I mean, to even get there, you’d have to leave your lane, cross over the solid line, jump the curb, and cut in between barricades. Who would do that?
The answer is everyone.
Everyone here would do that and more just to get two seconds ahead of the person in front of them. The bridge folks know their audience.
Finally, we reached Florence. I navigated through the northern part of town toward the Medici villa. The countryside in those rolling hills is absolutely gorgeous. It’s all little winding lanes, olive groves, vineyards, picturesque hamlets and scenic vistas.
Google Maps led us through a small town, then down a one-way road with tall stone walls on each side. This lane curved back and forth through the countryside, the stone walls transitioning from time to time to the stucco of an old villa, then back to stone.
After about 10 minutes, I joked to the kids that the walls were closing in on me. I even stopped to take this picture, because the thought of it was kind of funny.
That was then.
Three minutes later, I realized that this was no optical illusion. The road really was narrowing – and it was narrowing fast.
Pretty soon, there were only six inches on each side of the car. Then, we had to pull our side mirrors in to stop them from scraping the old stone walls.
At this point, I had two options, keep moving forward -or- back up and drive in reverse for 15-20 minutes, hoping not to get off track and hit a wall, and that no one came screaming up behind me on this narrow one-way road.
Before I attempted the latter, I had to at least try to pass through. So, we creeped anxiously forward.
Then, the car’s parking sensors began flashing, accompanied by a slow but consistent beeping. We were down to mere inches on either side.
We inched forward.
Then, the beeping moved from slow to rapid.
I stopped, slid my head out the open window and watched the side of the car. I instructed my son to do the same from the passenger seat.
We inched forward again. Now the car sensors were sounding a continuous piercing beep. Three inches on either side.
Inch by inch, we crept forward.
Soon the parking sensors were blinking on all four quadrants, with the alarm maintaining a hard, high-pitched beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepppp.
Just ahead, maybe 10-20 feet, I thought I could make out a slight widening in the lane. But with mere inches on either side and no idea what the walls would do next, would we even make it that far?
There was only one way to find out. We crept onward.
Then – holy hallelujah – the tone switched back to rapid beeping. Then, slow beeping and finally, by the grace of God, sweet exquisite silence.
We had survived, our paint intact.
We drove forward slowly, rounded a corner, made our way through another small town and followed the directions up a hill where we discovered another little one-way road bordered by stone walls, just like the one we’d barely escaped.
So I called it, threw the car in reverse and backed down the hill (which was likely still a one-way), to a junction in the small town below.
Fool me once.
The only way out was through another small town, this one marked by more narrow city streets, often with cars parked in the road and more cars lining the sidewalks (their sides streaked with long gashes from errant passing vehicles).
As we neared Florence, the streets widened. But with wider roads came more cars, and motorcycles, and mopeds, and pedestrians and no clear idea how to get to the Medici villa without getting wedged into a medieval alley. Eventually, I pulled over into a small supermarket parking lot just to breathe.
And that is where we stayed.
We got some cheap frozen ice cream cones and stood in the shade outside the store savoring them. Then we went back in and bought mozzarella, crackers, and mini pizzas from the deli. It may not have been a Medici villa, but that minimart was the most beautiful safe haven in the world.
Refreshed and completely out of time, we started the very well-researched trek to my son’s friend’s house. This turned out to be every bit as wildly rambling and haphazard as the one that had gotten us there, but at least we could pass through without getting stuck.
Plus, I learned a valuable lesson: all I had to do was find a van, truck or SUV to follow. If they could fit, I could fit. This new trick took me down a few roads I wasn’t sure we could pass, but I just watched the vehicle in front of me. If it didn’t go somewhere, neither did I. And if it turned away from my route, I’d just pull over and wait for another van, truck or SUV to come along.
I also learned another valuable lesson: You can’t drive the whole road at once.
Throughout the journey, I found my mind ruminating on what had just occurred or worrying about what lay ahead (Speeding mopeds? Car free zones? Traffic cameras? Cobblestone steps? Narrow alleys? Sideswiping cars?). It was paralyzing. But if I just focused on the visible road in front of me, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was downright manageable – even when it was a bit of a mess.
It’s good I learned this trick when I did, because the roundabout way we had reached our destination was not an option going home later that night. The remaining route took us right through the heart of Florence; through train yards, up serpentineing one-way roads flanked with mopeds, through dark tunnels, and into congested intersections where the two-lane markings were eclipsed by honking cars lining three-across, plus a moped or twelve.
One moment, one bizarre situation at a time, we made our way safely home. It was the most bizarre lesson on living in the moment I’ve ever had. And, at the end of the day, it was a wild adventure.