know I’ve been heard to say some unkind things about my adopted country. Since I’m in confession mode, I’ll admit that in my darkest moments I have used “Italy” and “Third World” in the same sentence. The thing is, it can be an infuriating place to live and it’s such an easy target — the services don’t work, the taxes are too high, the bureaucracy a torture, the newspapers a bore and the television unwatchable…
But though I sometimes, complain, there are occasions when I feel an almost visceral rush of love for this country. Minor twinges of affection tend to occur at airports where I’m always relieved to hear people gabbling away in Italian on my way back from a trip. And I love it when some of them break into applause on landing.
But the moment that I fully understood how much I feel for this wonderful, exasperating place came a few days ago when I found a parking ticket slapped on my windscreen. The episode certainly didn’t start off too well. Furious that I was being done for €36, I swore loudly, cursing the traffic warden for being so blind and not seeing my permit which was — er — not in its usual place on the dashboard but lying on the floor.
Later that day, still very cross, I looked around for the wretched fine so that I could pay it before I forgot and found myself having to fork out double. But it was nowhere to be found. In my rage, I must have dropped it on the ground. Now absolutely seething, I called my husband — always the butt of my anti-Italian spleen when things go wrong — and persuaded him to go to the polizia municipale’s office to get a copy of the fine.
He rang me a little later with more bad news. The fine hadn’t appeared on their records yet, so I’d have to wait till a copy arrived by post, which would cost an extra €14. I was livid. But worse was to come, and I must admit, it was brave of him to tell me. Examining the police computer record, he’d spotted another fine, which would be winging its way through my letterbox in the next week or so. This one was for a whopping €157. I’d driven through a red light, it seemed. They would also be taking six points off my driver’s license.
The air was now blue as I slammed down the phone. Idiotic Italian police. In all my years’ driving, I had never gone through a red light. My husband offered to take me to the police station, where I could see a video clip of the automatic camera that had snapped me. Grudgingly I agreed, seething that it would mean missing my class at the gym.
The policeman politely offered me a seat, but I was in no mood to be cajoled. He asked for my plate number and showed no sign of being ruffled when I tartly told him that I couldn’t remember it and suggested he look on the computer. I tutted impatiently as he struggled to pull up the clip on his screen. A colleague had to intervene, as he clearly didn’t know what he was doing. At last, up came the picture of my car at a red traffic light in Spoleto. Then came the second photo, of me turning right and the traffic light still red.
Aghast, I realized I was now in big trouble. Not only would I have to pay the fine, but six points would be docked from my license. Which would mean presenting the said license to the Italian police. Which would mean that they would find out that I have been driving around for all these years with a British license, instead of getting an Italian one, as I should have done. I swallowed hard and looked up to see the policeman smiling. “You’re not Italian, are you Signora? Would you mind telling me which driver’s license you have?”
“A British one,” I murmured, bracing myself for the inevitable.
He held out his hand to shake mine.
“Congratulations!” he said, laughing out loud as his colleague smiled genially. “If you have a foreign license, we can’t take any points off it. Well done!”
He shook my husband’s hand warmly too. He was possibly even happier than we were that I had managed to beat the system. “And about that other fine. If you have a permit, it might be worth contesting,” he said, still beaming.
“But if I were you,” said his colleague, grinning broadly, “I wouldn’t say the permit dropped on the floor. It might be better to say that it was on the dashboard and the traffic warden can’t have seen it. After all, we’re all human.”