30 December 2011

I Need A Car, You Need a Guide

I really love driving.  Once my friends and I reached driving age, I was the one who, no matter who else was willing to take their car wherever we were going—the Hamptons, the city, the party two towns away—I, too, would take mine.  Designated driver?  No problem, but you’re gonna have to leave when I wanna go.  Maybe we’ll leave the party and take a ride to the beach…..

My car was my freedom.  Driving down the highway, in MY car, where I could listen to MY music (despite protests from friends whose tastes ran a little more Top 40 than mine), smoking MY cigarettes, going where I wanted to go, leaving when I wanted to leave.

My first car was a pale yellow Subaru hatchback that a boyfriend referred to as “the egg”.  We actually started dating after our Philosophy final, on a snowy day just before Christmas when I’d locked my keys in the parking lot of the community college’s parking lot and he oh-so-gallantly took me to his house to wait until my sister got home and could let me in to the house to get a spare set of car keys. 

It took me to work, out to my friends’ summer house in the Hamptons and straight back to work the following day.  It carted me and my belongings to and from my new upstate school numerous times.  It provided refuge and solitude, carted my ass aimlessly around Long Island and the rest of the tri-state area whenever the mood struck.

That car met its end parked in front of my mother’s house during summer break.  We lived on a corner in a town that rivals that of Edward Scissorhand’s in terms of cookie cutter suburb.  I unlocked the driver’s side door, realized I’d forgotten my watch, and ran back into the house.  Just in time to miss the muscle car that careened around the corner, spun around, crushed the enter driver’s side, continued spinning and drove off.

Despite my close brush with death, I was secretly delighted.  I really wanted a new car.  Well, an old car.  A pink ‘70s  convertible VW bug to be precise.  My father helped me find it.   Then he helped me learn how to drive it, with its four-speed manual transmission (I had to stand up to jam the gearshift down to get it into reverse).   And how to pop the clutch and make it “go” when the battery died:  find someone to push the steel beast, first gear & clutch engaged, until it reached an approximation of second gear, release the clutch and hope the one pushing it didn’t expect to get in and go where you were going.  Invaluable lesson, it turned out.

In addition to the faulty battery upon purchase (for much too much money), it had the classic VW Beetle heating system (read: virtually non-existent).  The engine was in the back.  Below the back bench seat were pipes directing air from the engine through holes right about where my passengers’ calves were.  This was meant to warm the entire car.  When the tubes carrying the air rotted, you could just take a coffee can, slit it up the side, squeezed to the size of the original pipes and pop ‘em where the originals belonged.  It was a somewhat futile fix, as with either original or coffee can pipes, the heat never made it to the front seat.  In cold weather, I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windshield.

Still, I loved that car.  It was pink!  It was a convertible!  It was a stick shift!  It was pink!  It also began to bleed oil.  I started traveling with cases of oil on the rotting floor of the back seat, right next to the fiberglass I’d intended to fix the floorboards with but never got around to, during my trips to and from my upstate college.  I finally had to leave it there, torturing my mother as it ruined her driveway until the day that kid came and asked if he could buy it (and the oil and the fiberglass) for his girlfriend.  I was about to start student teaching and needed a reliable car, more befitting of my position.  Really, I needed something that would help me be taken more seriously by the middle school students that I looked a little too much like.

Enter the oh-so-practical Toyota four-door bought with my mom.  Such a sensible ride for a teacher of English.  I drove that car through six house moves, three job changes, one towing by the NYCDOT and a major break-in that stripped me of hundreds of dollars of clothing during a stop in NYC to see Bob Mould at Irving Plaza between a day of work, a trip to Boston for the weekend and more work on Monday.  Eleven years, a hundred and seventy thousand miles and one broken trunk lock later, I bought my first car all by my self.

I loved my Mini Cooper.  It wasn’t pink, but it was mine, bought after a torturous break up when I was facing living on my own and all that that meant.  And the breaker-upper thought it was totally unnecessary.  I maintain it was exactly what I needed. 

I drove to DC.  I drove to Long Island.  I drove upstate.  Sometimes multiple times a week.  That brand new car, which its unlikelihood of breaking down (and it’s Mini-provided roadside assistance if it did) was my life saver as I went from work, to home, to the friends who let me sob my heartbreak all over them, to work again. 

I drove to my job in mid-town Manhattan.  Every day for seven years. I sat on the West Side Highway, smoking my cigarettes, listening to my music, fielding phone calls and emails from work, having conversations with my friend M. in her car that was always just up ahead in the line of traffic heading home until she hit the deadspot on the Saw Mill where Westchester turns toward Putnam.

One summer day, all of NYC, Westchester and, I think, most of the Eastern seaboard lost power.  No trains, no subways.  Good thing I had my car, into which I stuffed five other adults and drove them all home, through various neighborhoods of Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester. 

When we decided to move to Italy, I had to sell my car.  It was actually sold after I left and it was what made the move feel final.  Sure, I’d given away, sold or packed up most of my belongings to be shipped across the ocean in a container but it was knowing that when (if?) I go back, my car isn’t waiting for me at JFK.

I don’t drive much here.  Besides the facts that our car is bigger than I’d like, a smallish station wagon-esque beast and that I’m not on the kooky, incredibly expensive Italian-style insurance plan, truth is I just don’t like to drive here.  The roads are too narrow, too poorly lit, inefficiently signed and often lead into some medieval town built for people on horseback with surprising dead ends and impossibly right-angled corners.  Did I mention our car is too big?  And then, there are the drivers.

Much has been written about Italian drivers.  Suffice it to say that they all seem to think they are Fernando Alonso, speeding through Monaco’s Grand Prix course, overtaking cars at every turn.  As V. says, often, when I scare him by bracing myself for impact as headlights head toward us in our own lane, while someone else is driving so far up our trunk we can’t see their headlights in the rearview mirror, “I’m sorry but people are trying to kill me here!”

For someone who enjoys driving so much that I once contemplated a job as a truck driver (until I realized I wouldn’t want to be broken down on the side of some road in the middle of the night or sleeping in the cab at a truck stop), the fact that driving in Italy is a non-stop battle to remain alive instead of the exercise in freedom of adventure it should be kills me.

If only I could pick up the multi-laned US highways and the drivers that don’t pass into oncoming traffic, drop ‘em down over this country, get in a little old pink Fiat 500 and go……

27 December 2011

I Know What You Did This Morning (or Essentials for Lab Tests, Italian-style)

You can find out many things necessary to live life in Italy from expat websites.  You can learn how to get the Codice Fiscale, necessary for obtaining everything from a cell phone to a car.  You can get information about visas, stay permits, citizenship.  You can find the best places to buy peanut butter and who might have barbecue sauce.  You might find how to get a card for the healthcare system.  You might not find how to navigate the health system with its tickets and receipts, clinics, hospitals and ambulatorio.  And, unless you know a local, you will not know these two essentials:

24 December 2011

The Vigilia (and Why You Should Pray for This Heathen)

Christmas Eve, or Vigilia in Italian, is widely known for the copious amounts of fish consumed.  Our American friend, L., wanted to make the dinner at her house this year.  Her plan was to get oysters for V. to shuck and some vongole, cozze, and gamberi for paella.  She ordered ahead of time from one of the fish markets in San Benedetto, fearing the Italian mammas would buy it all up within a 50km radius and she'd be left fish-less.  She then realized she’d never be able to make the half hour drive with her two small boys before closing time, emphatically stated by the woman on the phone as 10am.  We offered to go for her.

“You’re sure you’ll get there before 10a?  She was adamant.  They are closing at 10. In the morning.”

“Non ti preoccupare!  Don’t worry!   No problem.   V. gets up early.   I’ll call you once we’ve got them and are heading to you.”

22 December 2011

Nothing's Stirring Here...

The holidays are always weird for me.  Maybe it was always having to choose which parent to spend it with and which parent to be mad it wasn’t them (granted, that was probably more in my head than theirs).  Maybe it was that my Jewish grandmother was making Christmas cookies.  Or maybe, it was that the standard, portrayed in books and movies, was impossible to achieve in real life.  If there wasn’t a house full of friends and family, a roaring fireplace, a beautiful tree under which everyone’s wishes could be found beautifully wrapped, we’d all failed.  

17 December 2011

New Word: Incubo

I hear new words all the time, look them up in my dictionary, and then can’t remember their meaning the next time I encounter them.  Sometimes, I learn the meaning in such a way that I think I’ll never forget it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar in San Benedetto trying to read the newspaper.  The frontpage headline showed a picture of the destruction caused by the flooded Pò River in Northern Italy, with this superimposed over it:
“Il Pò Paura, Incubo Pieno”

Somewhere in Macerata....

As you drive through italy on the winding roads, up and down the hills, you often see little stone houses, groups of houses, land stretching between them and they look almost abandoned.

I’m sure they sometimes are, but sometimes, like this Wednesday, you get to see what’s really happening in at least one of them.

This house looks like a shed, maybe a storage spot for god knows what.  It looks sort of sad, a bit neglected but for the smoke wafting up from the grill outside the door.

09 December 2011

My Italian Eye Exam

My first real foray into the Italian health system went like this:

Show up a half hour before appointment time.

Go to the hospital.

Take a number from the machine, now void of handwritten notes telling me it was closed and not to touch.

Pay €26.  I think ten of it, the “ticket fee”, or part of it, might go to the referring doctor.

Stand outside the eye doctor’s office, where a handful of Italians are sitting.

Wait while my “reservation” time comes and goes.

Walk over to the little white-clad, rubber-clogged woman appearing periodically at the office door and thrust my ticket in her face.

Sit and wait for them to call my name.

08 December 2011

Some Reservations

The other day, I called a hotel in Paris.  Now, I studied French in high school.  Actually, “studied” might be a generous term for what I did.  I coasted.  I got away with reading and writing it OK but speaking it barely.  I still remember how to say, “I would like…”, “I am…”, “Open [or close] the window” and the oh-so-important “Close your mouth.”

I did not want to have to call the hotel.  I didn’t even want to stay in this hotel.  I wanted to stay where I always stay, the place with the kitchen, the place that I could book online, no speaking any language to anybody, but that place had renovated and priced itself right out of my range so I was stuck with this hotel that does not do online booking.  They had responded to my first email and had requested I fill out a form that included my credit card details, which I dutifully did.  And got no response. I was left with no choice.