Driving, Italian-Style, And the Art We Didn't See

The assertive lady I had barely met, across the supper table, was asserting that she had been to Florence and had been uncontrollably overwhelmed by the museum treasures. With her eyes on me as the most likely to support her, she said to all, "Of course, you've been to Florence?"

"Yes," I said modestly.

"And isn't the art superb?"

"I don't know."

Should this small colloquy be noised about, with the possibility of fomenting international ill will, I quickly dispel serious consequences by a small explanation. I have been to Florence and I did not go the museum.

Italy was not altogether kind to us. We had looked forward to brushing up on things Latinish, and resumed our tour in our VW after an Austrian hospitality at the Zirlerhof, the Brenner Pass ahead. Northern Italy is beautiful. My friendly wife was driving, and her first Italian driver overtook us on our right, and beep-beep-beeped off down the mountain in frenzied glee. This quieted her and scared me, and in the lull that followed I said I had a grave misgiving about Italy.

"Language," I said. "We've made out fine with our small French and German, and our English helped some in Great Britain, but the only Italian word I know is 'hurdy-gurdy,' and I don't even know how to ask for a room."

"We'll make out," she said.

"Probably, but I'd like to hole up in a congenial Gasthaus and pick up a few words."

"Sound plan!" she said.

We continued, admiring the lakes, and before long she turned into an inn yard that had a neat sign: "Hier spricht Man Deutsch." But the young lady who greeted me inside did not respond to my "Guten Tag." She spoke with both hands at great length in a strange tongue I'd never heard before, and I later found the little sign was to entice tour buses of Germans and Austrians bound for Mediterranean seasides. They would be the ones who spoke German here. We stayed four days without linguistic improvement.

The same lasagna came for every meal, served by the same woman wearing the same black stretch-fabric gym rig, and it was embellished by the same elderly nonmusician who played a sour "O Sole Mio" on a rancid violin over and over. Now and then a tour bus would pause, lasagna was served, the fiddle was wrung, and off would go the happy Germans on holiday.

Our introduction to Italy ran thus, and it rained steadily so we were not eager to push on. The only Italian I learned was to point at the violin, shake my head, and beg, "Hurdy-gurdy?"

The continued rain swelled the torrent, and when we came to the Po River, I think it must have been, we found the bridge had washed away and we must cross on an emergency bridge of boats, anchored in the mad rush of water. The plank roadway bent and hove when a vehicle used it, horn going beep-beep-beep-beep-etc. in the Italian driving style.

The boats were not unlike a Grand Bank dory in shape, perhaps one-third larger, made of ferrous concrete and lashed together so if one went downstream, they all would. We paused to screw our courage to the sticking-place and had the thrill of watching a big Trailways-type tour bus cross. We waved at the Germans in passing as they ate their lunches. The boats went down to the gunwales in turn, and then popped up when the bus had passed. I didn't dare, but she did, and she held her finger on the horn button all the way across, Italian style. And so we came to Florence.

The ride was not uninspiring. Coming down a long grade in what I suspect were the Umbrian Hills, we found the side of a hill torn out by the freshet, and our fairly good road ended with a sign that said "ALT." We alted, and there we were. The fall was perhaps a mile, perhaps less, and steep all the way down. She said, "Now what?" and went beep-beep. "Returning is as tedious as go-o'er," I quoted, and she said, "Oh, shut up!"

But along behind us came an Italian driver, and passed us beep-beep and turned down a goat path that, because of its forested condition, we had not seen. Or had not recognized. He disappeared in the finality of descent, but we kept hearing his beep-beep. She turned about and came to Florence in a less precipitous manner.

THIS was in 1966. That was the year of the great floods in Italy when, among other savage damage, the museum at Florence was flooded. We were there. The waters had receded by the time we arrived, but we saw the museum door that had its picture in the newspapers all over the world. There was still some water for us, but the picture had been made at the crest. It was not a happy moment in Florence. Neither was it something we had come to see. No, I told the assertive lady at supper, we did not go in and look at art. "It was Art's day off," I told her.

I have freely admitted that my lack of any useful Italian at all had much to do with our faulted visit to Italy. But even so, we felt Italy was unkind to us. Lasagna is not of the high cuisine, and they do have some melodious violins. I hope. We did not go to Rome, but at the outskirts turned and headed for France. They loaded our VW on a flatcar to ride the railway tunnel under Mont Blanc. We rode backwards in the dark all the way to Modane, where it was still raining.

"Mouill!" I said to the first French inn-lady, and she agreed with me, but said the sun would rise tomorrow.

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