This piece originally appeared in the January 1, 1970, issue of Holiday magazine.
There is a simple method of achieving the right state of mind for driving in Italy. Before you start your car for the first time, sit in the driver’s seat, hold the steering wheel, and think the following: I am the only driver on the road and mine is the only car. It may be hard to believe, especially after you have seen Rome during the first week of July or Milan during rush hour, but millions of Italian drivers believe it and so can you. An Italian driver’s reaction to any encounter with another vehicle is first stunned disbelief and then outrage. You don’t have a chance unless you can match this faith. It isn’t enough to say you are the only driver, or to think it—you’ve got to believe it. Remember your car is THE CAR—all others are aberrations in the divine scheme.
In Italy, as elsewhere, there are laws about stop streets, maximum permissible speeds, which side of the street you can drive on, and so forth. In Italy, however, these laws exist only as tests of character and self-esteem. Stopping at a stop sign, for example, is prima facie evidence that the driver is, if male, a cuckold or, if female, frigid and barren. Contrarily, driving through a stop sign is proof not only that you are virile or fertile but that you are a Person of Consequence. This is why the Italian driver who gets a ticket goes red in the face, swears, wrings his hands, and beats his forehead with his fists, and this is why people come out of nearby shops to snicker and point at him. It isn’t the fine, which is ridiculously low, or the inconvenience—for most offenses, you simply pay the cop and he gives you a receipt—but the implication that he is, after all, not quite important enough to drive the wrong way down a one-way street.
Remember, therefore: signs, laws, and the commands of the traffic policeman are for the lowly and mean-spirited. Every Italian’s dearest desire is to be an exception to the rule—any rule. The only place he can do it regularly is in his car.
THE CITY STREETS
The basic rule of driving in Italian cities is: force your car as far as it will go into any opening in the traffic. It is this rule which produces the famous Sicilian Four-Way Deadlock. Sharp study suggests that the Deadlock, Sicilian or Degenerate, can be broken if any one of the cars backs up. That brings us to another important point about Italian city driving: you can’t back up. You can’t back up because there is another car right behind you. If you could back up, and did, you would become an object of ridicule, for backing up breaks the basic driving rule and suggests a want of style.
The impossibility of backing up accounts for some of the difficulty you will have in parking. Aside from the fact that there isn’t anywhere to park, you will find that when you try to parallel park by stopping just beyond the vacant space and backing into it, you can't because that fellow is still right behind you, blowing his horn impatiently. You point at the parking space, make gestures indicating that you want to park. He blows his horn. You can give up and drive on, or you can get out and go back and try to get him to let you park. This you do by shouting Personal Abuse into the window of his car. One of three things will happen: he may stare sullenly straight ahead and keep on blowing his horn (if this happens, you’re whipped, for no foreigner can outsulk an Italian driver); he may shout Personal Abuse back at you; he may, especially in southern cities like Naples and Palermo, where honor is all-important, get out of his car and kill you, subsequently pleading delitto d’onore (crime of honor), which automatically wins in Southern Italian courts.
The parking problem created by the backing up problem creates the Right Lane Horror. At no time, in an Italian city, should you drive in the right lane. One reason is that Italians usually drive headfirst into parking spaces. Thus, every third or fourth parked car has its tail end sticking out into the traffic, making the right lane a narrow, winding lane. Unfortunately, the center lane has its hazard: the right lane drivers swerving in and out of the center lane as they steer around the sterns of half-parked and double-parked cars. (Double-parked cars run one a block north of Rome and two a block south of Rome.) Italians double-park only in four-lane streets; in six-lane streets they triple-park. Right lane driving is further complicated by the Italian style of entering from a side street by driving halfway into the first lane of traffic and then looking.
The way to deal with Lane Swervers and Cross Creepers is to blow your horn and accelerate around them. If you make a careful in-line stop when your lane is invaded, you not only expose your social and sexual inadequacies but you may never get moving again, since you also mark yourself as a weakling whom anyone can challenge with impunity. While performing these dangerous gyrations, it is imperative to blow your horn. The more risky the maneuver, the more imperatively you must hoot, for all Italian drivers accept the axiom that anything you do while blowing your horn is sacred. (Horn blowing, incidentally, except in cases of serious danger, is against the law in every Italian city. I mention this because you would never know it otherwise.)
The thing to remember is that one-way streets in Italy are not one-way. To begin with, a driver who has a block or less to go realizes at once that when they put up the sign they were not thinking of cases like his. He drives it the wrong way, going full throttle to get it over with quickly to prove that he really is in a terrible hurry. More important, however, Italian one-way street always have a controsenso lane; that is, a lane for going the wrong way. It is reserved for taxis and buses and, indeed, is always full of taxis and buses, producing the Two-Way One-Way Street, which, in turn, produces lawsuits, pedestrian fatalities, and hysterical foreign drivers.
The distinctive feature of Italian cities ls the piazza—a wide space entered by as many as eight streets—in which a Bernini fountain is hidden by parked cars. Italian traffic commissioners have sensibly ordained circular traffic for most of the piazzas, but the traffic circle, with its minuet-like formality of movement, is, to an Italian driver, just so much exhilarating open space. You do not go around an Italian Traffic Circle, you go across it, at high speed, taking the shortest path from your point of entrance to your intended exit, while sounding your horn.
All Italian city driving requires (and soon produces) familiarity with the Funnel Effect. Especially in those cities that preserve medieval architecture in the downtown section, which means all Italian cities, you will find that four-lane streets usually, after four or five blocks, become two-lane and then one-lane streets. Since most Italian cities are force-fed with automobiles by an excellent turnpike system, this produces the Funnel Effect and the Reverse Funnel Effect.
At first glance it may appear that the Funnel Effect is more dangerous and unnerving than the Reverse Funnel Effect. This is not correct. True, the unwary motorist entering a Funnel may get trapped against one side or the other and have to stay there until traffic slacks off around one or two o’clock in the morning, but you can usually abuse your way out of the trap. It is the Reverse Funnel which produces what my insurance company keeps referring to as “death or dismemberment.” Imagine the effect of bottling a number of prideful and excitable Italian drivers in a narrow street for a half a mile or more and then suddenly releasing them. It’s like dumping out a stack of white rats. As each car emerges, it tries at once to pass the car ahead of it and, if possible, two or three more. The car ahead is passing the car ahead of it, and on. If Italian cars were even roughly of the same power, this would simply produce wild acceleration, but the cars range from 500 cubic centimeter midgets up through Formula One racing cars, and the first hundred yards of the Reverse Funnel, before the shakedown, produces a maelstrom of screaming engines, spinning tires, careening springs, and blaring horns.
ON THE HIGHWAY
Italian roads, just like Italian streets, change their character unexpectedly. It not unusual to be driving on a six-lane modern asphalt highway, then to round a curve and find that you are suddenly driving on a two-lane sunken road of mud with the original Roman paving stones sticking up here and there. Most roads, however, are something in between these extremes.
The paramount feature of Italian highway driving is il sorpasso. The word sorpassare means both “to pass with an automobile” and “to surpass or excel.” To sorpassare someone is to excel him socially, morally, sexually, and politically. By the same token, to be sorpassato is to lose status, dignity, and reputation. Thus, it is not where you arrive that counts but what (or whom) you pass on the way. The procedure is to floor your accelerator and leave it there until you come up on something you can pass. If il sorpasso is not immediately possible, settle in its wake at a distance of six or eight inches and blow your horn until such time as you can pass. Passing becomes possible, in the Italian theory, whenever there is not actually a car to your immediate left.
When an Italian driver sees the car ahead of him on the highway slow up or stop, he knows there can be but two causes. The driver ahead has died at the wheel or else he has suddenly and mysteriously become a Person of No Consequence, which is roughly the same thing as a fate and which, in Italy, hangs over every head. He therefore accelerates at once and passes at full speed. If the driver ahead has, in fact, stopped for a yawning spasm, the passer is done for, but more often the driver has merely stopped for a railroad crossing gate. The same thing, naturally, is happening on the other side of the gate, and the result is the Cross Double Cross or Railroad Impasse.
The instant the gates go up, all four drivers obey the Law of Occupation of Empty Space and the four cars meet in the middle of the tracks, followed closely by the cars which are tailgating them. In the Four-Handed Personal Abuse which ensues, the drivers of the two right lane cars usually team up against the drivers of the two left lane cars, but this is by no means a rule. Sometimes the three in the more expensive cars team up against the one in the cheapest car, and sometimes all four fall upon the crossing guard.
In Italy you will see bigger trucks than you have ever seen in your life—huge, eight-axle double semis with cabs seating four abreast. There are no special speed limits for trucks in Italy. As if the very sight of these things were not terrifying enough, the drivers often paint mottos across their cabs, just above the windshield, usually religious. It is nerve-shattering to meet one of these monsters coming down a hill at fifty miles an hour on a narrow mountain road, but panic looms if you see “God Is Driving” written on the cab, while “Heart of Jesus, Help Me” does bear thinking about.
It is gauche to be a pedestrian in Italy. It is in bad taste: a pedestrian is a Person of No Consequence. The Italian pedestrian feels ashamed and does everything he can do to avoid acting like a pedestrian. To cross the street in the crosswalk, for instance, would be to admit he is a pedestrian. To cross the street, he crosses in the middle of the block, strolling slowly through the traffic. He is trying to make it clear that he is not a pedestrian at all but a driver who has momentarily alighted from his car. If you treat him like a pedestrian, thus drawing attention to his shame, he will be furious. Do not look directly at him. Do not drive around him. Above all, do not stop for him. If he challenges you to drive within four inches of his toes, drive within four inches of his toes, as if he were not there. Of course, if you drive on his toes he will shout Personal Abuse and call a cop.
THE SCOOTER PLAGUE
To get some idea of the Italian Scooter Plague, imagine all the chinks between cars filled with hurtling motor scooters, each sounding its tinny horn, racing its motor, and emitting its small cloud of hydrocarbons. I used to think that nothing could be worse than the Italian Scooter Plague, but I was wrong. As young Italians get more money in their pockets, the Scooter Plague has given way to the Motorcycle Menace, which is louder, faster, smokier, and altogether more surpassing.