As far as cars are concerned, we have long since ‘gone native’. We swapped our right-hand drive UK-registered one for a left-hand drive one almost exactly a year ago, and swapped our UK plates for Italian ones back in March once we had formally imported the car into Italy. And Mr Blue-Shirt’s big white van is currently going through the same process, with its Italian registration due in the next few weeks. As far as driving is concerned, however, I fear we remain incurably British in style and will long continue to find certain Italian driving habits anything from mildly irritating to utterly maddening. A recent trip to the UK threw these habits into sharp relief during the many hours I spent on the road travelling between friends and family across the south of the country.
Before I list some of the features of Italian road craft that have us rolling our eyes or gnashing our teeth, I should stress that driving in our part of the world is seldom less than a real pleasure. Le Marche is a land of blissfully empty roads that sweep through richly coloured countryside and wind through pretty historical villages, with views of mountains in one direction and views of the sea. Indeed, when we used to tour around the area on holiday, we sometimes thought there was a public holiday that we were unaware of, so empty were the roads. And it’s not only the back roads; the dual carriageways that run from over the mountains to the sea and the sinuous ribbon of autostrada that follows the coastline from Rimini to Bari are largely traffic-free too.
Admittedly, driving is a little different when it comes to driving around towns and cities, but even then, things don’t conform to the classical stereotype from 1960s movies of some four-wheeled free-for-all, with traffic-clogged streets, blaring horns and enraged drivers gesturing madly at some petty affront. In our experience, people don’t drive the wrong way down one-way streets, ignore traffic lights, or race about at break-neck speed. But it is in the towns, of course, that we do experience a higher frequency of those habits that cause much tutting and sighing. So in no particular order, the following are among the most apparent and irritating that we come across practically daily:
The use of indicators seems largely optional, especially when turning right – ie not crossing in front of oncoming traffic. Indeed, people will readily admit that they don’t see the point of indicating when turning right as it doesn’t really affect the flow of traffic – although this is not expressed as an ‘admission’ since there is no sense that perhaps they should indicate whenever turning, in whichever direction. On the other hand, when indicators have been used, they are often left blinking long after the corresponding move has been executed, as if the driver is enjoying the novelty of the experience, or perhaps simply doing some practice. Thus, any relief at seeing someone using their indicators should be tempered with caution, for that little orange flashing light may well bear little relation to the driver’s apparent intentions or their subsequent actions.
In recent years, Italy has embraced the roundabout with the zeal of the convert and they have blossomed like giant tarmac flowers at junctions of all sizes up and down the country. Compared to the peremptory nature of traffic lights, I think the appeal of the roundabout lies in its relative permissiveness that allows drivers to negotiate junctions at their discretion. The thing is, this laissez-faire approach is taken a little too far in that little or no attention is paid to what we Brits would regard as ‘correct’ lane usage. This coupled with the indicator issue means that it is often anyone’s guess what the true intentions are of the other drivers joining, navigating and leaving the roundabout. On the other hand, it also means that most people tend to negotiate roundabouts somewhat sedately, if not downright warily.
We have decided that this is a bit of a creative art here. While regulations are precise and explicit, being set out in detail on signs attached to lamp posts, and drivers risk a fine if they fail to display a blue parking disc to indicate their arrival time in free short-stay spaces, people will still create spaces where none technically exist. Smart cars, which are very popular here, are often found parked nose-in rather than parallel to the pavement, although it is not uncommon to find much larger vehicles adopting the same approach. And at this time of year, any available patch of shade is considered fair game. The most hair-raising example we have come across, however, is people on parking around the outer edge of a busy roundabout in the centre of Macerata. Thankfully, this normally happens only on market day when many of the official spaces in the vicinity are occupied by market stalls and milling shoppers prevent the traffic from moving little faster than walking pace.
Keeping one’s distance
In these Mediterranean climes, folk are far less precious about their personal space than we frosty Anglo-Saxons are. This is something worth bearing in mind when you become aware of the car behind you apparently trying to climb into your boot. Disconcerting though it may be, they are not tailgating; they are not being aggressive. There will be no flashing of lights, no hooting of horns or impatient attempts to overtake in crazily unsuitable places. No, they will just sit there quite happily until such time as your respective routes take you in different directions – although you do need to keep a careful eye on your rear-view mirror and indicate well in advance should you be the first to turn off, or you may well end up with your new friend in the boot after all.
Using a mobile phone while driving is actually forbidden, although you would never know this, judging by the number of drivers you see with their mobiles clamped to their ear with one hand, often while gesticulating wildly with the other, or steering with their elbows while typing a text message. Fines have been increased quite significantly recently, too, but this seems to have made little difference. What really puzzles me, though, is that even when a car is new or expensive enough to have factory-fitted blue tooth technology, the driver will still persist in using a hand-held phone. That said, there are some who are prepared to go hands-free. Some months ago I saw girl outside the supermarket getting on her moped while talking on the phone. She pulled on and fastened her crash helmet one-handed (she had clearly spent some time perfecting the technique) and then, while still talking, stuffed her mobile up into her helmet, started her engine and roared away without pausing for breath.
Now, I realise that some will accuse me of making exaggerated generalisations. Well, in my defence, I would draw people’s attention to the sheer number of body shops (carrozzerie) that can be found in even the smallest of towns, along with the correspondingly high number of vehicles bearing sundry minor dents, dinks and scratches that keep them all in business. Which perhaps also explains our insurance agent’s bafflement when we were sorting out cover for our newly imported car: he found it difficult to believe that I really did have twelve years’ no-claims history. Not that I am expecting it to get much longer, of course…