In Spanish, “punto” means point, and is also the word for the period you put at the end of the sentence. Somewhere along the meandering path of my Spanish language studies, I adopted the phrase “Y punto!” to emphasize the end of my point or a story. Essentially I meant it to mean “And, that is that!” (I’ve also tried to insert it into many a Smith story, to little avail.) As many multi-lingual or multi-somewhat-lingual people may be prone to do, I like to insert my favorite phrases across language lines. So, I will sometimes throw “y punto!” into conversation with English speaking friends, and well, they don’t get the cutesie phrase, but it pleases me nonetheless.
Knowing this, you might be able to imagine my pleasure at finding the Fiat Punto waiting for us at our hotel when we arrived in Italy. Not only is it a truly Italian brand, it is a Punto!
Once you see the following photos, you may also be able to imagine how different adjectives sprang to mind as we inspected the vehicle.
Well, it doesn’t look too bad, not too bad at all. I can imagine riding around in this car for weeks as we settle in and get things figured out.
Wait. What’s that you say? This Punto doesn’t have air conditioning, not even on a good day?
And, then we also have the dented door panels. Oh well, guess we don’t have to worry about dinging up the rental car!
What I can say is that it is a manual with a homemade anti-theft system (it’s a secret, don’t ask). Since neither Dave or I have owned a manual transmission automobile, we’ve really enjoyed learning on a rental car’s clutch. It has taken a little bit of abuse from each of us (talk about the “what’s that smell” effect…), and we’ve traded theories about the best way to (a) get into first gear, (b) downshift smoothly, (c) avoid the glug when shifting into second gear. Leave your best advice in the comments, if you have tips!
Italian drivers are both living up to the hype, and surprisingly steady drivers. The key to driving here (anywhere, really) is to view the road as a video game screen and realize that vehicles, people, animals, random flying objects, burning vegetation, bicycles, pedestrians, road workers, etc. can enter into the screen from any direction, at any time; they will expect you to maintain your speed and direction. So, the best way to drive safely is to do just that – maintain the car’s speed and direction as you are aware of what’s going on around you.
For example, cars passing from behind make more of a smooth “S” shape as they pass you, just barely clearing your back bumper on the way into the passing lane, and slipping past your front bumper on the way back into the driving lane. By the way, you might never see this car in your rearview mirror, depending on the curves of the road and the speed of the car. Oh yea, and they pass you just about anywhere. And, that’s legal to do if you are going “slowly” and the pass they made was reasonaly safe for the conditions. (I’m paraphrasing our Italian driving instructor’s comment about legality.) This passing technique is quite different from the U.S. where a car will approach from behind, ride your bumper for a while, peek out a few times to check for traffic, finally move out into the passing lane well behind you and complete the pass in more of a “U” shape.
Right about now, some of you are wondering about the phenomenon of sharing a two-lane road amongst three (or even four) cars. Yes, it happens. No, it doesn’t happen a lot (at least not yet). In the case that during a pass, an oncoming car approaches, the expectation is to make room for all of the cars to fit on the road and complete their maneuvers. That means the oncoming car and the car being passed will move to the shoulder to accommodate the passing car. Well, you move to where you *wish* there was a shoulder, and hope for the best.
Other than the speed racers, the rest of Italian drivers just want to get from point A to point B like the rest of us. They are accustomed to grouping and ungrouping in untidy clumps around the roundabouts, and that is the way all of traffic goes here. Usually, the clump of cars has some amount of forward motion and everyone jostles for position, sometimes letting another car into the clump and other times cutting across the nose of three different vehicles on the way to an exit. The Italians practice a belief in the phrase “Oggi a me, domani a te” (literally: Today to me, tomorrow to you) ”Today it may be me, tomorrow it may be you” who needs to cut across the traffic. It is this pragmatic sentiment, and not an overabundance of generosity, that results in relatively few horns being sounded during traffic rush hours.
The horn is more frequently used as a very light beep-beep to alert other drivers, bicyclists and persons on the roadway. The car sounds the horn going around tight corners, or heading into a one-lane tunnel (there are plenty of them here), or when it sees a car poking its nose out of a blind driveway, or at a bicyclist on a narrow road. The horn in these instances means “Hello! Here I am! I’m coming and I’m not slowing down! You look lovely in one piece, please stay where you are! Ciao!”