Recently we returned from 12 days in northern Italy. Our various stays provided little Internet access and I did not post as-I-was-there trip updates. I will make up for that over the next few days.
I’ll start with our initiation into driving in Italy. Our trip took us from Milan’s Malpensa Airport (“mal” as in bad or evil, “pensa” as in thought or idea, which may explain why the Airport is located on the wrong side of Milan) to Crema, about 50 km southwest, where our son Nate has been living since last September. After three days in Crema we went to Venice for three days, then Canazei in the Dolomites for three days, then back to Crema. We could have managed these connections by train and bus but wanted the flexibility of a car, so rent a car we did. I had not driven in Italy before and felt trepidation at the start, but at least Italians drive on the right side of the road. We brought our GPS from home, freshly loaded with European road maps, picked up our six-speed manual transmission rental at the airport, and followed the voice prompts for Crema.
Tolls presented the first problem. Cruising along the A4 we encountered a toll booth stretching across the autostrada, and our first decision: which lane should we use? Eliminating the obviously-wrong Telepass lane helped just a little. I drove into a lane marked Carte, where a gate and the cars behind blocked my forward progress in each direction. I hoped to find a human being to whom I could hand Euros. Instead I found an electronic display showing the amount due, and a slot for a credit card. I inserted Judy’s credit card into the slot–once, twice, three times–without success. The drivers behind grew restless. I tried my credit card. Failure. I tried again. Success! The gate opened and we drove through with relief and confusion, not understanding why our cards failed the first four attempts.
A few kilometers further we came to another toll. Unfortunately, I was so focused on choosing a more idiot-tourist-friendly lane that I missed the GPS prompts for our exit, located a hundred yards before the toll. I picked up the toll ticket spit out by the machine and drove through, looking for the next exit to reverse direction. That exit came in a few miles and required another lane-selection decision. Unfortunately I saw just a millisecond too late that I made the wrong choice, arriving in the Telepass lane. Its gate prevented me from driving forward. Three cars prevented me from backing up. I looked around. No place to insert cash, a credit card, or prayers. Only a single button labeled “Help” below an intercom grate. I pushed the button. “Help” I said. “Allo?” “Help!” “Allo?” “Help!!!” “Allo?” I turned to Judy, who has been taking Italian language lessons for a few years. She started shouting something in Italian.* “Allo?” I looked at the driver of the car behind. He lit a cigarette, inhaled, and leaned back in his seat. I yelled “I can’t get through the gate!” “Allo?” The temperature was in the 80s, the sun beat down, and sweat soaked into my shirt. No one likes coming face-to-face with their stupidity; I like it less than most people. This Kafkaesque scene could have dragged on for much longer but someone spared us. In my peripheral vision I noticed the gate was open. Immediately I shifted into first, engaged the clutch, and lurched through the opening.
The GPS, I discovered later in the week, was programmed to avoid U-turns and direction reversals, so instead of sending us back to the autostrada exit I had missed we headed off into the Italian countryside between Milan and Crema, on barely-labeled secondary and tertiary roads that in any event we could not have located on our map because of its scale. We were driving blind, guided by the GPS ladyand her incomprehensibly flat American pronunciation of Italian road names. On this drive we navigated our first roundabouts, or what we call rotaries in Massachusetts. I came to be a fan of roundabouts, which erase the need for traffic lights, but my first two dozen roundabouts challenged to the limit my ability to pick the correct exits. There are many Italian roundabouts I know well, from circling them two or three times.
We completed the 90 minute (if no traffic) drive from Aeroporto Malpensa to Crema in about 2 hours, 15 minutes. It felt like double that time. Nate saved us from wandering lost through Crema’s maze of medieval one-way streets by waiting for us at an intersection. I have rarely been happier to get out of a car.
*A few hours later Judy realized that her Italian language skills had deserted her in this moment of need. She had been shouting “what can we do to help you?” into the intercom, a phrase not likely to solve our immediate problem.