There are two kinds of navigating I want to address: Italian roads and Italian bureaucracy.
First and foremost, driving in Italy is not at all what the books and blogs say it is. It is no crazier than the Highway 101/12 interchange at rush hour. It is no more dangerous than Barrel Tasting weekend. It is no more crowded than Sonoma Plaza in the summer.
The autostrada is fast indeed, but everyone knows the rules. If you’re in the fast lane, expect someone to come up on your rear bumper an extraordinary speed to pass you. Because you expect that, you generally stay in the right lane doing the speed limit, unless you come upon an Ape – basically a motorized three-wheel bicycle with a cab on it. Top speed 10 knots. Then you check your mirror, note there are no cars in sight, and immediately zip into the fast lane, just as an Audi or Volvo get within an inch of your rear bumper at a speed approaching sound.
In the villages, such as ours, some of the streets are so narrow that cars can’t even get through them. So you are expected to know this and not try to squeeze your Mercedes rental car between two 15th century stone pillars without closing your side mirrors. You can tell tourist cars by their torn-off mirrors and long scratches on their doors. And don’t even think about parking in these villages. You park outside and walk, walk, walk.
You also must know that the Italians invented roundabouts. They are spaced every 20 feet, or so it seems, in many of the villages. You can’t hesitate entering them either. As you enter the outside lane, you must move to the inside lane and quickly scan all the blue signs (ignore all the white and yellow ones, and the green autostrada sign unless you’re going there), find the next town in the direction you want to go, and head for that exit. But don’t simply cut across the outside lane to your exit! Move there with confidence. If you can’t do that all in one motion, go around the circle several times until you can. That’s all I can say.
Now, about Italian bureaucracy. It’s infamous, no? No! We are either very, very lucky or this is an absolute fallacy about Italy. (I’m inclined to think we’re just cute and charming, but that’s me.)
There are some challenges. Shopping — groceries, hardware, banking — has its own rules. Stores are open when they want to be, and never (almost) between the hours of 12 and 4. Or on Mondays. Or when there’s a festival. Or a soccer game.
Or when you ask about something, the conversation goes something like this:
Me: Buon giorno. Do you speak a little English?
Answer: No! (A look of terror crosses their face.)
Me (with a charming smile): Maybe a little – un piccolo?
Me: Okay, I just wanted to pay my taxes.
Answer: What is your name and address?
Or, it could be you are Tim and you are in a hardware store, and asking if they have a Skilsaw. What you get from the clerk/owner is a complete blank stare. No blinking eyes, no words come out, just a stare. So you ask again, you ask in several ways, and finally you draw a picture. That elicits a volley of Italian from the clerk, all smiles, all hands in the air. But no Skilsaw.
The other option is to enter a store with at least one other person in there. The law of averages is that one out of two people really do know enough English (they all had to learn it in school) to be able to act as a semi-translator. And you’ve made a new friend who invites you to his home.
Yesterday we were brave enough to enter our “town hall” to get a Declaration of Presence. You may not be familiar with this document, but it basically says we now live in Santa Fiora and want to pay taxes. Don’t, by mistake, ask to “register,” or you will be given a one-pound packet for a Permesso di Sorggiorno card. This requires a twelve-page application, all in Italian, and to be able to pass an interview, also in Italian, about their laws, history, civic and social culture, and more. I had been reading about this and thought we might actually have to do it.
UNTIL…I saw a small paragraph that said if I was a member of the EU, all I needed was a Declaration of Presence. Well, ye gads if I’m not also a British citizen with a British passport! (Thank you brother Vic and good buddy Frances for helping me with that.) Luckily, spouses of EU citizens are also exempt. So Tim and I headed to the town hall with the required paperwork: the deed for our house, a copy of our marriage license, a statement of adequate funds in our bank account, and passports.
Of course, they had never heard of a Declaration of Presence. So I had to show the printout and my passport. The fellow in charge was “No speak Inglese!” Rather than retreat, I stood my ground and pulled out more paperwork. Italians LOVE paperwork. He held up his hand and disappeared. A minute later he returned with a young woman named Guilia (“Julia”). She only spoke very broken English, but was so helpful and so wanting to make sure we got everything worked out. Stampa, stampa, stampa, and voila! We now are tax-paid citizens of Santa Fiora and we have a health card – free medical, dental, and eyeglasses. And next week, I’m taking my paperwork to the local auto club (that apparently handles such things) to see if we can own a car. (We have a free one that someone wants to give us, but we can’t register it or get insurance if we’re not citizens. And so it goes…).
Bottom line: the key to navigating everything in Italy is stand your ground and smile.
Small corollary: we also learned that if you do something that is not exactly legal, such as take down part of a stone wall by your house so the workers can get their rototiller in, and anyone asks about it, just do what our architect friend said when he saw it – he deadpanned, “These things happen.”