Saturday, May 14, 2011

Driving in Italy

It's been awhile since I've posted about everyday life... I'll get back to it soon, I promise.  Humor me once more.

So, last weekend I returned to Italy, not because I loved visiting so much over Easter, but because way back in February, I bought a ticket to Milan - a springing off point to visit Verona (to gather Romeo and Juliet material) and Cremona (the birthplace of the Stradivarius).  To do all this traveling, I decided to rent a car, rather than strap myself to the mass transportation schedules.  Plus, I felt that this was the cherry on the top of a sweet, sweet life in Europe.  As it turned out, it was possibly the best experience of the whole saga.  That is to say...

Italy be damned... I just enjoyed driving!

However, you need to know several things before reading the rest of this post.

First, almost all European cars have a manual transmission.
Second, I have driven a stick shift all of... oh, three times in my life.
Third, my adventures usually involve very great amounts of good luck... or very great amounts of bad luck.  Or blessing.  Or grace.  Or whatever you want to call it.

Please take a moment to pause and ponder this seeming difficulty.  Also note:  if you've never had to learn how to drive a stick shift before, you might not fully appreciate the following account, but perhaps you will be better advised for having read it.

My adventures began in the Milan airport, searching for my rental car agency.  I knew ahead of time that I'd have to call them upon arrival because they were not located on-site... but I'd lost my cell phone the week before... and the pay phone wasn't working... and I was short on change anyway.  Luckily, I had no plans for the day.  Arrive, get situated, see what the day holds - that was my game plan.  At last, another rental car agency directed me to a different terminal where I found a working phone.  The Advantage lady told me to meet her at Exit 7.

There are 12 exits.

If anyone had been watching, they would have seen a starry-eyed female of dubious nationality (people mistake my nationality on a regular basis) and a black backpack wandering up and down the rows or doors.  Finally, I located the numbers, and off we went.

As we pulled up, there was a yellow Fiat Panda sitting in the parking lot.  It was the funnest car I've seen in ages.  I froze in sudden meditation. Please let that be my car, please let that be my car, please let that be my car!!!!! 

Oh yes.

It was my car.  I got in the driver's seat and let out a whoop.  This is going to be fun, I thought... now then, how do you get it into reverse??  Five minutes later, the girl came out and laughed as she showed me the trick.  "These are different from American automatics, aren't they?"  Yessss......

I won't bore you with the awful details of those following few minutes.  As it turns out, the emergency brake is another addition Americans don't usually think about.  Safe to say, I was relieved to get on the highway and be at a constant speed.  After a few kilometers of highway driving, my window was down, the music was up, and I was rocking it.

It was a toll road.

And you know what that means.

Six cars deep, start-and-stop, inch-your-way-up traffic.

I put my hazard lights on, said a little prayer - okay, a big prayer - and began to move up.  VROOOOM... screech!  VRROOOOM! *engine dies*  VROOOM.... screech! *engine dies* Thank God I had enormous sunglasses on.  At last, I got up to the toll window with, well, exceptional power, and the woman just looked at me and shook here head.  "Dios mio....string of Italian...." I just looked at her as pathetically as possible and said, "I know."  And I went on my merry way.

Oh, did I mention that I didn't have a map of Milan?

I had written down instructions on how to get to the hostel, but apparently in Italy, street names change every block, and within two minutes I was hopelessly lost.  Always the optimist, however, I decided to follow the signs toward the Center, where there were bound to be tourist maps and such.

The thing about having a car, though, is that you have to leave it somewhere (as opposed to simply walking around).  And the thing about driving in Europe is that there isn't any parking.  Anywhere.

...unless you find a parking garage!!

And you know what that means.


For those of you who are unfamiliar with stick shift cars... you have to take your foot off the brake in order to accelerate while holding down the clutch, and in the space of time it takes you to move your foot, the car begins to roll backward.

It is a really good thing that:
1.  No one was in the car with me.
2.  No one was behind me.
3.  No one was coming down the garage ramp.

I turbo'd that thing up as fast as I possibly could.  It probably took a major campaign from Heaven to ensure that I did not, in fact, go barreling through a wall... but I arrived in one piece and packed my smart little car into a smart little parking place, dusted off my coat tails, and proceeded to find a map.

As you can probably imagine, the adrenaline was coursing through my body at 800 times the recommended quantities. It was time for lunch.  After cheap pizza, I was still at 600 times, which can only mean one thing:  sightseeing.

Afterwards, having procured a map and ready to get back on the horse but not yet ready to brave the rest of Milan, I decided to go to Verona for the afternoon.  Highway driving for a couple of hours... yes, it sounded nice.  I drove down the ramp (at a much slower speed) and stopped to get directions from the attendant on duty, an older gentleman.

He took one look at my car (perfectly intact, of course) and smiled wryly.  "So you're the one.... trying to be like Alonso in Formula 1, huh?"

I just looked at him as pathetically as possible and said, "I know..." and fled.

The trip to Verona was successful, and it should be noted that Italian countryside actually resembles that of Oklahoma (except for the random vineyards and Italian architecture...).   Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on your humor, on the way back, I encountered even worse toll booth woes.  At first, I was concerned because it seemed like I was practically living on the clutch, but I recalled driving Patrick's green Mustang around Edmond this fall (that was my second time driving a manual... I still can't believe you let me do that, Sweetums...) which had a killer clutch, and he mentioned that driving in city traffic was always painful, so I took this as a good sign.

Unfortunately, it was dark when I got into Milan... and I might have gotten hopelessly lost.  So much so, a kind stranger explained, that I wasn't even on the map.


Saturday's journey to Cremona was even more successful, and I returned to Milan feeling like quite the expert.... if I could have driven into Milan waving at the crowds like Kate Middleton, I would have, for it was certainly merited : )

It was a good experience.  I got some cool pictures and some even cooler stories.  The end.

P.S.  KMAC, I still hate conclusions.  Sorry.  In this case, I call it Writers' Prerogative... or personal laziness... either / or.

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