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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Flying down the toll road in my rented 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 turned up the music 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 ferries in my home of Seattle, Washington, passengers had 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." 

"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, had been 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.

The End

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The First Big Adventure

The road was getting narrow. It was quickly becoming a walkway.

Reaching out from the back seat of our motorcycle, I could almost touch the tall, rough walls on either side of our bike.

Up ahead, our new friend Joe was leading us on his bike, to the annual Apple Festival in the small Italian town of Benevento. A longtime expat in Italy, Joe and his wife Nicky had been living in Italy for years, and were graciously showing us some some of the most charming destinations near Naples, where we all resided.

But a wrong turn had us weaving through the labyrinth of a tiny village with streets no wider than a Smart Car. Nicky was riding ahead of us, her taillight bouncing as the bike negotiated a bumpy relationship 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 narrow turns and Joe 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 bad Italian to ask directions to the Apple Festival.

With exaggerated gestures, the woman attempted to direct us and waved with enthusiasm as we slowly thundered off again, trying our best not to rumble.

Ten minutes and three U-turns later, we finally found Benevento.

It was a colorful, intimate town with a main street lined with booths selling apples, jams, pastries and cheese. Everything you think of when you think of Italy was here. The food, the charm, the smiling faces.

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 wasn't offensive.

Leaving an hour after loading up the bikes with apples and cheese, we were headed back to Naples near dusk. The sun was getting low and I'm a little concerned when Joe points up at the tall aqueduct we rode under earlier, and diverts off the motorway and up 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 on narrow roads like we had just navigated, didn't sound very appealing. But this was just another adventure, and we surrendered to it.

Up above the motorway alongside the arched Roman aqueduct, we could see for the first time the deep trench running down the center of the aqueduct. 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 that had been hanging above the motorway.

Parking his bike, and walking down to get a closer look, Joe attempted to communicate in Italian, and was surprised when the gate keeper unlocked the gate and invited us with hand gestures, to walk across the monolithic structure.

Ready to take advantage of an opportunity that we knew would never again, the four of us surprised the gate keeper by riding, rather than walking, through the opened gate before he could change his mind about letting us through.

Long-time expats in Italy, our new friends were shocked and delighted at our luck.

"This NEVER happens!" exclaimed Joe as we parked the bikes high above the motorway at the center of the walled arches framing the aqueduct.

"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 an experience where getting lost was a thrill, and finding a place atop an ancient Roman aqueduct was a pinnacle day on the streets of Italy.

The End