The Meanderthals

Roadway warriors under the Tuscan sun

Gabi and I came upon a peculiar sight while hiking in the woods outside of Florence last week. Five caterpillars were inching their way along the path, nose to butt, its leader quickly changing directions as we placed small obstacles in its path to see how they’d handle the challenges.

The four in the rear guard (calling to mind the slogan “If you ain’t the lead dog the view never changes”) were on a mission. Forming an undeterred conga line of furry, half-inch tailgaters with single-minded purpose to reach their objective, they marched unfazed by the looming presence of two giants who placed logs and boulders in their way and, with one small movement by their enormous feet, could end their lives in a flash.

It struck me: They’re just like Italian drivers.

This fearless species is as committed to aggressive driving as it is coffee, wine, pasta and three-day beard growths. Maybe more so and with more zeal, judging from our encounters on the roads of Tuscany over the past month.

There’s no age limit on nutty driving, no gender difference.

Stick a grandmother behind the wheel and she becomes a gas pedal-only assailant. Old men are roadway warriors with the peripheral vision of a Republican congressman. Young mothers are lethal, jabbering and gesturing to their kids safely buckled into car seats who are unaware that mama’s lack of road manners was putting everyone at risk. But it’s the young Italian males most worthy of caution if you happen to compete with them for the same patch of pavement.

Tail gaters extraordinaire, these Punto-driving yahoos in designer jeans zoom, dodge and bolt from lane to lane in manic displays of dexterity, aggression and good fortune. Collars fashionably up, they tackle the roads in their shoebox-sized four-cylinder vehicles as if testing the limits in a Lamborghini.

You’d best mind your business if you’re going to drive here.

Speed limits are wispy notions to be ignored in the wilds of roadway anarchy. Double, single or dotted lines are as meaningful as an Italian politician’s promises of reform. They race toward you, straddling the double line in the middle of the road with slack-faced stares behind their Gucci sunglasses, unwavering despite an oncoming motorist’s frantic hand movements and deft manipulation of his car onto the rocky soft shoulder to avoid a head-on crash.

We’ve been passed on blind curves with solid lines with four cars in front of us, and in the middle of tiny villages where old ladies take their lives in their hands by trudging along the roadways pulling small carts. We’ve had a driver appear suddenly from behind, passing us on a righteous uphill climb and squeezing between us and the car in front to avoid a collision with an oncoming truck.

Driving like this ought to signal death, dismemberment and twisted metal, but in the odd ballet of Italian motorways, aggressive driving seems as much a way of life as slot machines in neighborhood bars.

On our way back from a recent trip into the mountains we were followed by a middle aged woman in a Fiat Panda. This Toyota Corolla of Italian cars, seemingly the car of choice for septuagenarians and farmers, has about as much pickup as a Vespa. But that didn’t deter the hell bent for leather donna in back of me, who despite the fact that I was sticking to the posted speed limits worked her way through a series of hand gestures equivalent to the entire sign language alphabet.

Swatting at flies, I thought. Waving at a friend, it seemed. No, she’s simply apoplectic having to follow me at an unacceptably reasonable speed, and she’s starting to look like Joe Cocker during his Woodstock encore.

Gesticulations having failed to vanquish me, she tried another tactic.

First, she pulled within centimeters of my back bumper and flashed her lights. Then she honked her horn and waved as if the power of her intent could push me to the side of the road. Then she did so with both hands, in most countries a wondrous feat of athleticism, but in Italy a skill that must be taught at an early age.

She nosed into the left lane, looking for a place to pass as we snaked our way through a village, then worked her way through the gestures again. Ah, I love repeat performances, I thought, starting to fear for the poor dear’s blood pressure.

Eventually we came to a fork in the road and she chose the road we were not taking, accelerating mightily and disappearing in a cloud of dust with one more gesture that only the blind would fail to understand.

Not long after that, I passed a guy on the highway who was yelling at his wife, alternately glaring at her and the road ahead while gesturing with both hands…at 70 mph. I scooted by him, accelerated, signaled back into the right lane and kept my eye on him to keep us out of danger. Knee driving must be another skill taught to every hopeful Italian road warrior at a young age.

Drive with at least one hand on the wheel? Bah! Rules? Rules are for the weak!

People park on sidewalks, drift through stop signs and into intersections and commit all sorts of driving sins that elsewhere would either end in a ticket or a fistfight. (One time I saw two guys at the entrance of Boston’s Callahan Tunnel who apparently had had enough of each other’s bad driving, stopped their cars and engaged in an enthusiastic display of rush hour pugilism.)

But not so in Italia. Everyone’s in a rush, and since everyone’s driving the same way it simply adjusts the norm to a beehive-like crush of spiraling madness.

They’re even interesting drivers when they stop. Parking lots are chaotic moshpits where people park parallel against perpendicular lines, often two feet short of the curb and block one another when the lots become full. It’s as if everyone operates in their private little bubble of “My Way”, to which my respect for order ineffectively responds, “No way.”

So I’m extra cautious when backing out of a parking space, as this is the equivalent of the Italian lottery: someone has to win, but there are a helluva lot more losers every day.

I’m from Boston, though, home of clam chowder, the World Champion New England Patriots, and our own special brand of crazy drivers.

This is one lead dog that’s up to the challenge. So I don my sunglasses, fire up the Alpha Romeo our generous host is letting us use, and give ‘em a dose of their own medicine.

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