PART UMPTEEN OF AN OCCASIONAL, HYSTERICAL SERIES
We have had torrents of rain for the last week. As a result, driving my son to school has been permanently upgraded from a Level 2 to a Level 1 risk activity. This is because of the new holes that have formed in the road.
I do have a money-making plan to take advantage of this, though. I am going to open one of the giant holes in the road as a municipal open-air swimming pool and sell admission tickets to locals. I shall open the other networked hole-complex as the “Bagheria caves and grotto” and charge an exorbitant admission fee to tourists, which will include a guided tour and a souvenir lump of dislodged asphalt.
Well, this local event reminded me to publish another installment in my occasional series on Driving in Sicily.
Road holes are a major hazard in Sicily. They are literally everywhere. You will never find twenty feet of road free of a significant hole. Like my new local ones, they can often be as much as two feet deep. Look out for puddles! They may contain far more water than you estimated!
When driving along in a particularly holey area, you can adopt one of two tactics. One is to look for a hump before the hole, accelerate towards it and thus lift your vehicle up into the air, enabling it to fly over the hole and land gently the other side. This is clearly a technique for advanced drivers. The other is simply to swerve around all holes, slalom-style, to avoid thumping down into them.
Fiats have fairly “rigid” suspension, so some form of hole avoidance is to be recommended. Extreme hole avoidance can become addictive, however. Since cars overtaking you may not have got round to hooting at you yet, it would clearly be dangerous if you were to take a huge and sudden swerve in front of them.
Hole avoidance on motorways is particularly important, and complex.
Motorway driving in Sicily is completely different from motorway driving in the rest of Europe. The motorways only have two lanes. I am aware they are like this in Germany too. Germans solve the problem by harassing each other along one behind the other, at 120 miles per hour, leaving a safe stopping distance of three quarters of an inch. Most Sicilians solve the problem by driving along the hard shoulder instead.
In Sicily there is also the problem of finding cars travelling up the slip road in the wrong direction. There is also the fact that the ‘I’m pulling out if you don’t hoot’ rule means Sicilian drivers always pull out of slip roads in front of you, because they have already built up so much speed that no matter how much you hoot, the Doppler effect means they think it was a rare bird cooing to its love in a distant nest.
Above all, there is the fact that there are never any warning notices or road cones set up to close a lane when there are road works going on. You just find yourself screaming at seventy miles an hour towards a vast hole, forming a dead-end, demarcated by a sign embellished with diagonal red stripes and a row of bum cleavages, getting sunburnt and sweaty while their owners mess about with tarmac (yes, some things are just like home). The hard shoulder on your right is occupied by a Fiat Uno on the verge of breaking the land speed record, and there is a ten ton lorry overtaking you in the lane to your left. Here is where you test the emergency braking powers of your silver Fiat Punto, and hope that the driver of the white Fiat Cinquecento behind you has got fast enough reactions to go from seventy to nought in five seconds while talking on his mobile phone which, since he’s Sicilian, makes him look as if he is conducting the Emperor Waltz with both arms and one leg.
Pedestrians are the final road hazard to be aware of in Sicily. They are often sensible enough to realise that they should keep well out of your way, yet you will find that there is a steady, reliable supply of fools just waiting to leap in front of you as you rocket towards them.
They will often be daredevil young lads who like to feel they can outrun any Fiat Uno that may dare to defy them as they cross the road. They may be lardy little kids in tracksuits drawn towards the cake shop. Most often of all, however, they will be a little, old, round-shouldered granddad, about three feet tall, carrying a colossal crate of oranges or bread or artichokes from his delivery van to his shop. He is seventy-five years old, he has been doing this backbreaking work full-time since he was nine, and frankly he does not care if somebody takes him off now.
Or does he? Perhaps he feels his time on this earth is running out and he simply cannot afford to waste precious minutes of his remaining life waiting for all the Fiats to get out of his way. Perhaps it is because he has a picture of Padre Pio and another of the Baby Jesus of Naples pinned up in his shop and he knows they are looking out for him. Or else perhaps he knows that his six foot tall son Totò is in the Fiat behind you and, if you touch a whisker on his body, you will find yourself going swimming with concrete boots on.
This brings me to the single most important rule for road safety, not only in Sicily but throughout Italy. That is, always have a religious icon dangling from your rear view mirror. You can touch it and say a little prayer before crossing a particularly ropey-looking road bridge which has not been restored since Ancient Roman times. (Readers in America may think that is part of my trademark exaggeration, but it isn’t). You can also look at it for inspiration and safe guidance throughout performing any particularly tricky manoeuvre, such as a three-point turn on a motorway.
Sicilians will often go on a pilgrimage somewhere and bring a dangly icon or at least a rear window sticker back for their car. My Mother-in-law, The Godmother, always takes two suitcases when she travels on pilgrimages, one for luggage and a second, empty, one to fill with sacred relics to distribute among her loved ones upon her return.
Sicilians also usually have the local priest come and bless their new car or motorbike before they drive it, dousing it with holy water and saying potent prayers over it. At the very least, furnish yourself with some rosary beads. They will help you defy all the odds and survive driving the streets of Palermo and the motorways of Sicily. Do not expect divine protection without them.
The pictures in this post came from this web page, which has many other very funny ones too: