I’m not a person who travels with specific plans. The sooner you learn that about me, the better. Since I fly on a standby basis, I am never 100% certain that I will make it to my intended destination on the day I planned or at all. Maybe I’ll land in Frankfurt and the flight to Lisbon will be oversold and I will be forced to go to Prague instead. For this reason, I rarely book lodging or transportation at my first choice of destinations in advance. I don’t want to be on the hook for a rental car in Tokyo when I had to reroute to Seoul because the flights looked better. For this reason, there are not many people who I can/will travel with. I usually travel alone. My last excursion, however, I had the pleasure of exploring Italy with 4 of my favorite people. It was a trip vaguely planned about 6 months ago that had fizzled so I went to the Middle East instead but kept the idea in the back of my mind and kept sporadically bringing it up to them. Finally, I decided to just tell them I was going and whoever wanted to join me could join me. Thankfully, they all did. I was a little nervous about the size of the group, but they are all experienced travelers and generally awesome people, so I was more excited than apprehensive. It is one of those groups that, when we get together, we spend the majority of our time in tears from laughing. Add in the good Italian wine, and we were set up for a great trip. Since this whole zany scheme was my idea, and I didn’t want them all to kill me, I rented a villa in Tuscany on a vineyard that was in a location rustic enough to get the true sense of Tuscany while still being close enough to Florence and Siena to enjoy the city perks. None of us had ever been to the region before, and we were all in serious need of a vacation after the horrific, traumatizing, insanity of working at an airport during the Christmas season. Monica and I met in Philadelphia the night before our flight to Rome. Josh and Shenaqua met us in Philly the next day, and we all flew US Airways together. Meloney flew Delta and met us there. For some reason, this actually worked, and we all arrived in Rome within an hour of each other. I had not slept on the flight over. Partly because coach seats are extremely uncomfortable no matter what airline you fly, partly because the flight was from 3pm-10pm according to my internal clock, and partly because I was going to freaking Italy. I knew there would be an abundance of coffee, and that was one of 5 things I knew how to say in Italian before I left, so I would be ok. My Italian is not great. And by not great I mean not good. And by not good I mean bad. You would think that this would infringe on my ability to drive in Italy. I, however, did not think of that. We somehow managed to find a car that would accommodate 5 people and our luggage. This is no small feat in Europe, land of the teeny tiny two-seat cars and scooters a-plenty. They do what they have to do. With gas holding steady around 1.75 euros/liter (approximately $9/gallon), you do anything you can to maximize your gas mileage. So we did the only logical thing: rented a giant station wagon and drove it 3000 kilometers around Italy. Believe it or not, the price of gas is not biggest hurdle to driving in Italy. We (I) decided that we didn’t need a map. We would rely on the directions I had saved on my iPhone before I left to get from Rome to the Tuscan villa. Mistake #1. We (I) had also decided that since we would be driving to/from Rome at least twice, we should take a different route each time to explore the region better. For the initial drive north, I mapped a route along the coast. It was only a few minutes longer that the direct route on the toll road. Or at least it should have been. According to Google maps, it should have taken us 3 hours & 13 minutes from the Leonardo da Vinci Airport to our home for the week. It took us almost 6 hours. Shenaqua was my navigator because she’s really good with maps. However, we didn’t have a map. We had a stationary image on my phone with directions written for a US roadway. The directions did not make sense with the Italian signage, and we had no frame of reference to realize that every single exit would say it was going toward Firenze (Florence) when we got in the general vicinity so trying to head toward the city to get our bearings was not going to work. We stopped at a café to ask for directions then another to use the free wifi to attempt to map the route again. After about 4 hours and approximately 16 blind guesses as to what road to take that turned out, miraculously, to be correct, we had made it to within 30km of our destination. And we could not have been more lost. We sucked down a few more shots of coffee and finally found the villa, but not before we found a store and stocked up on enough local wine to last the week.
If only I could tell you that this was the most complicated part of the driving experience. The next day, we ventured to Firenze. By this time, Shenaqua and I had somewhat kinda sorta figured out how to interpret the road signs. We found it without incident. The great thing about this group was that we had no set agenda, and the plan was to wander around, find some cool cafes and museums, see the David, and basically just immerse ourselves in the city. To start with, we needed to find a currency exchange since we had spent all of our money the previous day on vino and groceries (ok, mostly vino). To do that, we needed to drive through the city a bit. Keep in mind that our car was approximately double the size of any other vehicle that we saw the entire trip. While attempting to find a parking space, I turned into an alley that ended up winding us up the hillside and around to an entirely different part of the city without an option to turn around because it was walled on both sides and so narrow that we had to pull the mirrors inside the car to fit. This was a two-lane road. I still have nightmares about seeing another car coming in our direction, because we would still be stuck there in an eternal game of chicken. There was no turning around or backing up. I’m pretty sure the passengers in the back seat shrunk themselves into the seat cushions to avoid having to watch as I white-knuckled us through the maze and finally out the other side. But we were not in the clear yet. We needed to park, and we did not know how to read the street signs well enough to determine where we would actually be able to do so. After a long period of circling, we found a parking space large enough to fit our house-boat car. However, I had to jump out of the car and let Shenaqua handle the parallel parking. We breathed a sigh of relief and climbed out of the car only to be flagged down by a shop owner and (to the best of our charades skills) told that we could not park there. We climbed back in the car, found another spot where plenty of other cars were parked without any sort of permit, and went to find the David. When we returned, 4 hours later, the cars we had parked around were still there. And so was ours. Except ours had a parking ticket. We were flabbergasted. And pissed. And we had nobody to yell at because none of the 5 Italian words that I knew were cuss words. We spent the rest of the day in the city, and then returned back to our villa, determined to fight the ticket the next day. The problem was, we were staying in the middle of nowhere, and the closest town was tiny. We didn’t even know if they would have a police station. We stopped at our usual coffee spot (yes, by the third day, we had local haunts already) and asked where we should go to pay the ticket. They didn’t know. They guessed that perhaps we go to another café near the bank. We went. They didn’t know either, but they suggested the tiny police station down the road. We went. They didn’t know either, but suggested the bank. We went. Finally, someone who would take our money. At this point, we had given up the idea of arguing. We had no idea how to go about it anyway. We just paid.
A week later, we left the paradise of Tuscany to head back to Rome to spend the last couple of days before we flew back to reality. We had been in Italy over a week, and I was convinced that I was an expert Italian driver. I was wrong. Rome is unlike anywhere I had ever attempted to drive. I’m sure it is not unlike many other cities in the world, but I don’t drive there. I take public transportation. I drove in Rome…or, their version of driving. I believe there were some sort of stop sign/stop light signals at a few of the intersections. At least I think so. But if they were there, I was certainly the only person who saw them. The cars converged on the intersections from every direction, weaving their way through the opposing traffic in a sort of bumper car jamboree. I realized that I was supposed to join in when the taxis started honking at me. I inched into the intersection, completely convinced that we were all going to die. Cyclists and mopeds whizzed by us on either side with no regard for any semblance of sanity. Remarkably, no one was killed. Even more remarkably, the other drivers stuck to this bizarre gentleman’s agreement and let us through. I started wishing we had purchased the rental car insurance. I started wishing we had all rented individual mopeds. I stopped wishing things and got back to focusing on not massacring my friends in a horrible car crash. One of the many wonderful things about Italy is the people. And the people of Rome did not disappoint. A random stranger must have noticed our terrified looks and directed us to a side street 2 blocks from the Colosseum. He pointed us to a parking place, promised us that our car would be safe and ticket-free, and then disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared.
We all agree that it was the most fun we have ever had on a trip, and Shenaqua and I vow to never ever drive in Italy again. Italy apparently agrees. 4 months later, I received a speeding ticket in the mail from Siena for going 8km over the speed limit. Really, guys? I’ll be back. But only on the bus.