When I was eighteen, my cousin Umberto visited us from Italy. I sat in the passenger seat of Umberto’s rental car as he sped through a red light at a busy intersection in Hartford, Connecticut. I shrieked, “Stop. Stop. You’ve got to stop!”
Umberto smiled. “In Italy, red light is optional.”
Umberto wasn’t kidding. When my husband and I visited Tuscany last fall, we discovered that some Italians considered all rules of the road optional.
Our most hair-raising traffic event occurred on a curvy mountain road descending from the village of San Gimignano. When I say “mountain road,” I really mean a paved goat path so narrow that it could not comfortably accommodate two fat goats.
Barely navigating the tight turns, our Italian driver careened down the mountainside. At one point, a truck was coming up toward us, a suicidal bicyclist pedaled on the right, while an insane motorist attempted to pass us on the left.
Did any of those people slow down? No. Not even our intrepid Italian driver, who muttered something unprintable, then hit the gas!
Interestingly, we discovered that Italians seemed inordinately concerned about bathroom safety. In most hotels, we noticed emergency pull chains hanging in the showers. I didn’t find this safety feature comforting. Without glasses, my vision in the shower is fuzzy at best. I lived in fear of touching the wrong fixture and winding up with a room full of chambermaids and porters eager to assist me with my theoretical shower emergency.
During our trip, we stopped by Umberto’s place. He brought us to Montenero, a stone chapel overlooking the harbor at Livorno. The sanctuary contained hundreds of pieces of folk art depicting over two centuries of near-death experiences. Painted, sketched, photographed, these images showed lightning strikes, kitchen fires, swordfights, hangings, plane crashes, drownings, derailed trains, car and motorcycle accidents. In each case, the victims lived to tell the tale then later created a picture to express their gratitude. The offerings included an image of the Virgin Mary or a guardian angel hovering in the accident scene. Those heavenly creatures appeared beatific and not exhausted, which is amazing considering how hard they’ve had to work over the centuries to keep their charges safe.
My husband says I have no right to be snarky about Italians and safety. In fact, he claims that I am an Unsafe Italian-American. He cites our Gypsy Incident as a case in point. At the Pisa train station, three Gypsies surrounded and robbed us as we were about to board. Incensed, I made the imprudent decision to chase two of them through the cars of the train. Finally, I cornered the Gypsies in the last car and demanded they return our belongings.
As I stood toe to toe with the thieves, the other passengers warned me to step away, unless I wanted a knife in my back. All at once, it dawned on me that I lacked both muscle and firepower and therefore wasn’t adequately prepared for a showdown at the OK Corral. Just before things could have gotten ugly, the train reached the next stop. The thieves hopped off, leaving me cashless, but still in possession of two in tact kidneys.
Ever since our trip, I’ve considered drawing the Gypsy Incident and sending it to the chapel at Montenero. Of course, I’d depict myself taller and I’d work hard to create a terrified expression on those Gypsies as we faced off on the train. And, I guess I’d have to include an angel in the background with a what the heck are you doing? expression on her face. Then again, if she were an Italian angel, she just might be thinking, “Business as usual.”