I’m in Italy this week, hosting a retreat for my Mastermind members. I flew in ahead of everyone to ensure chef, villa, supplies are in order.
My flight got into Florence Peretola Airport at 11 am. My taxi brought me directly to the Kitchen and Bar at the Place Firenze. Pictures of the restaurant overlooking the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella enchanted me online just a few days ago, so I made a reservation. The concierge was curious.
“Where are you was from?
“How do you know about this restaurant?”
“Google.” I responded plaintively.
I wasn’t into exchanging pleasantries. I had my marching orders for the afternoon: lunch, pick-up rental car. Go to train station. Pick up a member of the Mastermind training it in from Milan.
In that order. I wanted to leave myself plenty of time.
I know HOW to drive. I’m from Pennsylvania. I think I”m pretty good driver. But, I’ve also lived in New York City since 1997. I don’t own a car. I rarely drive. Each time I rent a car, it’s the equivalent of birth trauma. The technology has jumped in quantum leaps since the last time I rented one. And I have to re-orient myself with the basics again: Controls for windshield wipers, lights, gear shift. And now I”m dealing with a European car to boot.
I picked up the rental at 1:30pm, punched in the address of the train station into GPS and started gingerly down the streets, fiddling with my seat. Similar to New York, Florence demands defensive driving. My Skoda was sharing street real estate with bikes, scooters, dogs, cars. A wayward pedestrian could dart in my path at any moment. The streets in Florence are also miniature, dating back to 1339 when SUV’s were not a thing. The bylanes are the size of alley ways. I held my breath as I drove. Moving gingerly.
Between 2–3pm, I was pretty much lost. I circled and circled. A skinny concierge, with John Lennon circle glasses and grey overcoat, stood on the sidewalk leisurely taking a drag on his cigarette, bemused as I drove past him a third time.
Shoot, I stared hard at the GPS. what am I doing wrong, I muttered to myself.
On the third loop, I decided to go off roading. Earlier, while eating, I noted that taxis were driving in the piazza. I decided to do the same. The GPS wasn’t disputing it. It was the Saturday in the square, so families, friends, lovers, and students were all there, leisurely walking the market, discussing the business of the day. I carefully navigated my Skoda. The crowds were welling 20 people across, ebbing and flowing around me like an annoying rock in a riverbed, unbothered. Surely, I was on the right path. I was emboldened by the fact the navy car behind me.
The crowds got more and more dense, flowing in my direction. I kept crawling the Skoda forward. The driving space was getting claustrophobically smaller and smaller.
Am I supposed to be here? I thought to myself. Dammit GPS. Tell me something. Anything. I was gritting my teeth.
I looked in the rear view mirror and the navy car behind me had disappeared. I looked ahead of me. To my right was a row of steel posts, separating me from the driving lane. To my left, A souvenir stall with tchotchkes.
Fuck. I’m not supposed to be here.
I overheard an American voice say loudly, “She’s driving on the sidewalk!”
The stall owner peered at me , rather unphased by my car’s unnatural closeness to both him and his tchotchkes, dangling by string . I got out of the driver seat, the pedestrian crowds was now clearly agitated by my car’s presence. My heart was pounding.
I launched into my native language to the stall owner. “Do you understand Bengali?” I knew the largest population of Bangladeshi’s residing outside of Bangladesh — -is in Italy. I could make out his ethnicity.
“I’m not from here and I’ve clearly made a huge mistake. How do I get out of here?”
He maintained his deadpan stare. Now, a little confused. Probably because I’m speaking Bengali.
I’m bewildered myself. But at the moment, the chips were stacked heavily against me. I was going primal.
He spoke softly.
“Maam you’re taking too much tension. It’s okay. Just keep pulling forward. I’ll guide you.”
The stall owner next to him caught wind of what he was proposing. Her pashminas were stacked sky high next door. If I kept pulling my car forward, I’d destroy her stall.
He kept motioning ‘Pull forward. It’s okay”
She’s screaming, “no &*()ing way You are going to destroy my stall!”
Another woman, hair closely shorn to her head, joined the fray offering advice in Italian “Vai. Vai.” A veritable advisory board of people has now swelled around my car. Screaming. Arguing.
I pleaded with the Bangladeshi stall owner, “Can you get me out of here? I just need to clear that corner and get back out onto the street.”
“I don’t drive,” he quietly said.
A delivery guy had joined the circus, eager to see what all the commotion was about. He peered at me through the slot in his helmet. Everyone is screaming and yelling at one another, negotiating what I should do. I only know “Buonguorno and grazie” and I’m pretty sure those are not the words being hurled right now. Two young man were standing near the front of my car. One made eye contact and motioned to me. “Want me to get behind the wheel and help?” he gestured.
I nodded furiously “Yes. Please. “
He squeezed his way through the crowd, rounded the back of my car, and jumped into the driver seat. His friend stood behind, doing double duty. Guiding him and shooing the swells of pedestrians to watch out.
“Car reversing here.”
The young man drove my Skoda in reverse, slowly. the crowds unrelenting, rising toward it like a tidal wave. I’m tracking the car on foot. Still holding my breath.
He had gotten to the widest part of the clearing, Uscita means “exit.” I was clear to get out of the piazza, he motioned.
He nimbly hopped out, with the energy that only the youth promises. I heaved myself heavily into the driver seat. His friend peered into the window from the passenger side. “Mira”
I’m fluent in New Yorkican Spanish.
“Mira” means to look. He said, “You’re clear.”
I turned the steering wheel, and began inching my way through the piazza again, traumatized. When I finally cleared the square, I pulled over and called my mastermind member. “I’m just gonna wait here. Dropping a pin. You come to me when you arrive.”
I wasn’t &*()ing budging.
If you’re a Sex in the City fan, you’ll remember this line. The girls were discussing what signals romance in this modern age, and Miranda, forever the cynic, wryly said, “I think its romantic when someone gives me a seat on the subway.”
In a moment where I was feeling very alone, panic stricken in a foreign country for driving my car into a claustrophobic pickle, a community reminded me that I wasn’t alone. All hands (and opinions) got on deck, language barrier notwithstanding, and got me back out.
I stopped holding my breath. I’m with Miranda. In the middle of all that mayhem. The gesture was actually — pretty romantic.