Lesser Bits, Greater Pieces
A collection of short essays based on newspaper columns by Robert Flanagan. These 207 selected columns from the Hampshire Review newspaper, like the predecessor book, Bits & Pieces, is an eclectic melange of tales of travels, children, grandchildren, great-grands, on words, exotic locales, wine, cats, wars, and pointless trivia.
Lesser Bits, Greater Pieces
Like a majority of world travelers asked to choose my favorite country to visit I would name Italy. All things being equal, e.g., no children/grandchildren considerations, I would even live out my life there. The beauty, climate, food, history, an unrivaled zest for life among its peoples—comprise an alluring siren call. But even Eden had its snake.
Rome. Imperial Rome. The Eternal City, which this April celebrated its 2755th birthday. Its parks and statuary, the Via Veneto, the Coliseum, the Forums, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navonna, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s—nothing like it anywhere else in Italy, indeed in the world. And nothing like the traffic in Rome, beyond anything anywhere else in Italy. And it is in the traffic where all things come to flashpoint in Italy.
The streets of Rome are festive battlegrounds where combat is directed from the wheel. Mad speed. Illogical tactics. Triple parking. Wrong way on one-way streets (It’s legal ... if you have a reason!). Italian drivers earn points in heaven for intimidating other drivers, especially of large, plush autos. They often deliberately smacked into one of these (American) behemoths, betting on insurance settlement. Struck twice from behind in normal driving conditions, I was both times accused of the most flagrant vehicular assassinations. My wife, once caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, creeping along a main street, was struck in the right rear door by a car catapulting from a side street. The Italian insisted to the cops that he was stopped at the corner, and Herself had come roaring down the crowded road, swerved into the side street, and smashed his grill with her door.
About the intimidation game... Italians loved to race into an intersection against the light, as if never to stop, garnering points if the crossing traffic stops or wavers. Americans, accustomed to crashes of massive destruction, would often swerve or halt to avoid collision, and the Fiat would breeze impishly through a raucous bleat of horns and disappear down a side street waving an “Italian salute.” Walkers in cross walks were sorely tested, even with the AVANTI signal. If you walked against the light, or crossed somewhere without light or crosswalk, you were fair game. Dead meat. But always, half the on-lookers would side with you in controversy.
On the Via Veneto returning to the embassy from lunch one rainy autumn day, my associate and I crossed Via Boncompagni in a crosswalk, with the light. A Fiat 500 (an Italian mini-marvel the size of a milk crate but carrying 13 people) suddenly screamed forward into the walkway and, seeing I had no time to be intimidated, slammed on the brakes, skidding to rest with the front, driver’s-side tire resting atop my Hush Puppy shoe. The Mario Andretti wannabe realized he’d pushed the envelope perhaps too far, but the engine died and he couldn’t back up.
I was armed: rain threatening, I had the requisite umbrella rolled in hand and, screaming a few of my own Italian salutés, I proceeded to beat the Fiat to death. The driver, eyes like saucers, arms flailing, ground the starter desperately, his mouth an open wound of astonishment at the thrashing his car was taking. Finally wresting my foot from beneath the wheel, I limped to the driver’s window with intent, but five or six young locals gathered to defend the driver’s life and national driving honor. I turned toward the curb, and there sat my friend, bowed over, howling hysterically, unable to speak through tears of hilarity. My umbrella was a write-off, too.
But would I go back? In a Roman minute!
—from “Italian Snapshots: Primo” page 6