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.