Driven to dis­trac­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

It has been a while since I have driven in con­ti­nen­tal Europe but the mem­o­ries per­sist. Mostly it has been around Italy and France, fre­quently alone, and in the days when GPS tech­nol­ogy was but a gleam in an in­fant gizmo-de­vel­oper’s eye. Sans nav­i­ga­tor, one must rely on jug­gling and cir­cus skills, in­volv­ing maps the size of table­cloths, stout guide­books and the abil­ity to drive with one’s knees pressed up against a steer­ing wheel.

In north­ern Italy, with an in­jured foot, I ac­quired a cast with Vel­cro tabs from a gen­tle doc­tor and used it to my ad­van­tage. I found you can drive up to the top of hill­towns, deep into no-traf­fic zones and park bang in the mayor’s spot. All you have to do, as of­fi­cials ap­proach with much wav­ing of hands and stern ex­pres­sions, is open the car door and swing out your plas­ter-clad foot and an­nounce, in in­tol­er­a­bly bad Ital­ian, that you are from Aus­tralia and you are lost. Be­fore you know it, you are be­ing lifted aloft and placed on a chair and then borne into the may­oral cham­ber for a re­viv­ing aper­i­tivo and a meal of good cheese, bread and olives. It helps to be of my age, and thus old enough to be a po­lice­man’s mother and de­serv­ing of great care, be­cause the treat­ment is akin to that ac­corded to roy­alty.

Plas­ter props aside, the free­ways in Europe — whether au­toroute, au­tostrada or au­to­bahn — are fear­somely fast and it is mad­ness to drive be­low the speed limit as next thing you know, no mat­ter which lane you have cho­sen, you will have a BMW up your jack­sie and nowhere to go ex­cept to swing into a mi­nor road of no fea­si­ble re­turn. In Rome, it is ad­vis­able to rent a car with a sun­roof as you will in­vari­ably need to use it to climb in and out on con­gested streets, and the tinier the two-door ve­hi­cle the bet­ter as park­ing side­ways is of­ten the only op­tion. Key-inthe-roof toy-like cars with names such as Bam­bino or a vin­tage Topolino nicely fit the brief; they are so small as to al­most fold into your knap­sack. A guide in Naples once told me there are no pedes­tri­ans in Italy, just peo­ple look­ing for their cars.

In Paris one sum­mer evening I drove around and around the Arc de Tri­om­phe like a doomed char­ac­ter in a Jean-Paul Sartre play. There were no breaks in the traf­fic, no way to spin to­wards my re­quired exit un­til even­tu­ally the cars, tourist buses and lor­ries thinned. Which was about 5am, I think, given the pres­ence of street-wa­ter­ing trucks and a light­en­ing sky. The episode was trau­matic enough to se­verely af­fect my abil­ity to cor­rectly pro­nounce Av­enue Foch.

Things are more se­date over in the Old Dart but then there is the mat­ter of all that ever-so-proper Bri­tish eti­quette at round­abouts. You go first! No you! Af­ter you! I have been stuck at cross­roads in the deep­est and green­est coun­ties long enough to have solved three crimes in an episode of Mid­somer Mur­ders. Inch­ing for­ward, des­per­ate not to of­fend, I would have killed for the ap­pear­ance of that old corpse-both­erer DCI Tom Barn­aby on the scene and a spot of tea back at Caus­ton CID.

A guide in Naples once told me there are no pedes­tri­ans in Italy, just peo­ple look­ing for their cars

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