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«Megan K. Williams “If you want a hope in hell of passing the exam, forget everything 87 you see happening out there.” Like a warning out of ...»

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Driving

Lessons

Megan K.

Williams

“If you want a hope in hell of passing the exam, forget everything 87

you see happening out there.”

Like a warning out of Dante, these words are delivered in the

poorly lit, sparsely furnished backroom of my neighbourhood

driving school in Rome. Wearing a tight T-shirt and an expression

so jaded it would make your average cop appear credulous, our

instructor Leo points his finger to the front door, out towards the

circus of illegality that is Roman traffic. Do not, he exhorts, assume there is any overlap between driving theory and driving reality.

After years of participating in that circus without the legally required Italian licence, I take his point.

If a society makes breaking rules easy, you can be sure of one thing: it will make following them hard. There was a reason, I soon learned, that stationery shops in Rome have sections devoted to cards that read, “Congratulations! You Got your Licence!” First, you have to pay. I’d been warned: driving schools are a racket. Shell out the hefty fee and you had a good chance of getting your licence within a few months. (Shell out a heftier bribe and you could forgo the whole ordeal completely, an option I rejected.) This was especially the case for foreigners, who had the choice of taking an oral exam and whose examiners had discretion to pass or fail you.

Signing up at a school also took care of paperwork and scheduling of exams, bureaucratic hassles that could take hours out of a day. If, on the other hand, you chose not to go through a school, you had to be prepared to fail.

I paid. Two hundred and twenty euros, almost $400, that covered the cost of driving theory lessons, an eye test by a medical doctor, and an all-important slip of paper called il foglio rosa—the pink sheet— which gives you the chance to do three exams within six months.

The cost of the exams, about $100 each, was extra.

I chose to ignore a few things. Like the fact there was no eye doc- tor. The receptionist, a plump young woman named Rosa with long dark hair, French-manicured nails, and an evasive look, tested me herself, slapping the classic eye chart with shrinking rows of letters up against the wall.

“OK, you can see well enough to drive,” she said after I had read out a few rows. “When the doctor is in next, he’ll sign the test. He does it all the time.” For the next several months, one or two evenings a week, I sit in the gloomy scuolaguida classroom, sandwiched between pampered Italian teens and foreign domestic workers. Our instructor Leo is somewhere in his early forties and emanates all the moral authority of a regular at a racetrack. I’m not sure what the qualifications are to teach driving in Italy, butI am pretty certain Leo hasn’t been exposed to much pedagogical methodology.

“Noooo,” he rolls his eyes when one of us gets a question wrong.

“What are you, dumb? Retarded?” “But my mother always triple-parks for a few minutes when she picks me up at tennis....” one of the teens invariably argues.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Forget about what your mother does!” Leo barks back. “Just answer what I tell you to.” In a world-weary drone, Leo assails us with driving theory so allencompassing it touches upon everything from thermodynamics to the moral imperatives of road signage and the Ten Commandments.

“‘To be law-abiding people,’” he reads from page two of our driving handbook, “‘respecting the legal norms is not enough; one must adjust one’s behaviour to the fundamental principles of human cohabitation that forbid one to do unto others that which one does not want done unto oneself. In other words, even on the road, one must adjust one’s acts towards collaboration with others, avoiding abuse, rivalry, bravado, risk-taking, and retaliation.’” The questions he reads out from a quiz book aren’t designed so much to test our road knowledge as to confuse us with complicated language and nuance.

“True or false?” Leo reads. “To avoid causing danger or being a

hindrance to circulation, it’s necessary to:

–  –  –

I’m not sure about “a” because I’m not sure you’re supposed to 89 stop to help drivers pulled over on the side of the road, which could be an action deriving from a strong civic sense.... Nor am I sure about “b”: moderate could mean in relation to the speed limit or it could mean some undefined, average speed.... “C” I’m pretty sure is false, but then again...

“Ma regà, avete capito?”—You guys taking this in? Leo says in Roman slang and with a heavy air of skepticism.

The theory questions are a piece of cake compared to the set of wildly theoretical rules to determine the correct order of vehicles through five- and six-way intersections: streetcars, buses, trucks, fire engines, or cars with no traffic to their right. I spend hours figuring out who has the right-of-way. And yet, have I ever once come across a five- or six-way intersection without a traffic light? What makes it all the more frustrating is that the real-life answer to each and every right-of-way is simply the bastard who pushes on the gas pedal first.

But not everyone struggles. A svelte Ukrainian beauty in the front row who flirts with Leo seems to possess a steel-trap memory.





When we do our practice quizzes, she inevitably scores the highest.

If I get half right, I’m on a roll.

It would be nice to think that sensible cultural traits transfer with people as they move from one place to another, but the truth is, they often don’t. We adapt. When I moved with my Italian husband and young kids from Toronto to Rome six years earlier to work as a foreign correspondent, I was struck by the different forms adaptation could take. It could involve appreciating new foods. How on earth did I survive three decades without fresh figs wrapped in prosciutto?

Or it could mean a new passion for world sporting tournaments.

Who knew men could look that good chasing a ball? Or it could lead to engaging in regular, unapologetic and, at times, ecstatically upyour-ass law-breaking.

Take traffic lights. When I lived in Toronto, I’d think twice about biking through a red light on a deserted side street at five in the morning. That’s because a friend had been slapped with a fat ticket from a hiding cop for doing just that. But it was also because, like all young Canadians, I’d been brought up to follow the rules. I still recall the annual police visits to my suburban-Toronto primary school. In a pitiable display of authority pleasing, my scrawny arm strained upward and my heart thumped in hopes of being picked to make my own contribution to the class discussion of why jaywalking was just so wrong. And Elmer the Safety Elephant was so cuddly and fun. Above all, he was right.

As I grew older, the lessons stuck. It’s not that I never broke laws.

I got up to all the hackneyed bored-teenager antics: underage drinking, dabbling in drugs, skipping a lot of school. My parents, if they were even aware of it, never displayed any alarm. But these were acts that rarely inconvenienced or harmed other people—acts that didn’t infringe on the collective civic sense that so strongly permeates Canadian culture. I may have ended up most Saturday nights at age fifteen and sixteen passed out in a puddle of my own vomit, but I wouldn’t have been caught dead trying to butt in a lineup at the subway. Like the vast majority of my fellow citizens, I considered the civic code of conduct sacrosanct. I heeded the Please Stay off the Grass signs. I “gave a hoot!” and didn’t pollute.

Yet barely a week into my new life in Rome that code felt about as relevant as yesterday’s losing lottery ticket. The world out there was chaotic, charged and bursting with interpretive possibility. Traffic lights started striking me as bossy impositions. Stop signs began to carry the same weight as warnings from some Bible-thumping literalist. Soon I was cruising through red lights, with visiting friends clinging to the back of my Vespa motorino, quipping, “What’s red but a darker shade of yellow!” Taking my cue from those around me, I broadened my repertoire: I revved the wrong way down one-way streets. I overtook traffic in the oncoming lane. Sidewalks began presenting themselves as perfectly sensible—no, as the only smart— alternatives to waiting out traffic jams.

The transformation might have been alarming had I stopped to think about it, but I didn’t. I was having too much fun. The thrill of the illicit never came so cheap. I recall a particularly giddy motorino ride to interview the new head of the RCMP at the Canadian embassy—running five reds, zipping the wrong way down one-way Driving streets, and ditching my vehicle smack dab in front of the No Park- Lessons ing sign beside the embassy gate. Off I trotted to discuss ItalianCanadian law enforcement co-operation. 91 I’d discovered a whole new realm of self-expression and no matter how many regulations I violated, people rarely objected.

When they did, there was always the wonderfully expressive range of rude Italian hand gestures and verbal insults to tap into. I took full advantage. (At times, too full. One day, after a car had honked at me for descending the wrong way down a one-way street with my two daughters on the back of my motorino, I swung my lower arm up and shot off a favoured epitaph. Later, when I picked the kids up at school, a teacher came up to me and said, “I tooted hello to you this morning and you told me to fuck off!”) On the one hand, breaking rules is part of a long Italian tradition of resisting authority; on the other hand, it’s a way of belonging.

Cheating is solidale. Community building. And the more brazen and outlandish, the more you’re in. This became clear to me the morning my husband made an illegal left turn through a red light at an intersection with our two small children on the back of his motorino. It actually won him a nod of approval from a cop in a passing cruiser— making an illegal left of his own in the opposite direction.

I began to take more seriously what my husband and Roman friends said about driving. That Italians drive better than anyone in the world. That in goody-two-shoes, safety-crazed nations like Canada or Australia, the major cause of accidents isn’t alcohol or cellphone distractions, but hopelessly nervous Nellies whose entire toolbox of emergency responses consists of either shoving a foot on the brake or shoving a foot on the gas—or more likely, both, in jerky, panicked succession.

“You know what’s so irritating about Canadian drivers?” my husband once grumbled after a Toronto driver honked at him for making a swift left turn ahead of oncoming traffic. “They’re not only incompetent, but they’re sanctimonious about their incompetence.” Later, he added, “They’re driving nerds and proud of it.” What really bugged him about Canadian drivers was that he suspected driving envy lurked behind all the cowed complying to rules and the tsk-tsking at those who didn’t. If only they weren’t so uptight and reined-in, they, too, would love nothing more than to let loose on the road.

In Rome, I finally got what he meant. Driving became an everyday chance for creative improvisation. For Italians, it was clearly an extension of their bodies—a kind of rubber-and-steel appendage to their identity. It reflected the ease with which they occupied their bodies and the comfort with which they showed off their best assets and moves.

I shuddered to think there had been a time in Canada when, sitting beside my husband as he wove through traffic, I’d say, “For Christ’s sake, just pick a lane and stick with it!” In Rome, it was all slip, bump and grind. A boisterous thrusting of your body in space.

A sensual, vehicular cha-cha-cha.

Like no other modern invention, the car embodied Italy’s post-war emergence into prosperity and has continued to be the single most important symbol of economic and social success.

It was the Turin-based car company Fiat that was the linchpin of Italy’s post-war “miracolo economico” or boom, and the company that fuelled the country’s growth into becoming the fifth-biggest economy in the world by the 1980s.

Just three decades earlier, as Italy struggled out of wartime poverty, there were a mere 366,000 cars in the country. Then in 1957, Fiat introduced its 500 model—“la cinquecento.” Italians got their first glimpse of traffic jams each August as millions of families squeezed into their Fiats to make their way to the coasts or countryside—only to find themselves stuck bumper to bumper along narrow, antiquated roads. By the late 1960s, the number of cars swelled to more than 5 million. The Fiat 600 hit the roads, then the 850, then the middle-class 1500, 2300 series, then the refined, uppermiddle-class Lancia. In the mid-1980s, at Fiat’s—and Italy’s—economic peak, came the elite Alfa Romeo Giulia.

Today 35 million cars crowd the Italian peninsula, which has a population of about 60 million. No longer predominantly Fiats (the company began its descent by the late eighties), but Mercedeses, BMWs, Volvos, Smarts, and Renaults. For every ten Italians, there Driving are seven cars—making Italy one of the top three car-owning coun- Lessons tries in Europe. And one of the most car-crowded countries in the world. 93 Somewhere along the way the thrill began to dim. I found myself slowing at yellows, grinding to a halt at reds. I began to note a righteous swell in my chest when, at late-night intersections, car after car ran the red while I waited.

I was getting older, too, and it began to dawn on me that cheating is a young person’s game. The beating heart as I cruised without a licence past a cop made me feel alive in my mid-thirties. As I slid closer to forty, each little scare felt like a year or two coming off my life. It was also getting tougher to ignore those daily accident scenes on my way to work: the crumpled motorino splayed across the intersection; the bored carabiniere officer filling out forms; the sticky little pools of blood.



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