We had been in Italy for a week when my husband had a work conference in Florence. Would the kids and I like to come along? School had not started yet. We could not move into our apartment yet and it was Florence, so Hell yeah! The only hitch, Joe would be taking a bus with the other employees so I would have to drive the hour and half on my own with the kids or take the train. Since I spoke no Italian I figured driving would be easier than trying to buy train tickets, figure out schedules, etc.
Besides, I had been driving around Parma and back and forth to the local Ikea (pronounced hilariously to my children as ‘eee’ kay- yuh‘) with no problems. Plus, we had a GPS in the car. How hard could it be? It is only 1.5 hours away. Driving to Florence was no problem!
Armed with the overconfidence that comes with 30 years of driving, we set out. On the ride down I became acquainted with the Italian driver. For a large portion of the autostrada (highway) between Parma and Florence, there are only two lanes. One lane is perpetually occupied by semi trucks. Semi trucks which travel at a very high speed and get right up your bum. Thus, the only option if you don’t want to be a semi sandwich is to go around them in the other lane. This is an option equivalent to playing Russian Roulette.
The cars travel at speeds far faster than the semi trucks. They also drift across the entire autostrada paying no attention whatsoever to lane lines. At first I thought they must be drunk they way they were swerving, but it was happening so often that I realized it was just the way they drive here.
Now, I am a responsible driver with my two precious kids in the car so I am going to drive responsibly. Apparently, driving responsibility is a personal affront to Italian drivers. My driving habits bring on a host of activity from the Italians - honking, fist shaking, lights flashing, swerving to see if they can squeeze their car between me and the semi in the next lane. At one point the driver behind me was so close to me that when I looked in my rear view mirror I could see the part in her hair. I can still remember the pink hair clip she was wearing.
The GPS kept trying to send me down one way streets or streets that were blocked off. I was driving in circles and now the autostrada seemed like the bumper cars at the fair. Imagine the same speed, drifting and erratic driving but now on ancient narrow streets with people and scooters added to the mix. And no where at all to stop or park. The streets that I needed to get to the hotel were either blocked or too narrow for a car to fit.
After 1.5 hours of trying to find the hotel on my own, I was in the middle of a full blown, all out, screaming at the kids, nervous breakdown. I pulled over as best I could and simply stopped. I called Joe. He sweetly tried to help and offer suggestions over the phone from the bus. He called the hotel for me. I cried and screamed at him. He didn’t understand how awful it was.
Through my tears I noticed a crowd of police men and women directing traffic. Surely they could help me. I eased over and once again decided to block traffic like an Italian native. The police woman thankfully spoke English. She asked me where I was from. I explained that we had just moved to Italy a week ago and that we were joining my husband for a work trip. She told me that tourists should never drive in Florence. My husband’s work should have told us that. The hotel should have told us that. She explained that it is difficult for the locals to drive in Florence because the streets change almost on a weekly basis according to politics. That explained why the GPS was having such a hard time. She asked where my husband was. I told her he was on the bus with his office mates. “Hum.” she said with a raised eyebrow.
“Allora” she tells me, “you must drive over that bridge there. Once you are across the bridge you go straight and your hotel is very close. Another right turn and there you will find it.”
“I can’t go across the bridge. It is one way traffic going the opposite direction. And the street is blocked with a chain,” I respond.
“Ignore the traffic. It is the fastest way and I will have my colleague meet you at the chain, He will unlock it and you can drive through,” she tells me.
“Huh?!” I am stricken with terror at the thought but I am also so close to having a permanent breakdown that I decide it is worth it.
I grip the steering wheel and proceed to drive against traffic across the Ponte Santa Trinita. Everyone, justifiably this time, is once again honking, screaming, shaking fists at me, but damn it, we made it across. We pulled up to the chained street. We waited for 30 minutes. No one came. I negotiated the terrors of Firenze traffic again to wind my way back to the police woman. She instructs me to do the same thing again. I tell her that I already did what she suggested but no one came to meet us at the chain. She tells me I must be patient. I cross the Ponte Santa Trinita again. Against traffic. Against all reason and sanity.
This time, however, I noticed a city bus lumbering along. I thought to myself, "if that bus can fit, then so can I." I threw caution to the wind. I ignored the chain and decided to follow the bus. It worked! I swear I heard angels sing when I finally found the street that our hotel was located on. We were close. All I had to do was find the piazza to park in as the hotel had instructed me.
Aleks returned and said that the hotel advised us to just leave the car double parked until we checked in. That was all I needed to hear. At the front desk I asked where the piazza for parking was that they kept telling me about over the phone.
“It is just there. Where your car is.”
“That is the hotel parking? There is nowhere to park in the piazza.”
“We know. There is never any parking there. Just leave it there with the keys. We will take care of it.”