Recently, in an effort to gain insights into the Europea currency crisis, not to mention large quantities of weight, my family and I went to Italy.
Our plan was to rent a car and drive around on winding picturesque Italian roads. Because we are international travel sophisticates, we went in the middle of August, which is when the entire population of Italy, including statues, goes on vacation. It turns out that the No. 1 Italian vacation activity is to get in a car and drive around on winding picturesque roads, at approximately the speed of light.
I imagine that some traffic maneuvers are illegal in Italy. For example, you're probably not allowed to drive your car over a uniformed police officer without signaling. But other than that, pretty much anything goes. When we picked up our car in Rome, I asked a man for directions; he told me to start by driving the wrong way up a one-way street.
"Isn't that a one-way street?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, shrugging. "But who reads the signs?"
As far as I could tell, in 10 days of driving around Italy, there is only one strict traffic regulation: You are not allowed to be behind another motorist. If somebody is in front of you, you must, by law, get past this person, even if you are on a winding hillside road the width of a strand of No. 8 spaghetti, next to a humongous cliff. Several times I was passed by drivers who, as far as I could tell, got past me by driving right off the cliff's edge, so that their cars were briefly hanging right out in space, the way the cartoon Road Runner does.
We were on many small roads, because we stayed in some picturesque hill villages built a thousand years ago by people who put massive stone walls around them to indicate that these villages were never intended for automobile traffic. But you have to try to drive in them anyway, to reach your hotel. To do this, you follow a series of arrows, apparently put up by prankster villagers, which lead you through a winding maze of streets, sometimes passing the same point four or five times before reaching the center of the town, where the pranksters laugh and laugh as you inch your car through streets so narrow that they make the winding hillside road look like the New Jersey Turnpike.
Once we reached the hotel we did fine, thanks to my sophisticated international knowledge of Italian. I had memorized the Italian expressions for "I do not speak Italian," and "Do you speak English?" As a result, on two occasions, I strode confidently up to the hotel desk person and stated, in crude Italian, "I do not speak English."
Fortunately the Italians are low on snoot, so we were treated well despite communicating like tourist versions of Tonto ("We stay in room with toilet, yes?"). We ate many wonderful meals in the Italian style, wherein they keep bringing you more courses, and when you finally stagger away from the table, they follow you to your room and stuff food into your mouth while you sleep.
We also saw several hundred thousand important and historic ruins, cathedrals, statues, paintings, frescoes, mosaics, arches, relics, etc., which eventually formed one massive unforgettable throbbing historic blob in our minds.
At one point, we were in a very important church in Venice, and a guide was pointing toward the historic spot where St. Mark was entombed, and my son, looking impressed, said, quote, "The St. Mark?"
But of all our experiences, the one I remember most vividly was when we were in the Dolomite Alps, an area of historical importance and spectacular natural beauty, and I realized -- as perhaps such visitors as Hannibal and Napoleon had realized before me -- that our passports were missing. So I reported this loss to the local police, who typed up and handed me a detailed document that I believe said, in Italian: "The people holding this document have no idea what it says, but it will certainly get them out of our hair. Thank you."
In my sophistication, I actually believed that this document would be an adequate replacement for our passports. You can imagine how comical this seemed to the authorities when we got to the Milan airport and attempted to leave Italy. So our plane took off without us, and we got to spend a whole extra day in Italy, rearranging our travel plans and trying to prove to the American Consulate that we were Americans and should be permitted to return home.
We eventually got home, bringing with us valuable insights into the European currency situation, the main one being that if you go over there, you should take a lot of it.