I tend to praise the behavior of American drivers while I am in Italy, and yet I am amazed at how badly some people drive when I am in the United States.  Greener grass I suppose.

“Mixed Signals”  mixed media on paper, 2000

Driving in Italy is interesting.  I mourn the way it used to be before the European Union began tightening its iron fist of bureaucratic restrictions in all areas, but especially regarding the roads.  Back in the good old days it was every man for himself,  which,  if you were young and agile with excellent reflexes,  was a magical world for drivers.   Old people in small three-wheeled vehicles that require no license were above the rules, and the rest of us were well-aware that the hares needed to avoid the erratic and oblivious turtles.  Lights flashed,  horns blared and fingers were displayed,  two-lane roads magically morphed into six-laners.   If you needed to be somewhere in a hurry, you could press the accelerator to the floor and hurtle along at breathtaking speeds.  At 110 miles an hour  you could be there in half the time!   It was fabulous.

Now, things have changed.  Speeds have been reduced as technology has been developed to monitor behavior.  Since the introduction of scale-able points on  drivers’ licenses,  all the fun is over.   The highways are no longer raceways, and everyone inches along at or below the designated speed of 130 kilometers an hour, about 80 MPH, wary of the “Tutor” system of monitoring all drivers’ speeds between two random points.  You never know where this monitoring starts or where it ends, and amusingly folks who don’t understand how it works will hit the brakes as they pass under the highway-wide  signs announcing that their passage in fact is being spied upon and recorded.  Small towns have discovered the Midas-like potential of speed cameras for producing revenue.  You will never know until months later, when a crisp picture of your car and you shows up in the mail with a hefty fine.  The speed limits on secondary roads are often ludicrously slow:  warning signs will suggest slowing to speeds which will get you killed if you observe them, and drivers learn quickly that they travel at these speeds at their own peril.   Of course the overall effect is that occasionally there is a warning sign which should actually be heeded, and accidents will inevitably occur.  Curves are rarely banked, which is incredibly dangerous, and is in fact my number-one pet peeve.  Just look for the flowers at the side of the road telling you that the curve is deadly.  Other curves,  such as highway access ramps,  often will be  inconsistently-shaped and morph from a large and comfortable cloverleaf  to a hairpin suddenly and without warning.   Most roads are totally flat, so if it rains,  you can count on them being covered with inches of water in no time at all.

The best place to practice your driving in Italy is the supermarket.   Get yourself a cart on a busy day before lunchtime and learn to maneuver the aisles.  People will not make way for you.  They will stop and block everyone else for no reason.  They will leave their cart parked in the center of the aisle and wander off to chat.  They will veer off suddenly at drastic angles  and back up without looking.  They will play a subtle game of chicken,  poker-faced, as carts pass and nick each other’s wheels.   And yet…the ballet of  people and objects is wonderful to behold.   No one gets angry, the flow is constant and everyone ends up in a formation similar to a line at checkout.   This is how we drive here.

I have to thank my long-time friend Ann for her metaphor about driving in Italy; that it is amoeba-like, a constantly changing formation which adapts to itself and flows over the road.  Each driver takes into account all other drivers, everyone is constantly vigilant and prepared for unexpected movement.  Lanes are only suggestions.  I think of American roads, with everyone gripping the wheel and blithely staying within the lines of their lane, confident that if they adhere to the rules all will be well.  Wouldn’t it be better, on the highway for example, that  if someone needed to move out of the first lane into the second, that you should anticipate and move into the third?  I am convinced that an accident, even if caused by “the other guy,”  is everyone’s fault.  If the final goal is to avoid contact with another vehicle, then why wouldn’t this be the case?

I will admit that I am always ready to criticize the fast cars which pass me with two wheels in my lane, and yet I understand not to take this personally.  Almost everyone here will drive on the center white line if there are no other cars near, and often even if there are.  And I do hate it when I come around a curve and find one lane blocked by a clot of stopped cars, a group of daytrippers munching on sandwiches, conferring with each other  and smoking.  And my favorite annoyance, someone out for a drive on a narrow road, scrawny elbow out the window—the glass rolled halfway up to avoid drafts—crawling along at fifteen miles an hour.  It might appear that they have never noticed their rear-view mirror, but I can assure you that they not only know that there is someone behind them, but they are enjoying this small moment of megalomania.  I have known people to hang a white cloth out the window of their car, a universal sign that someone is on their way to the emergency room, in order to bypass slow traffic.

So my theory about driving is as follows:  If everyone is constantly vigilant, there will be fewer problems on the roads, wherever you find yourself driving.  If you know that there may be unexpected occurrences ahead,  you will be better- prepared when they happen.  Yes, that is a goat up ahead.  No, I don’t believe that group of people standing in the road are planning on moving out of the way.   Isn’t that guy in the three-wheeler going the wrong way?  If everyone followed the rules and stayed within their designated lines,  oblivious of the organic nature of traffic flow,  wouldn’t their smug complacency eventually lead to more  rather than fewer accidents?

“Navigate”  oil on canvas, 2008

All dogs, all the time

When we  chose to live in the country, close to town but not in it, we dreamed of  peace and quiet.  In actuality, there has been less of both than we expected.

Tractors can be heard growling and squeaking most days, and even at night.  We had a neighbor who apparently dealt with his insomnia by getting his plowing done  in the depth of night, and many times we were awakened at two or three  in the morning by his  activities.    Our piece of land was included in a wildlife sanctuary when we bought it. but shortly thereafter it was “opened” to hunters who could partake of the  increase in animals in our area.  Hunters get up early, and in Italy, there is no such thing as a “Posted No Hunting” area.   They are supposed to keep a certain distance from habitations, but  we are showered with shot regularly and are often reminded of what it might sound  like to live in a war zone.   Because of the excellent acoustics, people are always yelling at each other across the gulch.   It is a highly overrated attribute.    Once we were trying to talk with our neighbor on the cell phone and kept getting an echo, until we realized that we were hearing his actual voice,  and more clearly without the help of the phone.   I always know when any chicken within a mile radius has laid an egg.    And then there are the dogs.

We have dogs, three of them now, two great hairy white maremma sheepdogs and one  tiny,  hysterical yapper dog, a volpino Italiano.  We love them all, and they do their job of keeping us informed of irregularities as they occur.  The small dog alerts the big dogs to any intruder, visiting bird, or bushes which are misbehaving.  She is the brain behind the terrifying barking of the big dogs, and she  will  “drive”  the big dogs from a position of invulnerability under their bellies by nipping at their tender parts.   We have always had dogs here,  and they have always barked.   However a few years back, our neighbor across the fosso sold his place  to some interesting people and things changed.  Little did we imagine that we were in for a  crash course in canine total immersion.

Two middle-aged sisters and their ancient mother made a trade with the owner,  his land and house for their in-town palazzo where  their twenty dogs were living up on the terrazza.   This trade enabled those who had been living near them to finally get a good night’s sleep, and the sisters to begin accumulating dogs  in a serious way.   And that is what they did.  Along with  increasing numbers of dogs came the haphazard construction of facilities for them, a kind of canine favela.   Mornings, one of the sisters could be seen trudging to town to gather bits and pieces of meat left over at the markets, and trudging back with her plastic sacks full.  On days when there was too much to carry, she could be seen hauling her bags of food in their elegant but very old Mercedes.  Apparently the job of seeing after the ever-growing “cowardice of curs” also lead to neglect of personal hygiene matters, and word spread that they could be detected at a distance by their distinctive, and unpleasant, odor.

We learned that rather than trying to fight against our heartbreaking loss of tranquility, it would be better to adapt.  It is amazing that when the mind is directed to ignore something, a sound for instance, it can learn  as long as the motivation to do so is positive.  We learned to ignore the canine choir at feeding time, up to 250 dogs  all vocalizing their desperate need to eat and survive another day.   Luckily outside of feeding time  they rarely all barked at once, but when they did, it was breathtaking.   The sisters themselves contributed a continuous stream of x-rated invective, at each other and the dogs, so I was often thankful that my boys were old enough to have heard most of the terminology before.  It would have been an incredibly effective method for learning Italian obscenities.

A few years later, a blitz carried out by the authorities has carted the dogs away to  typical Italian no-kill facilities, and one can only hope that they are better taken care of, although I doubt it.  Most are lager-like at best.   While it is not officially illegal to collect dogs,  it is illegal to create a situation which endangers  the public health.  We were always neutral and kept our peace with the sisters, who have again begun to accumulate dogs as the days go by.  While most of the community is disdainful of them, and is always ready to criticize and condemn, I can’t help but have a grudging admiration for them.  It has to do with the backbone it takes for a woman in a small southern Italian town to live the life she chooses, regardless of the disapproval of society and its sometimes  rigid strictures.  It must not be easy for them.

As to the dogs, I hope that somewhere along the line more people here will learn that spaying and neutering is the best way to eliminate animal suffering, even if it isn’t the most direct route.  Most veterinarians I have talked  to  over the years have expressed  their reluctance to carry out the operation on my dogs, as they felt it was inhumane to deprive the animals of their normal life functions.  And yet, I can’t say how many times I have found abandoned puppies, mistreated and tortured dogs, newborn litters deposited in dumpsters.   Maybe  we  need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take action,   something  to alleviate the suffering,   even if it means we have to tolerate the noise.

Bark bark!

Small world

Its a small world.     And sometimes it is even smaller than that.

Years ago, during our sometimes fiery courtship, my husband and I would indulge every so often in a door-slamming, spittle-spraying hulabaloo of a fight, mostly for recreation and rarely for good reason.  The Lira was almost worthless back then (the good old days),  and in 1985 I traded in my little Fiat Panda for  a brand new BMW  for five thousand dollars and change.  These fights were an excuse for me to use my newly-acquired and quite wonderful automobile to disappear for a while,  causing much hand-wringing and satisfyingly ineffectual investigation as to my whereabouts.   I recall that someone used to refer to me as “Leadfoot Langston.”   This was before cell phones, as you must know.  So on one such occasion I grabbed a bottle of water and a couple of sandwiches and set off for the Amalfi coast.  It was a beautiful afternoon and from Bernalda it is only about  120 miles to Salerno, where the spectacular winding road along the Tirrhenian Sea begins.  Happy to leave my significant other to stew, and enjoying the prospect of an entertaining drive with loud music, I set off.  It took me about  seven  hours, round trip, and I never stepped out of my car even once!    (We were all younger then, as were our bladders)!     To my consternation, upon my return to Bernalda,  I was met with smug satisfaction  and a notable lack of concern.  “Oh, were you gone?  I didn’t notice.”  Someone had spotted me and made a phone call.  A relative,  a friend, or a friend of a relative,  duly noting  my passage at some point along the main road into Salerno,  communicated my whereabouts  promptly back to home base!

“Small Town”  mixed media, 2007

One Christmas, as we snaked our way through the endless airport security line in Atlanta, we glimpsed some familiar faces.  I don’t suppose it seems outside the realm of possibility to meet someone from your neighborhood at an airport, but for folks from Bernalda to run upon each other in Atlanta, it  borders on the incredible.  Here we were, two families from a tiny town where people rarely leave the province, much less the continent.  They were on their way to visit relatives in Florida, and we were on our way yet again to Austin.  We chatted, a conversation carried on in snippets each time our zig met their zag in the slow crawl of the line.  It was a surprisingly comforting  experience for all of us.

Ever wonder why names can become so trendy that you might find two or three “Meagans” or “Ethans” in a classroom?  I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss story about the woman who named all of her many sons “Dave.”  In a small village many people share the same last name, although they are not necessarily related.  I have particular acquaintance with the name  Donato Viggiano.  If that sounds strange, let me explain.

Young men in Bernalda can be seen strolling up and down the Corso, often following a regular schedule which has them out of the house for two reasons:   1)  because they are banished during meal preparation and   2)  because they have made themselves scarce afterwards when the dishes have to be washed.  So any afternoon or evening there is a regular crawl of walkers and automobiles up and down the main street, and in a circle around town.    Sometimes the Carabinieri will be positioned on roads leading in or out of town, stopping cars to check insurance and licenses.  On one such afternoon, they stopped a car and asked for identification.  The conversation was as follows:

“I need to see your identification and papers.”

“Yes, officer, here is my license.  I am Donato Viggiano.”

“And you?”

“Hello officer, my name is Donato Viggiano.”

“…OK….And you in the back, what is your name?”

“My name is Donato Viggiano.”    (burst of uncontrolled snickering)

At this point, the officer began to show his consternation.   The young men in the car suddenly froze and sat with transfixed expressions as they nervously eyed the officer, possibly reflecting on their odds at the lottery that day.

“You guys are getting on my nerves.  I’ll give you a last chance.  What is YOUR name?”

The young man handed over his I.D card, which said…

Donato Viggiano!!

“Gossip”   oil on canvas, 2011