Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Dec. 2010

riving in Naples

The first three items (of 4) appeared on the dates indicated on different pages in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia. They have been consolidated here onto a single page. The fourth item is a more recent addition.
(1) directly below        (2) link here        (3) link here        (4) link here

entry Dec. 2002
driving (1) 

collage of traffic signsMy friend, Richard, is taking driving lessons. He is learning to drive in Naples. That's like taking basic infantry training at Stalingrad. He tells me that they officially frown on little niceties of defensive driving such as casting a quick glance over your shoulder before changing lanes: 

"Hey! What was that?" 
"You took your eyes off the road." 
"I wanted to make sure there was no one in that lane." 
"That's why you have a mirror." 
"But there's a 'blind spot'." 
(pause) "Do that on the road test and they'll fail you. Just signal and turn." 

In a way, they have legitimized the "Neapolitan right of way" — whoever is in front can do what he wants: turn, stop, go backwards. It's your job to avoid him. Richard—a member of the generation that grew up on automatic transmissions—is now concentrating on changing gears, a necessary skill on those few occasions in Naples traffic when you get up to 7 miles an hour. He made a few pounds of piping-hot, freshly-ground gears yesterday, I understand. He stalled 3 times. I am happy he is not learning how to fly. 

main index

entry Dec. 2002
driving (2) 

Small cars are not such a bad idea in Naples. They are easier to drive around the narrow streets and certainly easier to park. You still see, on occasion, a magnificently restored, old FIAT 500, early versions of which were nicknamed the "Topolino" ["Little Mouse"—also the Italian name for the Disney character, Mickey Mouse.] It was produced from 1936 to 1955 and had an engine size of 569 cc., smaller than most modern motorcycles. It had two doors and four seats. (Of course, that never stopped a family of 6 from a pleasant weekend outing, and there is an entire generation of love-lore dedicated to passion unleashed in even such a confined space! ) It was the mainstay of family driving during the so-called "economic miracle" in Italy in the 1950s. It was replaced by a slightly larger version, the FIAT 600. 

Today, the small car of choice seems to be the new Smart (photo), made by Mercedes and Swatch (that's right, the watch company!). It has two doors and only 2 seats, looks fashionably glossy and modular, somewhat like a robot head detached from its owner. It has a 6-speed manual transmission, but with no clutch pedal; you just pop the gearshift in and out. Sleek technology. The price is also sleek—more like Mercedes than Swatch, I am told, so they are not as popular as they could be. 

Recently, I have noticed a new hazard in Neapolitan traffic. They are called mini-cars; they are generally open in jeep-like fashion, having no passenger compartment at all—just a couple of seats, thus giving them the unstreamlined look of a Go-Cart or power lawn-mower. They have an engine size just below the limit for a driving license; that is, you can be a minor, have no license, and roar around the city in one of these things. 

Modes of  recreational transportation go in and out style in Naples. For a while, in-line skates—Roller Blades—were faddish, but they have now gone into eclipse. People are waiting for something new. I have not yet seen anyone on a Segway Human Transporter, Dean Kamen's marvelous stand-up, single-person, gyroscopically-controlled, battery-powered and environmentally-clean gizmo (if that is the correct term). I suspect that the price is the problem. For three-thousand dollars you can buy at least of couple of noisy and dirty power mowers to drive around in—on, really. 

Every once in while, I read a prediction of a practical one-person dirigible. I look at the Bay of Naples on a nice day and see the maniacs out there on their Jet Skis making life loud and miserable for everyone else, and I envision the sky above the city aswarm with one-man blimps—ramming one another and dropping like flies. That's the part I like.

entry Feb. 2003
driving (3)

"Follow those who do not drive as well as you do and kill them!"—Attila the Hun

Remember Driver Education? My favorite film in that class was the cartoon about Mr.Walker and Mr. Wheeler. The former, a good–natured goofy pedestrian, needed but to slip behind the wheel of his car to have his Jekyll & Hyde button punched, thus werewolfing into Mr. Wheeler (get it?), crazed motorist who delights in using his Mercedes–Benzoid hood–ornament as cross–hairs to mow down little old ladies in cross–walks. Good stuff, that, and like most wheel–happy adolescents of my generation, I was one hundred–and–ten percent on the side of Evil: we all rooted for Mr. Wheeler, much to the dismay of our Driver Ed instructor. But why listen to a driver with a name like Ed Instructor? After all, this was the same guy who wouldn't let you shift into high gear until you got out of the school parking lot. 

Luckily I have moved to Naples, the Promised Land of wheel–happy adolescents and now I get to Wheeler out quite frequently. As a matter of fact, it is getting… more… and more… difficult… to … change back… don't know… how much… longer I can… can… hold out…! 

(An unspecified amount of time later.) 

(Slap–slap. Whiskey–whiskey.) Thanks, I needed that. I was saying: I have done things in Neapolitan traffic, that if I were a traffic cop, I would chase me down and pull me over, revoke my license forever, tell the car crusher to leave my vehicle a squat and steaming cube of scrap on the roadside, and frog–march me in sackcloth to the nearest bicycle shop. 

All this can be yours. If you want to drive like me, and if you can get them to let you out on weekends, you have come to the right place. Follow these rules: 

One. Traffic lights. The only rule about traffic lights in Naples is, "Never run a green one". I remember a taxi driver telling me in those soft homespun tones that come naturally when you're accelerating through hospital zones just what those beautiful colored lights on street corners really meant to him, sniff, especially at Christmas time: "Sure 'n' 'tis enuf to bring a tear to the eyes of this son of the auld sod," he whispered. (Besides traffic lights, he was terrible at geography.) I have actually stopped for red and been shouted at, on the order of: "Go back to Germany, you mindless robot tool of the authoritarian overlords! I bet you obey signs that say No Smoking, Keep Off The Grass, and No Radioactive Waste Dumping, too! Don't you realize that we are engaged in a ceaseless libertarian struggle against forces which would squelch individual liberties and impose…" The rest dopplered down below the range of human hearing as he sped around me. 

Two. You must absolutely learn to smoke at filling stations. Everyone else does, even —especially—the guy who is filling your tank. Maybe he knows something you don't—perhaps that petroleum products are not flammable, (especially that watered–down brew he's dumping in your car). I don't care if you're a health nut and have never smoked in your life, or have sworn off, or think that it's a foul and noxious vice. Look. Compromise. You don't even have to inhale. (You may not have time for that, anyway.) At least once in your life you must feel that top–gun macho rush of adrenalin that comes from lighting up just as the first whiff of gasoline from the pump hits your nostrils. True, only God can make a tree, but you can make filling stations explode. 

Three. Learn how to make love in a Fiat 500 (coitus contortius). What, you rightfully ask, does this have to do with driving? Am I not catering, nay, pandering to the sophomoric droolers among us to even broach the subject? You got that right, parry I with Socratic precision. If you find the whole topic distasteful, you may be interested in a refined variation. You will need a friend who can drive a fast motorcycle extremely well, while you sit on the back and lob water–filled balloons into parked passionmobiles through the sun–roofs, which young lovers inevitably leave open. This is humor of the lowest brow, barely worthy of early Cromagnon woodshop majors, and, personally, I wouldn't be caught dead doing it. "Not being caught dead" is the operative phrase, here. Remember: fast bike, good driver. 

Four. Go the wrong way on one–way streets. When the traffic cop pulls you over, waggle your cigar, groucho your eye–brows at him and say: "What's the problem, officer? I was only going one way!" He will chuckle, tell you some World's Oldest Jokes in Italian and let you off with a mere blow on the kneecap. 

Five. Drive on side–walks. This is technically legal, since none of the streets work. Six: Only tourists make U–turns; you should try W's and B's. There are also a number of letters in the Book of Kells and the Arabic alphabet worth looking into. This will require study on your part. Seven: double–park. Eight: triple–park. Nine: Practice your car horn whenever possible. Remember, that's how Paganini started. Ten: Remember that silence is golden, yes, but scriptures tell us that the Great Whore of the Apocalypse will be dressed in gold. You wouldn't want to look like that, would you?

add: July 9, 2016 - Driving - #4            Male Solidarity

Re-reading my own lines from #3 (above)...

...if I were a traffic cop I would chase me down and pull me over, revoke my license forever, tell the car crusher to leave my vehicle a squat and steaming cube of scrap on the roadside, and frog–march me in sackcloth to the nearest bicycle shop...

...reminded me that that almost happened once but for the intervention of Man's Best Friend in Naples—no, not Fido (they—or at least their biological waste productsare every Neapolitan's worst enemy) but rather Male Solidarity! This is an absolutely true story.

I was driving through a tunnel reserved for buses because (i) it was faster and (ii) more convenient than the legal route (which would have made me drive to Casablanca before making the turn-around). My wife was sitting next to me. In this story, she is really Man's Best Friend. There were no cars or buses in front or behind me. I am whipping along, alone and free as a bird about to be pulled over, for I see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is not filled with hope, salvation and all that happy kumbayah guff; it is filled with a lone traffic cop waving his hand-held STOP-sign at me. Below STOP is printed the friendly reminder... "or be riddled with bullets." The following conversation ensued:

cop: Good morning. License and registration, please.
me: (Silence. Hand him the papers.)
cop: I think you know that this lane is reserved for buses...
me: Well...
cop: ...and, if I so choose, I am authorized right here on the spot...
me: (thinking--hey, 'spot' is an anagram of 'stop'. Wisely, I keep this precious comment to myself.)
cop: confiscate your license and impound your car...and you will have to go back to driving school to revalidate your license.
me: (thinking--oh, yeah? Do you know who I am?
Wisely, I keep this precious comment to myself, but Man's Best Friend springs into action.)
  (thinking--Oh, Jesus. Please...)
me: (thinking--strike two--I start to say it, but Neapolitan cops know nothing of baseball terminology. I start searching under the seat for different shoes. We are going to walk home. No shoes. I choose plan B: I puff my cheeks, exhale audibly, raise my eyebrows, glance at the cop and think just loud enough for him to intuit what I am thinking--'Are you married?')

At this point, the cop has furrowed his brow, pursed his lips and is staring at my wife, who is continuing to yell at him in all upper-case letters.
He has tilted his head slightly the way dogs do when they are puzzled. He looks at me and thinks just loud enough for me to intuit what he is thinking: 'I got one of those at home'. He hands me back my car documents and says with genuine compassion in his voice and in these exact words:

"...Friend, you have enough problems. Stay out of this tunnel.
Good morning" End of story.

When I explained to my wife what had happened and how my quick, resourceful appeal to Neapolitan male solidarity had saved us, the car and weeks of bureaucratic agony, she was not amused:


I no longer have the car. Still got the wife.

[Also see: Driving Miss Godzilla]

            to miscellaneous portal            to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023