Sunday, February 27, 2011

An American Teenager driving in Europe, or why I am lucky to still be alive

What a dream. A chance to spend a whole year in Europe, checking out the scene, checking out the chicks, checking out different countries and cities and the chicks in those different countries and cities. Flying into Milano Italy in 1978, it was like a different planet. See I had just flown in from the planet Lexington KY which was light years behind the eternally hip fashion center of Milano.

My Step-dad picked my Mom and me up at Malpenza airport up in the family car; a baby shit green Fiat 127. What? Never heard of the Fiat 127? Google it. The car was not that bad if you lived in Italy, it was what it was, a small two door hatch back (or 3-door as it’s known in Europe) and offered basic no frills transportation. My Step-dad was always looking for a deal and indeed he may have outdone himself. This car had been at the dealer when a freak hail storm had damaged many cars, this was one of them. Covered in hail dents, it was appropriately dubbed Dimples by my Mom. But it had come at a bargain basement price.

The drive home was terrifying. There were seemingly no traffic rules. Lanes? We don’t need any stinking lanes. When stopped at a stop light, cars crowded into any random open spot. In the lane, in between the lane, half way up on the side walk, anywhere there was an opening that might give the driver an advantage once the light….turned green. It was the start of a Formula One race, knowing the light was about to change, the cars in front started creeping forward and then….Bang! Off like a shot, each car trying to out drag the other to get ahead. Tiny engines from Fiats, Alfas, Alfasuds, Autobianchis, Innocentis, Lancias, all revving to the breaking point to get that one fraction of a meter in front of the car besides them. Oh you have not heard of Alfasud, Autobianchi or Innocenti? The Alfasud was a ploy by the Italian government to move some manufacturing (read jobs) down to Southern Italy, the Autobianchi was Fiats second brand and Innocenti was basically a licensed Mini. The joke was to never buy an Alfasud built on Monday after the home team (Naples) lost a football (or soccer) match as the car might be built with a certain inattention to detail and a certain indifference. And don’t buy the ones built on Friday either, as the workers were already thinking of the weekend and the football match to come. That only gave the buyer three good days of auto building per week and the odds were not in the buyers favor.

I digress…as we made our way to our apartment near the Central Train Station, I vowed to never drive in Italy... of course, I was driving the Fiat that evening. How was it that an 18 year old could drive in Italy without an Italian driver’s license? Easy…the Triple A. They sold an “International” driver’s license, good for one year, allowing the licensee (in this case yours truly) to drive anywhere in the world where the US had good diplomatic relations. This excluded Communist Russia, Communist China, Communist Cuba, Communist…you get the picture. All this could be yours too, for $20. Funny thing though, it worked. I was stopped on several occasions and when I gave the Italian Police (or whatever country I happened to be in) the "International" license, they would look at it for several minutes before handing it back to me telling me to get lost. It was either a get out of jail free card...or they had no idea what it was, but it kinda looked official. No telling...

My Mom and I arrived on a Friday and since it was the beginning of the weekend, we did what a lot of Milanese did; head out of town (and the heat) for the weekend. In our case we had an apartment up in the sub-Alps. My Step-dad, a bit of an ass-buster, threw me the keys and said “Man-up!” or some other sensitive dad-to-son pep talk. So off we went. My Mom was smart; she read a book the whole trip up, every time we went anywhere. She did not want to see the antics we did on our trips. Smart woman!

He explained the rules; there were no rules. If you want to pass a car, flash your lights briefly. This lets the car you are passing and the car coming directly towards you know that you are about to do something stupid; namely make a pass, where there is a common passing lane (meaning either direction can use it). What transpires is thus; the car you are passing moves slightly to the right, the car (or large truck) coming towards you moves slightly to the left and you zoom in between. It was a bit of a pucker factor moment. My mom in the back seat serenely reading her book and me inching out into no-man’s land. “Go for it…don’t be a pussy, make the pass” soothed my Step-dad. I did it - it worked, we did not die.

Wow! That was fun. I could get used to this. I did. My Step-dad was sort of my BIF (Bad Influence Father). We constantly tried to best each other. Like timing each other to see who could drive up to the mountains fastest. Who could get back to Milano on Sunday fastest. Who could make the most passes before the common passing lane ended, etc. That tiny 900cc motor was just brutalized every time we turned the key. But it ran and ran. Fiat made good stuff, as long as it stayed in Italy. If for some reason that Fiat went to the US, it turned into CRAP.

But that is another story.

Until next time.

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