mechanics 100: sputtering through Tuscan hills

We’ve all had those “I can’t believe how stupid I just was” moments. Maybe it doesn’t happen that often for you, but it seems to me that when I travel the amount of these occurrences dramatically increases. It’s unavoidable, really, because people in different places do things differently. I had a pretty fabulous blunder last year in Italy. Thankfully my wife Jessie was the only person there to witness it!

Jessie and I had just spent a romantic week meandering through the gorgeous alleys of Venice. The next stop was wine country: Tuscany. We boarded the train to Florence, anticipating the simplistic and rustic beauty that we’d read about in “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Florence was exciting. We stared in awe at the larger-than-life statue of David, then hit up an indoor market for giant slabs of focaccia slathered in pesto. Since we arrived late Saturday, we missed the last slot to view the inside of the Duomo. So we came back for mass on Sunday morning. And we got kicked out.

Now before you judge me, let me give you all the details! The squeaky little door attendant had it in for me from the start. He asked why we were there and I told him we wanted to attend the mass. Truth. He reluctantly let us in. We were early enough to get a seat near the front of the section for non-locals. Before the service started, I was looking up into the dome and admiring Vasari’s painting of The Last Judgement from my chair and happened to notice a crack. So I pointed it out to Jessie. As we craned our necks to see better that twerp planted himself right in front of me and very harshly rebuked me in Italian. I had no idea what he wanted! Maybe he didn’t like my pointing, or maybe he didn’t like that my legs were crossed. Whatever the case, I quickly sat very straight and was conscious not to make any sudden movements.

When mass was finished, the guards removed the altars so that people could move freely inside the building. Everyone started edging forward and staring up into the dome. Then at least 20 people took out their point-and-shoot cameras and began taking flash photos. I was shocked that this was being allowed, but I thought, “Well, okay. When in Rome….er, Florence.” I pulled out my DSLR, turned the flash off and snapped two photos. TWO. Can you guess who was there in 0.7 seconds? That jerk! He looked up at me as if I had just sandblasted the pictures off the dome and spewed out: “Leave. NOW!” I looked around confusedly as the others continued on their paparazzi sprees. I considered laughing at his pathetic angry face or asking him why it was ok for everyone else to take pictures. Truly, I hadn’t intended to take pictures at all. In the end I decided that spending the day speaking to the cops wasn’t the best way to spend my limited time.

But this part of the story isn’t my mess up. I blame the doorman for all that and hope he finds inner peace some day.

I went to pick up our compact rental car as Jessie waited with our backpacks at the hotel. I signed all the forms and the clerk walked me to the car, which was sandwiched on the curb of a busy street between two big vans. He asked if I needed help freeing it, since it was a manual transmission. I told him that wouldn’t be necessary. I’d learned to drive manual two years ago and had practiced with several different cars since then.

I jumped in the car and threw it in reverse. It rolled back but I couldn’t seem to get any pressure from the gas pedal. That was weird! Oh well. I wasn’t pressing it very hard because I didn’t want to ram the van behind me. Once I was back far enough to pull out, I put it into first gear and slowly eased onto the gas while easing up on the clutch. But instead of going forward the engine just revved. After several attempts, and a lot of strange looks from pedestrians, I decided that I wasn’t giving it enough gas. So the next time I put more weight on the gas pedal. And I ended up in the bumper of the van.

Seriously?! I’d had the car for 2 minutes and had already been in an accident! Terrified, I jumped out to inspect the damage. The owner of the van had been nearby and came running. He looked at me, looked at his bumper, scratched off the thin layer of paint I’d deposited, raised his shoulders and with a smirk on his face said, “It’s ok!” But he was sure to move his car forward another three feet.

Extremely perturbed, I gunned my car out of that cursed spot and took off down the road. Once the car was in motion it ran fine. But whenever I was stopped by a light or sign, the car jerked really strangely when I’d try to get it moving again from the stopped position. I thought, “That’s what I get for using the cheapest car rental available in Florence!” By the time I picked Jessie up I was palpably agitated.

We loaded up. Our destination was an amazing cottage at a Tuscan vineyard, just one hour’s drive away. We followed the google map directions I’d printed out but got lost somewhere after step three. Word to the wise: if you rent a car in Italy, spring for the GPS. The road signs in the cities are TERRIBLE! We tried everything to make the car work. We even tried starting the car in fifth gear, thinking that maybe the gears were backwards here. Nothing helped. Eventually we learned that you had to pull up on the whole gear shaft before putting the car in reverse. Well, at least we had one direction covered!

An hour later we finally made our way out of the city and stopped to ask for directions. I was barely managing to keep my anger in check. A woman pointed down the road and told me it was just up the hill and then another 20 minutes. I started up the hill, but halfway up it had a hairpin turn so I had to slow way down. The car completely stalled. There was no shoulder to pull over to, so I waved for the honking cars behind me to pass, then put it into neutral and rolled down to a driveway at the apex of the turn. I tried again, popping the clutch, screeching out and smashing the pedal to the floor. I got about 5 meters farther than the first time. I couldn’t understand it. Cars that were at a standstill behind me shot quickly past when I waved them by, yet my car couldn’t handle this measly 30% uphill grade? After my third try I was beat. I was so furious that the rental company had given us a lemon and that we were losing so much time. I turned around and headed back to follow a different route to the town.

Within 15 minutes I’d gotten myself stuck in a valley. Now I couldn’t go anywhere! The country road was twisted, steep and narrow for a half mile both ways, and I knew it was mocking me and my stupid car as we idled dumbly in its basin. I considered turning the car around and slowly reversing up the hill. The traffic here was pretty light, but there was enough to make that move too risky. I knew if we couldn’t get this figured out soon I’d have to suck it up and knock on the door of the farmhouse across the way. I didn’t relish the idea of trying to mime if we could use their phone or sleep in their driveway that night. So I mustered up all my resolve, gritted my teeth, reversed as far as I dared to give us a running start, and let the car fly.

Somehow we made it up and over the last hill. I’m pretty sure my white knuckles gripped across the steering wheel, my every muscle  tensed and rigid, and the string of unsavory words I was shouting at the car gave us the extra strength we needed to muster.

Bitter but triumphant, we coasted through the little village of Greve-in-Chianti and found the vineyard at the edge of town. I pulled in, relieved to be done with that trip. I started to park the car but the owner waived me to a different spot. Distracted, I went to shift the car into first gear. But something strange happened. The gear stick moved much further to the left than it had done all the previous times. And then I pushed it forward…and realized I had just found first gear. That’s right, I had been driving the car in third, fourth and fifth gear the whole time thinking they were first, second and third.

After I made that little discovery things changed. A day later you wouldn’t have been able to recognize me as I zoomed up and down those Tuscan hills at 100 km per hour like a native. At some point I think I even manned up and apologized to the car. The reason I decided to write about this story is because my father-in-law recently emailed me the contents of a letter from Italy in which I have been cited for a traffic violation in Florence. Sometimes you just can’t win! Personally, I think that pointy-faced doorman is behind all of this.