Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trains, planes, and automobiles

We had underestimated the journey. The train to Gatwick was fine; the plane to Pisa was fine. A. watched out the window for nearly two hours, fascinated by the wings, and the clouds, and our view of the Alps. Our bags came off the conveyer belt first; we ordered our Panini and cafĂ© in Italian with ease, and we ate outside, beaming with our luck, watching Pisans slowly cycle by in khaki shorts and neck bling. But this was where the streak of luck ended, or at least, became chronically uncertain. I had, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered to drive us to the rural place we’d rented for ten days. There was no other mode of transportation. To save money, we rented a manual car. I’d earned my license on a manual car ten years ago, but haven’t practiced since, though I drove an automatic for nearly as long. It couldn’t be that difficult, I told myself. There’d be a baptism by fire, and then we’d sail onto the other side. This was woefully wilful idealism.

We got our rental car by the skin of our teeth. It turns out that not having the correct credit card is a problem. The tired rental desk attendant eventually agreed to sign it over, more out of annoyance at our continued presence than anything else, after we agreed to pay for a second package of excess coverage. We sat in the Renault Clio and tried to locate the necessaries. But there were nine variations of lighting (and none seemed right for night driving), and the car started by on/off button, not a key, but something like a TV remote, and all the switches seemed cunningly hidden away by a maddened and devious engineer. (The hazard button was not found until the fourth or fifth day.) The very possibility of correctly handling the clutch seemed ambitious, though I padded my feet up and down as though playing the organ, trying to tell myself that it worked just like this.

We were lucky enough to take a series of correct turns and emerged onto the Fi-Pi-Li (Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) autostrada. It was ten minutes before we realised where the lights were. I argued to A. that we were not the only hazards on the road, given one driver’s single working headlight. In fact, the Italian approach to headlights was baffling: most vehicles kept their lights on throughout the day, and this in summer.

But the autostrada was our friend: not for nothing had I once driven from Minneapolis to Seattle in two days. The anxious differences between a manual and an automatic are erased when the roads are empty. Until you hit a diversion, and are bumped along onto the tiny slip of a road between Montelupo and Empoli, sandwiched between hulking trucks and zippy Fiats and have to pull over onto a road shoulder to wail, convincing your boyfriend that you are very, very close to losing your mind and will have to spend the night in the car with nothing to eat but two Eat Me apricot bars.

To the average reader, this is a dull tale. To A. and me, our journey from Pisa to Vigliano was The Odyssey. For twelve years, we drove over hills, and stopped suddenly, swerved irresponsibly, were forced into hill starts, and stalled on side roads, and got lost on different roads with identical names, behind villas which resembled each other as haystacks do. The signs were hidden beneath ghostly trees, alongside country shrines; no streets illuminated. To outsiders, no knowledge of how steep the next hidden hill is available; one is driven by the road instead of vice versa.

When we arrived at the villa, the stars were bright and fierce, and the sound of our burning clutch revving echoed across the hills. ‘Move the car tomorrow,’ said Anna, our host. ‘The neighbours will hear you.’

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