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
honestly...is 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
traveling...in 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 Europe...at least ONCE
in my life.
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 add...at the ripe old age of 20. Now that’s
a feat in and of itself. Reason #2? Roger Gentile told me I could handle
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
story...one 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
note...drive 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 man...in 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 mean...you 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 make...insurance 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 but...hey...it 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 movie...like 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 all...it 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 Rome...er 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.
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.
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 function...like 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
night-lights...in 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.
along the Mediterranean was breathtaking. It reminded me considerably
of Northern California...you know...like 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
one...in 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
discussion...in 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 device...one 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 said...in 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.”
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.