Saturday, January 26, 2008

Driver's license - the sequel

So, what happened with the driving license tests? (See here for an intro.)

The written test is taken at the department of motor vehicle offices in Piediripa near our provincial capital, Macerata, a half-hour away. I was picked up by the instructor along with three 18-year-olds, whose peer group made up the majority of exam-sitters – the remainder consisted of (a) older Italian women who’ve decided to finally take the plunge, in most cases out of pure necessity, and (b) non-EU foreigners like me who’ve become resident in Italy.

I was in the first of 4 morning sittings, starting out at the Italian version of 8:30am - 45 minutes late at 9:15am. In a typically drab, paint-peeling, last-cleaned-10-years-ago, ill-furnished government room, we used touch screens to record our answers. The stark contrast – modern technology against dilapidated building – was marked, and yet another of the typically Italian contradictions that one encounters on a daily basis.

Each student gets a different test, so you can’t peep at your neighbour’s answers. I answered with a tentative confidence, knowing full well that there could be logic-defying mines buried in the answer sheet.

When they read out the results, the first candidate of the sheet – a Mr. Ali – got 9 errors, thereby failing with honours and instilling a feeling of trepidation in the rest of us clustered around the examiner, who fumbled at the computer with a complete absence of technological prowess, welcoming every hint of distraction to draw him away from the obvious torture of having to do this.

Luckily, it seems as if I managed to dodge all the mines, and I passed. (You’re not told about the number of errors, but at this point it’s moot.)

I always thought that there was a mandatory 30-day waiting period between the written test and the practical driving test, but Andreas the instructor immediately confirmed a practical exam a week later. I did not ask any questions.

Arrangements for the day of the driving test were curiously vague, but I went along with them in a trusting but confused haze, showing up on time at 3pm at one of the junctions down on the main road near here. No Andreas, just a woman who greeted me as if she knew me.

About 45 minutes after the appointed time, a car I’d never seen with “Scuola Guida” (driving school) on it pulled up and disgorged several young 18-year-olds, including one with whom I’d taken the driving test. The woman who’d greeted me earlier beckoned me to come and get in the car, and so – somewhat bemused by it all but happy that something was at last happening – I did. The driver, who I’d never seen before, and who didn’t even acknowledge my presence, set off, my mind wondering where on earth to.

A minute later I saw Andreas the driving instructor coming in the other direction, sitting in the front passenger seat with a student driving and someone else in the back. We followed. After curving up to San Ginesio, the student got out and switched places with the familiar woman from our car … and finally I got it – the third person in Andreas’ car in front was the examiner. As I found out later, the driving schools make appointments with the department of motor vehicles, and the examiner – who could come from anywhere in the province – shows up at a location that’s convenient for all concerned. This particular woman had driven a good 40 minutes from some way up the coast to be with us.

I was last, coincidentally driving a route through Colmurano and Urbisaglia that’s as familiar to me as any I’ve driven here. I was calm and confident, but had I known what happened to the familiar woman immediately before me I would certainly not have been – she inadvertently crossed into a turning lane slightly too late, going over the solid line instead of the broken line as she did. It was the only mistake she made – failed.

Andreas and the examiner talked through the entire duration of my test, and it seemed as if the examiner wasn’t even paying attention to what I was doing. Whether she was or not ends up being somewhat immaterial, at least now it does, because she passed me, and I can now proclaim with dubious pride something that I never thought I’d say – I’m officially “an Italian driver” …

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sledding Italian style

The weather’s been quite balmy the past few days, but some remnants of snow still cling to the upper reaches of the central Apennines just ¾ of an hour away. And so yesterday, on a glorious sun-drenched morning, off we headed for the slopes to try out Julius’ two new sleds.

We went to one of our favourite spots, summer or winter – Pintura, at close to 2,000 m, just a few km past the most popular skiing destinations in Marche, Sassotetto and Maddalena. After threading our way beyond them through roads narrowed to alleys by the Italians’ proclivity to defy parking logic, we found Pintura pleasantly busy but not overly so. The same was true for the snow on the ground – a reasonable covering with patches of brown soggy earth dotting the slopes (although “pasting” may be more apt than “dotting”).

Julius’ first run was one of discovery … that the sled was rather faster than he anticipated, and that he was unable to deal with said speed, parting company with it in rather spectacular fashion as he stumbled upon a new level of meaning to the term “out of control”. Like Julius, Maria went to the top of the steepest slope with the second sled … and discovered precisely the same thing. With my limited exposure to all sports snow-related, I tried the lower, more gentle slopes, where we remained for the rest of a very enjoyable day, returning home tired, smiling, and bruised.

Like any outing into the outdoors in Italy, it’s about more than the targeted activity … a lot more. That’s because there are Italians there, and they do things in a way that can only be described as, well, Italian. First off, it’s a rare thing to find a single family heading off to the slopes – normally at least 3 combine to bring a veritable team of fun-seekers to the arena. And “fun” is most definitely the word, mixed with a good dose of the obligatory level of extreme parental overprotection, rendering a constant stream of laughter, yelling, song, and squeals.

At the cafe near the car park, there's a constant crowd sitting on deck chairs enjoying the scene, as if they’re reclined on their beach chairs at their favourite lido on the coast – it barely raises a brain-sweat to imagine them in precisely the same pose with precisely the same sunglasses lying on a striped chair beneath a matching striped parasol smoking precisely the same brand of cigarette.

Below them, concerned mothers clamber down the slopes in their high-heeled boots after kids bobbling gently down the hill at a speed all too dramatic for them – “Frena! Frena!” (Brake! Brake!) is the most constant refrain of the day. I actually believe that their child’s speed doesn’t really make a difference at all, they simply have a biological need to call out to their offspring with some sort of concern for their safety – they’d be doing the same even if their child was playing tiddly-winks (“Watch your thumb!”).

One particular scene had me chuckling for a while, and brings a smile to my face even now. “Paolo! Vieni qui! (Come here!) Frena!” yelled mom in her city outfit as she stumbled down the slope, bent forward in her vocal exertion and endeavour not to slip and fall. 5-year-old Paolo continues down the hill, picking up speed as he passes a group of 4 teenagers arm-in-arm, singing loudly as they climb back up for their next ride down on a tarpaulin they’ve brought for the team ride. Flashing past them a few seconds later goes Paolo’s dad, loping past in his city kit in long, ungainly strides, propelled by the same built-in call of nature: “Paolo! Frena! Vieni qui!”

Paolo, who knows full well how to brake the sled, stops and allows dad to catch up. There’s a bent-over, breathless remonstration (I’m sure Paolo had a smile on his face) before the long walk back up the hill, dad pulling the sled. Halfway up they’re joined by mom, who spends the remainder of the climb bent over Paolo sharing her expert and intimate knowledge of the dangers of … what is it today? … sledding, not to mention the perilous consequences of not listening to his parents. I can’t be sure, but I might have heard Paolo humming cheerfully to himself all the way up.

Naturally, exactly the same scene plays itself out once more just 5 minutes later.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The festive season in rural Italy

This past festive season was our first in rural Italy. Instead of going elsewhere, we decided to stay in order to be able to answer the immortal question of Monty Python’s Eric Idle: “What’s it like?”

Well, I really don’t want to disappoint, but aside from the January 6th festival of Befana (which we missed anyway), we didn’t find anything especially different, exotic, or traditional (other than of course the fact that one is in Italy amongst Italians, a rather distinct fact in and of itself). In fact, even “Babbo Natale” (Father Christmas) is inherited from the commercial English-speaking world.

Unlike some other European cultures (like the Germans) who have their main celebration on the 24th, Italy celebrates primarily on the 25th(like us English-speakers). It all starts with a midnight mass, a mercifully (moderately) short one, attended primarily for the post-service social mingling, before the serious eating begins at lunchtime on the 25thand beyond.

On Christmas Day we had a delicious but non-traditional (i.e. no turkey) lunch with our Irish friends, and Maria cooked the traditional local meal on the 26th after tapping our dyed-in-the-wool marchigiani carpenter for details of the menu. First comes tortellini in brodo, with the broth that they swim in drawn from the boiling of a capon, which is eaten as a second course. The capon – no easy feat to find one, and a weighty price tag when Maria did – was very tasty in spite of the unappetizing thought of a boiled bird. [The contadini around here routinely boil chicken, a far less appetizing prospect.]

As with my own heritage, out here Christmas is for family, while New Year’s eve is spent with friends. Locals from the area whose roots go back a good way may spend several days wading through meal after meal with various branches of their families, but they approach it uncomplainingly and without question as a duty, one that cements the family ties which penetrate deep, long and supportively throughout their entire lives.

Family ties and bonds notwithstanding, there seemed to be a palpable relief at the arrival of New Year’s eve, requiring just one last eating marathon to cap the season. Capo anno” they call it – top (or head/source) of the year. We were invited with 3 other local families to the home of Piergiovanni and deputy mayor Ornella, our Italian friends and hiking companions.

The food lasted from about 8:30 until midnight. First came about 4 different antipasti (including a variety of local cold cuts), followed by 3 different primi piatti (pasta), and then the secondo, a traditional dish of lentils, representing money and good fortune for the following year. If there’s any room left after all that, there’s fruit, including grapes which, like the lentils, bring hopes of moolah in the year to come.

Following the countdown to the new year, we stepped outside into the brisk air to watch the fireworks all over the countryside. Being a hilly terrain, there’s no bad vantage point, and dozens of light shows were visible, including a few tame ones of our own bought with the groceries at the local supermarket. Then back we went inside to begin the games, a light-hearted indulgence of silly fun with adults and kids divided into 2 teams. When we left at 2:30 a.m. it was still going strong, and the tombola (bingo) boards – apparently a fixture at many Italian celebrations – had just been brought out.

All thoroughly enjoyable, I must say, not least because it was the kind of occasion where my patchy Italian was passable and intellectual conversation was restricted to the bare minimum (if that).

Maria and Julius left for Germany on the 1st, and in the absence of a child in the house, Befana came and went without notice. Here, however, is the essence –

La Befana is a folklore character who visits all the children in Italy on the eve of 6 January, filling their socks with candy if they are good or a lump of coal if they are bad. She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl because she enters the children's houses through the chimney.

Her name is derived from a mispronunciation of the word "epiphany" upon which the legend is based. Apparently she turned down the 3 wise men to accompany them on their quest to find Jesus, and when she had a change of heart, she went after them but couldn't find them. And so she's still looking.

So there you have it. No snow, unfortunately, and so no white Christmas - I've never had one before, and so was hoping ... However, aside from a good dump of the stuff at the beginning of December, the snow's been restricted to the mountains. Now that Julius is back home, we shall have to take ourselves up there to enjoy the season's spoils - his Christmas and birthday presents: skiing lessons and a ride on his new sleds...

Driver's license

One of the unforeseen pleasures as a non-EU citizen residing in this wonderful country is that I have to get an Italian driver’s license. Now, having been a victim for over a year of the frenetic morass that is Italian driving, there are eminently reasonable grounds for thinking that licenses are secondary considerations, or at best “optional.” (See Italian driving for a first-hand account.)

Unfortunately, my thinking is flawed. Turns out the unsmiling carabinieri apparently take these things rather seriously, conducting spot checks on the main roads around here for licenses, registration, and insurance. Being caught without a valid license involves both a hefty fine, and even suspension of one’s license. Now it seems to me suspending a license might prove a little tricky if one doesn’t have one to begin with, but in a country that taxes potential income instead of actual earnings, anything’s possible.

I’m already driving illegally – my international license expired in September and the year’s grace from the issue of my residence was up two months ago – and so to avoid a run-in with the red-and-black caps of the stern and serious lawmen, I have to get my license. And I need to start as if I’ve never had one before, sitting a written test, and taking a practical driving test.

This is not only ignominious for a near-50 year old who’s been driving for 30 years, it’s also an exercise in supreme frustration. That’s because the sample tests that I’m studying suggest – and my driving instructor confirms – that the intent of the written test is to try and fail you.

The written test consists of 10 questions with 3 answers, each with a True-False option. Get more than 4 out of the 30 wrong, and you fail. Practicing with my book of 250 sample tests (each containing questions from the actual official tests), I routinely fail. Here’s why:

- “A holder of sub-category A1 driving license can drive up to 125-cc motorbikes with a maximum power of not more than 11kW.” Here’s the thing: I’m applying for the ‘B’ driving license, and have absolutely no intention of ever applying for an ‘A’ license, never mind sub-category ‘A1’. As for 11kW – you tell me how much power your car generates in kW.

- “Parking of vehicles or motorbikes is prohibited at or close to road signs.” What road signs – no parking? Unfortunately, “it depends” is not a valid answer.

- “When, at a junction in town, the vehicle in front does not set off when the road is clear, it is advisable not to sound your horn in order not to cause intolerance with other motorists.” True or False. Is what true or false? One almost needs a degree in logic just to wade through all the negatives. And if two “not’s” make a logical knot, what do 3 "not's" make?

- “Providing assistance to people injured in road accidents is compulsory because the law punishes hit-and-run drivers.” Huh? Is the ankle bone connected to the shin bone, or the finger? You tell me what the connection is.

- “This sign (a parking area one) indicates a parking area and may have a plate indicating times and charges.” Yes, I can see how knowing this vital bit of information would make me a responsible driver.

I should point out that thankfully the test is offered in English, a fairly recent development. The English employed, however, often requires one to read the Italian to understand it. This strikes me as being rather ironic. Some terms like the car’s “strangler” are clearly obvious (“choke” for those of the newer generation that never had to use one), but others like “having the right occupied” tend to induce something of a hazy fog in the brain, trying to imagine what it might mean. (Explanation: if your “right is occupied” you don’t have the right of way.) There are so many examples of this, the list is endless – “canalization lanes”, “central reservations”, “inverting your direction”, “lacrimation”, headlights aimed “mainly in depth”, and on and on.

I must say, though, that there seems to be a bit of tongue-in-cheek with some of them. For example:

- “Drinking alcohol affects driving because it makes driving more pleasant and less boring.” They say this is False, but I’d wager the local farmer who says Foligno is “18 Camparis from Tolentino” would contest their assertion.

Here’s one of my favourites:

- “When overtaking you must get as close as possible to the vehicle in front.” I hear that 99% of students mark this one “True”, and take it forward as the #1 rule of the road. (Once again, see Italian driving.)

Wry observation aside, however, this little parody is a microcosm of the Italian culture, at two levels.

First – Italians love to flaunt the rules, ignore them, slap them about, distort them, with a flair that is both enviable and irrational. At times they seem to take this deliberately to an absurd level, as in their driving, parking, etc. But I know it’s not deliberate, there’s actually some (questionable) reasoning behind it: if some of the rules don’t make sense, why bother working out which ones do – don’t obey any of them.

The second level of this little insight is best communicated in a simple mantra: It is how it is. Regardless of how inefficient, counterintuitive, or nonsensical “it” is (whatever “it” might be), it isn’t going to change. So shut up and get on with it. This insight is confirmed by my driving instructor: “What are you getting uptight about?” is his unspoken and underlying message when I rant at one of the mystifying translations or rules that could be my undoing in the driving test. “This is just how it is.”

I’m left wondering how, with the anal, impatient, stubborn slices of my character, I’m going to make it here. There’s a part of me that came here to get rid of those undesirable personal traits by immersing myself in a culture that, through its subtle, unmoved, and unflappable ways, will simply not put up with (or even notice) my raving.

As I'm learning, things - longstanding habits and tendencies included - change slowly.