I figured that pronunciation out, oh, about a thousand quizzical looks too late.
I thought driving in Italy on my own would be a huge step up from public transportation. I didn't quite realize the challenge. It started on day one when I got off the highway and had to stop at an unmanned toll booth, count up Euros and toss my handful of change into a basket so the gate would open.
Then I had to figure out parking and driving rules.
Getting to the cities from Serramazzoni, where I was staying with a friend, was relatively easy. I followed the handy signs sporting concentric circles, indicating the way to the town "centro."
It was getting home that was the problem.
Despite coming in on main roads and observing my surroundings as best I could, I typically got completely thrown trying to make my way back out. More often than not, those main roads were one way going in, or I was forced to detour off them for some reason. And, when reversing the trip, I was without the benefit of signs indicating "this is your way home."
Most of the beautiful, centuries-old cities I visited in Emilia Romagna- Bologna, Modena, Parma - don't allow parking in the city center. When I found a place to leave the car, I had to be sure to write down where I'd parked, so I'd be able to find my way back to it.
You know what would have been really good to know? That the Google maps app works in Italy. Oh, you knew? Everyone knew? Why didn't anyone tell ME?
Instead, I spent a lot of time asking strangers, "Scuzi, parla inglese?"
In retrospect, though, half the fun of the trip ended up being my attempts to communicate with random Italians.
Everyone whose day I interrupted was so warm and helpful. They stopped what they were doing to try to guide me. Some could speak a few words of English. Most spoke in Italian and pointed, and because I nodded as if I understood (hey, I'd studied Italian for an entire week before traveling, and I understand pointing), they continued to speak in Italian.
So off I would go in the direction they pointed, and then had to stop a few blocks later, lowering the passenger-side window and asking someone else, "Scuzi, parla inglese?"
Amazingly, I managed to get to all the places I wanted to go. I found parking places, dropped coins in parking meters and was never ticketed.
In Bologna, I found the grand piazza as the sun was setting and walked through neighborhoods, window shopping and wandering into stores. Observing a demonstration. Don't ask me about what. I didn't understand their signs.
The jumble of buildings in Parma surprised me. So varied and interesting. I strolled from ancient piazzas into a modern bookstore, charmed by the juxtaposition of old and new.
Visiting Modena at midday, a sharp sun spotlighted multicolored buildings and the main piazza with its church and cafes where people sipped espresso and observed the passing scene. Beautiful. I searched a few stores for the traditional vinegar the area is known for, but ended up buying it in Brisighella - known more for producing olive oil. And it wasn't the tradizionale kind, sadly.
Because I'm here blogging you know how this story ends. I managed to find the airport and return the car. And I'd do it again. Drive (stick shift, of course!) in Italy, that is. But next time I'll use the maps app from the start - at least where there is a satellite connection. That wasn't always the case.
Happy New Year to all.
Photos: Ellen Perlman
Modena, Italy; Parma, Italy; Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (though not the prized "tradizionale" product)