The Meanderthals

Panda-monium on the Italian byways

Think you have it rough? Try my life on for size.

I’m a 2002 Fiat Panda. Two door, light green, powered by an engine slightly larger than a John Deer riding lawnmower’s. I’m owned by a crazy Italian guy named Ricardo Piccoladite, who drives me like I’m a Ferrari 488 GTB and treats me like I tease him about the meaning of his last name (tiny fingers). I think he’s overcompensating, or maybe just acting out an unhappy childhood.

The author, resting comfortably (and safely) by the side of the road.

I’ve been bounced off buildings, railings, other cars, and once against a cow that wandered front of me like some drugged-out apparition. Ricardo never hit the brakes, just bounced off il mucca and blithely rolled on. The cow survived, but my left front quarter panel will never be the same.

I’ve been forced up and down hills, over pot hole-strewn roads, through alleys tighter than an Italian teenager’s jeans, criss-crossing 200,000 tormented, horrifying kilometers. He never washes me. I don’t have a garage. My paint is peeling, my tires worn. I get an oil change twice a year and Ricardo curses when I periodically cough, wheeze and give up the fight until his brother in law shows up with a boxful of wrenches to bang me back into shape for another few months.

Scrapes: check. Gas cap ripped off: check. Side view mirror shredded: Oops. Missed that.

Ricardo leaves my windows down during rain storms, up in the stultifying heat, and he has played Italian love songs so loud on my factory-installed speakers that they’re in worse shape than the Italian economy.

Small wonder I’m so shop worn.

Italians think and drive like Luigi Fagioli, but most of them have the driving skills of pasta e fagioli. Click here for a thoughtful illustration of life on the road in Italy. Last week, I was parked in a lot outside a strip mall in Formello, and some unshaven, wild-haired clown driving one of my cousins rolled into a wide open spot next to me, slammed on the brakes way too late and caromed off the protective pole separating the parking lot from the pedestrian walkway. Good thing the pole was there, or the donna anziana carrying bags of groceries to her car would now be making pasta in Heaven.

Casualty of road wars, Sacrofano.

Unaware of his near miss with disaster, the scruffy bastardo with the dirty t-shirt left the car crammed against the pole and scrambled inside one of this country’s 149,000 espresso bars for his daily fix.

Italian men drink caffe like they drive: fast, thoughtlessly, and with little regard for what the process might yield in terms of residual effects on them – or others. They run inside, toss back a caffe loaded with enough caffeine to keep an old man awake through a Sergio Mattarella TV speech, utter a quick “Grazie! Ciaou!” and then jump back behind the wheel to resume their assault on the roads and drivers of bella Italia. Italians driving under the influence of caffeine is more alarming than drunks behind the wheel.

They drive while they text, talk, shave, eat and God knows what else. Last week my owner blocked traffic going both ways on the access road parallel to the A1 for 20 minutes so he could try to negotiate a cheap roll in the hay with one of the roadside hookers that work the stretch. I counted 24 of them along the 8km road last week, most of them rough enough to make me glad my only needs are petrol, oil and an occasional oil change.

Men don’t have exclusive rights on driving crazy here. Women tend their hair, text their boyfriends, husbands, mothers and kids while driving over the curbs and blocking traffic where they park. They speed, too, and have turned tailgating into a roadway version of high art.

Italian parking, Exhibit A: Correct. A neat, straight row, perfectly executed.

Tailgating tourists is one of my favorite gambits. We nudge close enough to their rear bumpers to appear as mating dung beetles, two conjoined steel boxes on four wheels rocketing along winding roads and over railroad crossings at 90 kph. We dare them to hit the brakes, or even to slow appreciably. Most of the idiots don’t carry extended liability insurance and they live in fear of one of the dings, scratches, dents or fractures that for us means we’ve had a successful day on the road.

Italian parking, Exhibit B: Incorrect. Chaos imposed by impatient van driver eager for caffe.

One day I overheard a tourist share a story about using Waze – a smartphone app he uses to find his way around our dizzying maze of tiny, uncharted roads.

“Caution: hazard ahead,” Waze warned him. “I said, ‘You must mean hazard ahead, behind, to each side, as in every Italian driver.’” Funny guy. This was the American jerk who drove the wrong way on one of our roundabouts one day last week and lived to tell the story.

Ricardo and I got his name: Yetter.

Now we’re on the lookout for him. I hope he makes another roundabout miscue while we’re headed his way. I have a rusty, dented bumper waiting for him – with his name on it.


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