Thursday, October 2, 2008

Driving in Italy - not for the faint hearted.

Driving in Italy. Nearly every guide book warns against it. Until recently, I heeded their advice and was not prepared to have any part in driving in a country where having five cars crammed into two lanes is nothing unusual.

But I missed driving. I've loved the feel of a car and driving ever since I first got my license thirteen years ago (this doesn't add up since I'm still only twenty two wink wink). I also hated that I was scared of something I was so used to at home and something that I enjoyed so much.

So, with great fear and nervousness I attempted it. Ok so I put it off for three months (nah too tired today to drive, too lazy, too cold, too hot), but when I finally decided to start driving, there was no stopping me. I woke up one morning and announced 'This is it. Today's the day. I'm going to drive on these crazy roads, yay girl power, power to all women'. Husband opened his eyes, yawned and went back to sleep.

But sure enough I did it and now, I love driving in Italy. I never EVER thought I would say that. And a lot of my readers will be saying 'you are driving. So what?'. But you my friends have not driven in the craziness that is Italy and it's something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

The first time I drove here in Florence, I was petrified. My knees were actually shaking when I got out of the car. Husband was ready to file for divorce as I was apparently 'not keen for advice and direction'. Read between the lines to mean we argued as I hit the side of the kerb twice and nearly ran a red light. I put it down to the crazy traffic and my nerves, but it was also that I had not driven a manual for three years, the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car and I was driving on the wrong side of the road! (remember in Australia we drive CORRECTLY on the left!).

As much as I love driving in Italy, I really hope that husband and I do not take back any of our new driving habits to Australia. If we do, I can guarantee we'll lose our license within a week. Make that a day.

So for those that have not driven on the road in Italy, these are some of the things you can expect as the norm:

- Cars double parked everywhere.
There is so little parking in Florence that if you see a spot, go for it. Feel free to park in front of cars with your hazard lights on, on top of zebra crossings or one metre from the traffic lights. Or you can do a combination of these like the police car I saw recently. He was double parked on a zebra crossing two metres away from a roundabout while he went in to a coffee shop for a cappucino.

For us, parking is a really big hassle. We live in central Florence but we don't have a resident permit which allows you to park in the street. Mind you, even with one of those you are never guaranteed a spot as it's so crowded. So, we have to park the car in a garage which is fifteen minutes away by foot. And very expensive. I know walking fifteen minutes doesn't sound so bad but it is a pain when you have just done your grocery shopping or it's raining or you have just spent the whole day out walking in the Tuscan countryside and you just want to get home (ok, I'll shut up now).

Look at how the cars are parked in the garage. You need to be very skinny to get out of the car. (joking people, they push the cars in manually like that).

- Men and women on scooters who do not hold any fear for their life.
It is very nerve wracking but not unusual to be overtaken by three scooters at any one time on either side of you. Or on a roundabout. On a side note, the men and women are very entertaining to watch on the scooters. The women wear stilleto heels and gorgeous skirts while I have seen the men stop at the lights and fix up their hair in the side mirror or admire themselves in a nearby shop window.

- Cars not stopping at stop signs.
Supposedly a stop sign in Italy means 'slow down'. I have stopped at certain stop signs before and straight away I get three cars beeping at me and overtaking me with waving hand gestures.

The biggest rule in Italy (according to the locals we speak to) is to look ahead and never look in your rear view mirror. You need to pay attention to the cars in front and to the side of you. If there is a space in front of you, it is your duty to fill it or someone else will. Never mind that there is a double line and a two centimetre gap between you and the new Mercedes next to you. The new Mercedes will be full of scratches anyway from when he tries to parallel park in a spot and physically pushes the bumper of the car in front of him to get in (I've seen this countless times).

After you finally get confidence to tackle driving, you need to worry about the camera in the ZTL zones and the bus lanes. The ZTL areas are zones within the city that you can not enter during certain times of the day for example between 7am and 7.30pm. We have a special pass attached to our windscreen that allows us to enter two certain zones in the city. Imagine our surprise when we found out that in March our pass was not working all month and we were the recipients of eighteen, yes eighteen, traffic infringements of ninety euro's apeice. That's a lot of Italian hand made leather shoes! Husband drove through the same offending camera eighteen times on the way to work each morning. We are still trying to work this out now. Here is a picture of the nasty camera (with me striking a strange pose under it blissfully unaware I'm sharing a picture with the enemy).

So, if you can get past all of the above, you are ready to drive and see the true Italy. Just be sure to have a strong coffee and a lot of patience before you get in the car. Oh, and don't forget to wear your best stiletto's and use your horn a lot. It will make you feel like a true Italian.


Ed Tep said...

Monika - Oh, I don't think I could ever drive in Italy. But I loved your tale about the skinny jeans shopping. I'm totally in the same boat as you are in that there are certain foods I am just not willing to give up. Thus, I will never have abs of steel. I look forward to reading your future posts about your continued experiences in Florence!

Leanne in Italy said...

You deserve to be proud of yourself. When I drove for the first time 'on the other side of the road' when I lived in Portugal for 3 months I was SO proud of myself!
In Italy I must admit my driving has been restricted to my boyfriends small village...I have a fear to venture furhter but maybe I'll take your tips and give it a try!

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

I don't drive, so my husband does the driving.

He has driven over there,and Sicily, Barcelona,also Crete. Sure some maniac driving!!

I am the eyes (navigator) and he does the driving.

Welsh Girl said...

Doesn't sound that different from driving in Wales - equal levels of craziness, lack of regard for life and limb and a general principle of he who gets there first, wins....

Monika said...

Ed: My friend's husband had abs of steel and all he ate was tuna and rice and eggs...sometimes chicken. I'm with you, it's so not for me!!

Leanne: I'm so glad someone understands me. i think the Aussie's at home are like 'driving? yeah so what!'

Anne: I still haven't driven in Sicily and have been warned against it by the locals!!

Welsh girl: I drove in Wales and don't remember it being bad at all. Perhaps I was in my own little world as we were exploring the lovely countryside you guys have there.

Cynthia Rae said...

Thank you for the visit and thank you for your kind words. It was one month ago today that we lost our little Roscoe. We are heartbroken.

I guess that is what happens when we open our hearts to these wonderful animals. I wouldn't trade a moment of this pain and sorrow if it meant trading in one day I spent with Roscoe. He brought us so much love and joy and I will remember him always for that.

I am also sorry for loss of your golden retriever. I am sure that she and Roscoe are good friends in heaven....


Jessi Cotterill said...

Hello Monika

Thanks for visiting my blog. Are you now in England or Italy? We went to Lake Orta once and we loved it. I loved the food there as well...

Have a nice day...

Katie said...

Hi Monika! Thank you for the comment. I just read your interview and I liked it as well! I have only visited Italy but I have seen the driving horrors that you just talked about. France is really bad as well but I have heard that the Italian are THE worst. I refuse to drive here in Europe. It's too frightening.

Paul Velvet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

hi there! I am in a weird situation. I'm italian,born and grew up in the Veneto region. I left Italy and went to Asutralia as soon as i turned 18 and i still didn't have my license. I got it in WA and now, after 4 years i'm trying to settle back in Italy (Rome) which doesn't seem to be an easy thing to do. Anyway, I do have my Aussie license and believe it or not, i don't know if I am allowed to drive with it . could anyone help? and also, i totally understand how u feel. Being a 100% Italian girl,I should be fine with the driving here, instead I'm dead scared to take the car to go anywhere here in Rome. I miss the ordinary way of driving they have in Oz.
One lane= one car.
Two lanes= 2 cars next to each other.
In Rome?
One lane= 3 cars.
Two lanes = 5 cars, 6 if u can stick in. ;)

Anonymous said...

Driving in Italy as you say, definitely is not for the nervous. If you can drive in Italya you can drive anywhere.

My cousin in Uk is a taxi driver and he has 20 years experience and he said no problem to drive in italy, Then he tried it :)

Now he says never a again lol.
Rome flights