So I was worried about the flight, and I was worried about the drive across Italy. A little bit of me worried how I’d handle four kids for a week. But for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to be worried that we didn’t possess a map , a phrasebook or the minutest smattering of the language between us. Whether it was an oversight, what with everything we had to organise and fret about beforehand and all that; or whether my subconscious considered me far to wordly-wise to bother about not being understood I’m not sure. Anyway, we had the Tom Tom, right? Nothing goes wrong when you have a Tom Tom, does it? And this was, after all, an EU country where everyone spoke English, right? Wrong! This was a part of the EU where they had been mercifully ignored by plane-loads of Brits tearing up their towns and abusing their waiters. Sure there were always a few families passing through, but not enough for the indigenous population to feel the need to gen-up on the Oxford English Dictionary.
So, Ich nicht sprechen Italiano, je ne comprends your banter pas, old boy. By the way, can you tell me when the hell I am please, Signor Garcon? What a berk.
No matter, we picked up the motor at one of Rome’s airports (a battered and bruised Fiat Ulysses, prefect for our Odyssey, I thought) and sped east along the Autstrade. 17ks later we hit (almost literally) a string of Toll booths, stretched across the road. In a singularly British way I plumped for the wrong gate. I pressed the red button. Nothing. Pressed it again, still no ticket. Two cars had pulled up behind me. I started sweating-up in the paddock. I pressed the green button, next to the speaker. A conversation was had between 2 people who had no idea what the other was saying. The word “ticket” was the sole common denominator. Four cars behind me now, the third gave several honks on his Italian handbrake (his horn). I made the International Sign for bugger off, back-up, I’m coming out and they begrudgingly obliged and I reversed onto the hard shoulder. Somehow Italians can steer a car, press the horn AND wave both arms in the air all at the same time (yes, I know this sound like a stereotype, but it really is true).
I found a tall, imposing, para-military-type at the help desk, complete with mirror-shades and, dare-I-say, jackboots. He spoke very little English, so he had the jump on me. “Where you go?” he asked.
I’d forgotten where, indeed, I was going, so I picked a nearby city at random “Ancona” I replied. A puzzled look came across his face. Why would anyone want to go to that sh*t-hole?, he was thinking. Ah wait!: He’s English. He wrote several unconnected words in block capitals onto a scrap of paper and handed it to me.
“You no pay” he said. Then gesturing the International Sign for giving, said “you give this to Ancona”.
What he wrote I cared not one wit, as it was clear he was letting us through without charge. And away we went.
An hour down the road we approached a second set of tolls. This time I was determined not to embarrass myself as before. I chose the one with the International Sign for money above it. But there was no slot to insert neither coins, notes nor credit card. I started to panic again. Then a cardboard ticket spewed out of a hole just in front. In my haste I lunged at it, snatched at it and dropped it on the tarmac.
“Oh sod it ! Sorry kids” I exclaimed.
“Dad, Daaaaaad” yelled one from the back row of the car “it’s open!”.
I looked up to see the gate had indeed opened. WooHoo!!!, I had an escape route. I stuck her into what I hoped was something near 1st and released the clutch. We stalled. I’d stuck her into 5th. All week I would struggle and fail to find the right gear. Left-hand-drive motors call for right-hand gear-changing and I would discover that I was crap at it. I restarted the car, found 2nd-ish and we kangaroo-ed out of the trap.
Ninety minutes of scary motorway driving later and we’d reached our exit. Down the slip road, around the tight hairpin (5th instead of the desired 3rd gear) and up to our final toll booth. I pressed the green button. Nothing, but an LED message in Italian. What good was that to me? I pressed the green button instead.
“Si” came a woman’s voice after a short pause.
“Hello”, I said in my best David Niven, “do you speak English?
“Put in your ticket” she replied, by way of an affirmative.
“I don’t have a ticket”
“Put in your ticket”
“I’m sorry I don’t have a ticket”
“Put in your ticket”
“I don’t have a ticket, sorry. I have a piece of paper”, remembering Signor Jackboot’s gift to me earlier.
“One moment please” There was a pause of no more that 4 seconds.
The LED message changes from the unintelligible message to one I understood clearly. It was the International Sign for 75 Euros. Signora Tollbooth had suddenly gone mute. Hmmm… I knew I was stuffed. I hadn’t the command of the language to argue the toss, even if I had an argument. Two crisp 50 Euro notes were slid into the machine, the change was spat out into the tray bellow. I stuck her into reverse, then 3rd, then finally 1st and limped out under the open gate, my tailpipe between my legs.
“I bet they did that cos we were English” offered one of the small mammals in the back seat.
“Yeah” said another, “They hate the Brits” declared a third.
“Nope” I told them. “We didn’t have a ticket so they charged us for the whole length of the motorway. It’s fair enough. British Rail do similar. We’ll know better next time.” Famous last words.
On day 3 of our trip one of the lads and I parked outside what we took to be a supermarket, but which turned out to be a chemist. Exiting with what little we could find worth buying (Aftersun and loo roll) we noticed a parking ticket for 38 Euros slapped on the windscreen of the car. A tad miffed we yomped to the local Cop Shop. “Hello” I said (trying my Alan Whicker this time), handing him the Duty Sergeant the ticket,”do you speak English? ”
“A little” he smiled.
Sadly, he apparently knew only one English phrase: “Thirty-eight Euros”, he said, holding out his palm and making the International Sign for give me the money.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked
“Thirty-eight Euros” he grinned again. Hmmm…. we’ll know better next time.
Later, in a take-away restaurant I managed to order 6 whole pizzas when I wanted 6 slices. The kids were thrilled and chomped their way through the lot. When we finally found the supermarket I bought 12 litres of water which no-one would drink as it was of the fizzy variety and they’d “clearly asked for still, daaaad”.
Map-less, we managed not to find the biggest water-park in southern Europe, drove up two one-way streets and, on the home trip, spent ninety minutes looking at the airport from a distance of 700 yards while we encircled it trying to find a route in. When we finally did so, I drove into the wrong car park to return the car and had a fruitless two-language argument trying to get out of said car park to go find the proper one. This time the lady took pity on me and opened the gate for nix.
So would I go back? You bet. Apart from the odd jobsworth and copper, the Italians were a superb bunch. Most were very happy to help us through the language barrier, and keen to teach us the few words we needed to get by. Birra, Conto, Prego, Formaggio, Pomadoro and the like now seem second nature to me, which will be handy when I go to France tomorrow.
The weather was hot, and the birra cold. The region in which our villa was situated was absolutely beautiful, tiny little medaeval villages dotted around a stunning mountainous landscape. An hour down the road (take a map) is mile-upon-mile of beautiful, clean welcoming beaches, full of elegant,friendly locals, spectacular ice cream parlours and, according to the Incumbent’s 14-year-old boy, beautiful, topless, Italian women (though I never saw any, and if I did, I wasn’t staring, honest).
I’ve never stayed at a better appointed nor better situated villa than The Villa San Raffaello, run by Damien and Sharon, two charming Londoners (albeit, he’s a Gooner) who set up shop there five years ago. Plenty of room, a pool, tv etc etc etc everything a family would want, complete with hot n cold running vegetables and herbs from their gardens surrounding the dwelling. Stick yer straw hat on and play being Don Corleone among the tomato plants (though, hopefully without the final consequences). The vines mature next summer so there will be wine too (or vino, as we like to call it).
Driving through a neighbouring town one afternoon the driver of a parked car I was poodling past opened his door and sliced off my wing mirror. K-LUNK. I pulled in down the road, got out and trudged back to the scene of the accident. The man, elegant, middle-aged, grey hair, mahogany skin and perfect teeth, shirt open to the navel, stood there grinning at me, arms outstretched, palms pointing upwards, the International Sign for sorry mate, but what you gonna do?. I did the only thing I could: I taught him some Anglo Saxon words beginning with ‘F’ and ‘C’, picked up my ex-wing mirror and went back to the car.
Normandy tomorrow, courtesy of Mr Horrible‘s generous hospitality. Now French I’m good at. Cul de Sac, mon amis.