After spending a few glorious days walking around Florence and Cinque Terre, my brother and I headed north to Piedmont to the small town of La Morra, near Alba, home of the White Truffle Festival. Anyone who loves food and wine, this is a bucket list type of event. Barolo and Barbaresco flow like water, endless plates of cured meats and cheese scatter tables, and pasta dishes showered with ribbons of freshly shaved white truffles abound. It was a whirlwind of wine, food, truffles and, if I remember accurately, shots of grappa, which might have been the catalyst for the foggy memory.
As the festival wrapped up, it was time for my brother and I to depart. He was continuing on his Italy odyssey, headed for Verona. I was off to Rome to catch my plane back home. We had rented a car in Florence to make the journey through Cinque Terre and onto Piedmont. The car was a necessity in Piedmont, as public transportation was spotty and the area was rather rural. My plan was to drive from La Morra to Florence, return the rental car and hop on a train to Rome. Sounds easy, right? Well, not exactly.
Unable to use Google Maps on my phone (this was 2005) and not having a GPS in my car, I had to rely on a generic Italy road map, a tricky task as I was by myself. My first goal was to make it back to the autostrada (highway) and head towards Genoa to begin my trek to Florence. As it was very early Sunday morning, in a rural area, I had yet to pass a single vehicle in my first thirty minutes. After passing through a particularly small sleepy village, I noticed a police vehicle stopped along the road ahead of me. I double checked my speed but did not think much of it. As I approached the car, the officers got out and waved a red flag. I momentarily thought about not stopping, but since I was the only car in sight in either direction, I decided that this was not a wise decision.
I pulled over on the shoulder and waited for the officers. One officer approached my window and began speaking Italian. I asked if he spoke English, but this was disregarded and he continued speaking Italian. I handed over my US license and my passport, assuming that somewhere amongst his rambling he wanted to see my ID. I noticed the second officer, who had been standing behind my car, walking around towards the front. He came around and stood directly in front of my bumper, then pulled out an fully automatic weapon (it looked like an Uzi) and pointed at me through the windshield. He did not say anything, but the idea of being on a deserted rural road with two police officers, one of them pointing an automatic weapon at me was disconcerting.
The first officer started to inspect my papers, conferring with the second officer, still pointing his gun at me. They maintained a back and forth which seemed to take better part of a day, before he handed my license and passport back to me. He leaned in towards me and look inside my car. He then stood back and in perfect English, asked, ” business or pleasure?” I was a little stunned by the inquiry, but I was able to mutter, “pleasure?”
The officer nodded his head and signalled to the other officer, who dropped his gun. Both men returned to the police vehicle silently, pulled out and sped down the road. I sat, stunned, for a few minutes, trying to gather my thoughts and control of my bowels about this bizarre experience.
I recovered quickly and restarted my trek to Florence, which is hands down, my least favourite city to drive a vehicle. I drove in Boston during the Big Dig, and that was like navigating an empty parking lot compared to Florence. Since this was a rental car, I stopped on the outskirts of Florence to fill the tank, attempting to avoid the dreaded additional charge from the rental car company. I was about five miles from city center, so this was going to be a breeze. Or so I assumed.
Fast forward forty-five minutes, and I was loudly swearing to myself and at every one-way or do not enter sign. I was within sight of the rental car company and had been for a better part of an hour, and I could just not get through due to the ridiculous Florence streets, a maze of one way streets. Multiple times I was on a street, heading the right direction, before the road dead-ended at an intersection with one way traffic heading towards me, forcing me to turn away from where I needed to go. I was weaving through traffic and driving like a manic, which means I fit right in with the other Italian drivers. I attempted to consult the map while frantically driving, made more challenging by the road names on the map that required an electron microscope to read and streets that randomly changed names each block despite not turning. I eventually discovered the magical entrance to the rental car garage, which felt like discovering Narnia, but not before having to cross the Arno River twice in order to get on the correct road to the garage. By sheer luck, I made it with a full tank.
I certainly had an intriguing first European adventure, starting with running from a train conductor and ending with having a gun pulled on me for no apparent reason. The icing on the cake though was the €150 charge I received from the rental company six months after my return home. I got the paperwork in the mail and had it translated by a friend who spoke Italian. I received a speeding ticket in Florence (they use speed cameras, so no need to pull anyone over) and had failed to show in court.
I still have a love affair with Italy and have been back twice since this inaugural trip. I plan on going back again. There is something mystical about Italy. I almost got mugged by a scheming conductor, had a gun pulled on me and got fined for failing to appear in court for a ticket I never knew I received. Yet my most vivid memories of Italy are of eating fresh anchovies on the water in Liguria, seeing the Duomo for the first time and eating and drinking my way trough the White Truffle Festival. There are few places on Earth like Italy. For all of its issues, for all of the times you get frustrated with the quirks and just want to scream “why?!”, you immediately discover the prefect piazza, or an ancient Roman ruin, or have the simplest pasta dish whose deliciousness defies logic. For me, my misadventures in Italy were both strange and bizarre, but it is part of the Italy experience and I would not change a thing.