Driving. Italian Style.
The Italians have a bit of a reputation when it comes to driving. I have friends who have literally given up on driving in Italy and resorted to public transport, due to being petrified. Others maybe think they are aggressive and impatient. Are they, or, is it a lack of understanding from us? I was part of the latter group. I always though of the Italians as being pretty aggressive. Generally, my opinion has been when I’ve been accessing some of the finest Italian Alpine passes. Perhaps that glimpse of Italian driving was a bit short sighted.
I’ve decided it’s a culture, driving or riding in Italy. So much so, about two weeks into our tour, I asked Ed how much road rage he’d witnessed. After a nano-second of consideration, his gut instinct answer was, “None. Other than the road rage inside my own helmet.” See, once you ‘get it’, you can join in the party. I never thought I would find myself doing what I would consider to be down right cheeky manoeuvres on roundabouts, which, by all accounts at home, would involve at least flashing lights, horns, fist shaking and, yes, our finest international hand signals. There would be screeching brakes, much shouting, gesticulating and name calling. What a waste of energy. Italy, if I didn’t ‘get on with it’, fill the gap, keep creeping forward and make ‘Italian’ progress, Ed would be waiting a while for me to catch up. For a long time. We only had a month off!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s dangerous, chaotic and mind blowing. You have to react quickly or you’re left sitting wondering what the hell happened. Speed limits, as we know them, in Italy, seem to be a ‘minimum’ speed. 30s and 40s are generally ignored. Stop signs are ignored, centre lines are ignored. Actually, all road signs and markings seem to be ignored.
Paying attention to your mirrors takes rear observations to a different level entirely. Blind spot checks need to be rapid. If they’re not, and you are indecisive, then the space you are considering filling has been taken by a wee Fiat 500 or a Panda. Or a scooter; that goes without saying. The only time you see an indicator is if someone is turning left, telling you to pull over from the fast lane or they have just forgotten that it’s flashing. Generally, you don’t have time to use them. If you do, I’m sure they are muttering, “Pah, tourists!”
I found a new skill. Well, not new, but I had to adapt and shift my bike differently. More quickly. Positive steering is all well and good, but, not the best way to ride effectively in Italy, particularly in cities. As it transpires, positive steering comes in very, very handy to get the hell out the way when you are needing to shift the bike at good speed. In traffic, I found I was wiggling my hips, using my knees and shifting my (ample) arse to shimmy Smoggy in between the scary traffic. After a couple of weeks, panniers and all, I was nearly keeping up with the scooters weaving their way through the bedlam. That also transferred to riding in the country. If you don’t react to the traffic and move quickly you would end up in a rather undignified heap at the side of the road. If you can’t beat them; join them, springs to mind.
They don’t find a parking space, they find space to park. Anywhere there’s a gap, bit of pavement; corner, a corner with pavement, they’ll howk the car onto the pavement and leave it there. Sod the pedestrians. They won’t / don’t parallel park, they abandon their vehicle at an angle. In actual fact, watching an Italian attempting to parallel park is painful. We (that’s you and I) are ‘wowzer’ at parking. Give an Italian the space that a bus could do a three point turn in, they don’t know what to do. I watched a man give a woman a round of applause when she managed to parallel park her car without ripping the splitter off the front. Sarcastic, condescending git. I bet he couldn’t do it.
Talking of pedestrians; in the southern parts of Italy, they seem to have no rights what so ever. Apparently, the only time the Italians stop for a pedestrian, including the ones crossing a walk-way is when they knock them down. When we realised that, it all made sense. We were stopping for pedestrians and they were waving us on, probably muttering, ‘bloody tourists!’ Then there was Lake Como. It must have been the proximity to Switzerland. Traffic stopped for pedestrian crossings. Very disciplined. The rest of Italy, it’s a perfectly good waste of paint.
One town we went into had a herring bone pattern of ‘abandoned’ cars down the main street. Two cars could hardly pass each other. In actual fact, one dozy cow in an Opel was driving like a complete fanny. Ed nipped past her. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest when she stopped beside the fruit and veg van and had a chat, oblivious (or not caring in the slightest) to the vehicles behind her. In the middle of the road. No one could move. No one peeped, shouted or commented. We all just let her give her fruit and veg order and then carry on.
They treat a three lane motorway as if it has 7 lanes. The hard shoulder; half way across the first lane; the first lane; half way across the first lane and second lane…. Catching on? …. Following a law of averages, if they’re straddling a line, they are either on the phone or texting, or both. Oh, they will also potentially be smoking, or reading a sheet of paper on the steering wheel. The best combo for me was the texting and lighting a cigarette whilst doing about 70mph. Superb. Still on the subject of motorways: We reckon that only one in a million Italian drivers actually return to the inside (slow) lane.
Erratic driving generally involves a mobile phone. It’s scary. 80+mph and swerving all over the place. We have conducted such a thorough survey; we have seen police and prison van drivers texting too. It’s a national sport. The skill levels don’t stop there though. Narrow village streets, tight turns, only enough space for one car to turn… Why not talk on the phone?
Italians expect you to get out of the way when they are on your side of the road. Off-siding is part of the culture. What isn’t part of the culture is actually getting out of the way of on-coming traffic. Straight-lining corners is, well, quite frankly, normal.
That’s exactly what it is. A line that tells you where the centre of the road is. No more detail required. Well, other than it being a guideline for where their off-side wheel should be outside. I think any Italian whose offside wheel is NOT over the solid white line is probably drunk. My close call was going up a very, VERY steep hill, negotiating a switch-back corner and the silly woman coming down the hill cuts the corner. I stop. Both feet down, bracing myself. Yeah. Our vehicles met in the middle. I don’t speak much Italian, however, I think she got the, “WTF would you like me to do now?!” Ed, who as usual was a bit in front, was really, really impressed that I stayed upright. Me? I was pretty impressed too, as she barged her way through and the Fi & Smoggy team stayed upright. Phew, it was close though!
They mean nothing. Nothing whatsoever. The Italians never stop at a STOP sign. Personally, I don’t know why they’ve wasted all that money on them. They should have just used them to build crash barriers or something. There are ‘give way’ signs, they work, obviously (NOT). The others are just a complete and utter waste of time. If they are on a side street driving onto a main road, they’re at least a metre beyond the stop sign. A stop sign on a main road, it’s the same thing, it means naff all. Brace yourself. Until you understand how their driving culture works, you will have the worst palpitations of your life. I did. At least twice. I thought I was going to have a bloody heart attack at one point, that’s when you truly realise why you bother getting advanced, enhanced riding instruction, so you truly understand how to deal with an evasive manoeuvre. It’s also not a bad idea to find out just how well your brakes work, because it’s likely that you will need to know how to use them to their maximum potential. Having to make evasive manoeuvres is not good in the slightest, but really good when you can talk about it afterwards. And breathe.
Generally, the rule of thumb for filtering into traffic: they continue to creep forward until someone lets them in. It works for Italians who know the unwritten rule. It’s not quite so clever if you have been thrown into the deep end of Italian driving techniques. Once you learn that barging (as us Brits would see it) is acceptable, it’s amazing how much progress you can make. It’s great. It doesn’t make it safe or pleasurable though, it’s quite exhausting and very stressful.
Neat, tidy, new, pristine cars in Italy? I’m sure there are some. It would be worthwhile, if you get a new car in Italy, just to go round with a hammer and whack every panel. Get it over and done with in the first week. You don’t see many unscathed cars in cities.
Red for stop, green for go. I know, it seems obvious, however, this is Italy. If you miss the ‘GP’ green for go, the Italians have a very special button for that. It’s called a horn. If you aren’t off the line in a nano-second, you get blasted. Pay attention. Get ready, set, and bloody go, like your life depends on it. That’s because it probably does.
The prize though, goes to the Italian who pulled up at at a filling station. He was talking on his phone. He got out the car, hung up the phone, and pulled the trigger out of the pump, whilst a (lit) cigarette hung out his mouth. Our chins hit the ground. He gave us the, ‘What?’ shrug. My hand signals didn’t need much translating. I think the other clue was me shuffling away from the pump…. I did leave Ed filling our bikes as I sidled off the forecourt….. aye, and that was going to make a big difference as the south of Italy went *BOOM*!! Considerate, huh?! He stopped pumping the petrol when I pulled out my phone to take a picture….. Puffing his cigarette, shrugging his shoulders, he drove off. *shudder*.
When you read all of this and adopt these practices in Italy, I’m sure you will be fine. If in doubt, attach bubble wrap to you and your pride and joy. It doesn’t matter if you are riding the motorway or the back roads, it’s all the same. Just go with the flow. Find the gap, go for it, but brace yourself. Be ready to shift your machine in a hurry. It’s the culture you see. If you’re not willing to accept the culture, just don’t bother going there and doing it.
Good luck, put it on your bucket list to experience it once. If you come back and tell the tale, then you will have improved your riding and reaction times!
Hell, just do it.