Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Roman Emergency

The sirens were blaring so loud I had to shout above them. Maneuvering between stopped cars on the motorway, my husband was intently focused ahead and watching behind while the ambulance sirens blasted the air around us. Originally a group of five motorcycles leaving Rome together, the two riders behind us were were no longer visible in our rear view mirrors, and I hoped the riders were okay.

The ride to Rome began as a road trip from Naples to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery to lay a wreath honoring Veteran's Day. The trip expanded from the cemetery to include a ride into downtown Rome for lunch. The group of 30 riders who departed from Naples had divided up after our meal in Rome and were headed back to Naples in small groups. Our group of five were experienced riders - three of whom would be officers in the new Harley Owners Group Military Chapter approved by Harley Davidson Corporate. One of only three military chapters in the world. We were all used to riding long distances in inclement weather and heavy traffic, adjusting to the differing laws in each of the United States.

But riding in Italy wasn't like anything we had experienced in all of our many thousands of miles riding cross-country in North America. Rules were meant to be broken here and we'd quickly learned that two lanes of traffic in Naples meant four cars abreast, and stop signs, like lane lines, were simply suggestions. The chaotic manner of Italian drivers in Naples was quickly educating us that a ride anywhere near a city was a game of survival. The hundreds of scooter riders in Italy already knew this, and we watched them take heart-stopping risks and exhibit utter fearlessness on two wheels. As it turns out, they have the right-of-way.

Now there we were, just outside Rome, on a Screaming Eagle Street Glide that would quickly overheat sitting in traffic. Picking our way through stopped cars and watching for the emergency vehicle buried somewhere in the stack of vehicles blocking both lanes. Eventually, the ambulance emerged, and that's when our lead rider did what the Italians on bikes had taught us to do: keep moving. After passing the accident - 30 minutes after this video was shot - the ride to Naples took another two hours in heavy traffic, albeit moving, traffic. We arrived home safely, ready to do it again tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Flying down the toll road in my Fiat 500, I saw the woman from a distance. The Telepass lanes came up fast and choosing the right lane in Italy is always critical. I had euros - cash - and quickly looked for a green light indicating an open, cash lane. There were none. No booth, no electric arm across any of the lanes, nothing. Three lanes were marked with a red X except one, where the young woman was standing.

She was bundled up in a thick wool coat with a knit scarf wrapped around her head. Confused, I stopped next to her and noticed she held a plastic cup filled with euros. This wasn't right. Toll collectors didn't look like this. As I stared at the cup and back at her eyes, she smacked a large red button on the wall next to her and glared at me. Registering both the hostility in her eyes, and the lack of any gate in front of my car, I flatly stated "there is no gate!" and accelerated through; the woman screaming Italian obscenities as I drove away. 

Despite an instinct that I'd done the right thing, visions of the Carabinieri - the Italian State Police - chasing me down for cheating Sicily of a $4 toll danced in the back of my mind. I didn't have my passport with me. My Italian driver's license was in my purse, but if given a ticket in Italian, I'd have to translate it on the spot and figure out what to do with it. There were rumors all tickets had to be paid immediately in cash. Did I have enough euro? Good grief. Thinking, thinking. Why worry? How in the world was a woman holding a plastic cup going to get me in trouble? Not possible.  

I felt sure she was a gypsy, a thief - the type of thief we'd been warned are plentiful in Naples where we lived. But I was in Sicily now on a road trip. Was all of Southern Italy a haven for this type of panhandling? And how could she possibly think I would be foolish enough to give her money at a Telepass stop with no booth and no electric arm? 

I popped in a CD and diverted my thoughts to the windy and beautiful ferry ride I'd just taken from Villa San Giovanni in Reggio Calabria to Messina, on the island of Sicily. It was one of the many water routes necessary to reach Sicily from Naples, and the views had been stunning. Unlike ferry rides in the Seattle, Washington - the place I'd grown up - there was access to most parts of the boat. The captain had even allowed me to photograph our destination through the glass of his wheelhouse. I relaxed into remembering the views and looked forward to the return trip. 

Suddenly, another Telepass, much larger than the previous station, loomed ahead. Brightly illuminated with multiple lanes flashing green and red lights, multiple toll booths and electric arms guarding each lane. I drove toward a cash lane and pulled up to a woman behind glass, neatly dressed in official looking clothing. She smiled and politely said "Boleto por favor?" 

"I'm sorry," I replied, "No Italiano. Only Ingles." (English).

"OK," she said. "Ticket?" 

I had no ticket. Where would I have gotten a ticket? That's when it hit me. The gypsy at the last Telepass was pushing the big red button to obtain the tickets people passing through were supposed to hand over here. She was holding the tickets hostage and making them pay her for them. What I had missed was the ticket that was supposed to be mine in her hand. Clever gypsy was that girl. But I couldn't have been the first person to drive past the woman with the plastic cup, could I? 

"I'm sorry," I repeated. "I have no ticket." 

"OK," said the woman in the booth with a knowing nod. "No problem, $3.90 please." 

I wondered how much money the gypsy woman made that day. Where she lived, how far she had walked to that remote location - and was she actually prosperous? Did she own a car? Live in a home? Dress differently when she wasn't tricking drivers? I vowed to practice my Italian, so the next time I drive through, I can stop, hand her a euro and ask a few questions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lost and Found.

The road was getting narrow. Reaching out from the back seat of our Harley Davidson Street Glide, I could almost touch the tall, rough walls on either side of the bike. Up ahead, our friend Joe was leading us to the annual Apple Festival in the small Italian town of Benevento. A wrong turn had us weaving through the labyrinth of a tiny village with streets no wider than an Smart Car. Joe's wife Nicky was riding ahead of us, her taillight bouncing as the bike negotiated with each cobblestone.

Despite the unknown of hairpin turns in close confines, I was laughing out loud. This was why we moved to Italy. This was the adventure we craved. Marveling at each old passageway, my only concern was the thumping exhaust of the bikes reverberating off the stone walls. In such an old and serene place, it seemed irreverent to be so loud. I hoped we weren't offending the people who lived here - hanging their laundry from the tiny windows high above us.

A few more hair-raising turns and our leader stopped to ask for directions. An Italian woman standing on her doorstop in an apron, seemed curious and friendly. Joe and Nicky approached her with big smiles and very bad Italian to ask directions to the Apple Festival. With exaggerated gestures, the woman attempts to direct us and waves with enthusiasm as we slowly thunder off again.

Ten minutes and three U-turns later, we found Benevento. A colorful, intimate town with a main street lined with booths selling apples, jams, pastries and cheese. We are greeted warmly by the local Italians who pose next to our bikes for pictures and ply us with apple wine. Peeking from windows above the retail shops, and shyly pointing at our bikes, it's clear they are as fascinated by us as we are by them. I'm relieved our loud entrance into their village was acceptable.

Leaving an hour after loading up the bikes with apples and cheese, we head back to Naples near dusk. The sun is getting low and I'm a little concerned when Joe points up at the tall aqueduct we rode through earlier, and diverts off the motorway onto a side road for a better look at it. Riding after dark is something we haven't done yet in Italy, and lost after dark didn't sound appealing.

Up above the motorway alongside the arched Roman aqueduct, we could see for the first time the deep trench running down the center. Gated at both ends of its eight-foot wide expanse, and we were surprised to see a man standing near the gate rolling up an Italian flag. Walking down to get a closer look, Joe attempted to communicate with more bad Italian, and was shocked when the gate keeper unlocked the gate and offered to let us walk across the monolithic structure. Ready to take advantage of an opportunity that may never happen again, the four of us ran back to the bikes and surprised the gate keeper by riding through the rarely opened gate before he could change his mind.

"This NEVER happens!" exclaimed Joe as we parked the bikes high above the above the motorway at the center of the arches. "We are so, so, lucky we found him here at the gate and he allowed us to do this!"

Feeling the magic of the discovery, we all agreed this was a ride where getting lost was a thrill, and finding a place atop an ancient Roman aqueduct was a pinnacle day on the streets of Italy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Almost Kissed

The mini cooper was no more than six inches from our rear fender.

Twisting to the left on the back of our Harley Davidson Street Glide, I fought the restriction of my heavy leather jacket to turn backward and raise my camera with a right hand over my left shoulder. Focusing on the driver of the Mini, I could see he was a forty-something Italian man with the middle finger of his right hand raised in response to my camera. In the passenger seat of his car, another man sans a seatbelt held a sleeping child in his lap.

I snapped the shot. Just to record a moment many people told me would never, ever happen in Italy. An Italian national making an obscene gesture typically seen in the United States. So much for cultural differences.

We were sitting in an intersection with one lane on either side of our motorcycle - each lane crowded with two cars abreast. The angry driver behind us was apparently incensed we were staying within the lane lines of our middle lane. Experienced riders, we had traveled across the United States - San Diego to Washington D.C. and back - twice. We were not strangers to traffic congestion in large cities and where it was legal, we frequently split lanes in heavy, stopped traffic.

But this was different. Horns blazing, lights flashing, voices raised yelling above the clamor, this was chaos. Everything we had heard about driving in Naples, Italy was true. It was survival of the quickest. Quickest to turn to avoid being hit from the side, quickest to lunge across an intersection to avoid being hit from the rear, quickest to brake when three cars at a time ran a stop sign ahead.

At the end of our first motorcycle ride in Naples, we felt the same kind of exhausted exhilaration we felt after riding across Texas for two days in 110 degree temperatures. Lucky to have survived it with no permanent scars. The next ride, our new friends in Italy promised us, would be everything we had imagined riding in Italy would be like for two excited Americans wanting to see this beautiful country.

Their promise was kept. Our next two-wheeled journey was more than we expected - and more than they could have planned. A surprise invitation made it one of those memorable days you never forget.