It has been said that you have to be CRAZY to drive in Italy, but I tell you that you MUST be crazy to drive in Italy — preferably homicidal. Drivers here are assertive and aggressive, believing that it is more blessed to take the right of way than to give it. Indeed, I found no translation into Italian of the phrase “giving the right of way.”
Some of the streets are not actually intended for car, at least cars the size that you and I know. Instead, Smart Cars, rarely seen in the wild in the US are popular in Italy. They are more like half of a pair of roller skates than an actual car. I’m sure I saw a “size” sticker on the back of one of them.
There were even smaller vehicles with 3 wheels, 2 in the front and electric powered.
The streets in Florence were designed centuries ago for horses and carts, but now serve cars, motor scooters, and people — usually all at the same time. I’m told that it is technically illegal to hit a pedestrian, but that gave me no greater confidence as a pedestrian when crossing streets.
Drivers in Italy are most imaginative, able to place three car streams within two lanes. Lane markings are merely a suggestion; the Italians think of them more as guidelines than rules. Street signs are considered decoration and no one pays any attention to them as they’re moving too fast to read them.
Motorcycles and scooters move at 90 degrees perpendicular to the traffic, squeezing through the interstitial spaces between stopped cars. As I drove through the streets of Florence, I noticed them moving around my (relatively) slow-moving vehicle as if they were birds.
Once getting on the Autostrada, I thought things would speed up until I looked up the word in a dictionary:
Translation: a special road you pay a toll on for the privilege of going long distances at slow speeds.
A drive into Florence during commute hours from out of town could take 1.5 hours to go just 30km. As there are only 2 lanes each way, and no shoulder to speak of, if there was a breakdown traffic could come to a virtual standstill. But there was one saving grace. Once you get out of the metropolitan area, the rules on the Autostrada change. There are two lanes with two speeds. The name of the right lane is roughly translated “farm vehicles” where they move at slowpoke speeds. The left lane is known as the Benz lane, where high-end automobiles move at hyper-light speeds, announcing to cars ahead of them their intention to crawl up their tailpipe by flashing their high beams as they approach from behind.
The patron saint of many Italian drivers is GPS, the Global Positioning System device, found in so many cars, not just passenger cars but delivery vehicles as well. We took a tour bus, and that driver had a GPS. It didn’t keep him from taking the wrong road, but that’s another story. Drivers proudly display this talisman on their dashboard or windshield. Italians use one that is addressed by the name Sophia.
The one I had was addressed by the votive title Garmin, or specifically Miss Garmin. I like having a female voice, as it tends to cut through traffic noise better. While I usually respond well to a crisp female British accent telling me how to drive (“Oh, Miss Moneypenny”) it’s hard enough listening to a female American accent butcher the Italian street names. Since GPS devices do their pronunciation by phonemes, the American placement of accents doesn’t match the Italian ones. I just followed the arrow on the screen.
In general, it takes 3 Americans to drive in Italy: one to pilot the vehicle, one to do the navigation, and another to recognize and call out hazards like stop lights.
UPDATE: Six months after I returned from Italy, I got in the mail two driving tickets. One for driving in an area that is only allowed for hotel guests — you must register your license with the hotel — and another for driving in an area reserved for taxis and busses. About $300!