Drive Through Tuscany
Best of Naked Sunfish
Originally Published in Issue 1
few years ago my wife Yvonne and I decided to make a return trip
to Europe. Because I had struck a friendship with a German woman
visiting the OSU Library system in the early 90’s that subsequently
led to an invitation from her and her husband to visit the Continent,
I finally overcame my fear of traveling there. Most Americans
will not admit having a phobia about crossing the Atlantic for
such an adventure. I also hid behind comments like, “I really
have no desire to go to Europe. There are too many places here
in the U.S. that I haven’t seen.” This attitude...if approached
honestly...is as much a blind prejudice as being afraid of going
to New York City. Because everyone KNOWS if you visit New York
you’re going to get yourself mugged...or...perhaps even killed.
Let’s face it. Many of us are taught to believe this crap. Once
we had visited in 1997 I was hooked. I wanted to go back. For
this excursion I was determined to rid myself of yet another fear...driving
On the first vacation we were immediately exposed to driving on
the autobahn when Heike and her husband Claus picked us up at
the airport and proceeded to drive us to their home near Stuttgart.
Now I had never met Claus before and he spoke little English.
(Unlike Heike, who is pretty fluent) But while he was driving
he spoke a hell of a lot of German. Waved his arms in the air
quite a bit too. Some stretches of highway we were actually traveling...in
my estimation...and I believe my math is good enough to approximate...110
miles per hour. In my correspondence home I referred to Claus
as “driving like a crazy motherfucker!” Claus got a real kick
out of my description. He took no offense…quite the contrary.
That’s when I decided I wanted to drive somewhere in Europe...at
least ONCE in my life.
Unlike Claus…I don’t pride myself on being called a crazy motherfucker.
But I knew I was up to the task for two very good reasons. #1...I
had already driven in Boston...and I might add...at the ripe old
age of 20. Now that’s a feat in and of itself. Reason #2? Roger
Gentile told me I could handle it. Rog
owns a wine shop. He’s from Italian descent. Like me...he
has a sarcastic sense of humor...a good one. He could be from
Cleveland. He’s not...but he IS a Brown’s fan. That’s good enough
for me. And…oh yeah...he won’t bullshit you. He looked me right
in the eye and told me I could handle it. I was ready to drive
in Italy. We decided to rent a car in Florence and drive through
the Tuscany region. After all, it’s nearly impossible to take
the train and really see Tuscany. So, I got my international driver’s
license and we made the arrangements.
The first part of our vacation was spent...once again...visiting
our German friends in their delightful little village of Altbach.
It was very convenient to have the option of “book ending” our
excursion through Switzerland and Italy by starting and finishing
there...not to mention the savings and laundry facilities. And
it’s comforting to have familiar faces to return to...especially
faces the English language comes out of once in a while…although
I actually find it quite exciting to visit a place where I know
virtually nothing about the language. It makes the everyday life
of people intriguing for me, to sit there being blissfully ignorant
of what’s going on around me. Another plus for me is that it takes
me a lot longer to figure out whom the assholes are. They’re everywhere
you know. So we’re very lucky to have this starting and finishing
point. A home away from home.
Of course the train ride through Switzerland and our short visit
was wonderful. Every cliché about Switzerland is true. So true
that it warrants it’s own story...one that hopefully I’ll some
day write. It’s on the list. The difficulty will be in not using
the cliches...even thought they are true. But how many times can
a word like “Storybook” be used without sounding cliche ridden?
See my point?
We took a cab from the train station in Florence to the airport
where we were to pick up our car. I looked to our cabbie for some
driving pointers. He spoke no English so I had to go on observation
alone. I made one simple mental note...drive like a crazy motherfucker.
I eased my anxiety by reminding myself that I would be driving
in the COUNTRY...not this manic pace of the city. I was sure I
was ready. Once we got to the airport and got our bags from the
trunk I gave our cabbie what must have been an enormous tip ...then
stuck out my hand...shook his firmly...and thanked him. For some
un-apparent reason this seemed to shock the man...in a good way
mind you. Either he wasn’t used to an American being so polite
or the tip was a lot. But I figured too much is better than not
enough...and besides...just one American dollar is worth like...oh...176,328,964
lira. I mean...you literally have to carry this huge wad of money
around with you because sometimes it takes 33 of these bills,
26 of those bills, and 14 of the decorative coins. I figure error
on the heavy side. It may cost you more but people WILL smile.
It was our good fortune to be helped at the rental place by a
young, attractive British woman because you’ve got decisions to
make...insurance decisions. She was not only kind but had a good
sense of humor. She navigated us through what was good insurance
to buy and what was not necessary. We were both very grateful
and as I put my John Hancock on the final document I smiled at
her and said, “I don’t suppose it’s a Lamborghini is it?” She
smiled back and with a delightfully innocent...yet somehow flirtatious...giggle
replied, “Sorry sir. It’s a Daiwoo.” At the time I had never heard
of such an automobile and didn’t know what to expect. What we
found in the parking lot was a shiny, new, bright red horizontal
PHONE BOOTH!! It was nothing like the Daiwoos imported to the
U.S. now days. It more resembled those terribly British red phone
booths. It was as if someone had tipped one over and attached
four very, very small wheels to it. I’m amazed to this day that
we were able to get our luggage into the damned thing...and ourselves.
The two of us had decided that first we should drive directly
west and go to Pisa. Pisa isn’t exactly in Tuscany but...hey...it
was right OH-VA DAY!!! (a little aside - this is a reference to
Ghoulardi. He was the Friday night scary movie host on T.V. when
I was a kid growing up near Cleveland. Ghoulardi was cool. He
wore a fake goatee and a Beatle wig. He held a flashlight under
his face for “Atmosphere”. He would run around in front of the
movie...like he was in it. He made fun of the terrible flicks
he showed. Between commercials he blew up model cars that kids
sent in with firecrackers. AND he said “OH-VA DAY”...which meant
“Over there” in Ghoul-speak. He would say to the guy on camera
4 “Its OH-VA DAY FOUR!!” Ghoulardi is one of the big reasons people
from Cleveland are different than other people living in Ohio.)
So it was off to Pisa. After all...it was just OH-VA DAY!
Now I have no idea if they call the freeway I got on the Italian
Autobahn. I don’t know if there was a speed limit. All I DID know
was if there WAS a speed limit it had to be like 146 miles per
hour. That’s how fast it seemed everyone was traveling. So I figured...hey...when
in Rome...er Tuscany...well you know the saying. Trouble was this
Daiwoo was about 5 feet long and about 18 inches wide...cozy you
could say. Not much room for two people and two suitcases let
alone a motor. After driving this inverted phone booth for 10
minutes I speculated the engine to be a 2 cylinder, 27 horsepower
void of anything like “overhead twin cams”. It HAD to be cam-less.
It took me probably 30 miles with my foot slammed firmly on the
floorboards...full throttle mind you...but I finally got the thing
up to 110 miles per hour. Wow.
Surprisingly this was an incredibly un-frightening experience.
Drivers were POLITE! No one passed on the right or weaved through
traffic. People actually followed the rules of the road. Everyone
seemed to be looking out for each other. It was the most fun I’ve
had driving a car since I first took the wheel. And everybody
appeared to understand the dilemma I was in...driving an inverted
phone booth I mean. I realized for the first time that there is
a very big difference between driving fast and being in a hurry.
Americans are in a hurry. Italians drive fast. And Americans are
the ones with the road rage.
Soon enough we’re heading towards Pisa when I noticed something.
Every so often along this 2 lane road there would be a beautiful
woman just standing around sort of…posing. One in particular sticks
in my memory. She had on very high heels, a slinky little black
dress, cell phone to her ear, cigarette dangling out of the corner
of her mouth...and she was hitch hiking! I said to Yvonne...who
if she had been any closer would have been sitting in my lap...”What
are all these women doing along the side of the road?” She looked
at me incredulously and replied, “They’re HOOKERS, Rick.” “Oh,”
was all that came out of my mouth...but I was thinking, “Geez...and
here we are with a car too small for anything involving physical
movement.” I’m sure Yvonne heard me think this too...not a doubt
in my mind. Pisa was very nice. Everybody knows there’s a leaning
tower there but it’s the baptistery that’s truly impressive. Not
to take anything away from the tower. I learned that it’s the
bell tower for the cathedral and there’s also a separate building
called the baptistery. I guess each specific function...like ringing
a bell or baptizing somebody...had to have it’s own structure.
This was not unusual. What makes Pisa unique of course is that
the tower is falling over. I speculated that perhaps some day
it WILL fall over...and some one would then attach four very large
wheels and turn it into a Daiwoo church bus. The catalyst for
my silliness was the souvenir shops. They all had Leaning Tower
of Pisa night-lights...in several different sizes. There were
6 inch Leaning Tower of Pisa night- lights, 10 inch Leaning tower
of Pisa night-lights...all the way up to ones that looked about
3 1/2 feet tall. At first I thought they were cheesy as hell.
Now...well...I kind of wish I had a 2 foot Leaning Tower of Pisa
night-light to impress house guests. We listened to the guide
chant in the baptistery...which had amazing acoustics...had a
wonderful lunch (Italy has the best food you’ll ever eat) and
made our way down the coastline.
Driving south along the Mediterranean was breathtaking. It reminded
me considerably of Northern California...you know...like Big Sur...except
instead of surfers there were...well...Italians. I made a mental
note to return some day and stay on the coast. Such mental notes
numbered well over fifty by now.
Soon we turned east and into Tuscany. The terrain was rolling
hills with roads that wind through and every once in a while there
magically appeared a Medieval city on a hill…like the Emerald
City in Oz. Fields full of sunflowers made for a gorgeous splash
of yellow in the late afternoon sun...and ...of course...vineyards.
I once again realized that drivers were very accommodating. If
some one proceeded more slowly they would pull off the road and
let you pass. Amazing. I longed for our Miata on these winding,
scenic roadways. We stopped and discovered Volterra...what appeared
to be an ancient Roman city. To be honest we were trying to find
San Gimignano, drove up to Volterra by accident, and got into
one of those little marital “discussions” about where in the SAM
HELL we were. But we found San Gimignano eventually and enjoyed
it also. Trouble was...we were “winging it”. By that I mean we
had no place to stay the night arranged beforehand. The two of
us had traveled this way the last trip with no problems whatsoever.
Not this time. Everywhere we inquired was booked full.
After yet a bit more marital type discussing we decided to try
a town named Poggiosani. This little place was not a tourist destination
but to our delight we found a Hotel Europa...which is a lot like
Holiday Inn...except of course they are in Europe and other than
being a chain bear no resemblance at all. It didn’t take long
for us to learn that no one...I mean no one...in this town knew
a word of English. It was just me, Yvonne and the trusty pocket
translator. After much button pushing on the translator we acquired
a room. However when we got to the room there was no electricity.
Yvonne made her way back to the front desk...translator in hand...while
I moved the car into what I assumed was their parking lot. As
I passed her in the lobby Yvonne and the poor desk clerk were
having a spirited discussion...in two different languages...about
something called “Currento”...something along those lines. Turns
out we had no “Currento” because on the key chain was a tiny little
key that was to be inserted into a wall socket which magically
brought the “Currento” to life . I suppose this was a money-saving
device...one that was sure new to the both of us.
I moved the car but was still a bit confused as to whether it
was in the correct lot. So on my way in...and keep in mind that
I did NOT have the translator in my possession at the time...I
looked at the desk clerk…pointed towards the parking lot and said...in
my best Ghoulardi Italian, “Auto. OH...KAY? OH-VA DAY?” and then
gave him the o.k. sign with my fingers. You know...the 3 - oh.
He looked at me like he was thinking, “What’s this dumb ass talking
about?” He then pursed his lips and uttered, “Si.”
Dinner was much the same...button pushing...fingers pointing at
the menu. But we had a very good meal, saw the sights of a typical
little Tuscan village, and slept wonderfully. Before we retired
for the night we had a drink at the bar with the guy at the desk.
Apparently he was the bartender also. I think he decided...since
he joined us for a drink...and we asked him to choose the wine…that
we were okay after all. The thing about Italy is...let THEM decide.
I mean if you want a glass of wine let them decide for you. They
know better than you anyway. They’re very proud of the food and
drink that originates from their region. So let them decide for
you and you will certainly be on common ground. And believe me...there
is no bad food in Italy. There is no bad wine in Italy.
The rest of the driving tour went fine...except perhaps the night
of the zooming motorcycles in Sienna. And we did get a parking
ticket despite the fact that we parked exactly where the hotel
instructed us. I suppose too I have to mention the shock of paying
over $3 per LITER for gasoline. There I go being an American again.
But these people had me pegged when they first set eyes on me.
And if they didn’t, it surely became obvious with my Ghoulardi
Italian. (Ghoulardi SOUNDS like an Italian name doesn’t it?) We
made it back to Florence safely and satisfied with our adventures.
So my advice, dear reader, is this. Do not be afraid to travel
to a foreign land. People will be very different than you...yet
in many ways they will be exactly the same. Just one thing. When
you park the car remember to take the pocket translator with you.