When I left the United States in 2008, my Subaru Forester came with me. I think it was a week after my car arrived in Italy that I sideswiped my first guardrail. After that, all bets at keeping the first brand new car I had ever owned pristine were off.
It’s painfully obvious to many Americans their first time driving in Europe that unlike in the United States with wide avenues and long straight stretches of interstate highways, here you actually have to drive. This, opposed to holding your steering wheel in one position while you move forward half a mile at time between traffic lights and strip malls.
In Italy the driving experience is like a well choreographed dance. Everyone on the road here is equal parts offensive and defensive. Oncoming traffic swerves onto your side of the road? Do you slam on the breaks? No… get out of the way! Make some room. The traffic should flow, like a river. Your car is a droplet of water, so go around the obstacle. Find the path of LEAST resistance. Flash your lights. Honk your horn. These are ways to communicate. As are wild angry hand gestures. Anything goes – with the flow.
The traffic circles may be two or three lanes wide, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a lane has any real meaning. Why would you stay on the outside lane when you are going straight across the circle? The shortest distance between two points is a straight line so naturally one should drive straight across. These people aren’t idiots. Likewise, it may be a two lane road, but if there’s room for two cars across, presto, you have a four lane road. A single lane country road with ditches on both sides? No need to slow down, just get as close to the edge as possible and create the room where none exists.
Is the autostrade clogged with trucks? Thats just fine, because they are required to stay in the right hand lanes so you can go as fast as you can in the left lane. Someone riding your ass because you’re not going fast enough for them? Well since we live in a society you naturally get out of the way at the first possible second. Until you do, it’s perfectly natural for the speed demon to flash his lights at you inches from your bumper until you move over. It’s part of “the code” that you’ll move over just as soon as is safe to do so. No one likes a road hog, and it isn’t your job to meter the traffic flow by driving the “speed limit”, so get the hell out of the way! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, and it is not acceptable in any circumstance whatsoever to pass on the right, so don’t think that just because you are the only one on road that gives you the right to stay in the left lane, because even if there are five free lanes to the right, that speed demon will NEVER go around you on the inside. It just isn’t done.
Parking your car can prove to be an adventure as well. Many businesses have found it much more desirable to leave their parking, lets call them “areas”, in their natural lineless state. Why dictate with carefully planned parking spaces when your customers can enjoy a total free-for-all depending on the size of their vehicles. This allows for creative space filling games such as parking lot tetris. Public parking garages are a bit different. Here, you must adhere to strict rules and regulations like paying, and hours of operation. Yes, you could return to a parking area to find it closed for the night and no way to extract your vehicle. With street parking pretty much anything goes, as long you don’t mind risking a ticket. Adhere to the blue (pay and display), yellow (disabled), and white (free) spaces, or simply create your own, but NEVER block someones driveway.
To the unacclimatized visitor all this can seem a bit foreign… but thats just fine, because as many too readily forget, you ARE in a foreign country. Go with the flow. Respect “the code”. Don’t be an ass and hold your lane. If someone swerves into your lane don’t freak out and slam on the brakes. Remember speed limits are guidelines and if the cops feel like it they might at the most take a picture of your car and send you a ticket in the mail. Observe subtle communication from your fellow drivers, they might be trying to tell you something you need to know, something like “I choose to go faster than you are comfortable with so kindly get out of my lane”.
So back to the vehicle. Upon learning the rules of the road, I found the driving experience to be quite enjoyable. Winding Tuscan country roads, the adventure of Vespa dodging in Livorno, the art of parallel parking, and the avoidance of speed cameras made blatantly obvious by the blue signage warning you of their existence (you really do have to be completely oblivious to get a speeding ticket).
These first few years of overseas driving were a dream, until I realized that if I had a problem with a Japanese automatic transmission in Italy I was basically screwed. I remember the exchange with the mechanic quite well. It went something like, “We’d be happy to rebuild your transmission, but we’ll have to have the technic at the Subaru office up in Germany walk us through it over the phone”. Fortunately, the problem was due mainly to a total lack of transmission fluid thanks to a dented oil pan. This was repaired good as new, and I sold the Subaru immediately. It continues to enjoy a long life on the road as do 9 out of 10 of the rest of world’s Subarus sold within the last ten years.
Enter my 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI. A European car made for European roads, European parking, and European driving. There are Volkswagen mechanics in every town, and as the most popular model sold in Europe, every mechanic knows how to fix a Golf. Miraculously, in three years, Golf has never been attacked by a guardrail, and has never been hit by a parked car, two mishaps Subaru was all too familiar with. Where other Americans have trouble parking their small buildings on wheels, Golf has no problems. Averaging 6 liters per 100km (thats 40mpg), Golf goes 1000km between fill-ups using DIESEL, which is the most abundant and cheapest fuel here. Truly a car made for the (routine) situations one might encounter driving in Italy.
Soon however, Golf will be headed across the pond to begin a new life as an oddity, lost in the sea of small buildings on wheels driving in straight lines between traffic lights and strip-malls. His new home will be one of an unforgiving highway patrol and municipal police departments who use traffic citations as a revenue source. A land where speed limits have meaning, and breaking them will have consequences. Driving will not be so much an adventure as a chore. A routine mundane necessity. The winding roads of the Blue Ridge will call to Golf, and hopefully there, or on some lonely country road, Golf can find the happiness he knows here so well.