|It was a dark and stormy night. Don’t all good stories start out this way? Actually, it all started out Sunday afternoon on our way home from Verona. As we were starting out from Verona, Rino made the statement that the weather was changing. When we got back to their house later that night, I told Mimi that I thought he was right. There was a chilly wind in the air. She pooh-poohed our predictions since it was still 24 degrees (C) and we had to sleep with windows open and just a sheet over us. It had been 28 degrees when we left Verona and the temperature was falling, there were high clouds forming, a different smell in the area and my right knee was starting to give me little twinges. I suppose this last indicator could be attributed to my having three surgeries on that knee and had been on my feet touristing all day, but hey, a trick knee is nothing to take lightly.
On Monday Mimi, Vanda and I were off to Lago di Garda for a day of sightseeing. What a beautiful area this is. We lunched at a wonderful restaurant up in Tignale and then took an absolutely breathtaking drive back down the mountain through an incredible canyon and into Limone. We had to go here to buy my new leather jacket at the shop of one of Vanda’s friends. There’s something about 6 beautiful Italian women telling a man how nice he looks in a jacket that makes him shell out over $300 for it. Go figure. Well, the sun was still shining on us and Mimi was convinced Rino and I were full of hot air (and other substances, probably). As we got farther south, though, I pointed out again to her that clouds were forming and the air felt different. She wasn’t convinced. I had noticed while getting back into the car at some point that one of the headlights on Vanda’s beautiful Alfa-Romeo was out and told her about it. About an hour later as we were pulling into Limone, the Caribinieri pulled us over and told her her the same thing. I offered to replace it if we could find a replacement lamp at a gas station, but she wanted to wait and Let Rino take care of it. Okay by me.
We got back home around dark and at dinner I made sure Rino knew about the headlamp so he could get it taken care of. Here in the USA, an officer has to pull you over. But in Italy, the Caribinieri stand out by the side of the road with a little round paddle with a red circle surrounding a white center field. They sit by the side of the road and simply step out and wave this paddle at folks to pull them over. They seem to do this early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Tuesday we were supposed to go and pick up Elena’s new car. Rino had gotten a great deal on this new Fiat to replace her old one. Same color, essentially the same car only about 15 years newer and with a few little things like automatic windows and door locks, a CD player and most important a new car warranty and less likelihood the thing would break down on her while she is off working in Romania for a year. Also, because it isn’t a fancy model or a new and hot car, it is less likely to be stolen. He was very proud of the deal he’d gotten and was anxious to meet with Paolo and exchange the old one for the new.
So on Tuesday, Rino drove Davide’s old Renault to work and was going to meet us sometime around 5:00 pm back at the house where he and Vanda (and hopefully, me) would get in Elena’s old Fiat, drive it about 50 K to the dealership and exchange it for the new one. Ah, yes. What is that about the best laid plans? Sometimes, everything that can go wrong will. This was one of those times we were to discover. First there is the matter of Davide’s Renault. Fast car!!! Okay, so it’s a bit on the aged side and maybe has a few electrical problems. No big deal. Okay, okay. So what if it tends to vapor-lock when the weather turns damp? No problem. Oh yeah, did I mention that Rino and I had predicted a weather change Sunday evening and the clouds were continuing to build Monday?
Tuesday morning Mimi, Vanda and I took off for Desenzano. There was a lovely mercato there and we had to purchase our train tickets for Rome. We started getting little sprinkles throughout the morning and by about 1:30 in the afternoon it was RAINING.
We’re talking umbrella stuff, here and the ground getting wet and having to use windshield wipers. Of course, the weather is getting more humid, too. Remember what I said about the Renault? It wouldn’t start when Rino tried to get it going after work. Now Vanda had to go to the Air Base in Ghedi and pick him up from work (in the rain). This, of course, meant we were now way behind schedule for getting to the dealership. Rino met us at the gate and we took Mimi back to their house and Rino got the old Fiat ready. This involved removing the battery that was in it and replacing it with a dead one. There’s no sense of trading a car in with a perfectly good one is there? He’d put the bad battery on the charger, but even then, we had to use the Alfa to jump start it. If you know anything about electrical systems in automobiles, you know that if a battery is good, you can drive with things like lights and windshield wipers on while you drive and the generator or alternator will continuously charge the battery and the engine will run fine. But when you have a bad battery, it is dark and raining and rush hour traffic is especially bad, SOMETHING has to give and it isn’t going to be the traffic.
We set off from the house and almost immediately ran into a traffic jam. And when I say a traffic jam, Seattle has nothing on northern Italy for long lines of cars. The difference being that we have 8-lane highways while they have a whole series of 2-lane roads going in all directions and traffic stopped on all of them. With some wonderfully colorful Italian phraseology of which I knew very little but understood its meaning totally, Rino got out of the line and found a “short-cut” through the middle of some farm fields. This involved a short section on a muddy gravel road. As we were paralleling the Autostrada (freeway), he pointed out more than once how good it was we were traveling at 90 K, while traffic above was stopped. All was going pretty well. He kept the usage of the wipers to a minimum and I’m not sure we had the headlamps on except when we were approaching an intersection. When I said all was going pretty well, I didn’t mention that where the Autostrada goes OVER the railroad tracks, this little back road we were on has to cross them. There are many trains in Italy. This, of course, was the only place in the entire plan where something could hold us up and as luck would have it, we got stopped in a line of about 10 cars waiting for a train. Rino kept the engine revved and kept the wipers and lights off. We waited. For about 5 minutes we waited. Finally, a train came by at about 110KPH. But then the signals didn’t go up. We waited for about another 5 minutes. Nothing. We continued to wait. Still nothing. Finally, after about 15 minutes, another train goes by and the arms go up. Traffic starts to move. The engine falters. Then it coughs and sputters. Rino is doing his best to keep it going, but alas, as we start to move, it dies.
Remember, the battery is dead. We didn’t bring the jumper cables with us. We are on a back road. It is getting dark. It is raining. There is a car about every 3 or 4 minutes driving by. None offer assistance. Rino is giving me a highly valuable Italian verbiage with words such as, well….you get the point. We decide we will try to push start the car finally. Vanda is on the cell phone trying to get Paolo, the dealer. She has the wrong number. Rino and I are pushing the car and he jumps in, pops the clutch and tries to fire the engine. Nothing. Then he decides we should push it up to the railroad crossing which is on a little rise. Huffing and puffing, the three of us get it up there. I tell Vanda that maybe we should just park it on the tracks and let the train take it. As we are just coming onto the tracks, “ding, ding, ding….” and the arms start to drop. Knowing the trains move about 110KPH, we hustle now. Rino jumps in the car and swoops down the other side and pops the clutch. If we’re going to get enough momentum, this is going to be it. Vanda and I give as much as we’ve got and send him off the ridge and stand out of the way of the oncoming train, wet and winded, laughing at the situation and hoping to hear the engine spark to life. Nothing.
We walk up to the car and Rino says we’re going to try some more. We all three push for all we’re worth (remembering we’re all rapidly approaching middle age). Rino jumps in and tries again. Nothing. Vanda and I continue to push. Rino is in the car yelling, “VAI….VAI” and we’re wheezing and dripping and finally rebel against this approach. It is hopeless. We push the car off to the side of the road and Rino says to close the car up. Vanda finally makes a connection with the dealership and Paolo is going to come pick us up. So for the next half-hour we stand on the side of the road in the rain under umbrellas waiting for a guy to show up. I teach Rino a couple of choice American phrases to complement his collection of Italian phrases. Finally, Paolo shows up with jumper cables, gives a start and then follows us into town, another 30 or 40 kilometers. The deal is done and we drive home in a beautiful new Fiat.
Rino is a very proud and generous father. He has seen to it that his daughter has a safe and reliable new vehicle for her next adventure. If he can’t have her close, at least he can have her safe. All along the drive home, he points out the wisdom of this purchase and we all exchange many laughs about our great adventure. I am left with an incredible sense of pity for those Americans who travel to Italy, or other foreign countries for that matter, and spend their whole time in hotels, art museums and never get to know the people in the places to which they travel. I felt truly blessed to be a part of this little bit of family adventure. This is what makes LIFE the truly wonderful experience it is. We saw many beautiful sights in Italy, but we also got to experience a little bit of normal Italian family living. Of course, I got to learn some new vocabulary, too. That can’t be all bad can it?
narrated by Donald