First off, this is not a primer about the various gestures and “hand signals” Italians use to wordlessly communicate to other drivers here in Milan. Although, trust me, I have had plenty of those aimed in my general direction. Avoiding accidents is good policy no matter where you are, but as a driver new to the country, I’d prefer not have to use my limited Italian language skills to describe any incidents to the polizia. Also, one tries to avoid being part of the flashing-light street-side spectacles that the Italians are famously fond of—they last for hours, and require a stack of paperwork decipherable only by old-money Italian lawyers.
I drive about two hours a day in Milan. After couple of months of this routine, I decided I didn’t want to resent my time in the car, that I needed to consciously improve my driving. I would try to pay more attention, to put my ego in the backseat, and get into the flow of driving in Milan.
“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help.” —Marcus Aurelius
The first thing I heard about driving in Italy was from my wife’s boss who stated that lanes and lights are “suggestions.” He added later that there are intersections with cameras so some suggestions should be considered more strongly than others.
Lanes are fluid here. At some intersections, two lanes become three or four, and sometimes disappear altogether, looking like the bottom of an airport escalator after five planes have landed.
There are crazy amounts of scooters and motorcycles. The riders have all been trained in stunt-riding, possibly at a circus. They weave their way through the maze of cars stopped at a light, then on green, begin zooming in and out of lanes. They pass trains and buses by veering temporarily into oncoming traffic. Being on a scooter somehow renders them fearless.
Here’s where I’ve had to up my driving game with payoffs for the rest of the day.
Be Present/Pay Attention
With all the opportunistic and creative lane-changers, the acrobatic scooterists, some incredibly complicated intersections involving up to five streets, two train routes, and possibly a canal, you have to pay air-traffic-controller-like attention. Defensive driving taken to a new level is necessary here. You must be present, very present grasshopper. Set your mirrors carefully. Assume that there’s someone in your blind spot.
Let’s talk about pedestrians. No one crosses the street here without concurrently interacting with their phone somehow. Everyone is reading texts, or talking. I will sometimes see groups walking and talking together. But just as often, everyone’s on their own phone. Given the crazy traffic situation here, not paying attention as you cross the street is, to my mind, putting a lot of faith in the universe for protection. I am not familiar enough with the Catholic religion to know if it’s included in the Catechism.
I very rarely rock out while driving because it’s too damn distracting. Also, because one tries not to look like a dork. On the highway, I may put on jazz and star in a European film from the 60s for a bit, but in town I need to be as much like the Buddha as possible.
Don’t be in a Hurry
It is very unpleasant to be in a hurry here while driving. You start thinking about how to make up time, you go too fast, you are no longer present, no longer giving driving your full attention. When you are in a hurry, anxiety is your copilot, navigator, and backseat driver all rolled into one. I prefer Google Map’s Lady Robot as my navigator and copilot, even if she, while directing me in English, butchers the Milano street names in hilarious fashion.
Plus, if you are not in a hurry, you are more likely to
If you have enough time, you can let people onto the street in front of you without worry. If I’m in a hurry, I absolutely do not want to lose a few spots in the driving line—getting through a light a couple streets down could save 5 minutes! There are streets here that feed into very busy streets that are not regulated by traffic lights. In the United States, these people would wait several forevers.
If you find yourself on one of the streets, you have to nose your car out when there’s a gap in the traffic coming the other direction, and then hope your confidence springs a gap so you can make your left turn. I try to let one of these cars through when I’m able to do so. Despite my appreciation of Buddhism, I do not believe in any sort of karma-magic. Personally though, I do feel better about inserting my way into traffic if I’ve been on the other side of the equation a number of times. Possibly, this is what karma is supposed to be about anyway. When you have time, and can put yourself in that person’s shoes, it’s an easy decision to make.
Acknowledge mistakes/no reactive gestures
Sometimes you screw up and because of the grace and awareness of another driver, there wasn’t a crash. Flipping them off because, somehow, it’s their fault (?) doesn’t help. In fact, I feel shitty after being a prick. There’s no reason to add to the anger on the road just because your little ego can’t admit fucking up. Wordlessly confess your crimes and drive on—and hope the driver isn’t dropping their kids off at the same school as you.
Don’t be Anxious
If you’re driving to, say, a doctor appointment, don’t worry about parking until you’re there. Sure, it’s busy, and you’re heading into a crazy part of town—or maybe you’re heading home, you live by me, it’s Friday night, and the theater down the street has a production and so parking will be challenging.
Relax. First worry about getting there. When you arrive, you can
If you can get onto the sidewalk without blocking pedestrian traffic or park in another car—do it—park there. I actually don’t know if it’s legal. I’m assuming it is—maybe it’s just decriminalized. Italy has streets that come into at an angle to each other and so there’ll be a triangular zone marked by white paint —park there. Pull up on the curb a bit. You likely will not get a ticket. If you’ve parked like this fifty times and you finally get one—whatever—that’s still cheap parking.
There are plenty of ways to park creatively. As long as you’re not in a spot designated for a weekly street market the next morning (not that I would know anything about that), or you haven’t parked anybody in while sidewalk parking, you’ll very likely be unticketed and untowed.
Finally, we are all in this together
Driving in Italy is chaotic and requires you to pay attention to get where you want to go. Cut other drivers some slack. If enough of us cut each other some slack, be a bit generous from time to time, then we’ll all get to where we want to go as efficiently as possible—which is the goal, right?
To sum up: give yourself enough time, be generous, and keep your ego out of the driver’s seat. In fact, if you can tie your ego up, put it in cement shoes and drop it into a deep body of water—all the better. At the very least, lock it in the trunk while you are driving, and if you forget and leave it in there after you’re home, I seriously doubt anyone will complain.