Winning Over Italy

The Price of Dignity


Over the Christmas period it is a long-held tradition in the southern parts of Italy to spend as much time with friends and family as possible.  It’s a sort of catch up and promise time.  Everyone’s worked hard all year and the time’s come to focus on what’s important in your life.  So over the last couple of weeks Maria and I have spent a lot of time with friends at their homes.  Arrive about 9.30pm, have a dram and eat a cake or two before sitting down to chat and play cards…and take as much money off each other as possible.  True seasonal spirit!  These evenings, as you can imagine when you’re losing  your shirt, can go on for some time.

During a lull in one of these visits one of Maria’s friends, Mario, turned to me and asked whether I ‘d managed to come to grips with driving on the other side of the road.  “To be honest Mario, It hasn’t really been a problem.  After all, I’ve driven in the US, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal before here.  But there is  one instinctive move that I can’t fully control yet”

“What’s that?” said Mario, no doubt a little irked by my blasé attitude.

“Well” says I,

“Just a couple of days ago I dropped Maria off at the station in the morning, as I do most days.  Then, on the way back home, I pulled up and parked outside Luca’s newsagents to buy some cigarettes.  I went in and hailed Luca as usual.  Luca, as usual, had my Winston Blues waiting on the counter before  I’d even walked in the door.  No problem.” 

At this point the rest of the evening’s guests have stopped talking about Mario’s wall-to-wall nativity scene (complete with waterfalls and a city of tiny lights) and are now listening to my story. 

“So what’s that got to do with driving on the other side of the road”?

My story is this.

I purchased the cigarettes, saying ciao to Luca, and walked sunnily out of the shop.  I strode  straight to the car, unlocked the door and got in.  In one easy natural movement I  grabbed and fastened the seatbelt before turning round to grip the steering wheel…..which wasn’t there!    I was holding thin air.  I was all securely belted up and ready to go, in the passenger seat!

This  might not have been a major problem if it hadn’t been for the 5 or 6 people on the pavement chatting.  Had they seen me? Had they noticed what I’d done?  If they had, then it would be all round the town within a matter of hours.  This is when you have those Victor Meldrew moments.  Ooooooh Nooooh!

How the hell do I extricate myself from this with any sense of dignity? I can’t sidle over to the driver’s side without really drawing attention to myself  – it’s a very small car and my sharp bony knees could well have created a new sunroof – and I can’t just unbuckle, open the door and whistle why I walk round to the other door, now can I?  What in god’s name do I do?

Then, genius!  In a moment of pure inspiration, I dive forward to the glove box and start fishing around with my right hand whilst, at the same time, casually unbuckle the belt with my left.  I pull out documents, manuals, empty mint packets and old parking receipts and then try to look puzzled.  Where could it be, I hopefully animated to the now-puzzled onlookers.  Then, and with only a momentary hesitation, having not found anything in the glove box that could possibly get me out of this, I started patting all my pockets.  No luck there, I mimed to my audience with a very Italian shrug. 

So, my opportunity was there for the taking. 

I got out of the car, checking  my pockets one more time as I walked back into the newsagent,  bought a lighter and came back out brandishing it with a sheepish smile for all to see before getting into the right (correct) side of the car and driving off with a squeal not quite appropriate for the motor I was trying to control.

Did I get away with it?  Who knows?  I never did look back at those folk chatting outside the shop.   No doubt I’ll find out one day.  The price of dignity?  1 Euro!

I was sure to lose more at the card table.