Friday, July 16, 2010

You know you've arrived ...

Arguably the most singular announcement of your arrival in the Italian countryside is the Bee. Not just your common-or-garden lower-case bee, but one with a capital "B". Or "A" rather, since "bee" in Italian is "ape" (pronounced ah-pay), and here we're talking about the ubiquitous and quintessential Ape. Now the intent is not to heap disrespect on the magnificent worker that supplies us with that godly nectar, honey, but rather to profile an aspect of living in the rolling hills of central Italy.

First built in post-war Italy to help kick-start an economy populated by millions with meagre financial means, the little three-wheeler Ape with a small flatbed and cab has become a fixture of Italian life, and constitutes many a contadino's sole means of transport. Baby brother to its urban predecessor the Vespa (wasp), its buzz is a constant among the hills of rural Italy, its little motor whining up steep hills with the ardour and work ethic of its namesake insect cousin.

Not only does it serve the needs of the rural smallholder, it also gives a modicum of independence to the country's fourteen-year-olds, whose landmark birthday gives them the right to drive the 50cc version after having taken the test. And they take advantage - drive through any village out in the countryside of a summer evening, and there's a veritable hive of them congregated in the piazza, drivers and hangers-on buzzing around them in sociable amity.

Which brings me to my point: one certain fourteen-year-old recently took - and passed - the written driving test which enable him to drive one legally. And it just so happens that said youth - known as HRH to (one-time) regular readers of this blog - has one, acquired for a small sum about two months ago. A vintage 1976 model, it has now passed inspection, had a few things fixed up, and been insured, thus preparing itself for the independence onslaught that lays in store.

As HRH (and I) will attest, driving them is not the simple matter it seems at first blush. The absence of a fourth wheel gives cornering a whole new meaning, and their reputation for tipping over is well-founded. The severed side mirror - now sitting glass-less and forlorn on the steps in our house - bears testament to this proclivity, the result of a near-introduction to a tree that found itself in the way of a sharper-than-advisable turn on one of HRH's early learning forays. The downside of the misfortune has its corollary, however, in the added caution HRH now exercises when approaching turns.

Another learning experience has been the emergence of HRH's apparent inheritance of a trait that both his parents possess - an uncomfortable relationship with things mechanical. Unlike their more modern brethren, the older Apes do not have a starter button, but rather a stiff lever that one has to pull with some force to get it to sputter into life. Whether the Ape was in gear (as I maintain) or not when HRH tried to start it some 10 days ago is perhaps beside the point - he ripped it off its soldered base, leaving it waving somewhat uselessly in the stifling confines of the cab ... and therefore unstartable by mechanized means. Until we had it re-soldered - for which the generous solderer charged nothing - HRH was reduced to giving it running starts down hills in order to get it started for the jaunts he took around the roads of our rural paradise.

But that is all behind us now. Last night he provided his own transport to and fro the local festival, and this morning at 6:45 took off to catch a bus to the coast from a stop some 8km from our house. For the first time ever, we found ourselves in the luxurious situation of being able to slumber on, rather than performing the heretofore parental task of taking him to the bus. Early morning schooldays in the next school year paint an equally desirable scenario, leaving us with the sole task of getting him up and feeding him before launching him on his buzz off to catch the bus ... alone.

For all the advantages, however, there are also several other sides to the coin. The obvious one is the concern for his safety, and we will now be faced with the prospect of waiting up for his safe arrival home on those nights he decides to stay out late. But perhaps the bigger one is the start of a new phase of his and our lives. He now has the independence that he has for so long craved, giving him a new world to explore. While this in and of itself is not a bad thing - indeed, I look forward to observing his new experiences - it also means he will be taking a step away from us. And as any parent will know, this type of change is difficult to go through. From one perspective, I'm going to miss those drop-off and pick-up trips.

But if any event signals his sinking of roots into the earth here, getting an Ape is as profound as anything he's done before. Not that he isn't integrated - on the contrary, he's more integrated than his foreigner parents. Amongst his friends, he's the only one who passed the driving test, and is therefore the only one legally bopping around under his own steam, leaving him a step ahead of his peers on the Italian growth curve. Seeing his smile as he takes off up the driveway in his own vehicle tells its own story - methinks he's happy with the whole situation. I guess we'll now have to start saving for that Fiat Panda ...