End game – Driving in Italy, Episode 6

My little yellow Vespa!

The next day it occurred to me that the credit card that I used to pay for the car rental had had a hold applied to the account a few days before.  I had neglected to tell my credit card company that I was traveling overseas and after a few days in Italy they froze my account.  I then conceived of a devious master plan.  I wouldn’t “unfreeze” the account until I had heard from the major international rental car company with a detailed statement of charges that I could subsequently dispute.  Yes, that will work I thought.

We got home and went about our daily lives.  I switched my credit card account to a new account number and left the old one on hold.  After a month or so, I got my credit card statement.  No charges from the major international rental car company!  My plan is working!  But also, no letter explaining anything about the car rental had arrived in my mailbox.  The next month came and went.  Still no word.  Finally, a credit card statement arrived with a charge of approximately $1,000 from the major international rental car company on my new account number.  Huh?

I called the major international rental car company and asked for a detailed statement of the charges.  The US branch clerk told me they had to contact the Italian branch to get the information and that it would take a couple of weeks.  The time came and went with nothing.  I called again and got the same song and dance. By this time the credit card bill was due, so I had to pay it.  I still wasn’t sure if I was liable or not.  After a few weeks, I called again.  No explanation was given, no statement was forthcoming.

And then one day I got a new credit card statement.  Miraculously, my account had been credited $987 by the major international rental car company.  Just a line item on the statement.  I never received any paperwork.  Whatever.  I guess I don’t care how they ever figured out it wasn’t our fault.  They somehow missed the walnut dent too.  Italian efficiency!

To top it off, one day, almost a year after leaving Italy, I got a nice envelope in the mail with an Italian postage stamp on it.  The town of Riomaggiore (one of the towns in the Cinque Terre) sent me a ticket for infringements of the Italian Highway Code.  It was in Italian, but I could make out that it was a ticket for speeding 71 Kph in a 50 Kph zone.  The violation was determined by an automatic camera system on the road.  The Riomaggiore police kindly asked me to send them 180 Euros to pay the fine within 60 days.  If I didn’t they would then ask me for 337 Euros.  As if I am going to pay it!  If some Italian process server shows up at my door in the US I am not going to open it.

Maybe I can’t ever go back to Italy.  They might have issued a warrant for my arrest on the automatic speeding ticket.  But if I ever do go back, I am taking the train. Or maybe a boat.

a canal in Venice, Italy
A quiet canal in Venice

Crash! – Driving in Italy, Episode 5

“OK, I think I know the direction we need to head, as we go around I’ll tell you when to get off,” I instruct my racing car driver of a wife, deftly piloting our vehicle.  “We’ll go around until 2 o’clock, then get off.”  I used clock terminology because that seems to make the most sense for giving directions driving in a roundabout.  We had entered at about 6 o’clock, and since this was Italy, where they drive on the right side of the road, we were going counterclockwise.  If you’re in England, St. Croix, or Australia, where they drive on the wrong side (I mean the left side), you would be going clockwise.

We were going around nicely, and I was trying to read the signs of the streets going out as spokes from the circle.

Do you see that street sign?

“There it is!  Get off there!” I yelled, to no good effect, since by the time I had realized that was the street we wanted, my brain told my mouth what to say, my wife heard my words, and she comprehended them, we had passed the exit.  We kept going around in the outer lane of the circle.

“I have a plan,” I proudly and sagely stated.  “We will simply stay in the circle another go-round, and now we know where to get out!” A good plan, I still say.

We proceeded around the crowded circle, cars buzzing in and out of the circle.

“Here it comes, wait for it, here it is!  NO WAIT! DON’T GO!” I yelled as my master navigational plan was foiled by my sudden realization due to my expert signage skills that we were about to turn onto a one way street going the wrong way.  That’s right, our projected exit from the roundabout based on my map-reading was actually a road leading into the traffic circle, not out of it.

“Hhhmmm, that was a close call. We’ll have to go around again and get out on the exit right before that one.  It has to be a one way street out of the circle,” I counseled my driver.

Three times around an Italian traffic circle during a Friday night rush hour in the dark by two Americans in a car rented from a major international rental car company after driving all day with little food.  That just sounds bad.  A recipe for disaster.  We both knew it at the same time. A premonition.  Will we make our escape? Has our luck of the day run out?

We were both thinking the same thought when the impact came.  BLLAMMM!!!  We were T-boned by a large white BMW. Our little car thudded to a stop in the outer lane of the roundabout, right in front of one of the main exits onto a bridge over the River Arno.  The heavy traffic quickly split around our two cars and kept going, like water flowing around a stick stuck in the mud of a shallow stream.

We were ok, a little shaken, certainly alarmed by the impact, but physically unhurt.  Since we were only going about 35 mph around the circle, the impact, as car accidents go, wasn’t too bad.  The BMW luckily hit our left rear wheel head-on, instead of a body panel, deflating the tire and bending the fender.

The other driver got out of his car and gave us a look of disgust while he cussed us out in Italian. He was a young guy, probably in his late 20s.  He looked like a clothes model from Milan.  Tall, lean, handsome, with black wavy hair. He looked like someone who is called Mario, which may or may not have been his name.  We quickly determined that he spoke no English, but he did have a cell phone, which he proceeded to whip out and make a call.  I don’t speak Italian, but I think this is what he said to his supermodel girlfriend:

“Sorry, but I am going to be a little late for our dinner date tonight.  Some stupid American tourists don’t know how to drive in a roundabout and got in my way.  I’ve smashed the front of my new BMW and it’s their fault for coming to our country and renting a car from a major international rental car company and thinking they can drive around like Italians.  Be there when I can. Amore. Ciao!”

After that call, he was more polite.  He rambled on, pointing at the exit to the roundabout, and at our car.  After a few iterations of this I realized that he thought we were idiots for continuing to drive in the outer lane and spinning around the circle instead of getting off.  He thought we were exiting from the outer lane, so he sped up from the next innermost lane to exit, and when we didn’t exit, we were right in his path.  He pulled out some accident forms from his glove box and started to fill them out.

Since I didn’t have a cell phone, he graciously loaned me his phone.  I called the local service department of the major international rental car company.  A nice sounding Italian woman answered.

“Hello, this is the American tourist who just got in a car accident in your country. Please come help me.  I am stuck in the middle of one of the main traffic circles in Florence,” I said.

“I am sorry to hear that, sir. Which traffic circle?” she replied.

“I have no idea! It’s one of the round ones by the river in the middle of the city.”

“There are several of those, sir. If you can identify your location I will send a repair truck.”

I then asked Mario where we were.  He got on the phone with her and explained the situation.  I am sure I heard him say something about dumb American tourists.

“OK, sir,” she said when I got the phone back. “We will send a repair truck. I understand you have a flat tire.  Then you can be on your way.  The truck will be there in an hour.”

I launched into a tirade about driving in Florence, how I tried to return the car earlier in the evening to their office by the airport which had closed, and how I didn’t want the car anymore.  She didn’t understand.

“We will send the truck to repair the tire, sir,” she said again.

“Excuse me, miss.  You are not understanding me.  I do not want your car.  I do not want to drive it anymore.  Please come and take it away.”

Eventually she relented and agreed that she would send a flat-bed truck to collect the car.  In an hour.  Great, I thought, we get to stand around here for another hour.  At least we won’t have to drive this car anymore and try to navigate to our hotel.

Then the police showed up.

The police were a laid-back man and woman.  They were obviously amused to find American tourists in a car accident in the middle of the roundabout.  Probably the third one this week.  They motioned that we had to move our car out of the way of traffic and off to the side of the circle.  They stopped traffic while we maneuvered our car out of the way.  This resulted in several hundred horns honking. At this juncture, Mario took his leave, driving his wounded BMW away with the signed accident forms that he could turn into his insurance company.  The police wished us luck and went to the next stupid American tourist traffic accident or whatever else they had to do that Friday night.

In time, the flat-bed truck arrived to load the rental car. The smirking driver had me fill out a form, asserting that he had indeed collected a damaged rental car from some American tourist who thought he could drive in Italy without CDW coverage.

We finally caught a taxi to our hotel and crashed (slept soundly in bed, I mean).  Along the way I reassured Lisa that it probably wasn’t her fault about the accident.  I mean, the guy hit us, we didn’t hit him, how could it be our fault?  Sure, we were in the outer lane, but so what?  We hadn’t achieved escape velocity yet.

Watch Out For That Roundabout! – Driving in Italy, Episode 4

View from Piazza Micahelangelo

I had planned on dropping the car off at the office of the major international rental car company near the Florence airport.  I had my maps, my Google Earth views, my Street Views, etc.  I had my specific directions to exactly where the office should be. However, when we got near to where the office is supposed to be, we couldn’t find the right street.  We quickly became lost in a quagmire of one way streets. We drove around and around while I stared at the map, trying in vain to get to the right spot in the land of “can’t get there from here.”

View from Piazza Micahelangelo
View of Florence from Piazza Michaelangelo

Finally, as if by accident (oops, perhaps that is a bad choice of words, I mean by chance), I see the sign of the major international rental car company. “Pull in there” I yelled, as we screeched across two lanes of traffic to turn into the very crowded parking lot of a commercial building.  I didn’t see any rental cars in this small lot.  The office was about ten feet wide on the ground floor of a building housing many other businesses.  This must be the right place, because the sign is there, I thought, as we looked around for a place to leave the car.  They must take the cars to some other location.  Yeah, that’s it.

I got out of the car and approached the door.  The time was now 7:05pm.  The door was locked.  There was a small sign on the window stating the office hours.  This office of the major international rental car company had closed five minutes ago…

“OK, let’s stay calm,” I said as I silently fumed liked a volcano lava flow.  “We are at the proverbial fork in the road.  As Yogi Berra famously said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“What does Yogi Bear have to do dropping off a rental car in Italy?” asked Lisa.  “Where is Boo Boo?”

Ignoring this, I lay out our two choices.  One, we can leave the car in this small parking lot, blocking other people in, taking the chance that they won’t take a tire iron to the car of the idiot who blocked them in, and assume that the competent clerk of the major international rental car company will process our car return tomorrow morning properly and without extra expense.  Then we hopefully can find and take a taxi from this grimy industrial area by the airport to our hotel for the night and sleep like a baby. Two, we drive to our hotel near the center of Florence from here, then drive back here in the morning when the office is open to return the car.

We had been on the road all day.  We were tired.  We were hungry.  We wanted to be sitting in a nice Italian restaurant in the heart of romantic Florence on a Friday night eating a magnificent three course meal.  It was not to be. I made an executive command decision.

“I don’t like this area.  I don’t think we should leave the car here tonight.  Let’s drive it to the hotel and come back tomorrow.  You drive, and I’ll navigate.”

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno

Vacations are supposed to be fun, relaxing, and enjoyable.  Driving across Florence during Friday night rush hour is none of those.

I checked my maps and we set off.  After a few turns, so far so good, we are getting there.  Ooops, I think where we are now is not on my map. I think we have to veer that way.  No, not that way, the other way.  Then something happened that happens every night.  It got dark.  Trying to read a map and street signs, and driving in a foreign city with heavy traffic, is a very hard thing to do.  Especially when the roads were laid out in the 1400s or whenever, and there are lots of one way roads. Then there is the nemesis of all American drivers – the roundabout, also called the traffic circle.

The basic theory of roundabouts is kind of related to physics and centripetal force.  You get into the circle, fly around a bit, and when enough force hits you, fly out at the desired exit.  The hard part, need I say more, is getting out at the desired exit.  When you get in the circle, the polite and respected thing to do is to go into the inner lanes of the circle while you drive around and around deciding where the hell is the right exit, then move to the outer lane when you want to escape the gravitational pull of the sun at the center of the circle and fly to Mars.

Without trying to, we came upon one of the main roundabouts of Florence.  It was packed like flies buzzing around a light on a hot summer night.  There were no turns and no way of escaping the circle.  In we go.

5 Tips for Parking in Cinque Terre – Driving in Italy, Episode 3

Monterosso by the sea

Cinque Terre. Five Lands.  A magical destination on the Mediterranean coast of Italy of five villages on five bays below terraced mountainsides interlinked by hiking paths and a railroad line, but no roads.  We drove effortlessly across the Tuscan hills to the outskirts of Florence, then veered west to the coast and north to Shangri-La.  There are actually some roads that go into a couple of the towns.  We took one road from the Autostrada which connected to a road into Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso by the sea
Anchovies, anyone?

As we came down the steep hill towards the town, we noticed there were many cars parked along the road for hundreds of meters.  Oblivious to this fact, we kept going, only to discover that at the town entrance there was a gate blocking our path.  Only residents can drive into the town.  Many Italian cities and towns have zones where only residents can drive.  The zones are enforced by automatic cameras that record the license plates of cars being driven in the zone.  I had heard stories of tourists receiving tickets in the mail many months after their vacations because they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes multiple times) had driven in one of these zones.

OK, we can deal with that.  We reversed course back up the hill, and came across a small parking lot.  Defying the odds, I somehow knew there was a spot for us in this parking lot, even on this glorious and spectacular summer day.  I knew that we could park on the road up the hill about a mile or two away and walk down, but I was not looking forward to the walk back up the hill to the car later in the day.  Didn’t we deserve a spot in the miniscule town parking lot?  I mean we came all the way from America to see this picture perfect little town by the Mediterranean Sea.

Yes!  There is somebody leaving!  Lucky day!  We patiently waited for a couple to load their stroller, their child, and their dog into their Fiat so we can greedily claim their spot.  As we pulled in, I shouted “I proudly claim this parking spot in the interests of our Italian tour and aching feet!”

Of course, we couldn’t park there for free.  So I went to do battle with the automatic parking lot fee machine.  The first thing I noticed is that it would not take a credit card, only cash.  On top of that, it would only take coins.  What kind of country is this where the parking lot machines don’t take credit?  I rummaged through my pockets for one and two euro coins.  I found a couple, but not enough for the entire afternoon.  I went back to the car and checked with Lisa.

“Uhmm, we need more coins.  Do you have any?” I politely asked my dear wife.

“I don’t know.  I think so. Let me look in my purse,” she replied.

I call Lisa’s purse “the magic sack” because you never know what you might find in there, it is large and holds many things, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit the weight it should, based on its contents. Thus, it is like a sack used in a fantasy adventure computer game.  You can put many things into it, but the weights don’t count against your limit of what you can carry.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any euro coins right now.  I think I spent mine on a macchiato this morning.  Would any of these small coins work?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of our situation.  We want to walk on the beach and the boardwalk in this beautiful seaside town.  But if we don’t have one more one euro coin, we are going to have to choose from one of two choices.  Behind door number one is the choice of vacating this preordained ultimate parking spot and driving two miles up the hillside and parallel parking on a steep, narrow road driving a manual transmission car in the midst of crazy traffic.  Then we have to walk back up the hill later this afternoon.  Behind door number two is the choice of leaving the car here and trusting the parking lot gods to not come and check our windshield for a parking pass.  Because if they do come, they will tow our car with our luggage in it back to some faraway place where tourist rental cars go to die.  We’ll have to take a very expensive taxi ride to wherever that place is, then pay some ridiculous fine, plus exorbitant storage fees.”

“Let’s search the car!”

We checked the glove box.  We checked the floors, and under the floor mats.  We checked the trunk.  We searched our luggage, our backpacks, and camera case.  Finally, nearing exhaustion and utter defeat, I spied a shiny object tucked in the crack of the back seat.  It was not a chewing gum wrapper.  It was not a bottle cap.  It was a one euro coin!

“Hallelujah!  We can rightfully and legally claim our God-given parking spot!” I cheered.

I raced back to the machine to input the coin and receive my cherished parking day pass.  The coin was in, and my itchy fingers were waiting to pounce on that pass as soon as it emerged, newborn baby-like from the parking lot machine womb.  And then, nothing happened.  I waited, with a perplexed and worried look on my face. Nothing.  Na da.  The machine sat there doing nothing, like a stone face on an ancient totem pole, mocking me.  I shook the machine a little bit, in the naïve belief that it would move things along. Then I started to get angry.  Really angry.  Un-vacation-like mad.  I shook the machine harder and harder. It did nothing.

Maybe some time limit had expired on entering coins in a single transaction.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t care.  I resolved to keep that ultimate parking space, whatever the cost.

“Let’s go.  We’ve wasted enough time in this parking lot.  I want to see Monterosso.” I said as we sauntered away.

It was truly a glorious afternoon on the Mediterranean coast.  We walked along the boardwalk, had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the beach, and had our daily gelato fix.  By 5pm I knew it was time to go.  We were pushing our luck with the parking lot gods.

Sometimes when I know I am parking in an unauthorized location, as I walk towards the parking lot I get an uneasy feeling, deep in my stomach.  Is it there?  Or is it gone?  Has it been towed to the creepy impound lot under the freeway where the guy running the impound lot looks like Charles Manson?  The closer I get, the more anxious I turn.  It’s just around the next bend, I can almost see it, is it there?

Yes! My lucky day again!  The car is still where we left it. But, remember one must inspect the windshield.  Alright!  There is no ticket under the wipers!  I have run the gauntlet and emerged supreme.  Parking in the ultimate parking spot for free, saving our aching feet from walking two miles up hill, and getting away with it.  The euphoria was extreme.  I had never felt so alive.

We drove high on the ridge above the sea, curving around the beautiful bays.  The late afternoon sun was shining on the sea, highlighting the sailboats coming in from a time of leisure.  In time, we turned inland, back to the Autostrada and the road to Florence.

Cinque Terre view
A splendid late summer day at Monterosso