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Vacationers, Start Your Engines!

`WE British do seem to be very attracted to Tuscany," I remarked.

This last morning of our idyll was the first time other guests at breakfast seemed to want to chat. Most had wanted to keep themselves to themselves, and who can blame them?

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They had come to get away, to be peaceful in the land of cypresses and little Romanesque country churches. The last thing they wanted was contact with other tourists. And even the French couple, who had now apparently left, had been far too preoccupied with the local wasp population's fascination for marmalade to engage in mere human conversation.

One English couple had studiously ignored everyone, concentrating, as well they might, on their uova strapazzate. (What expressive glories the Italian language encompasses! Is there any other nation in the world that would describe mere scrambled eggs with such an inspired concatenation of vowels and consonants? According to my dictionary, the verb strapazzare means to ill-treat, overwork, or botch. Overworked egg - exactly.)

"Yes," replied the man at the next table, "E. M. Forster and all that."

" 'Where Angels Fear to Tread,' " I agreed. "And 'A Room with a View.' But then, come to think of it, weren't those novels really about how the British don't understand Italians?"

"I suppose they were," said the man. "But," and here he sighed contentedly, "I think Tuscany feels like home, don't you?"

"It is incredibly beautiful," was what I said.

But it is other things, too, I thought. It is, for instance, wasps showing an interest in marmalade, and ... it is Italian drivers.

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Our furlough amid the olive groves and vineyards and walled medieval hill towns was what the travel agents in Britain call "fly-drive." The fly part is fine - that is done by professional pilots and regulated by air-traffic controllers. But the drive part is where you, the intrepid traveler, take over personal responsibility for your forward propulsion. E. M. Forster seems to have been blissfully unconscious of such matters. His tourists travel by train and horsedrawn carriages. His Italians all seem to be on foot.

The vehicle waiting for us at Pisa was a Fiat Panda. Under normal circumstances this quite nippy little car would have been just the ticket for a leisurely touristic wander. But on Italian roads, there are no normal circumstances. What we really needed, it very quickly became clear, was a Maserati or a Ferrari.

While in many countries racetracks are designated areas - isolated circuits sacred to acceleration and danger, padded and barriered accordingly - in Italy no apparent distinction is drawn between the racetrack and the highway.

Even minor roads and country lanes, not to mention farm tracks and sidewalks, are considered perfectly reasonable contexts for the ferocious, dragon-breath game of pursuit, of get-out-of-my-way, of switchback and roller coaster, which in many another culture is generally known as driving.

Whatever the road surface, regardless of bends, sudden gradients, sheer cliff drops, or oncoming traffic, he who drives these cross-country and urban ribbons of Tarmac or gravel must heed one basic proverbial principle: more haste, more speed. Velocita rules!

I've been checking the dictionary just to reassure myself that I am not conceptually offbeam with regard to vacations. I'm happy to record I am not.

The word book supports my embedded notion that the vacation is a thing of ease and rest, of disengagement, time-whiling, and loose-ending. In English, there are such adequate verbal means for describing such periods. But - as with the egg - the Italians have come up with the most felicitous combination of words imaginable, worthy of great poetry: dolce far niente. Delicious idleness. In the land where the siesta is an established institution as an all-afternoon retreat from heat and work, the sheer sweet ness of doing nothing at all receives full appreciation. What is strange to the visitor, however, is that in their cars, Italians epitomize everything that is the total antithesis of such mellifluously gentle slow motion.

Possibly a closer study of our Blue Guide's section on "Driving in Italy" would have prepared us better. "Driving in Italy," it observes, "is generally faster (and often more aggressive) than driving in Britain or America.... Italian drivers tend to ignore pedestrian crossings. In towns beware of motorbikes, mopeds, and Vespas, the drivers of which seem to consider that they always have the right of way."

That is accurate as far as it goes.

But I believe it doesn't really arrive at the nub of the matter. I mean, how is it that an entire population, and particularly one that epitomizes in every other respect the virtues of domani, of procrastination, on the one hand, and preserves with such careless care the crumbly surfaces of its ancient past to the delight of nostalgic tourists - how has it become so utterly wild, so fierce, so brilliant and brutal behind the steering wheel?

"It's just a style," says an Italian-Scottish neighbor of ours. "Just a different style of driving. You get used to it. You soon start to drive like them. I sometimes think," he adds, "that Scottish drivers could do with a little more Italian spice in their driving."

"We'd all be in jail," I suggested.

But he had aroused in me some childhood memory.... I thought, yes, maybe he's right. We Britons have somewhere along the line lost that elan, that bravura, in driving, that Italians have retained. As a child, pretending to drive a racing car, it was always a Maserati I was in. Once I learned to drive real cars, what happened to such essentially Italianate dreams?

Maybe next time I go to Italy I shall try to revive them rather than just wishing I was traveling by train. I should see it, perhaps, as a cultural matter, no different from trying Tuscan food or appreciating Michelangelo: the art of Italian driving.

So where and when did the challenging wonders of Italian-style driving originate?

I suspect it goes straight back to the pioneering days of motoring - the time, in fact, when Forster wrote his two carless Italian novels. The second, "A Room with a View," was published in 1908. In February 1909, an Italian poet called Marinetti published a manifesto designed to shake the traditional world of art and letters to its foundations, the first "Futurist Manifesto."

In it he was openly - aggressively - pro-motor-car: "We affirm," he wrote, "that the world's splendor has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath - a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot - is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.... We will hymn the man at the wheel."

One of Futurism's most impressive artists, Giacomo Balla, painted a procession of pictures devoted to speeding and cars. They arrive, after a development of increasing abstraction, at images that capture the essence of speed without describing a car at all.

These paintings, coming after Marinetti's Manifesto, show how stirring its words must have been. They must sound even more sonorously spectacular in Italian.

Perhaps, then, it is from the Italian Futurist aesthetic that today's Italian drivers have derived their style. Let us name that style strapazzate. Next time I plan to enjoy it.

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