Life in the very fast lane

The main north-south highway in Italy is called an autostrada, a word that translates roughly to “American drivers better be wearing diapers when they’re on it. Otherwise they’ll have a lot of explaining to do when they return their rental cars.” It is also called the A1, although I’m pretty sure it was not named after the American steak sauce.

I was in Italy this month and drove long stretches of the autostrada. It is sort of like Interstate 89 here in northwest Vermont, except all the rest areas are open, you don’t have to exit the highway to buy Barbie dolls (the Autogrill chain sells them), and the asphalt is basically one long NASCAR track: Talladega without the STP and Little Debbie snack cake ads. It’s usually two lanes in each direction, four lanes total, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour — or 81 miles an hour — but even in the slow lane no one seems to go slower than 135 kilometers an hour. In the fast lane, you need to be flirting with Mach-1 or the car behind you will be nudging your back bumper — tailgating with ice dancer-like precision and hanging so close that you can barely see the vehicle’s front headlights in the rearview mirror when the driver is blinking them at you.

Blinking headlights is the Italian signal that you’re driving like your driver’s ed teacher is in the seat beside you, and you better get with the program and put your pedal to the metal.

Actually, I have no idea if there is such a thing as driver’s ed in Italy. I suspect there is, but based on how most people drive, you wouldn’t know it. And I don’t mean to imply that Italian drivers are as scary as Boston drivers; that would be real character assassination. I mean that something happens to people of all nationalities when they enter Italy. Judgment behind the wheel of a car evaporates like dew on a windshield by noon. The Americans and Germans and Brits get in the spirit quickly and drive like crazy people, too.

A friend of mine who lives in Rome once explained driving in Italy to me this way: “The men drive like madmen in their Fiats and Peugeots. The women drive like madwomen on their Vespas. Is this a great culture or what?”

Even the GPS navigation system in my rental car presumed drivers on the autostrada are going to ignore the 130-kilometer speed limit. One day my wife and I plugged in the directions from Montisi — the Lincoln, Vt., of Tuscany — to Florence. Most of the drive was on the A1 autostrada. When I drove at 130 kilometers an hour, our estimated arrival time in Florence would slip minutes and minutes further away. It seemed as if I had to drive 135 to 140 kilometers an hour to keep up with the GPS system’s projected arrival time.

I don’t have GPS navigation on my car here in Vermont because almost all of my driving is between Lincoln and Bristol and Burlington. You have to be capable of getting lost in your garage to get lost between Lincoln and Bristol. But I loved having a GPS computer in Italy. It wasn’t that I needed it to find my way around. It was that I had way too much fun plugging in Helsinki, Finland, as my destination and then driving south. I loved listening to the very nice woman with the British accent try and convince me over and over to make a U-turn. I wondered if eventually she would raise her voice, but she never did. My sense is that she would make a really good mother.

In any case, some people go to Italy to study Renaissance art or cooking or visit the Vatican City in Rome. Me? I go to Italy to drive.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 27, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.