The Indianapolis, er Italian Motor Speedway

Saturday, March 26, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

After three weeks of train travel, we rented our first car in La Spezia, planning to use it for a couple of weeks to tour the Tuscany area and down to the Amalfi Coast. Though we would never do so in the U.S., the land of giant SUVs and massive 18-wheelers, we requested a sub-compact car. The local Hertz agent handed us the keys to a snappy little Peugeot 206+ with a five-speed manual transmission.

When we inspected the car before leaving, we discovered enough ashes about to indicate that the previous driver had smoked in the car. Since there was no detectable tobacco odor, we decided to just ignore it, figuring there would be no repercussions for us when we returned it.

Much to our surprise, when we opened the 12-volt outlet to plug in our GPS, we learned what the previous driver had used as an ashtray. The outlet was full of cigarette residue. When we reported this to the Hertz agent, she didn't really understand what we were trying to explain, so she sent another employee to examine the situation. We showed the nice guy in coveralls the problem, and he scratched his head and walked away, obviously searching for a solution.

We watched as he wandered around the gas station/Hertz parking lot, trying to figure out what to do.  Obviously hit by a bolt of inspiration, we saw him grab a tire air hose and rush to the car with it.  Leaning into the car, he blew the ashes out of the 12-volt outlet.  "Is good!" he exclaimed with a large smile, pointing to the now spotlessly clean outlet... and ignoring the ashes dispersed around the car.  We smiled back, said  "Molto grazie!" and went happily on our way.

As we hit the Italian roadways on our way to Pisa, our baptism by fire began.  Roads narrow, twist and turn and cars are often parked partially or entirely in your lane.  But in Italy, that's no reason to slow down, as the driver beeping his horn behind will remind you.  Just hug the center line as the oncoming cars are doing and hope this curve isn't the spot where that Fiat that's been closely examining your rear bumper decides to pass.  If it does, you know immediately why the Smart car is.

As we discovered the following day upon our arrival in Florence, these country roads were child's play compared to driving in the city.  Lane markers, where they're not too faded to see, are mere suggestions, ignored by most.  Both cars and motorcycles dash in and out, passing you from the left or right when you least expect it.  And of course, our GPS decided to torture us for leaving it packed away for so long while we were train hopping.  She chose the most circuitous route to our hotel, taking us through as many dizzying intersections and roundabouts as possible along the way.  By the time we arrived at the hotel, Ken was happy to park the car and leave it for a couple of days as we explored Florence on foot.

Today, a scant five days later, Ken is happily zipping around the roads of Tuscany like a local.  He downshifts, grouses and whips around obstacles and just shrugs when an oncoming car passes on a curve.  He never batted an eye yesterday when our GPS mistakenly took us into the narrow lanes of a limited traffic zone in San Gimignano, easily executing 90 degree turns with walls all around.

Maybe next year's Indianapolis race is in his future.  It'll be a piece of cake-- er, pezzo di torta, after this. Where do you think Mario Andretti got his start?