Friday, 3 February 2012

Highway Code

Early Friday evening down at the co-op. The woman behind me in the scrum has two items to my two dozen. I smile and beckon her forward.

General description of Italian Driving
"Va avanti" (You go in front)
"Grazie mille" (Thanks a lot)
"Non sei Italiano?" (You're not Italian are you?)
"No. Sono Inghlese" (No. I'm English)
"Lo sapevo!" (I knew it!)

But what exactly did she know? Did she conflate good manners and Englishness? (A mistake that comes from watching too many Merchant/Ivory productions) Or - formal queueing being anathema here - did my actions mark me as foreign?

Of course through the prism of our own culture, the stereotype/archetype boundary is fuzzy. Statements that begin, "all English people," "all Italians," are only ever going to be partly true unless they end "are various". Perhaps there are more similarities than differences between the English and the Italians. The differences just loom larger in the mind?

A sign every ten metres

A major difference between Italy and England is the number of rules here. Rules, regulations, legislation - endlessly quoted chapter and bloody verse. Everywhere evident and everywhere ignored! And everywhere side-stepped, elided, got round. Breached a rule? Find the rule that trumps it. Trust me, there will be one.

This paradoxical love of and disregard for rules is the diffrence sui generis between us. It's the underlying impulse that expresses itself in myriad behaviours.

It's most evident when it comes to driving. Italy is the only place where I've seen a set of instructions printed under traffic lights with the relevant laws dated and numbered in small-print beneath. Instructions! For traffic lights! Apparently we haven't all worked out that red means stop. Mobile phones appear permanently glued to Italian ears too. Gotta chat "Sto facendo una telefonata!!" (I'm on the phone!!) Of course the law is the same as England where it's not so overtly flouted.

Unaware you were on
a wiggly mountain road?

Crossing the Swiss/Italian border is funny. Cars funnel from the orderly clean, green, pure and wealthy Swiss motorways into the checkpoint lanes and then, just as if someones poured poison into the ant colony they're off all willy-nilly; everyone for themselves foot to the floor. That is every car with an "I" registration. 
This means: There will be weather

 A friend tells me it's just the same in Spain. Perhaps it's something to do with Catholic culture? (Catholicism in Italy is social and cultural, not religious, I was told!) The rosary beads wrapped around the rearview mirror being some kind of insurance policy..... that and the intercession of saints to get you off the hook if you didn't play by the rules.


  1. I lived in Italy for three years and now live in Spain (used to meet you in the Deli) and i think the Italians are slightly madder on the road. The incessant beeping is truly Italian!

  2. I remember you from the Deli. The beeping here is outlawed now!!! I guess this will be ignored in the big cities though!

  3. Hi, I like the way that the 'bad' driving has no intention in it. They just want to get past. They are not saying you are slow or they are more important. In the UK such driving would cause a Breach of the Peace. There is the theory that in Catholic countries they know that they will only go to heaven if they crash; they hope, they pray! Our Italian neighbour of 91 years of age when told I was a Protestant (Protestante) replied, ‘Oh, non che male (you are not, so bad)! These are strange words to English ears when Italian’s refer to you as ‘stranieri’ (forigners) and lui e’ Protestante (he’s a Protestant) it sounds hard to the ear, almost threatening, until you realise you are in a forigne country.