Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Italian Driving School Diaries - A Cinquecento, La Spezia, tears, and the Autostrada

View of Lerici from La Spezia. It's a very beautiful place. However, the drive to get there was not!

Seriously, what was I smoking when I decided to drive to Piemonte?

I stopped in La Spezia to meet my friend Megan for lunch. When I stepped out of the car, my hands were literally shaking.

One friend back in America had suggested I rent an automatic. She said driving on the Autostrada was super stressful and she has been driving stick/manual all her life.

As I struggled to get from Termini Station to the Autostrada, I was close to hyperventilating. If leaving the Center was such a nightmare, what the heck was going to happen to me on the Autostrada?

I kept stalling out. I got lost. It was a big mess. I finally made to the Autostrada and it was fine. In Italy people use the left lane correctly... to pass. I stayed on the right and nobody tailgated me.

Once I got off the Autostrada to get to Megan's, all hell broke loose. Roundabouts, hairpin turns, steep hills, I was in tears.

After a relaxing lunch and gelato (thanks Megan!), I told myself to get it together. I put on Amy Winehouse's FRANK and continued on my journey.

Got lost again. I was driving toward Milano. Once I turned around and got back on the Autostrada, I thought everything would be okay.

Nope. I was wrong. I finally arrived in Acqui Terme with its zillion roundabouts in the Historic Center and ended up in a parking lot. My friend's B&B was nowhere in sight.

I called. They were probably wondering how the heck I missed their road. Hello, I've been there before. I turned around and later saw my friend's husband on the road leading to the B&B.

I know people have had trouble getting up their driveway. It's very steep. I was told to put the car in 1st gear and don't stop. If I was too nervous to try, they would do it.

After driving for hours, I decided to go for it and made it up the bloody hill. When I pulled up, everyone started clapping. I basically rolled out of the car. I was so happy to get out of it.

After a long shower and a couple glasses of chilled wine, I was fine.

The next day I did tell my friends I didn't think I could deal with driving back.

However my return trip was a breeze, until I got to Rome. Sigh.

I missed the turn for Vatican City and ended up God knows where.

When I finally arrived in my neighborhood, I double parked and gave the man who "helps" people park a few euros. I ran to my place to dropped off my things.

I returned to my car and then zipped around the Center and even Piazza Venezia like butter. Dropping the car off was a lot easier than picking it up. Could be because I had just driven more hours in one weekend trip than in the previous two years.

A few days later I bumped into my driving instructor, Bruno. He asked me how it went. He said he was proud of me. That warmed my heart.

I'm glad I did it. I do feel more comfortable now with a stick.

I get the Autogrill hype. It's not the Italian 7/11. It's on a whole different level.

Next time I rent a car to go out of town, I might get the car from the airport or Villa Borghese to avoid the Center and EUR. Even for experienced drivers getting in and out of Rome is confusing.

The drive, except when I was freaking out, was beautiful. I loved seeing how the terrain changed from Lazio, to Tuscany, to Liguria, and then Piemonte.

The Fiat 500 is a great little car. Excellent mileage. I don't know what type of engine I had. Mine did not have a lot pick up. Merging onto the Autostrada from a gas station was a little stressful.

Nice ride.

I would like to test the Mini Cooper at some point.


gibber said...

Supercute car! I've seen commercials for it here. It would be the perfect car for city living in rome :)

I'm proud of you. I have no desire to ever drive a stick. Ever.

Sara, Ms Adventures in Italy said...

No navigator??? I think you should spring for one next time you rent - so helpful!

But definitely a good adventure :) I taught myself stick in college when my girlfriends with sticks kept getting too drunk to drive us home....survival skills, I tell you!

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Congratulations on getting around and in and out of Rome. It is indeed a nightmare to navigate the streets and drivers weaving here and there. I like the idea of renting from up near Villa Borghese and will remember that next time I'm renting in Rome.

Jannelle said...

That's the cutest car ever. I'm not a very good driver. I only learned to drive a few years ago (originally from NY), and that was in Japan. I get flustered and teary eyed driving in AZ all the time. I commend you. I couldn't have done it.

dorinalouise said...

congratulations to you! you were so brave!! i used to drive a stick shift. i miss it! however, i do remember it being difficult to learn . . and driving on the roads you had, would not be easy!

Diana Strinati Baur said...

oh, darling, you did it and lived to tell about it. I think you looked great in that car, and really, that's the most important thing. xoxo

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

gibber - Never? Not even in St. Martin? j/k Could you imagine going up that hill to Marigot or Grand Case?

Sara - I know nothing about such things. I didn't even occur to me to get one. I had my maps/directions! I usually have a great sense of direction. I don't know what the heck happened. I hear you on those survival skills.

ccl - I used to drive in NYC and L.A. Those cities are a piece of cake compared to Rome. Villa Borghese for me next time. I never want to deal with the area around Termini Station if I don't have to. It's very chaotic.

jannelle - You learned in Japan? Brava.

dl - everyone tells me in time, I will feel as comfortable with it as I do with automatics. I notice my friends here drive stick no problem. They talk, zip in and out of traffic, shift so smoothly I don't even feel it. Meanwhile, when I shift from 2nd to 3rd it's not smooth at all!

dsb - ha. Thanks cara. I have to say the design of the car is incredible. And it rides well too. I read there is a waiting list for it in the States.

oilandgarlic said... me, this signifies you're a "native" now. Driving stick shift is one of my life goals (if/when I move to Italy). The Autogrill is great!

Paola said...

Don't beat yourself. We have a nightmare EACH time we drive in the center of Roma and we've been driving for ever here, stick shift and automatic as we have both.
Thing is they keep changing "one ways" and ZTL (limited traffic sections) and that confuses the hell out of anybody.
A navigator can be hekpful but sometimes confuses you even more especially when you drive up the mountains or hills.
Anyway, you did great! Oh and we own an old 500! Now, if you can drive THAT, you can drive anything. That's what they say here.

Naphtali said...

I am a manual kind of girl and when I went, my host tried to make me drive, when I wouldn't he would let go the steering wheel on the autostrade and I automatically grab the wheel. I regret doing that for everytime he needed to do something ( besides driving) I held the wheel. That is closest I came to driving in Italy. You did an amazing feat of driving alone, maybe I will drive the next time I arrive.

Anonymous said...

Driving in Italy... what can you say except you have to experience it to believe it. Glad to hear that you made it in one piece! I've driven to the airports in MIlan and Ikea but I can't imagine driving in center Rome. Walking in center Rome was hard enough. Wink. I find myself getting lost here something that wouldn't happen so much in the US. I 've come to the conclusion that as Americans we think of direction using actual directions like north, south east and west. Here they use the cities. If you don't know the what the next city is your screwed. I've learned to look at the map and memorize the cities not the road names.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

oilandgarlic - you can buy automatics here but they are more expensive. If you take the practical exam with an automatic car, your driver's license will be invalid for manuals/sticks. That is why I decided to suck it up and learn stick. Better safe than sorry, since the vast majority of cars sold and driven in Europe are sticks.

Yes, the Autogrill is amazing.

Paola - I think the old 500 are too cute for words. I would be afraid to drive one though. They are so tiny. I live in the Center, so if I do buy a car someday, I would be get a ZTL pass. Hopefully, by then my driving skills will be excellent!

naphtali - Go for it. As long as your not in a Historic Center, driving here is fun.

sm - that is a good point about using cities as directions. I had to learn over 460 signs for my written driver's exam. That test was bananas.

milanese masala said...

OMG, I loved this post! I commend you for your bravery. I've been driving in Italy for 10 years and I still haven't plucked up enough courage to do a long-distance trip on my own. I could totally understand your panic. But complimenti, nonetheless!! What did you buy at the Autogrill? Do they still sell those coconut-shaped salami? I've never understood those!

Coco Cooks said...

That car is so cute. Was thinking of getting one, but needed a bigger car . Congrats! You did it and you are brave . But it must feel good to know you have the option now to drive!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

mm - grazie. I only bought water at Autogril, but I was impressed by their selection. Some of them are bigger than my local supermarket. ha

cc- Thanks.

I just love the design of the car, inside and out. And it rides well for a car of its size.

Tracie P. said...

i love frank! great album. i bought it at gatwick on my way back to texas for a visit in feb of 2007. i wanted the new one, but frank was way cheaper. it was the soundtrack to that whole year!

glad you made it back :)

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

tracie p - I'm still playing FRANK. I can't believe how different Amy looked in the videos from that era.

It's a shame. A really talented woman gone too soon.