You scratch my back(-end), and I’ll scratch yours

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A typical city car in Sicily's Catania: what's a scratch or two between friends?

This is my last reflection on what proved a fascinating and hilarious recent trip to Rome and Sicily. It concerns driving in Italian cities, and how it’s almost impossible, in those narrow medieval streets which frequently follow the original ancient Greek grid-pattern, to avoid scrapes and scratches. Yet, in some ways, the seemingly incessant horns, bumps and near-misses mask an approach to driving based on eye-contact and negotiation, something which works rather well in action and from which we might even learn in the UK. So this is not  a criticism of Italian traffic: on the contrary, this recent trip convinced me that they have some things very right.

Oops! Should have stuck to the native Fiat?

I’m not talking about Rome (we did that on foot), but Catania, where our hire firm’s generous upgrade from our desired tiny Fiat to a larger car was anything but an advantage.  In Catania we’d booked a hotel right in the middle: in the evenings, when on holiday, we like to park the car, join the crowds enjoying their passeggiata and, while wandering, find somewhere to eat (for my views on eating well in Italy, see my previous piece!).

Getting to the centre, unfortunately at afternoon rush-hour, was alarming – until we realised that there is a method in all the hooting, lurching forward, stopping, starting and creeping. Catania maybe Sicily’s second city, but it betrays its origins as the Greek city of Katane in its central grid of tiny roads. There aren’t many traffic lights, but intersections and crossroads without number. So how do they negotiate them all?

Normal for natives: a fact of life in narrow city streets

The answer lies in that very word. Yes, they hustle and push: but if, as a visitor, you can unfreeze yourself from the first attacks of mortal terror, you quickly realise it’s all a question of give-and-take. You shove your nose out of the side-turning. The driver closest to you isn’t going to let you into the flow, and pushes on: but the next one accepts the reality of your bonnet now being that bit further forward, and you’re out. And it really begins to work. Generally, even the hooting starts only when a single culprit refuses to play to those rules of eye-contact, bluff and negotiation.

A lesson for Brexit negotiators, perhaps?

In these mean streets, don’t be too proud of your shiny new motor

There is a cost, of course. I’ve illustrated this piece with random examples of the scratched cars that abound. I guess, because I haven’t asked anyone, that if you’re driving under those conditions and parking in such tight spaces, you accept that your car will accumulate superficial damage. It won’t write you car off, and in that climate there seems little rust: but there’s no purpose, I’d suggest, in being desperately proud of your gleaming new motor, treasuring it and polishing it.

And that’s really my point. You could argue that in the UK we’re slaves to controls and signals, and we generally curse our city traffic. But there are exceptions: in Oxford, for example, where by the station (formerly a traffic nightmare) there are new roundabouts without lines and defined by road colour alone, eye-contact and negotiation are called for – and they seem to work.

Our hire car: too big, too perfect for those streets (hence the rural background)

If I may become a little Zen for a moment, I wonder if we’re just too wedded to our gleaming paintwork: the more relaxed, realistic attitude we witnessed in Catania, that willingness to live with low-level bumps and scratches, might perhaps reduce anxiety and even road-rage. And keep the traffic moving.

It’s worth some thought, at any rate. And perhaps it gives me an excuse to return to Italy sooner rather than later – purely in the spirit of research, of course!

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