love my husband dearly. He’s is a terrific father and one of the few Italian males I know who can iron a shirt or wield a broom. He cooks divinely, makes a wicked gin and tonic, and brings me flowers. He even remembers our anniversary. What more could a girl want?
But no one’s perfect and he does have one defect — driving. I would do just about anything rather than get in the car with him. It is, quite simply, a terrifying experience. It’s not his fault, of course. It’s a question of genetics. My husband is Italian — worse, he’s Neapolitan — and much as I may dislike truisms about national characteristics (not least because we Brits tend to come off pretty badly) there is no doubt in my mind that he, in common with most people born south of Rome and quite a few who weren’t, has been biologically programmed to drive like a maniac.
When I say terrifying, we are talking about the stuff that nightmares are made of. Even a trip down the road turns into a white knuckle ride. Ask my English sister-in-law. She actually threw up when my husband gave a her a lift down the hill in a quiet Umbrian country lane last summer. They’d only gone half a mile, but when I caught up with them she was ashen faced and retching miserably into a nearby bush.
So you can imagine how much fun it is going on the motorway with him. He sticks to the car in front like a limpet. Never mind about braking distances. And I’m sorry to say he is also one of those drivers who zoom up behind a car in the fast lane, and bullies it into moving over. I’ve tried every tactic I can think of — trying not to look, trying to sleep, reading a newspaper, but none of them works and I always end up a jabbering wreck. I’ve tried quoting from what I can remember of the highway code from my driving lesson days, pointing out that we’d all be smashed to smithereens if the car in front decided to brake suddenly.
But he counters — correctly, it must be said — that if he leaves the right space between him and the car in front, another one will just overtake and nip in between. It’s depressingly true. We tried it once as an experiment, and it only took a matter of seconds for another car to fill the gap.
But it seems that the Italians are not alone in becoming raving lunatics when they get behind the wheel. The latest wheeze for China’s nouveaux riches is to hop over to Germany for specially tailored driving holidays. The lure is the prospect of steering a BMW or Mercedes at 150 mph on Germany’s autobahns, most of which have no speed limits. The tourists are given booklets which explain the meaning of road signs and translate useful phrases such as ‘”Stop” and “Police.”
They also advise drivers to remain calm when angry German motorists make rude gestures at them. Seemingly oblivious to the dangers, Chinese drivers, who have one of the worst road safety records in the world, regularly overtake on inside lanes, reverse up the hard shoulder and, when they venture onto secondary roads, charge through red lights. So there’s another thing they have in common with Neapolitan drivers. Anyone who has ever been to Naples will know that there are so many traffic lights — the fruit, inevitably, of some scam involving public funds for road projects — that many drivers take no notice of them.
If by chance you want to drive on really superb roads, with plenty of space for overtaking, smooth surfaces and not a pothole in sight, forget about Italy. And don’t even think about going to Britain (have you driven on the M25 recently?).
No, head for Greece, which has a model road network, most of it brand spanking new and magnificently maintained. On a trip there this summer, we purred along the coastal highway from Delfi to Mesolongi, the newly surfaced tarmac offset by beautifully planted oleanders and cypress trees with spectacular vistas out to sea.
It’s all paid for by the European Union, of course, as the ubiquitous blue billboards with the European symbol proudly attest. But who cares? I can remember the harrowing experience of driving in Greece many years ago, when craters would suddenly open up in front of you — a bit like driving on the M25 around London these days, come to think of it. If this is Euro-progress, then let’s have more of it.