Wish you were here, no really

I promised you incoherent sentence fragments from the road when a free WiFi cloud and a toilet intersected, and by god I keep my promises. Though, to be honest, I wrote most of this on a bed in a two-star hotel, not the toilet, though I was tempted to stay true to my art for form’s sake…

In no particularly logical order, here are the current issues:

This is my car:


It’s a four-door, diesel, Lancia “Musa”. I ordered a sub-compact Fiat Panda, because I knew I was going to be traversing absurdly narrow mountain roads and fettuccini-thin, medieval hilltop town “streets” with three inches clearance between the mirrors and people’s front doors. But they were all out of the Panda’s, so they gave me this monster. It’s a bit schizophrenic. When it’s at a full stop it starts daydreaming that it’s an arthritic mule. As such, it only manages to get off its ass and go from zero to 5KPH in about four seconds. At 5KPH, it suddenly remembers that it’s a car and makes the jump from 5KPH to 100KPH in a more reasonable six seconds. This acceleration hesitation has almost gotten me smooshed by trucks on three occasions.

Note to Italian autostrada surveyors: Leaving Colle di Val d’Elsa the other day, I saw a sign that said “Florence 50km”. Then I went around a corner and drove about 15 seconds and saw another sign, “Florence 37km”. This kind of thing happens more than you wanna know. Guys, you need to recalibrate your distance measuring thingies. Either that or the road crews are hitting the table wine a little too hard at lunch.

Driving is a hell of a lot better in Tuscany than it is in Romania. Notice I didn’t say that it was “good”. I just said it was better than Romania, which any idiot country could manage. However, Italians have some of the same driving instincts as Romanians. For example, no matter where they’re going or how much time they have, all driving must be done at just short of suicidal speed. Always either accelerating or braking. There’s no just maintaining an even speed, which probably explains why no cars in Italy have cruise control. The main difference between Italians and Romanians is that the Italians are actually attentive, though this only applies to what’s in front of them. They don’t give a shit about what’s happening behind them. I’ve yet to see an Italian use their rearview mirror. Or their turn signal. You can tell who the foreigners are. They signal everything. Also, Italians still haven’t sorted out why someone went around painting white lines on all their roads, because they drift back and forth over them freely like they’re skiing moguls at 150KPH.

I think the Italian Tourism Bureau should be legally forced to add “getting lost” in all their literature, right below “world famous art galleries” and “wicked good wine”. I’m lost about 87 times a day. Signage here is pretty bad. Not Romania bad, because that would mean no signs at all, but bad because most signs have been printed in 10 point font on non-reflective material, so they’re unreadable at night and then posted in groups of 25, so you have to read a book’s worth of signs in a split second to decide which turn to take. Even if you could read ten point font at 120KPH, the signs don’t tell you anything that you really need to know anyway, like which direction to go to get to Florence or where each of the five outlets of the roundabout you’re suck in go, unless you’re heading for a nearby hotel, in which case signs are posted at every intersection all the way to the front door.

The guys in charge of post roads signs have a funny convention that, according to an unofficial poll I took in a parking lot at a castle, has baffled every foreigner and the majority of Italians too. First they post a sign pointing you to Siena, which, lucky for you, is where you wanna go, because you can piss away half your day looking for a sign pointing to where you actually want to go, so soak up the fulfillment while you can. Then, without ever having taken a turn, suddenly the roads signs say you’re heading for, I don’t know, Buttfuck. Here’s the deal, and I’m sure this makes perfect sense if you’re an Italian sign poster guy (no post-graduate work necessary), but what they do is post signs for whatever the next, useless small town is and then the next useless small town, and so on and they don’t post another sign for Siena, where 99% of the people on the road are trying to get to, until like 20kms and four roundabouts later. In essence, you kinda have to know where you’re going and every little backwater town before your destination in order to stay on track or you’re effed. If you’re alone in the car, there’s a lot of pulling over and reading the map, but that’s only an option if the map that the car rental place gave you isn’t completely useless, which it will be.

And pulling over is hair-raising in itself. You only get this opportunity once every 3km or so, because the roads are only about 12 feet wide and all blind turns on squiggly mountain passes. When they give you a place to pull over, it’s about two car lengths long and never signed, so you just have to keep zooming along until you spy one, at which point you have to slow from 90KPH to zero in about 10 feet and violently pull over in a cloud of dust. Inevitably there’s some deranged Italian tailgating you, cause he can’t pass on those tiny roads without risking certain death (a Romanian would pass without a second thought) and he’s in a big hurry to get nowhere in particular, so he also has to slow almost to a stop with no warning while you pull over which may cause him to drop his cigarette in his lap or fumble his cell phone. Either way you’re gonna get cursed out and getting cursed out in Italian is something you won’t soon forget.

I don’t really like driving all that much. I’m competent, but certainly not gifted (except when it comes to parallel parking, a realm where I have no equal). Driving makes me tense. Driving in an unfamiliar place, where the roads are laid out like God dropped spaghetti all over the country, and city streets are about seven feet wide, including the parking lane, makes me very tense. When useful signage is non-existent and I’m on a tight timetable, I pretty much lose my shit. There’s been a lot of shrieked curse words originating from my car, reverberating through the Tuscan countryside in the past week, spooking various fauna and offending little old ladies.

On those occasions when Italians do see fit to post a sign that might be of use to the average driver, it’s done so half-assed that it’s either useless or posted far too late for you to do anything about it. Signs indicating turns are routinely posted about two inches before you get to the turn, with no previous warning, or even a few feet after the turn if they ran out of posts that day and have to hang the sign on the first building 10 meters distant. So there’s a lot of over-shooting your turns, driving 3km until you find a safe place to turn around and then back-tracking, at which point you rocket past your turn again, because from that direction the turn is signed as going somewhere else.

Other times signs are withheld out of spite. Siena and Florence warred for regional superiority for centuries. Well, the Sienese are still pissed off and are currently exacting passive-aggressive revenge by not sign posting the way to get out of the city, heading for Florence. Whoever said “all roads lead to Rome” was probably trying to get his sorry ass out of Siena, because it doesn’t matter if you leave the city north, south, east or west, all the road signs say you’re heading for Rome, or sometimes Arezzo just to piss me off more. I was caught in this trap for over an hour a few days ago. Ultimately, there are exactly two lazily posted signs in the Siena pointing the way to Florence and one of them points the wrong way. And I mean the exact wrong way. No two ways about it. Wrong effing way, you malicious asshats.

A restaurant that I needed to visit for the book in Siena discriminated against me for being a lone (small bill) diner. They wouldn’t seat me. They said all their tables were reserved. As I stood outside, going through my list of restaurants to form a Plan B, I witnessed two groups of three without reservations, wander up, study the menu posted outside, hem and haw about whether or not to eat there, then go in and get seated immediately. I cut those jackholes from the book.

I have been eating very, very well. I have an average daily budget that, unless I’m forced to stay in an expensive hotel, allows me to splash out for meals every night. Sometimes for lunch too. I’m actually getting to the point where I can judge food and wine a little bit, whereas before if I didn’t ralph, I was happy. I still look like a hobo, but now I’m a snobby hobo.

The main issue is still eating alone. I guess my caravan of groupies are even more lost than I am, because apart from one night when a Danish woman of middle-to-late-years invited me to join her because we were the only two people in the room, sitting alone at separate tables, I have eaten groupie-free every night for two weeks now. It’s not always so bad, especially when I’m exhausted, which is constantly. The problem is when I go to these way fancy places, with five course menus where there’s only two people running the whole restaurant, the chef that’s been cooking there for 60 years and one waitress. These are very old, traditional restaurants where everything is made from scratch when you order it. Not a single morsel is pre-made. So, when you factor in the waiting around for your five courses to be prepared, these meals can drag on in excess of three hours. This is great if you’re there with a friend or your lover, but when you’re groupie-free, you end up eating for about 45 minutes and sitting and twiddling your thumbs for two and a half hours. But I’m a guidebook writer with limited time, so instead of twiddling my thumbs, I’m fuming about all the work I could be doing while grandpa Mario makes my pasta from scratch. I’m bringing my laptop to the next fancy restaurant, I don’t care what appalled looks I get.

As I had hoped, most people in Tuscany have heard of Lonely Planet and when I walk in the door, people will unplug their dialysis machines and push their sick grandmothers out of the way to attend to me. And there’s no shortage of envy and adoration. When I outed myself as an LP author to a Greek girl running an internet café, she stood there for five full seconds, frozen, mouth slightly open, staring at me like she’d just seen Zeus doing the Riverdance in a tutu. Then I was trapped for 15 minutes while she told me about all her favorite restaurants in five Tuscans cities and how she’d give anything to do my job. I guess she thought those purple bags under my eyes just appeared there naturally and my limp was from an adventure sports mishap in the mountains of New Zealand.

On that note, my legs ache all the time. It feels like someone embalmed me from the ass down while I wasn’t looking. My body is not adjusting well to the switch from sitting around all winter to walking 5-10 hours a day. Half of the towns in Tuscany are hilltop towns, where every street goes straight up or straight down. Either way, it’s hell on the calves and quadriceps. One time the elevator in my hotel stopped running. It was one of those funky hotels that tumble down the side of a hill, so I needed to climb five flights of stairs to get up to reception. I came a whisker away from just spending another night in the hotel rather than climb the five flights of steps. That’s how much my legs ache.

More Italian-English phrase translations:

• “One minute walk from the train station” = “Ten minute walk from the train station, if you walk like a perpetually late guidebook author, 20 minutes if you walk like an Italian”
• “I’ll be there in 20 minutes” = “I’ll be there in an hour, unless I run into family, friends or a beautiful woman, then it’ll be 90 minutes”
• “Call me if you need any more information at all. I’m happy to help!” = “Don’t call me”
• “Yes, of course we have WiFi” = “I have no idea what WiFi is”

I’ll leave you with a link that a friend sent me this morning to an animated video, produced by Italians, proving that I’m not just an incompetent, trash-talking, ugly tourist with poor navigating skills: Europe vs. Italy