A Drive Through Tuscany
Previously Published in CrapShoot!

A few years ago my wife Yvonne and I decided to make a return trip to Europe. Because I had struck a friendship with a German woman visiting the OSU Library system in the early 90’s that subsequently led to an invitation from her and her husband to visit the Continent, I finally overcame my fear of traveling there. Most Americans will not admit having a phobia about crossing the Atlantic for such an adventure. I also hid behind comments like, “I really have no desire to go to Europe. There are too many places here in the U.S. that I haven’t seen.” This attitude...if approached as much a blind prejudice as being afraid of going to New York City. Because everyone KNOWS if you visit New York you’re going to get yourself mugged...or...perhaps even killed. Let’s face it. Many of us are taught to believe this crap. Once we had visited in 1997 I was hooked. I wanted to go back. For this excursion I was determined to rid myself of yet another fear...driving in Europe.

On the first vacation we were immediately exposed to driving on the autobahn when Heike and her husband Claus picked us up at the airport and proceeded to drive us to their home near Stuttgart. Now I had never met Claus before and he spoke little English. (Unlike Heike, who is pretty fluent) But while he was driving he spoke a hell of a lot of German. Waved his arms in the air quite a bit too. Some stretches of highway we were actually my estimation...and I believe my math is good enough to approximate...110 miles per hour. In my correspondence home I referred to Claus as “driving like a crazy motherfucker!” Claus got a real kick out of my description. He took no offense…quite the contrary. That’s when I decided I wanted to drive somewhere in least ONCE in my life.

Unlike Claus…I don’t pride myself on being called a crazy motherfucker. But I knew I was up to the task for two very good reasons. #1...I had already driven in Boston...and I might the ripe old age of 20. Now that’s a feat in and of itself. Reason #2? Roger Gentile told me I could handle it. Rog owns a wine shop. He’s from Italian descent. Like me...he has a sarcastic sense of humor...a good one. He could be from Cleveland. He’s not...but he IS a Brown’s fan. That’s good enough for me. And…oh yeah...he won’t bullshit you. He looked me right in the eye and told me I could handle it. I was ready to drive in Italy. We decided to rent a car in Florence and drive through the Tuscany region. After all, it’s nearly impossible to take the train and really see Tuscany. So, I got my international driver’s license and we made the arrangements.

The first part of our vacation was spent...once again...visiting our German friends in their delightful little village of Altbach. It was very convenient to have the option of “book ending” our excursion through Switzerland and Italy by starting and finishing there...not to mention the savings and laundry facilities. And it’s comforting to have familiar faces to return to...especially faces the English language comes out of once in a while…although I actually find it quite exciting to visit a place where I know virtually nothing about the language. It makes the everyday life of people intriguing for me, to sit there being blissfully ignorant of what’s going on around me. Another plus for me is that it takes me a lot longer to figure out whom the assholes are. They’re everywhere you know. So we’re very lucky to have this starting and finishing point. A home away from home.

Of course the train ride through Switzerland and our short visit was wonderful. Every cliché about Switzerland is true. So true that it warrants it’s own that hopefully I’ll some day write. It’s on the list. The difficulty will be in not using the cliches...even thought they are true. But how many times can a word like “Storybook” be used without sounding cliche ridden? See my point?

We took a cab from the train station in Florence to the airport where we were to pick up our car. I looked to our cabbie for some driving pointers. He spoke no English so I had to go on observation alone. I made one simple mental like a crazy motherfucker. I eased my anxiety by reminding myself that I would be driving in the COUNTRY...not this manic pace of the city. I was sure I was ready. Once we got to the airport and got our bags from the trunk I gave our cabbie what must have been an enormous tip ...then stuck out my hand...shook his firmly...and thanked him. For some un-apparent reason this seemed to shock the a good way mind you. Either he wasn’t used to an American being so polite or the tip was a lot. But I figured too much is better than not enough...and besides...just one American dollar is worth like...oh...176,328,964 lira. I literally have to carry this huge wad of money around with you because sometimes it takes 33 of these bills, 26 of those bills, and 14 of the decorative coins. I figure error on the heavy side. It may cost you more but people WILL smile.

It was our good fortune to be helped at the rental place by a young, attractive British woman because you’ve got decisions to decisions. She was not only kind but had a good sense of humor. She navigated us through what was good insurance to buy and what was not necessary. We were both very grateful and as I put my John Hancock on the final document I smiled at her and said, “I don’t suppose it’s a Lamborghini is it?” She smiled back and with a delightfully innocent...yet somehow flirtatious...giggle replied, “Sorry sir. It’s a Daiwoo.” At the time I had never heard of such an automobile and didn’t know what to expect. What we found in the parking lot was a shiny, new, bright red horizontal PHONE BOOTH!! It was nothing like the Daiwoos imported to the U.S. now days. It more resembled those terribly British red phone booths. It was as if someone had tipped one over and attached four very, very small wheels to it. I’m amazed to this day that we were able to get our luggage into the damned thing...and ourselves.

The two of us had decided that first we should drive directly west and go to Pisa. Pisa isn’t exactly in Tuscany was right OH-VA DAY!!! (a little aside - this is a reference to Ghoulardi. He was the Friday night scary movie host on T.V. when I was a kid growing up near Cleveland. Ghoulardi was cool. He wore a fake goatee and a Beatle wig. He held a flashlight under his face for “Atmosphere”. He would run around in front of the he was in it. He made fun of the terrible flicks he showed. Between commercials he blew up model cars that kids sent in with firecrackers. AND he said “OH-VA DAY”...which meant “Over there” in Ghoul-speak. He would say to the guy on camera 4 “Its OH-VA DAY FOUR!!” Ghoulardi is one of the big reasons people from Cleveland are different than other people living in Ohio.) So it was off to Pisa. After was just OH-VA DAY!

Now I have no idea if they call the freeway I got on the Italian Autobahn. I don’t know if there was a speed limit. All I DID know was if there WAS a speed limit it had to be like 146 miles per hour. That’s how fast it seemed everyone was traveling. So I figured...hey...when in Tuscany...well you know the saying. Trouble was this Daiwoo was about 5 feet long and about 18 inches wide...cozy you could say. Not much room for two people and two suitcases let alone a motor. After driving this inverted phone booth for 10 minutes I speculated the engine to be a 2 cylinder, 27 horsepower void of anything like “overhead twin cams”. It HAD to be cam-less. It took me probably 30 miles with my foot slammed firmly on the floorboards...full throttle mind you...but I finally got the thing up to 110 miles per hour. Wow.

Surprisingly this was an incredibly un-frightening experience. Drivers were POLITE! No one passed on the right or weaved through traffic. People actually followed the rules of the road. Everyone seemed to be looking out for each other. It was the most fun I’ve had driving a car since I first took the wheel. And everybody appeared to understand the dilemma I was in...driving an inverted phone booth I mean. I realized for the first time that there is a very big difference between driving fast and being in a hurry. Americans are in a hurry. Italians drive fast. And Americans are the ones with the road rage.

Soon enough we’re heading towards Pisa when I noticed something. Every so often along this 2 lane road there would be a beautiful woman just standing around sort of…posing. One in particular sticks in my memory. She had on very high heels, a slinky little black dress, cell phone to her ear, cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth...and she was hitch hiking! I said to Yvonne...who if she had been any closer would have been sitting in my lap...”What are all these women doing along the side of the road?” She looked at me incredulously and replied, “They’re HOOKERS, Rick.” “Oh,” was all that came out of my mouth...but I was thinking, “Geez...and here we are with a car too small for anything involving physical movement.” I’m sure Yvonne heard me think this too...not a doubt in my mind. Pisa was very nice. Everybody knows there’s a leaning tower there but it’s the baptistery that’s truly impressive. Not to take anything away from the tower. I learned that it’s the bell tower for the cathedral and there’s also a separate building called the baptistery. I guess each specific ringing a bell or baptizing somebody...had to have it’s own structure. This was not unusual. What makes Pisa unique of course is that the tower is falling over. I speculated that perhaps some day it WILL fall over...and some one would then attach four very large wheels and turn it into a Daiwoo church bus. The catalyst for my silliness was the souvenir shops. They all had Leaning Tower of Pisa several different sizes. There were 6 inch Leaning Tower of Pisa night- lights, 10 inch Leaning tower of Pisa night-lights...all the way up to ones that looked about 3 1/2 feet tall. At first I thought they were cheesy as hell. Now...well...I kind of wish I had a 2 foot Leaning Tower of Pisa night-light to impress house guests. We listened to the guide chant in the baptistery...which had amazing acoustics...had a wonderful lunch (Italy has the best food you’ll ever eat) and made our way down the coastline.

Driving south along the Mediterranean was breathtaking. It reminded me considerably of Northern Big Sur...except instead of surfers there were...well...Italians. I made a mental note to return some day and stay on the coast. Such mental notes numbered well over fifty by now.

Soon we turned east and into Tuscany. The terrain was rolling hills with roads that wind through and every once in a while there magically appeared a Medieval city on a hill…like the Emerald City in Oz. Fields full of sunflowers made for a gorgeous splash of yellow in the late afternoon sun...and ...of course...vineyards. I once again realized that drivers were very accommodating. If some one proceeded more slowly they would pull off the road and let you pass. Amazing. I longed for our Miata on these winding, scenic roadways. We stopped and discovered Volterra...what appeared to be an ancient Roman city. To be honest we were trying to find San Gimignano, drove up to Volterra by accident, and got into one of those little marital “discussions” about where in the SAM HELL we were. But we found San Gimignano eventually and enjoyed it also. Trouble was...we were “winging it”. By that I mean we had no place to stay the night arranged beforehand. The two of us had traveled this way the last trip with no problems whatsoever. Not this time. Everywhere we inquired was booked full.

After yet a bit more marital type discussing we decided to try a town named Poggiosani. This little place was not a tourist destination but to our delight we found a Hotel Europa...which is a lot like Holiday Inn...except of course they are in Europe and other than being a chain bear no resemblance at all. It didn’t take long for us to learn that no one...I mean no this town knew a word of English. It was just me, Yvonne and the trusty pocket translator. After much button pushing on the translator we acquired a room. However when we got to the room there was no electricity. Yvonne made her way back to the front desk...translator in hand...while I moved the car into what I assumed was their parking lot. As I passed her in the lobby Yvonne and the poor desk clerk were having a spirited two different languages...about something called “Currento”...something along those lines. Turns out we had no “Currento” because on the key chain was a tiny little key that was to be inserted into a wall socket which magically brought the “Currento” to life . I suppose this was a money-saving that was sure new to the both of us.

I moved the car but was still a bit confused as to whether it was in the correct lot. So on my way in...and keep in mind that I did NOT have the translator in my possession at the time...I looked at the desk clerk…pointed towards the parking lot and my best Ghoulardi Italian, “Auto. OH...KAY? OH-VA DAY?” and then gave him the o.k. sign with my fingers. You know...the 3 - oh. He looked at me like he was thinking, “What’s this dumb ass talking about?” He then pursed his lips and uttered, “Si.”

Dinner was much the same...button pushing...fingers pointing at the menu. But we had a very good meal, saw the sights of a typical little Tuscan village, and slept wonderfully. Before we retired for the night we had a drink at the bar with the guy at the desk. Apparently he was the bartender also. I think he decided...since he joined us for a drink...and we asked him to choose the wine…that we were okay after all. The thing about Italy is...let THEM decide. I mean if you want a glass of wine let them decide for you. They know better than you anyway. They’re very proud of the food and drink that originates from their region. So let them decide for you and you will certainly be on common ground. And believe me...there is no bad food in Italy. There is no bad wine in Italy.

The rest of the driving tour went fine...except perhaps the night of the zooming motorcycles in Sienna. And we did get a parking ticket despite the fact that we parked exactly where the hotel instructed us. I suppose too I have to mention the shock of paying over $3 per LITER for gasoline. There I go being an American again. But these people had me pegged when they first set eyes on me. And if they didn’t, it surely became obvious with my Ghoulardi Italian. (Ghoulardi SOUNDS like an Italian name doesn’t it?) We made it back to Florence safely and satisfied with our adventures. So my advice, dear reader, is this. Do not be afraid to travel to a foreign land. People will be very different than you...yet in many ways they will be exactly the same. Just one thing. When you park the car remember to take the pocket translator with you.



Over 70 years of Experience ~ Gentile's Wine Sellers















San Gimignano




Man with his Daiwoo


All Photos Copyright Jerry Daiwoo ~ 2002