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Living Slow in Italy - Wheeling and Dealing

Valerie Schneider

My first car was a 1978 Chrysler Cordoba, a big gas-guzzling silver thing with that famous "Corinthian leather" interior. It was spacious enough to seat eight for dinner, I used to say, which was actually great because it meant that all my friends could pile in and we'd set off on road trips to such exotic spots as Cincinnati. Of course, gasoline cost barely a buck a gallon back in '85 when I acquired this set of wheels. I had to beg and cajole my mother into forking over the money for this long-coveted vehicle, which was my key to the open road and my first taste of freedom.

I purchased three other cars since then, all rather hard-won as we had to run the gauntlet of the stereotypical car salesmen. You know the drill: the big grin as they approach you just three seconds after you've set foot on the lot; the old stand-by, "this car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays." Then they begin the real push. "Let's go for a spin, give 'er a try," and, my personal favorite, "What will it take to put you in this car todaaay?" There is the attempt to up-sell; the negotiating sessions, where the salesman must "check with the supervisor" on the offer; the talk about how excellently maintained the vehicle was (never mind that my husband was an insurance adjustor who inspected vehicles for a living and detected hidden damage from an accident), and the statements that we are killing him by offering such a low amount. Car buying in America, for me, is akin to a trip to the dentist.

After much discussion, researching, talking out options and prices, we decided we needed a car here in Italy. The train to Rome is easy and convenient, but to go farther afield required connections and we discovered there are a lot of places we'd like to visit that aren't on the train route. Just to get into Anzio ate up the better part of the day. We commenced with car shopping.

There was a glitch in our plans: because we do not yet have residency status in Italy, we cannot legally buy a car. This hurdle had to be overcome by our friend, Francesca, who simply and graciously offered to buy the car for us in her name and turn it over to us. Unbelievably generous. Once that part was settled, we began the search, fearful that we'd not be able to navigate the world of used car salesmen, especially with our limited language skills. We needn't have worried so much. Car shopping in Italy is not quite the same as in America.

Our first stop was a lot owned by a guy so busy he arrives to work at 10:00 and promptly goes off across the street to prendere un caffe. A nice guy, Giuglio had tanti expensive, newer cars on the lot. We didn't hold out much hope. We told him our price range and he took us around back to the dirt-covered, older models. While he was eminently patient with our limited linguistic skills, after several visits we determined he didn't have a car that met our needs in our price range. We widened the search.

On most lots we had to seek out the salesmen to inquire about the cars. When we told them our needs, they didn't wince, whine, or try to talk us into a higher-priced model. They merely looked about the lot for what they could offer us. None pressed us to take a test drive; we had to specifically ask to provare la macchina, per favore. On most of the lots the cars were covered with a nice layer of dirt; no sparkling-clean, shiny "almost new" look here. No fancy signs bearing low prices or installment plans. No fancy modern glassed-in offices. All the salesmen we dealt with tried to be accommodating of our needs without ever being pushy or even asking if we wanted to buy the car. That was up to us to communicate.

We also quickly noticed that most vehicles seem to come in standard-issue gray. Why this is, I cannot tell you. I have an aversion to gray cars; now I own one. All the parking lots are filled with little gray cars, making it difficult to determine which one is ours. When we looked at a cute little Nissan model that was a metallic blue I wanted to immediately buy it just for the color, never mind that it was not in our price range and larger than would be manageable in medieval town centers. Reason won out over aesthetics reluctantly.

Bryan's job was to examine the vehicle, something he has long experience with. Mine was to do all the talking. Mind you, I know squat about cars, even in English. Suddenly I found myself thrust into the world of engine size, kilometers per liter, and power options, all in Italian. I asked about previous accidents, if the cars had always been in Anzio (salt air is corrosive, I've learned), and whether the car would come with a warranty. When we finally found the right car at the right price, I had to do the negotiating, while poor Bryan stood by smiling and gesturing and forking over the deposit money.

Bryan and the Ford Fiesta

Our new-to-us car is just a tad smaller than my grandissima Cordoba. Our used Ford Fiesta will get us where we want to go without having to wait for the masochistic regional bus drivers to take us there. We are now free to move about the country as we please! Or, at the very least, to go into Anzio on our own schedule. We have been exploring areas previously out of reach, such as the beautiful Circeo National Park and have searched for a place to call home more permanently.

This prize is not without its little drawbacks. Because we happen to be living in a beach resort during the peak of tourist season, finding a parking spot is no easy feat. Cars line the streets, the parks, and are frequently double-parked in town. They park on sidewalks and in front of gates. We have already procured for ourselves our first Italian parking ticket, after circling the centro for a good twenty minutes without finding a single open spot anywhere, we put the thing into an open spot that wasn't striped for parking. We had to go to the municipal police and shell out 35 euro for our little no-no.

The other issue is that I have a great paura of driving in Italy, or at least around here, since most of the residents are Romani who drive with complete abandon and inattention. Cars, motorini, little old ladies on bicycles all swerve about and enter roadways without a sideways glance rendering the streets an obstacle course. It's enough to give me heart palpitations. I've driven successfully in Tuscany, but that is completely different. Here I must close my eyes and hope for the best - not an action to be performed while behind the wheel. I'll wait until we travel to a more-tranquil place, or drive when we go in campagna. Bryan, on the other hand, thinks it very sporting to drive in Italy and looks at it as an engaging pastime. He relishes the narrow medieval streets where we must pull in the mirrors to clear the buildings, the steeper the better. Thrill-seeker.

The whole experience was relatively easy and we're pleased with the macchina. With our little car we again feel like teenagers with new-found freedom. But we have a lot more exotic places than Cincinnati to visit. Road trip anyone?

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2006

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