First of all, the streets are too narrow, built in bygone times when people got round on donkeys, and everybody, everybody, is double-parked. Then you have the bicycles. You have the vespe, zooming backwards and forwards and sideways and wtf? A delivery truck clogging up the entire street. Old people, stooped and shuffling. Let’s not even talk about the other cars themselves. Forty thousand people in a city two miles long. Horns are beeping. Hands are waving. Imbecile! Lout! Where do you think you’re going? Stuck at a traffic light, waiting for right of way, I spaz and default to English: Where do you think I’m gonna go when the light is red? Shut up! The light is red, jerk! Get off my ass, sir! Get. Off. My. Ass!
My neighbor, Maria, says: You should try driving in Rome! I lived there for eight years and the traffic here is nothing compared to the traffic there. Great. You’re better than me. But look. The truth is that some people are made for car living and some people just ain’t. I ain’t. How do I know? Well, car accident-related PTSD aside, I’ve never been good at driving anyway. Nervous. Spacey. Short. My friends Koko and Greta called me Miss Daisy in high school. I’m even spacier and shorter now – the latter, courtesy of said car wreck-related injuries.
He’s bald and middle-aged, with impressive blue eyes – large and round, like eggs. Antonio. He watches me break down in tears on my first driving lesson, tells me everything is going to be all right, and slaps my hands each time I make a mistake on Days Two and Three. He asks: What are you doing here in Terracina? Are you living here alone? Don’t you have any family nearby? And then: Ma daiiiii, why are you driving on the left? Slap. Slap. Slap. I think he’s a nice man and my chest fills with air each time I park the car and don’t kill anyone. I think I’m doing it – making strides for independence in this new town, working past my fears. Soon, I’ll be able to drive on my own and that can only help me make friends in these here hills. Kickass, me.
But then it’s Day Four of Driving School. Warm outside; the sea sparkles blue and green. Antonio says: We’ll drive to Saubaudia; I need to drop something off at another location of our driving school. I’m nervous but pleased – Saubadia is about twenty minutes away; I must really be coming along well, despite the many slaps I’m getting. So we drive. I shift into first instead of third; slap. I veer towards the left; slap. But then we get to the Saubaudia office and I park. Antonio gets out and I wait. I put on the radio. I remember this: singing in the car. A song comes on. It’s that same song that’s always on the airwaves – something about tweet tweet and whisperers whispering too loud for me. I hate the song. I change the station.
Antonio returns. He says: Now back out of the parking space. I do, but I don’t look behind me first; slap. As I often do when I make a mistake, I swear under my breath, in English. This embarrasses me; Antonio is my father’s age and even though I’m a grown woman, I still don’t like losing my cool in front of the adults.
Uh, I say, Sorry. You don’t know any English swearwords, do you?
No, Antonio says. But swearwords are usually the first thing you learn when you’re learning a language, isn’t it?
Sure, I say. I guess you’re right. We’re passing houses and trees and the traffic is light, no oldies in sight. The road is straight; no curves to throw me off and I shift into fifth gear without so much as a twitch from Antonio.
And then Antonio talks again. I’m really not prepared, but for this, who is? He says: “Dick” is the first word most people learn when they learn Italian. Especially the women. For some reason, dick is the first thing in women’s mouths. Why do you think that is? Why do women like having dick in their mouths?
Myself: I… I don’t know.
Antonio: Can you guess?
Antonio. Aw, c’mon. You know, don’t you? Or do you like licking pussy instead?
Trees and cars and street signs and we’re coming to an intersection so I downshift. My hand is shaky on the stick.
Antonio: You know why women like black men, right?
Myself: Can we just drive? I just want to drive.
Antonio: Okay. Hahaha. Okay.
I put on the radio. It’s the tweet tweet song again. They play nothing else in this country. Antonio says: Now shift into third. That’s first. *slap* Him slapping me. Him slapping me.
Antonio: Hey. Do you have a boyfriend?
Myself: Let’s just drive.
Antonio: But do you have a boyfriend?
Antonio: So how do you manage on your own? With your finger?
I don’t answer him. We’re coming back into Terracina now, and I see the driving school up ahead.
Antonio: I asked if you used your finger. Did you understand me?
Antonio: Well, I asked if you use your finger.
I roll into the parking lot. I park the car.
Antonio: Great job today. See you tomorrow?
I don’t say anything. I get my purse, climb out of the car and slam the door behind me. The sea is to my right, still sparkling blue and green. My bike is to my left, slanting against a brick wall. I’m sweaty and soiled; the awesome high of relearning how to drive, of feeling newly independent in a strange town, is souring like milk in my mouth.
The next day, my new friend, Rico comes to the driving school with me to fire Antonio. He says he’s coming with me because the only reason Antonio talked to me like that is because I’m a foreigner; without the protection of a family, I’m fair game for predators. This would never have happened if I were local.
So Rico’s outside the driving school, looking threatening, as I slam my 60 euro down on Antonio’s desk. The blue egg-sized eyes bulge. But E! Antonio says. You’ve been doing so well. Why do you want to quit? I have a speech prepared; I want to say, Don’t play games with me! Nobody talks to me that way! But I chicken out; lay down the money and run. Rico offers to slash Antonio’s tires but I say that’s okay. He and Nero offer to give me driving lessons now that Antonio is out of the picture and I say thank you. My neighbors, Maria and Eugenio, are horrified when I tell them about Antonio and agree: Yes, this happened because you’re a foreigner. They offer to help me find a new driving school and I say thank you to that, too.
A week later, my parents are in town and we find the one automatic car in the region: a used red Fiat Panda, a reject from a car rental agency. I get behind the wheel and – suddenly, somehow – I’m not shaking. An automatic. No clutch. No shift stick. Just drive and turn and stop. This, I remember. This feels natural.
We buy the car. And then I drive to the supermarket. I drive to the Lidl. I drive into city centre – a 5 minute drive as opposed to a 40 minute bike ride. After two months of near-house arrest, I’m free to really explore. And – suddenly, somehow – I don’t need driving lessons anymore.
It’s early December and I’m heading towards the parking lot at Piazza della Repubblica – the same lot where some fool blocked me several weeks ago. I’ve been at the caffe on Via Roma, editing a short story and sipping a nice cup of Italian hot chocolate. My back aches and my feet hurt and all I want to do is get the heck home. When I get to my car, I see immediately that some donkey has parked too close to me, which is annoying, but I think I can make it out okay. I think I can. I hope I can.
I don’t make it out okay; as I back up, my car scrapes against the car that’s parked too close. A long, snaking gash has been drawn across its side, almost identical to the ones the young punks left on my car on Thanksgiving. Are you kidding me right now? It’s been weeks of nonsense here in Terracina and this is the last freaking thing I need.
But I’m not an animal, so I leave a note on the car’s windshield: I’m so sorry I’ve scratched your car. Please call me at xxx-xxxx-xxxx because I would like to help pay for the damages. The note goes under the windshield wiper and I drive home, beating my fists on the steering wheel. Of all the pain in the neck things. Why can’t people park properly? Why can’t I unpark properly? Hate hate hate hate hate.
I’m not home five minutes before my brain hatches an unpleasant idea, like an ugly chick. I think: Anyone could pick up that note. They could look at it and say, Hey, it’s a woman’s handwriting and she misspelled this simple word. She’s a foreigner. Let’s mess with the foreigner.
It’s not the strangest idea. After all, the nonsense last October with the driving instructor. The calls and SMS messages from the Uomo di Mistero are becoming more frequent – amusing at first but now, in the light of other things, grating my nerves like some cruel joke. And then other nonsense not fit for a public blog. Terracina is a small town, a strange town, where the people have known each other their whole lives and as I’m slowly learning, the foreigner often gets screwed. I’m tired of getting screwed by now, especially when foreplay consists of head games. What if some random jerk takes the note and calls my number? How will I know the difference? I go to bed nervous; toss and turn; don’t sleep much at all.
In the morning, my phone rings. It’s the man whose cream-colored Fiat I hit. His name is Franco. He says: I’m so amazed that you even left a note to apologize. Nobody leaves apology notes. People are animals here.
Well, I tell him. That’s how I’m made.
Thank you, says Franco. Where can we meet to discuss the details of the reparation?
How about the scene of the crime?
That sounds good. Why don’t we meet at three?
Sounds fine to me.
So I head to Piazza della Repubblica at three. Three o’five and Franco isn’t there. Three fifteen and Franco isn’t there. Three twenty, three thirty. I call him: Hi, Franco. I’m waiting for you. Is everything okay?
Ah, E, says Franco. I’m sorry. I’m tied up at work. But I’m coming now. Where am I meeting you again?
At the scene of the crime, I say.
And then Franco asks: Where was that?
I feel my throat close. Car honks from the street jar in my ears, already sore from the cold.
What do you mean? I say. I’m where we were parked last night.
Excuse me, says Franco. But I don’t remember where I parked last night.
Excuse me, I say. But how do you not know where you parked last night?
I’m sorry, says Franco. But I went lots of places and I don’t remember. Can you give me a landmark?
No! I shout. I’m at the place where I hit your car last night and that’s where I am!
Franco is quiet.
But then Franco says: Piazza della Repubblica?
Yes, I say. That’s right.
Franco says: I’ll be right over.
I’m waiting, I say. Right here.
I hang up. And then I hide behind a tree. I watch the parking lot for a cream-colored Fiat. A red Mini Cooper rolls past, and then a blue Fiat 500. Finally, a cream-colored Fiat with a long gash running across its side. It parks where I parked last night. A young man wearing a sheepskin vest and aviator sunglasses steps out and opens his cell phone. Clutched inside my fist, mine rings.
Franco and I shake hands. He says: I remember now. You had a blue Fiat Panda. I remember looking at it as I left my car. I wondered if it was a little too close to mine.
Yes, I say. I’m the blue Fiat Panda.
We discuss logistics. I will come with him to the body shop so I can see for myself how much the damage is. I will pay the reparations.
Really, though, says Franco. It’s just so wonderful that you left a note to apologize. Nobody does that here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back to my car to find it damaged. But what can I tell you? This is the way the world is. And that’s the way people are made.
A few days left now until I head home to New York for the holidays, and I decide to go to Rome for some last minute Christmas shopping. I’m a bit late to catch the 9:20 train, so I park my car quickly in a place I’ve parked it a few times before – near the bus station, behind a row of other cars. And then I get on the train and then I go to Rome.
It’s a perfect day – clear, crisp, and bright. Two stops on the metro from Termini takes me towards Piazza Barberini, so I make a pit stop at La Birreria Peroni and order a plate of spicy wurst alla zigana plus a pint of Peroni, which means I get drunk at lunch – *hic hic*.
Then, I stumble around La Fontana di Trevi – *hic hic* – and buy a bunch of crap.
There are music stores in Rome and there aren’t music stores in Terracina so I buy myself a treat: Duran Duran Rio, which I’ve never owned, and which I plan to listen to on the way home from the train station. Hooray! I clump over to Termini, get back on the train and arrive back in Terracina at 8:30 – ready and raring to fire up Hungry Like the Wolf. I lug my shopping bags to where I parked my car. I see this*:
*a gaping hole where my car should be.
I don’t know if you’ve ever discovered that your car wasn’t where you left it. If you have, I must tell you – you’ve got a friend for life in me. If you haven’t, I must tell you – it effing sucks. Talk about feeling helpless, gutted, cut off at the knees… and in this particular case, like a prize fool as it’s only now that I see the various Towing Zone signs glittering under the street lamps. After weeks of car-related drama – driving instructor and parking and vandalism and fender benders – it feels like the last straw, like THIS IS FINALLY THE MOMENT when I rip out all of my hair, like have you ever wanted to see a woman’s head explode? THIS IS YOUR CHANCE, FUCKERS.
But my head doesn’t explode; instead, I am calm with despair. It’s close to 9 pm and despite it being Friday, the streets are bare, lit softly, and quiet save for a few cars zipping by. I look up hopefully – Nero? Luigi? Nowhere in sight.
I weigh my options. It’s too late to go about dealing with the carabinieri – I just need to get home. It is an hour’s walk from the centro to my apartment and the town’s one taxi stand is a thirty minute walk away. So I call Maria to see if she can come pick me up; no answer. I call Manuel; no answer.
I start the walk home, dragging my shopping bags down the lungomare, with the black sea lapping to the left of me and the street lights glowing to the right of me. Tears streak down my cheeks – I’m tired, my shopping bags are heavy, I just wanted to listen to Rio, and DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?!? The worst part, though – worse than not being able to listen to Duran Duran, worse than the potential expense of having to reclaim my car – is not having anyone else to call. And I tell myself: You’ll be home in a few days. You’ll have so many people breaking your boxes that you won’t be able to see straight. Relish the quiet. Relish having only a fistful of acquaintances. Relish the thought that there are only
two numbers in your phone that you feel comfortable calling at a time like this. I keep walking and I look out at the sea, black and cold.
I’m ten minutes away from my apartment when both Maria and Manuel call me within seconds of each other: I just got your call. Is everything all right? Stay where you are. We’re coming to get you now. Eugenio gets to me first, ushers me into his SUV. He says: We’ll help you get your car back. Don’t worry.
So there are several kinds of police in Italy. You have your vigili urbani, your carabinieri, your guardia di finanza, and your various branches of polizia. This is great, because instead of one-stop shopping for Useless, you get options. First, we load up into Maria and Eugenio’s SUV and hit the vigili at the impound lot. They’ve never heard of my car. So we go to the carabinieri; they’ve never heard of my car, either. It’s at the carabinieri station that Eugenio says that my car was parked in a place that was very unhappy; he says it a couple more times before I come to realize that this is a euphemism for stupid as shit.
We go to the polizia. They have never heard of my car, either, so we prepare to file a theft report until the guy says Wait! and it turns out they do know where my car is; towed and parked over half an hour away in the countryside. I climb into the backseat with Ilaria again; her cheeks are wet with tears of boredom. I could join her in a few. But we drive through the countryside – rolling green and yellow hills dotted with small crumbling houses; jagged orange mountains looming above it all – and Maria says: E. Next time you park your car where there are no Towing Zone signs.
And the car is there. And everything is inside it where I left it. And I pay 60 euro to the dude at the lot. And Eugenio is embarrassed for me; explains for the hundredth time why my car was towed, but this time he says: Because she’s American and she doesn’t know. Oh, Eugenio. This isn’t an American thing. It’s a Pigeon thing.
We drive home, a wonky ass caravan through the rolling green hills and into a glowing pink sunset. I put on Hungry Like the Wolf. At last.
And then the next time I travel, it’s on a plane. Transatlantic, home for the holidays, the usual prodigal expat jazz. The looming Maga Circe, my unhappy car, and the mad residents of tiny, ancient Terracina couldn’t seem farther away. In New York, I speak English and use real money and meet new babies and new boyfriends. The tree at Rockefeller Plaza is supposed to be bigger than last year, but I don’t see it because I’m busy spinning in lazy circles on broad, taxi-jammed city streets where I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if someone I want to avoid is coming around the block, or tell someone a cock and bull story about my living situation so that I don’t get screwed. Then, in Florida, I go dinner shopping with my mother at Publix. Later, I make us dinner; risotto and she says: I’m fucking impressed. You don’t shit around. You’re a doer like your mother. Days and days where I don’t have to drive, where I take subways or sit in the passenger seat and Christmas Eve dinner and then it’s dark and then I’m in a soft bed and when I wake up, groggy, at 5 in the morning, when it’s still dark, when I see the shadows on the walls, long and slanted, and the shapes are strange, and the sheets feel different, and I suddenly can’t breathe because I don’t know where I am.