Driven to distractions
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