Il Ballo Di Autostrada (The Freeway Dance)
Near Florence, Italy
Cars stop, then creep, then accelerate only to stop again. My top speed is 20 kilometers per hour as I make my way from Venice toward Siena along Autostrada 1. Clutch, shift, and brake. The road radiates heat and smog. The pace is maddeningly slow. I join my fellow drivers in the reflexive choreography of traffic jams. Clutch, shift, and brake. Suddenly, the driver in front of me stops. One step behind him, I do the same. With a quick glance in the rearview mirror I see that the rhythm is broken – the driver behind me won’t be able to stop. I feel the impact as the force impels me into the car in front.
Dazed, I fumble for the door handle and step outside as a dozen men in camouflage run towards me. Surely, even in Italy, this is an overreaction to a little rear-ender. The driver behind me jumps from his car and I see that, he too, is dressed in camouflage. “Signora! Mi dispiace!” he yells. I must have soaked up a fair amount of my “Italian for Travelers” class because I instantly realize he is apologizing for hitting me. He and his military cadet buddies are traveling in a convoy to Florence. I step up to the front of the car to check on the passengers. They – Sergio and Julio, I learn – are unhurt. As I assess the damage to my car I find matching accordion pleats in the front and rear. Already tiny, my silver rental Fiat is now several inches shorter.
A police siren pierces the air. No matter how often I hear the two-tone, sing-song wail of European sirens, it always conjures up an image of old World War II movies. I half expect Peter Lorre to arrive to investigate. But the Polizia whiz past us. Off, no doubt, to respond to a real emergency – perhaps to catch a street performer or a vendor without the appropriate license.
Everyone is hurling questions in rapid-fire Italian. “Wait!” I say “io parlo italiano en po. I speak only a little Italian.” Sergio asks, in Italian, if I am on vacation and traveling alone. “Si,” I reply. He gives me a bear hug and pats me on the shoulder, the universal expression for “poor thing, everything will be okay.” I soak up a little sympathy and allow myself exactly five tears before a middle-aged, staff sergeant-type steps up to take charge.
He sends most of the cadets on their way and directs a few others to push the three cars out of traffic and onto the shoulder. He speaks a little English, he says, so he will help me fill out the accident report. I pull a packet from my glove compartment and am heartened to find it is printed in English as well as Italian. “Bah!” says Sarge. My paperwork is clearly inferior, he explains. There is only one copy and it isn’t even printed on no-carbon-required paper. “There were two accidents – one when Dario hit you and one when you hit the other car. We must complete two reports.”
In Italy everyone has an opinion and they consider it their moral duty to share it with you. Voices raise and hands gesture vigorously. I take a deep breath, step back, and enjoy the cultural experience of watching six different people telling Sarge what to say in the report. A tow truck driver appears and hooks on to Dario’s car, clearly the most damaged of the three. He becomes more and more impatient as the paperwork by committee process continues. Finally he yells something that I interpret to be “I am off-duty in 10 minutes, wrap it up!” So they do.
Sarge lets me use his cell phone to report the accident to my rental car company. My car, though crumpled, is okay to drive and I am anxious to get on to Siena before dark. With paperwork exchanged, Dario and Sarge offer handshakes. Sergio gives me one more hug for the road, and I am on my way. Clutch, shift, and brake. The freeway dance resumes.