I sat in a hotel room in Milan, and tried to figure out where to spend the one day off I’d have on this business trip. When I’d originally suggested on the phone to my wife that I’d spend it in the hotel room getting paper work caught up from ten days on the road, she’d been horrified.
“You’ll do no such thing! If you’re in Italy, you have to make it count. You can’t just stay in the hotel room.”
Yet I was weary from traveling and jet lag, and there really was a lot of work waiting for me in my briefcase. This was my twelfth trip to Italy. It wasn’t that I was bored with the country. A person bored with Italy is a person bored with life. It just sounded like doing something worthwhile would require so much effort. Where would I go? How would I get there? And the big question: How would I communicate with anyone when I spoke not a word of Italian?
I didn’t have enough time to go anywhere really interesting anyway. The smart move would be to stay in Milan and sightsee right here. I’d never toured Milan itself. Wasn’t there an opera house? A city this large probably had a couple of good museums. There were certain to be cathedrals. And probably parks.
Museums? Cathedrals? Opera houses? Yawn. Did I really want to drag myself around a city where I couldn’t speak the language, just to see museums?
I discussed my problem later that day with two of the business people I’d come there to meet.
“Go to Florence!” said Mila, the charming woman who is the administrative assistant to Gaetano Calvieri, president of Cibjo—the international jewelry confederation. I was meeting her and Gaetano at the MACEF jewelry fair. MACEF was taking place in the Fiera Milano, an exhibition hall approximately one third the size of Rhode Island. She’d obtained a VIP pass for me so I’d be able to access the fair and find her. It was apparently the largest jewelry fair in the world, yet I’d never heard of it. Walking through the aisles, I noticed that it seemed to contain lots of tangential stuff, like giftware and home decorations and such. Probably that’s why I hadn’t heard of it. Walking through miles of giftware and home decorations somehow made the idea of doing the same thing at museums seem even less appealing.
But Florence? Certainly everyone raves about the place. “Ah, Florence…” they say. It’s one of the must-see tourist destinations. Yet I’d never been there, and had no desire to go. First, I don’t like the name. It sounds like some sissy version of “flower.” And the name in Italian is even worse: “Firenze”. Sounds like “frenzy”. What a stupid name. And everyone always is so taken with the beauty and the architecture and the artwork and the… oh, please. What does a red-blooded American male want with a bunch of flowery Italian artwork?
I knew where I really did want to go. It was a place I’d never been. I wanted to go to Pisa. I wanted to go to Pisa because, well, how long can that tower stay standing, anyway? One of these days I was going to read in the paper that it finally tipped over, and then how would I feel? Pretty stupid that I hadn’t gone to see it when it was merely leaning, rather than “crashed.” I could imagine Pisa after the apocalypse. It would be like the artist formerly known as Prince. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is all that remains of the tower formerly known as “Leaning…”
But I hadn’t studied up for this trip. I hadn’t even known I was coming to Italy until a week prior. I hadn’t reviewed any maps. And, student of geography though I fancied myself, I really had no clue where Pisa was.
“I wish I could go to Pisa,” I said spontaneously, to bright-eyed Mila.
“Oh, you can!” she exclaimed. “It’s very close to Florence. Maybe only thirty minutes from Florence!”
“Really? Pisa is near Florence? And I can get to Florence?”
You could get there easily if you had a car. It’s about a three hour drive. But without a car, let me think…”
“I have a car! That’s how I got here from the airport.”
“You rented a car?
“Yeah, I find it’s usually cheaper than taking a cab when the airport’s a long way from the city. I flew into Malpensa.”
“So you’re comfortable, driving a car around Italy?” She seemed surprised.
Ah, I realized what she was getting at. Driving in Italy is considered by many to be dangerous. “Italian drivers are all insane!” one hears frequently. “They are the worst drivers in the world! They drive incredibly fast and super aggressively, and you take your life in your hands if you ever get on an Italian autostrada.”
Mila, unknowingly had stumbled on an area of personal pride. This touched heavily on my self-esteem. Suddenly we weren’t talking about boring museums in Milan, or pansy architecture in Florence. We were talking about male competition, driver-against-driver, high-speed competition on the Italian roads and highways. And if Mila could be believed, at the end of this adrenaline-laced gauntlet I could be rewarded with a visit to Pisa. Now we were getting somewhere.
After finishing the meeting with Gaetano and Mila, I walked back to my hotel, and reflected on my own experiences with driving in Italy.
I need to vent on this subject, so I may as well do so now.
To begin with, most Italian drivers are among the best in the world. They have to be, to avoid being killed by all the crazies that inhabit their highways. A large percentage of Italian drivers really are insane, and Italy probably has the highest automobile accident rate in the world. If it doesn’t, it should. But one reason it isn’t worse is because the Italians have done something very clever. To have a car crash you have to have two cars hitting each other. In other words, they have to both occupy the same space at the same time. The Italians, realizing this, have reduced the incidence of car collisions by at least 50% through the obvious mechanism of reducing the size of all their cars by 50%. Actually some cars have been reduced in size nearly 90%, and these are almost certain to be accident free.
In Italy, something the size of a Honda Accord is considered an SUV from hell, and a vehicle likely to be involved in a collision simply because it occupies so much of the national landscape. Most family sedans in Italy would fit comfortably into the back seat of a Honda Accord.
As for the drivers, one must distinguish between different parts of Italy. The drivers in northern Italy are relatively mild-mannered, mature, and patient. The drivers of southern Italy are less so. And without doubt the most deranged, the most aggressive, the most homicidal maniacs to be found on any highways anywhere in the world—are found in Sicily. It must be something in the blood, or perhaps in the spaghetti sauce. While it’s a large island, Sicily isn’t that large. How much can there be to see? And how quickly does one really need to get there to see it? And wouldn’t people already have seen it if they lived there? Yet you would not know this from the desperate urgency the drivers of Sicily have to reach their destinations.
In Sicily driving is all about honor. If any car on the road is traveling faster then one’s own, then one’s honor has been challenged. Speed is equated with manhood in Sicily, at least on the highways if not the bedrooms. In fact it must be quite a mental shift to have to go from the Sicilian highway to the Sicilian bedroom. On the other hand, maybe that’s why they’re driving so fast—to get to that bedroom. Or fleeing from whomever caught them in a bedroom where they weren’t supposed to be.
In Sicily a red light is a calamity. But more importantly, the space between two cars waiting at a red light is deemed a terrible thing to waste. Two cars stopped, one behind the other at a stoplight, will find several other cars trying to drive around the back one and get between it and the one in front. In America this would be considered horribly rude, not to mention dangerous, illegal, and physically impossible for that matter. In Sicily it seems to be required by law. If you’ve stopped a reasonable distance from the car in front, let’s say three feet, this space will be filled first by certain small delivery trucks. After as many of these as can fit have done so, in will come the family sedans, after which will be the smaller cars, and finally the midget two-seaters. Remaining space will be filled by the motor scooters, of which dozens can usually find room to maneuver.
One might expect them all to stay there, purring about with their leaky, exhaust-spewing internal combustion engines, until the light changes to green. But in Sicily no one waits for the light to change to green. In Sicily the race begins as soon as there is no longer any reason to wait at the red light. If the pedestrians have all crossed, if there are no other cars coming crosswise through the intersection (or at least not many such cars) then one is free to drive on through. The color of the light is merely of artistic interest. And only mild interest at that.
As the ancient coliseum of Rome saw the most brutal gladiatorial combats in history, so now has this heritage passed to the Sicilian traffic circle. The games of sword and net and spear have given way to the game of perpetual counter-clockwise chicken. One gains a position in the games first by entering the circle, against the determination of all those presently rotating endlessly around it. That is the first rule of being in the circle: all those not in the circle are the enemy, and must be kept out. Once in, the more timid souls like to move quickly to the inner hub, where life is both predictable and easy. One simply drives endlessly, enjoying a spectacular view of the violence at the outer edges. It is at these outer edges where the more skilled warriors ply their trade—doing nonstop battle to keep others from entering the circle, and everyone having a wonderful time in the process.
Of course the mere act of moving from the outer circumference to the inner hub, and back out again, involves its own set of challenges. At first when I tried to develop skill with these Sicilian traffic circles I sought for the rules: who has right of way and such. But that was a very “American” concept. Darwin’s Law, survival of the fittest, is the only rule in force in the traffic circles of Sicily. And this is why Sicilian drivers have evolved to such an incredible level of skill. The ones who didn’t are dead, and bore no offspring.
I used to enjoy driving in Manhattan – racing the cabs down the avenues, and trying to outmaneuver them on the cross streets. I’d thought Manhattan cabbies were the most arrogant, aggressive drivers on earth.
Yet a Manhattan cabbie wouldn’t last ten seconds in a Sicilian traffic circle. They’d be woefully out-matched.
The autostradas of Sicily, those multi-lane affairs, offer their own special challenge. Sicilian drivers, and in fact all Italian drivers, have one trait that almost no drivers have in America: they are aware of what is going on around them. Furthermore, they understand the concept that the far left lane is the passing lane. Not merely is it the passing lane, it is the passing-at-incredibly-high-speed lane. If car “A” in the middle lane is going, say, 100 kilometers an hour (about 70), and a car is passing him at 140 kilometers an hour (about 90) in the passing lane, this is considered being a road hog. Cars will pile up instantly behind the passing driver, and will angrily flash their lights.
As a result, and unlike anywhere else in the world, traffic actually flows smoothly on Italian autostradas. Fast cars stay in the far right lane. Even faster cars stay in the middle lane. The real speeders will use the passing lane briefly before merging politely back to the center so the twelve-cylinder, meteorites from hell, traveling at 180 kilometers an hour, can get around them..
Shall we talk about parking? The speed of Italian drivers is equaled only by the ingenuity with which they park. One is reminded of that old saying in communist Russia: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” In Italy it would be: “They pretend we care where there are no parking signs, and we pretend we just don’t see them.” The whole thing is an exercise in silliness because there is no street in Italy where it is legal to park. Those international “no parking” signs (red circle with diagonal red line) are not just ubiquitous, they are placed on every street automatically. It would be easier to have giant “no parking” signs erected at the borders of the country, than to pretend that in some places it actually is legal to park. Who are they kidding? Italy is one big “no parking” zone. So because there is nowhere to park, everyone just parks wherever they wish. It is civil disobedience on a breathtaking scale.
I was told by a business acquaintance in Milan that in Italy the cost of a presumed number of parking tickets per month is just part of the cost one dials into car ownership, like insurance, maintenance, and so forth. If you can’t afford the parking tickets, you can’t afford the car. Personally, he said, he owns a car but he always takes a taxi because it tends to be cheaper than the cost of the parking tickets. But there is no sense of shame in getting a parking ticket. It’s just part of the expense—as there is no sense of shame in paying for gasoline.
The mechanics of parking are no less fascinating. The skill the Italians have developed in filling all spaces between cars waiting at traffic lights serves them in good stead when it comes to parking. I believe it was Galileo who first computed the minimum distance required for parallel parking, as a percentage of the length of the car itself. In America one likes a healthy ratio of about 150% of care length, if one can get it, and even then it requires a fair amount of jockeying the wheel. A highly competent American driver can probably do it in about 115%. In Italy even a beginner routinely finds a way to squeeze into parallel parking spots no greater than 90% of the length of the car. One suspects this is exaggeration, but it is not. The maneuver is a very skilled one, and involves gently backing into the rear car, pushing it slowly yet deliberately backwards several inches, reversing the wheel, and then doing the same thing with the car in front. This is especially impressive when those two cars are, respectively, already touching the cars behind and in front of them. Sometimes entire columns of cars, dozens long, must be pushed, and it is for this reason that Italian cars require such massive horsepower despite their diminutive size. Remember, this is the land that gave birth to the Porsche and the Lamborghini. Union Pacific diesel locomotives envy the raw pushing power of some of those tiny two-seat Italian automobiles.
Anyway, I digress. It was over a year ago when I learned to drive in Sicily. I survived three days on that island, mastered the craft, and left behind grown men weeping at the sides of roads; traffic circles so snarled and locked up that cars are still to this day rotating counterclockwise and unable to get out; rows of parked cars so fused together, metallurgically speaking, they are destined to now travel as one wherever they go; and of course whole forests of unpaid parking tickets, blithely tossed into the still active Mt. Etna volcano. Yes, I had learned well in Sicily—graduating with honors, as it were. And being a Sicilian graduate, I was confident northern Italy could hold no special challenge. Mila was concerned unnecessarily.
As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong.
In any case, while I may have been confident in my driving ability, I was utterly terrified of the language barrier.
I always feel claustrophobic being in a country where I can’t talk. True, these days most people in hotels and such are likely to have some amount of English. And at the reception desk of a 3-star hotel or better, it’s not rude to actually start out speaking English, and assume they speak it. It would be insulting to ask them if they did—much as it would be insulting to ask a waitress in a diner in America if she could serve coffee.
But away from those glittering reception desks with their bright, young, English-speaking staffers, is a very different world. Will the gas station attendant speak English? The store clerk? Or—most dreadful possibility of all—will that person you have to stop and ask directions of on a street corner speak English? Men always hate asking directions, and part of this is because so often the person doesn’t know the answer, and you waste so much time while they try to explain to you what they don’t know. And it’s always someone with such dreadful communication skills.
“Well, let’s see, I guess ya head on up this road, back the way you came, and you go a spell, and then you pass like sort of a building, and then you want to ignore that and keep going, and the road curves a little and maybe there’s a stoplight or so, and then there’s this kind of fork where you want to go right—er, no, I mean you want to go left, and then you take another left at the stop, where there’s a t-intersection, and there’ll be railroad tracks, and so you go under the bridge and veer right onto this underpass which, let’s see now, I think is by the old Smith place which used to be a hardware store but now it’s some new-fangled restaurant and once you pass the hospital you go around that to the street which heads off at an angle and I think maybe it’s about the third light you want to go left, er, no I mean right, er, no—darn it that won’t work. You can’t even get back to the highway that way ‘cause of the construction and it’s all tore up. So, let’s see, I guess what you need to do instead is…”
This is agony to a man who wants nothing so much as to be back in his car, following the “he who revs up his engine the highest and changes gears the fastest wins” school of navigation. Of course when you think about it, the guy you meet on the sidewalk probably doesn’t know how to get anywhere in a car. He doesn’t even have a car. That’s why he’s on the sidewalk. If he had a car he’d be there by now. So, yes, men hate asking directions, but they hate it ten times worse in a country where they can’t speak the language.
The language barrier was thus underlying my primary fear which was one of navigation. Somehow I needed to find my way out of Milan, to Florence, from there to Pisa, find the tower (probably not too hard to find the tower, wouldn’t it be visible for miles?), and then somehow retrace all these steps, including working my way back to my hotel, through Milan, at night.
One of the joys of traveling is appreciating the differences between countries and cultures. And of these, it’s the more subtle differences that are the most enjoyable. Take street signs, for example. In the U.S. we have them. In Italy they do not have them. Isn’t that just the quaintest thing? A person can appreciate that subtle cultural difference for hours, learning to enjoy it fully and in all its magnificence, while driving randomly through a city such as Milan, trying to do something like get back to their hotel, at night.
Now it’s not quite true that they have no street signs. It’s just that they’ve never grasped that street signs need to be visible to drivers in cars. Pedestrians will find no shortage of street signs in Italy, and no lack of time in which to read them. Italian street signs are carved into ancient marble plaques, and built into the very mortar and brick of the buildings themselves. To the Italian architects, street signs are an art-form. Their value as conveyors of information, to the extent they are actually legible, is seen as a diminution of the art. This is a concept passed on from the monks in the 11th century, who would transcribe documents with those fantastically ornate “leading letters” in every chapter. For example, a passage which begins: “And then the knight took upon him said quest, and resolved truly to journey yet to the Holy Land and take up his sword against the infidel Turks who…” Well, a passage like that would begin with the letter “A” occupying perhaps one third of the whole page, and drawn in the most wonderful of designs, with dragons and serpents and fair maidens and vine leaves and the like draped about it.
Street signs in Milan are similar, except that the vines are real vines, and they truly are draped around the words. I’ve yet to see any fair maidens or serpents on these signs, but they’re there in spirit. The marble is carved in decorative “Times Roman” letters, and generally rendered in a point 6 font. Point 6 means that if you’re not six inches away, you won’t be able to read it. Any way that can be found to hide these street signs in the shadows, such as placing them directly under a small overhanging ledge, is popular. This ensures that in daylight the signs are difficult to find, and almost impossible to read, while at night they are completely invisible.
One might think that on the autostradas signage would be more sophisticated. But this is only partially true. While engraved marble is seldom used, the engineers seem to recall fondly those days when only a few citizens could actually read. Thus the lighting is not aimed at the letters, but at the blank sections on the edge of the sign. So you can easily see the sign as you approach it, and can dimly confirm that letters are there somewhere, but the letters themselves are never visible. The light never shines on them.
While street signs in cities were a concern, I had to remind myself that I also had no good idea how to get from Milan even to Florence, let alone to Pisa. I had no map of Italy.
I vaguely recalled that Florence is sort of in the middle of Italy. Milan is in the far north. Italy is a long, thin country running northwest/southeast. So if you’re in Milan and you’re trying to get to Florence, obviously you want to head southeast. I mean, duh. And there are autostradas all over Europe. Milan, being a major city, would no doubt have an autostrada connecting it with Florence, in the same way you can assume that San Francisco probably has an interstate connecting it to Los Angeles, without having to look at a map to know that this is true.
The man at the hotel reception desk provided more clues: “When you get to the Autostrada,” he said, “follow the signs to Bologna.” And he gave me directions for getting from the hotel to the Autostrada. They weren’t simple directions, they were complicated. Like the kind of directions people you ask directions of on the sidewalk give you. Yet this was all I had to go on as I left the hotel lobby early Sunday morning in search of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, located somewhere in central Italy.
Only a few cars needed to be pushed forward to facilitate exiting my parking space, and Sunday morning is an excellent time to zip across Milan without fear of traffic. I was able to follow the hotel clerk’s directions, barely, yet it required over half an hour just to reach the autostrada. I dreaded the thought of trying to get back through Milan at night on these same streets.
Yesterday Gaetano had chatted with me about how easy it was to get around Milan. “You see, Milan isn’t based on a complex ‘grid’ like New York. It’s based on a series of concentric ‘circles’.
He was right about the facts, but wrong in his conclusion. A grid is probably the easiest thing to navigate. Two blocks down, three across, you’re there. Circles present a constant challenge to a driver, requiring frequent changes of direction, no possibility of straight lines, and a general requirement to zigzag constantly. Milan’s street plan exacerbates this problem because the circles don’t have clear names like “Circle 1”, “Circle 2” and so forth. They have names which change about every ten degrees of arc. Via Pasano del Agua Verte, remains so for only a few blocks before becoming Calle di Asante Rio Grande. Soon this gives way to Avenue Carte Planta Aubergnia. And so forth. It’s maddening.
Yet in daylight, with no traffic, and with strong Italian coffee coursing through my veins—I could handle it. Nighttime would be a very different story.
For now I was on the autostrada heading south, towards a city called Bologna. Beyond Bologna was Florence, and somewhere not so far from Florence, according to Mila, was Pisa.
The fog descended almost immediately. I knew all about this fog. My family had driven through it from Milan east to Venice, in the Po river valley, when I’d been twelve years old. It was the worst fog any of us had ever experienced, but my father had fearlessly driven through, and brought his family safely to Venice. And this fog today wasn’t nearly that bad.
I reflected on the fact that my parents had already overcome all obstacles I’d ever faced, had never made any mistakes, and were perfect. They were perfect in all categories, and the more I thought about this, the more infuriating I found it. Most children receive as a heritage a cold, vicious determination to “never be like my parents”, and this single-mindedness of purpose is so strong it sees them through all challenges faced in life. I had been cheated of this by having had perfect parents. They’d left me with no emotional scars on which I could gnaw. There had been no lack in their care-giving on which I could dwell. They had taught me well, nurtured all my interests, shown compassion and love continuously, filled me with equal doses of self-confidence and humility, and given me nothing to hate. How cruel and heartless this had been. Here I was, mastering fog on the Italian autostrada, knowing that my father had done this in even thicker fog over thirty years ago, with a full car load of children.
Actually, there was one thing my parents hadn’t done; one failing in an otherwise perfect life. They had never climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Well, I would show them!
Of course I didn’t really expect to be able to climb it. There were many obstacles in my way. First, there was the fog. Probably I could handle the fog. Then there was the lack of a map. Probably I could buy a map. In fact, at the first autostrada restaurant I would stop and buy the two things most important in weird countries: a map, and bottles of water. But even assuming I could handle the fog, and buy a map, and find water, I still had to get to Pisa. I had to find the tower. I had to see if I could climb up into it. I had to then do so. Lots of things could keep all this from happening.
The fog ended suddenly and all about me was the beautiful Italian countryside. Or rather it would have been beautiful if there had been anything pretty about it. There was not. It was flat. Here and there could be seen a building. Lots of power lines. A couple of birds. Grass. That kind of thing. The fog had actually been more interesting. But coming up, at least, was the first autostrada restaurant. I took the exit.
Soon I was back in the car with bottles of water, a map, and a couple of very white, pasty sandwiches encased in disgusting little acrylic packages.
Here I was traveling through a land renowned for its food, yet I’d just bought what was probably the most unappetizing meal in Europe. The restaurant had much better food. Whole trays of food. Exotic sandwiches. Interesting lasagnas. Soups of tantalizing aroma. Platters of fresh vegetables. And many other things besides. But I’d bought the acrylic sandwiches because (a) I could pick them up and carry them to the cash register without having to speak Italian, and (b) I could eat them in the car.
When I travel independently as I was now doing, food is fuel, nothing more. And when you’re on a quest to find the Leaning Tower of Pisa before it tips over, you don’t screw around.
Most automobile driving consumes only a small fraction of one’s brain. Driving around my own neighborhood in Colorado requires perhaps 10% concentration. Driving in downtown Denver, with lots of traffic, perhaps 40%. Driving over Loveland Pass with bald tires in a whiteout blizzard sandwiched between two gasoline tanker-trucks, maybe 70%. Traffic circle in Sicily: 100%, plus parts of the brain scientists have yet to discover.
Driving on a straight freeway through boring countryside on a Sunday morning in northern Italy: 5%. Consuming hideous white bread, bologna and mayonnaise sandwich from an acrylic container while driving through northern Italy: an additional 12%. Brainpower required to unfold incredibly large, complex, expensive map, and to refold to the area you care about while also trying to drive the car: 162%.
Cars honked at me furiously as I veered back and forth across the freeway, trying to tame the paper tiger—more like a paper hyena actually, such was its viciousness.
Most maps are content to sit there and let you read them. This one wanted to drive the car. I fought with it and it fought back. Part of the problem was the scale. Most maps are some scale like 50,000,000-to-1. This map was about 2-to-1. It was half the size of Italy itself. Larger than that, actually, as it felt compelled to show not just Italy, but all the lands around it, out to the limits conquered by Marcus Aurelius in the 1st century A.D. At the upper end I found myself looking at Switzerland, including the tiny town of Blonay where I’d lived for a year. At the bottom was Libya and the Sahara Desert. It was a very large and detailed map.
Yet I’ve known vicious maps before and I was not about to be overcome by this one. Soon I had it reduced to a three-foot square morsel which was just enough to cover the small area around north-central Italy that held my interest.
Yes, here was Milan. Here was Bologna. I was heading towards Bologna—all the signs confirmed that. And I was eating a Bologna sandwich. I pondered the significance of eating a Bologna sandwich while heading towards Bologna, decided it was not all that great, and kept reading. Yes, past Bologna the autostrada turned south and there was Florence.
Fine, where was Pisa?
Aha! Here was Pisa! Pisa was over near the coast, the western shore of Italy. Hmmm. There was actually a more direct route than going via Florence. Another autostrada turned south before Bologna, crossed what looked like a mountain range, dropped down to the sea, and intersected another autostrada heading southeast towards Rome. That other route was coming up in just a few miles. Taking it meant missing Florence entirely. Mila would never forgive me. But what do women know about these things? Everyone’s been to Florence. No one’s been to Pisa and climbed the tower. And that tower could go at any moment. I veered to the right and exited Autostrada 1.
Almost immediately the uninspired countryside of central Italy gave way to a beautiful, dreamlike land of stunning mountain peaks, rushing streams, and quaint villages. This could not be the Italian Alps. They were up north, beyond Milan. These were not the Apennines. I knew that the famous Apennine mountain range was east of here. What the heck was this place? I glowered at my map, demanding an answer. But it had turned sullen and bitter, now that it had been folded in ways it found particularly irritating, and would yield no name or other reference for this fabulous land I had discovered.
This was quite pleasant, I decided. Lovely, even spectacular, mountain vistas were everywhere, light traffic was on the freeway, one bologna sandwich was inside me, the other bologna sandwich had been tossed out the window. I simply couldn’t eat two of something so hideous. I wondered if I was the first to have discovered this delightful section of Italy. Mainstream tourists would go nuts if they ever found it.
The distances passed quickly at 140 kilometers an hour. With the reluctant help of my map I estimated I would hit Pisa at this rate by 11:30 a.m.
Soon I was out of the mountains and driving south along the coastal plain. The A4 autostrada connects Naples to Genoa and runs along the Mediterranean Sea, yet I could see nothing of the water. The snow-capped mountains were now off to my left, and I tried to memorize the names of the towns I was passing, hoping to come back here some day. Mountains on one side, ocean on the other, a part of the world undiscovered by tourists—why live anywhere else? But the names themselves were unlovely: Scaara, Uemo, Agg. They sounded like cave-men names to me. Could ancient cave men actually have bequeathed their names to these places? And could it be that the Romans never bothered to change them?
“What say you, Centurion? We have conquered Agg. Agg and all his relatives are now defeated. We have burned the town. Melted its gold. Captured the women. Hanged the men. Enslaved the children. All that is now left is to rename this dreadful place something more fitting. With respect, oh mighty one, may I suggest “Livonia” in honor of the most beautiful of your mistresses?”
“Naw, Livonia and I had a bit of a row last night. Let’s keep calling this place Agg.”
And so Agg it apparently had stayed, unto this day.
My map informed me that not so far away from Agg was a major city that apparently had been named Livonia. Perhaps they’d kissed and made up.
Anticipation increased as I approached Pisa. What would be the first glimpse, I wondered. How would it appear, this fabled tower? Would it rise up above the fields, visible for miles? Of course it would. How many towers could there be around here? Yet so far I could see only farmland. I began feeling guilty at how little I knew of Pisa and the tower. I wondered what was so special about Pisa, to have earned a tower. The Washington Monument is in the capital of the United States. The Eiffel Tower is in the capital of France. The Great Wall of China surrounds and protects Peking, the capital of China. Why had the famous, world-renowned, Leaning Tower been placed in the obscure, provincial village of Pisa? It was like placing the Washington Monument in Peoria. Yet how clever of someone, to have given it a tilt, and so make it one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which it was. Without a tilt, it would probably only rank, I don’t know, maybe twenty-third. But to make it into the top seven! Now that was an accomplishment.
With this line of thought came a terrible question. We all know about the seven wonders of the world. But what about the eighth? I mean, the seven are good. But the eighth is probably worth seeing as well, wouldn’t you guess? How sad, to be the eighth. No one would even know you existed.
Come to think of it, when and where had the competition been held?
Probably it was some Nobel Peace Prize kind of thing. Probably held in Oslo or Stockholm. Isn’t that where they make these kinds of decisions? First would come the question of how many there should be.
“Olaf, I say there should be Ten Wonders of the World!”
“Nonsense, Sven. Five. And even five is too many.”
“Three. Three is a good number. There can be a gold, a silver, and a bronze. You know, like in the Olympics and with MasterCard.”
“Thor speaks wisely. But remember, MasterCard has platinum. Perhaps there should be four, if we include a platinum level.”
“Fools! Know ye nothing of marketing? How will the travel industry survive, if we anoint a mere four? Best if there could be fifty wonders of the world. A rich man would spend all his wealth journeying to visit them.”
“Oh get real, Axel, if it’s fifty then none of them will be very special….”
Finally they decide on seven.
“OK, seven it is. Seven wonders of the world. Any suggestions?”
“Hey, you gotta include the pyramids. If you leave out the pyramids, you lose all credibility.”
“Well, duh, Sven. Of course we’re including the pyramids. Like, was anyone suggesting we don’t’ include the pyramids?
“OK, I just wanted to be sure. How ‘bout Mt. Rushmore?”
“Mt. Rushmore doesn’t exist yet!”
“Right. Let’s see. Uhhh… OK, OK, I’ve got one. Great Wall of China?”
“Oooh. Good pick. I wouldn’t have thought of that one…”
“How ‘bout that tower down in Pisa?”
“Thor, the Pisa tower isn’t gonna make it. Last time we were there it was at ten degrees. Another thousand years, it’s history, if you know what I’m saying.”
“Well that’s the point! It’s going, but it’s not gone! The reason it deserves to be in the list is because it’s tipping over, but it’s still hanging in there!”
“Hmmm. It’s a concept. A site that’s fabulous solely because it’s about to collapse. Is that it?”
“Well, what happens when it collapses?”
“No problem. Then we move #8 up to fill the vacancy.”
“That could work…”
And so forth. The more I thought about this, the more I began to wonder what #8 was. Where could I find out? The Internet? www.sevenwonders.com? Who’s in charge of this stuff? Why don’t they ever teach you the things that are really important, in school?
I gazed south over the Italian littoral farmland, and saw nothing higher than telephone lines. But according to the highway signs, the countdown to Pisa had already begun: Pisa 20 km. Pisa 10 km. Pisa 5 km.
Darn it! Where was the tower! It was a beautiful winter day, clear skies and the temperature around 60 degrees. I could see for miles. If I was too late, if the tower had fallen in the last 24 hours, I was going to be furious…
Finally, here was the exit. Pisa. Right arrow. I left the autostrada, horribly confused. Why couldn’t I see the tower? I hadn’t worried about not having a map of Pisa. Pisa is not a major city like Milan. It couldn’t have more than one major tower. And if it did, if there were two, I’d head for the one that was leaning. What could be simpler?
But there was no tower. Just road signs pointing to “Centro.” That’s a concept all over Italy. Road signs in towns point to “Centro” which I’ve a hunch means “center of town.” OK, this wasn’t rocket science. If you’re a twelfth century Italian tower builder, and you’ve decided to build one of the seven wonders of the world in the tiny village of Pisa, do you put it in the center of town, or out in the ‘burbs? I headed for Centro.
Still no tower. The darn thing had fallen over. I should have driven 160 kilometers an hour!
I noticed that the architecture of Pisa was typically Italian: lots of little streets, low buildings, painted masonry, cars touching bumper to bumper lining all the no parking zones. I kept heading towards Centro. But here was something interesting. An unexpectedly large number of people were walking across a little square down a street that was closed to traffic.
Aha! This was the clue I needed. Down that street must be the tower. One had only to find a parking place, join the pedestrians, and the journey would be over. Of course in Pisa there were no parking places available. All the good illegal ones had already been taken. But, a veteran of Sicilian parking challenges, I sought out and found the most illegal, the most flagrant, the most sure-to-be-yanked-out-by-Sikorsky-SkyCrane™ helicopter-and-dumped-in-the-river-if-you-park-there parking place, pushed the other car who’d found it before me out of the way, and parked. Then I arrogantly locked the car and walked away. My fellow Sicilian drivers would have been very proud of me.
Actually before I walked away I studied the car carefully. I was glad I’d remembered to do this. As a rental car, I had no idea what it looked like, and might have had a hard time ever finding it again. I noticed that it was silver and very small, and kind of ugly, but not as small and not as ugly as many of the cars. I felt I could now recognize it again if ever I got the opportunity as I hoped I would. Then I noticed the street I was parked on. I had no paper and pen to write down the name. I should have had paper and pen, and resolved to have those things at the next Wonders of the World attraction I drove to. The name was “Via Lavagna.” I remember this using the memory system that it sounded like Lasagna, but with the French verb “lave” (to wash) in front of it. So it was all about something a French person would do in the bathroom before sitting down to dinner in Italy. OK, as a memory system it was weak, but I thought it would work.
All those pedestrians were gone when I got back to their street, and I realized maybe I’d misjudged. Maybe it was just some Italian family reunion. But I was not going to admit defeat in the matter of finding the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in Pisa. How could I live that down? And I didn’t really believe it had tipped over this morning. What were the chances? It had been standing (sort of) almost a thousand years already. It wasn’t going to tip over this morning. That’s what the left side of my brain was saying. But the right side was saying: So where is it?
I kept walking and finally arrived at a broad, lovely river. This was an important river, a large river. Beautiful Italian buildings lined the banks, on either side, and graceful Italian bridges spanned it. The street I was on crossed over via one of these, and I walked onto it eagerly, knowing that from a bridge, in the middle of a major river, in the town of Pisa, Italy, of course the famous tower would be visible.
But it was not. Would not one see the Eiffel Tower from a bridge in Paris? The space needle from a bridge in Seattle? Of course one would. How could the tower of Pisa be so well hidden?
Puzzled, I kept going. One encouraging thing I’d noticed were little signs pointing to the tower. The pictoglyph on the sign was of a leaning tower. This should have made me feel confidant. But the words alongside the little picture kept changing. Sometimes the sign said Piazza Del Duomo, with a leaning tower picture. Sometimes it said Piazza Vettovaglie, with a leaning tower. Sometimes it said Piazza S. Frediano, with a leaning tower, and so forth. This puzzled me. Which Piazza had the tower? It couldn’t be in several Piazzas at once.
A sudden, cold chill crept over me. I remembered the Seven Scared Pools, that quintessential Maui tourist attraction that had turned out to be a hoax. It was in all the guidebooks, all the signs pointed towards it, but it didn’t exist. There were pools all over Maui and someone had just made up a myth about seven of them being “sacred”, and had done this solely to attract tourists. (See travel story: The Seven Sacred Pools.) Could the Leaning Tower of Pisa be of this ilk? Might there not actually be a tower? Or, as with the Maui pools, might there be dozens or hundreds of towers, leaning every which way, and it was anyone’s guess which one had made it into the Top Seven?
No, that couldn’t be true. There were pictures of the thing. Postcards. I’d seen them. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was famous. It must just be these little signs that were all screwed up.
I walked at high speed along the river. The day was advancing. It was almost noon. Still no tower. The signs pointing to the tower were no longer to be seen. Finally I realized the town was diminishing; I was nearing the outskirts. I’d taken a wrong turn. This was not right. I retraced my steps quickly back to the bridge, picked up the little signs again, and tried to follow them more carefully.
Suddenly—I saw it! Or at least I saw something. It was at the end of the street I was now following. It was a large, ornate, bell-tower type thing, hovering over the nearby buildings. It was directly in front of me. I couldn’t see if it was leaning or not as I could see only the very top—the bell tower itself.
I kept walking, and then—without warning—everything opened up. I was in a large square—one of the Piazzas, no doubt. And there, undeniably, was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. The first thought in my mind was: “Oh, it’s so cute! It’s tiny.”
And it was tiny. At least it was tiny to someone who had expected something of Eiffel Tower class. And it was leaning. It was adorable: like a puppy with its head tilted to the side.
I stared at it, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The most amazing thing about the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa was how completely outclassed it was by the other things around it. In the midst of this otherwise unimportant Italian village was some of the most spectacular architecture seen anywhere in Italy. A beautiful cathedral was right beside the tower, and how utterly fabulous it looked. The tower itself was a mere after-thought to this cathedral with its ornate, Byzantine architecture, reminiscent of Piazza San Marco in Venice. And behind the cathedral was a huge dome, a “basilica” of immense proportion. The cathedral was dwarfed by the basilica, and all around the open area were other important buildings and monuments. How all this came to be located in tiny Pisa was anyone’s guess. Someone had pulled some strings in the twelfth century, that was obvious. But the incredible irony was how insignificant was the tower itself. It was the very least of the fabulous monuments left over from renaissance Italy.
I mean, it was a good tower. It was very pretty. It had all the things one would expect of a tower. It was just – so small. Well, perhaps it was taller than the top of the basilica dome. Yes, certainly it was. OK, maybe in the 12th century this little thing was the equivalent of a sky-scraper. I counted the stories. Depending on how you counted, there were eight. An eight story building! No wonder I hadn’t seen it from a hundred miles away. No wonder I hadn’t seen it from a bridge in Pisa. You had to pretty much be standing right beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see it!
Yet it was still adorable, and when combined with the other magnificent buildings and monuments it made a spectacular tourist site.
And there were plenty of tourists here, from all nationalities. But it wasn’t over run with tourists. There were no tour buses, nor herds of tourists being maneuvered around by stressed-out tourist guides waving little flags over their heads. It was just the right number of tourists. Any less and I’d have felt bad for the tower.
Vast areas of manicured green grass were cordoned off and kept pristine at this piazza. People weren’t allowed on the grass. You had to stay on the wide marble walkways, but that was fine. Souvenir shops were judiciously placed along one side of the piazza, but they were in good taste and kept under control. Of course the merchandise was tacky, but that was to be expected. The most popular items at these souvenir stands were little cups and glasses constructed to be “leaning” like the tower. So instead of merely a normal souvenir coffee cup with the words Leaning Tower of Pisa, you had a coffee cup with a slant actually built into it. Very clever.
Graffiti, that foul cancer of modern urban settings, especially in Europe, had been completely banished from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Signs indicated that tickets were being sold at a spot across the square and I headed their swiftly. Tickets to the tower? Certainly I wanted one.
I had read recently that the Tower of Pisa had been closed for many years, but that now its leaning had been arrested, and it had therefore been reopened to tourists. This had occurred only a few months ago.
At the ticket office I was given a choice of buying tickets for individual exhibits a la carte (the basilica, the cathedral, the this, the that, and so forth), and was also given the choice of buying a ticket to visit the tower.
A visit to the tower itself was quite special. Signs explained that tours were limited to no more than twenty five people. Reservations had to be made. And that the climb to the top of the tower was physically demanding, and should only be made by people in good physical shape.
A veteran of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, I eyed the tower with skepticism. Was I in good enough physical shape to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Hey, it’s easier when it’s leaning, right? No, seriously, I thought I could handle it. Or if I couldn’t I would spend the rest of my life in therapy.
I bought the ticket that gave me access to everything. And I signed up for the tour that left at 3:30pm—the next available vacancy.
Three hours to kill. There were tons of museums and basilicas and such to visit right here in the square, and I’d bought the ticket that gave me access to everything. Yet it was too lovely a day to go inside. I walked over to the western wall of the cathedral, chose a spot that would provide a perfect view of the Tower, and sat down on the cold marble. Leaning back against the wall, I pulled out my latest John Grisham novel, and began to read.
It was a warm, sunny day in Northern Italy, and the novel was good. The first hour went quickly. Then I took a high speed walk around town, to get some exercise. That consumed another hour. OK, getting close to Tower Time now. I decided that I should have some pizza. I chose at random an outdoor café, sat down, and ordered pizza. In Pisa. Get it? I realized I probably needed to get a life, if I could find that funny. Even so, I tried to find a way to take a picture of the pizza, with the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the background. But the angles weren’t quite right. Too bad. A picture like that would have gone on the wall in my office. Hmm. I suppose I did need to get a life.
After lunch I walked into a few of the tourist shops, found a guide book, and read something about Pisa.
Few buildings in the world have captured imaginations as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the single most instantly-recognizable building in all the Western world. Perhaps visitors are drawn to it as a symbol of the fragility of people, or at least the fragility of their work.
I paused. Had I been drawn here, subliminally, because this place was a symbol of people’s fragility? I really didn’t think that had occurred to me. In truth I’d been drawn here because I wanted to be able to tell people I’d climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so they’d be impressed and I’d be more popular at cocktail parties and such. In other words, I’d been drawn here by my own fragility. Maybe the author was onto something. I kept reading…
In the Middle Ages, Pisa reached the apex of its power as a maritime republic before it eventually fell to its rivals, Florence and Genoa.
Aha! So it used to be an important place. That’s why they’d built all this stuff here. Things were starting to make sense.
As is true of most cities at their zenith, Pisa turned to the arts, and made contributions in sculpture and architecture. It’s greatest legacy remains at Piazza del Duomo. Here you’ll find an ensemble of the top three attractions—the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Leaning Tower itself.
So one of those signs had been right. The Leaning Tower was in fact at the Piazza del Duomo. That had been one of the candidates. Did those other Piazzas really think they could fool tourists into thinking they held the Leaning Tower? Like, no one was going to notice it was missing once they got there? Jeesh. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
Construction of the Leaning Tower, an eight-story campanile, began in 1174 by Bonanno, and a persistent legend is that the architect deliberately intended the bell tower to lean (but that claim is undocumented.)
Yeah, I bet it’s undocumented. I knew what happened. Bonanno’s descendents looked like fools when the tower started to go. Probably his great-grandkids were hassled about it in grade school.
“Hey, Mario! Checked your great grand-dad’s “tower” today? It leaning even f-a-r-t-h-e-r…” (spoken in an annoying, sing-song voice.)
“Shut up, Giusseppe. My great grand dad knew what he was doing. He wanted that tower to lean. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! He knows how this stuff works up in Stockholm. You think a normal tower would ever rank as one of the Seven Wonders of the World? You think anyone would ever come here to see a normal tower? And without all these tourists, you and your family could never get away with that scam of putting those competing Piazza signs all over the city! What a worm. You’re so stupid I bet you’re related to Agg.”
And then a fist-fight would break out before the school bell rang and recess was over.
Another legend is that Galileo let objects of different weights fall from the tower, then timed their descent to prove his theories of bodies in motion.
Now that didn’t make any sense. Wasn’t it Newton that did the gravity stuff? Apples, trees, things hitting you on the head? I thought Galileo was into planets and celestial bodies. There was some connection I recalled between Galileo and the sun. Did he discover the sun? No, that seemed unlikely. Surely someone must have noticed the existence of the sun well before the Italian renaissance. Oh, wait! I remembered. Galileo was the guy who figured out that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa. But apparently he liked to drop things off the Tower of Pisa as well. He probably did it just to annoy the tourists, and pretended he was measuring the pull of gravity or something as a cover. All very interesting. I kept reading…
Unfortunately, the tower is in serious danger of collapse. The government is taking various measures to keep the tower from falling, including clamping five rings of half inch steel cable around it’s lower stones and stacking tons of lead around it’s base to keep it stabilized. The tower is said to be floating on a sandy base of water soaked clay; it leans at least fourteen feet from perpendicular. If it stood up straight, the tower would measure about 180 feet tall. In 1990 the government suspended visits inside the tower. In years gone by, one of the major attractions in Europe was to climb the Tower of Pisa—taking all 294 steps. But that’s too dangerous today, and visitors must be content to observe the tower from the outside—but at a safe distance.
I checked the publishing date of the book. Sure enough, it was from 1998. Almost four years old. There wasn’t any lead or steel cable around the tower today, and in thirty minutes I’d be climbing those steps myself. I thumbed through the rest of the book and came upon a map of the city. I studied it carefully, noticing where I’d parked the car, discovering the name of the river (the Arno), and visually retracing my path from the car to the tower. Wait a minute… Aha! Now I understood what was going on with those fraudulent “leaning tower” signs. Those other Piazzas were located between my car and the tower. So as I headed for the true Tower, I was also heading towards those other Piazzas. A sign pointing in a certain direction, and showing the leaning tower symbol, and the words Piazza Vettovaglie, was explaining that both the tower and the Vettovaglie thing, were both in this direction. And, technically, that was true, at least from that spot.
Giusseppe was off the hook.
The sun was getting lower in the sky, its rays adding a warm glow to the Leaning Tower. I decided to take a few more photographs. Now here was something interesting. Tourists were taking pictures of each other as they pretended to lean into the tower, their arm’s outstretched as if holding it up. This was from a spot about 200 yards away, so it was an attempt at trick photography—the picture would sort of make it look like they were holding up the tower. Cute. I found out later, from someone who’d never been to Pisa, that this was what everyone did in Pisa. It’s like riding a gondola in Venice—it’s mandatory. And lots of people were doing it. But how silly. What a juvenile, immature thing to do. On the other hand, a picture showing you eating pizza in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa – now that would be clever photography.
Since I’d bought admission to all the museums and basilicas, I decided to visit at least the basilica. This was the huge, ornate structure that made everything else in the area seem insignificant. Yet it was cold, and gloomy, and hollow. I found an interior staircase that led up to the “balcony.” I climbed this quickly, a set of stairs cut into the marble, worn down by the passage of ages. I climbed it very quickly and soon discovered, to my horror, that I was getting winded. Oh my God! In the basilica? If I could get winded here, how was I going to climb the Tower?
Suddenly everything changed. Maybe I wasn’t in that good physical shape. I exited the building and looked up at the tower. It was much taller than the basilica. The sign had warned me about needing to be in good physical shape. I hadn’t exercised as much as I should have the last few days. What if I couldn’t handle it?” I found myself plummeting downwards, emotionally. I was feeling my age, wondering why I thought I could do something like climb some huge tower, no doubt surrounded by young twenty-something tourist kids. My arrogance was coming back to haunt me. Remembering a trick I used to use when hiking in the Colorado Rockies, I ducked into a nearby souvenir stand and bought a candy bar.
A candy bar! I never eat candy. But the sugar would help. When that last ounce of strength left me half way up the tower, the sugar in the candy bar would keep me going. I was ready now. OK, it would be tough. It would be a mental and physical ordeal. But I was willing to make the effort. I was going to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa or collapse trying. I, and my candy bar, were prepared for the worst.
All of us gathered at the ticket office, as per the instructions, and we began the process of eyeing each other. I searched around desperately, hoping to see people older than me. But most of them did look pretty young. They were of all nationalities, including a handful of Asians. There was one very attractive couple, and I detected from their accents that they were British. Young British. Probably in their twenties. They looked in good shape, and in love.
An Italian man in a uniform, obviously our guide, probably in his early thirties, also in good shape, came over and collected us all. We walked with determination towards the base of the tower, all the other tourists eyeing us with admiration. They knew we were the group that was going to make the ascent. We were those select, carefully chosen, physical specimens prepared to conquer the Matterhorn, ascend Mount Everest, climb the Tower of Pisa. I basked in their admiration, all the while wondering if I was going to make it. I clutched my chocolate bar nervously.
As we entered the little doorway at the base of the tower, I carefully stood off to the side. Having climbed the stairs in the basilica I knew what awaited us. This would be a very narrow stairway, and once in, you’d have no way to stop, or stand aside. When one ran out of air, it would be just too bad. Thus, far better to be the last than the first. If I only made it half way up, yet no one realized it, my humiliation would be private.
The others charged ahead, full adrenaline propelling them upwards. Finally it was only the guide, and me. He motioned me onto the staircase. Worried that I’d made a terrible decision, but now too late to turn back, I took the first step.
As with the Basilica, the marble steps had been worn down by centuries of patient monks. Well, who knows if they were patient. And who knows if they were monks, to be honest about it. What was this tower all about anyway? The guidebook said it was a campanile, but what the heck was a campanile? Maybe that’s Italian for “leaning tower.” In any case it wasn’t a cathedral, so probably it wasn’t monks that were supposed to climb it. Maybe it was commissioned by Galileo so he could drop things off of it. In any case, I reflected on the fact that Galileo had climbed these same steps. But at what age? And did he get winded? And did he need a candy bar to get to the top?
The steps were inside kind of a double wall, that inner wall concentric to the outer wall, but about three feet from it. So the steps were about three feet wide, and spiraled slowly upwards inside the narrow space created by the two walls. As you climb you can sense, subtly, that the tower is on a tilt. This is because you find yourself leaning either against the outer wall, or the inner wall, or forwards or backwards, depending on where you are in the circle. It’s a bit disorienting, like something you’d find in an amusement hall.
It was not possible to know what was inside—beyond the inner wall. Was the tower hollow? Was it solid rock? There were no windows or anything to let you look further in. Perhaps it was solid rock. That would make it incredibly heavy. Once it finally tipped over, it would fall rapidly. No, that’s not right. Newton or Galileo or someone had proven that things of different weights fall at the same rate of speed. Maybe they had proven that right here.
All this thinking about weights and gravity and tipping over made me wonder about the effect of the weight of us tourists, climbing up a leaning tower, adding our own mass at the very top. Certainly it wouldn’t help. Shouldn’t they have weighed us or something to make sure we didn’t pose a problem? I was on a diet, and had definitely lost a few pounds already on this trip, but the pizza at lunch had probably been a bad idea. And wouldn’t that be the mother of all irony: if the weight of a pizza, added to the other weight at the top, was what finally caused the Leaning Tower of Pisa to collapse into ruin. They’d probably throw me in jail.
I was husbanding my strength and climbing slowly, yet even so I was soon up to the tail end of those ahead of me. They were going even slower than I was.
This was frustrating. I was so nervous about whether I could make it that I wanted to get it over with. Having to climb at this speed would be Chinese water torture. At last we came to a small landing, with a window looking out over the Piazza Duoma. There was some space here to stand aside. Five of the group were stopped at this window, breathing heavily, completely exhausted. I looked out but could not estimate how far we’d come. In any case we’d just started. I knew it was going to be a horrible, torturous physical ordeal, but the ordeal had not yet begun. This was only the warming-up portion. I kept going, leaving the five others behind. Soon, I was at another landing. Ten people had stopped here. They were exclaiming in multiple languages about how out of breath they were, and in truth they sounded it. But come on! The challenge was mostly still ahead of us.
There was a third take out spot, and then a fourth. By this time there were only a couple of people ahead of me. I wasn’t at all tired yet, that would come later I knew, and then there would be the candy bar. But I would save the candy bar for the last extremity….
Suddenly the staircase ended. How could this be? We couldn’t be at the top. Were we at the top? I emerged out onto an open area, and realized I was at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The basilica was far down below us. This was difficult to believe. I hadn’t even begun to get tired. Yet climbing half way up the basilica had been exhausting.
With the spirit of Galileo hovering over me, I set my mind to resolving this riddle. Apparently, climbing stairs at extremely high speed in a basilica wears one out much faster than climbing stairs at normal speed in a leaning tower. When I’d climbed the basilica, I’d been racing So of course I’d worn myself out. Here I’d been following others, and thus hadn’t even broken a sweat. Speed + height = energy required. Galileo would have been very proud of me.
The view was nice, and the cute British couple asked me to take a picture of them, with their camera. And then they reciprocated, taking one of me.
The girl’s boyfriend wandered off and I asked her: “You realize if it tips over now, they’ll blame us, don’t you?”
“Rubbish! They’ll do no such thing. It’s quite old, you know. Hardly our fault…”
The tilt was noticeable from the top, but not overly so. As you walked around the circumference on the top floor, you definitely could feel yourself climbing in one direction, and descending in another. From up here the tower didn’t seem all that cute and tiny. It seemed quite tall and tower-like. One who has a fear of heights would notice the height. And I did.
Hmmm. OK, how much more of this tower did I really need to see? And you can see it better from the ground, anyway. Earlier, I’d promised myself when I got to the top I was going to jump around a bit, and see if I could get it to lean over another few degrees. That didn’t seem like such a great idea at the moment.
I walked around some more, finding myself happier on the high side than the low. I took the requisite number of photographs. And then I started worrying about Milan. Finding my way back into the city, and through the maze to the hotel, when there are no readable street signs and no way to ask directions, might well prove impossible. The earlier I got started the better. So I descended the steps ahead of the others, reclaimed my car and was soon engaged in the long drive back to Milan. I’d been at the top of the tower for only about ten minutes. Of course, it’s really no different from climbing Mt. Everest. They say you spend weeks making it to base camp, days in getting close to the summit, hours spent on the final sprint to the top, and only a few minutes at the peak. Pisa and Everest. Similar, apparently. And I’d climbed one of them.
Thirty kilometers shy of Milan I stopped at an autostrada restaurant. This was for two reasons. First, I was very hungry. Second, I needed to plan my strategy for entering the city. The cafeteria style buffet provided fuel. I spread my maps out on the large table. I could try to retrace my steps I’d taken from the hotel, as given to me by the receptionist. But that would likely not work. In Italy, because they do not have street signs, they do everything by “destination.” There are arrows pointing to destinations, everywhere. Thus as soon as I left my hotel, I was able to follow signs all across Milan to “Autostrada”. But in reverse that would not work. There would not be signs all across Milan to “Hotel Spazo.” And the Byzantine pathways I’d crossed from the hotel to the autostrada I knew I could never find again, and certainly not at night.
A better plan was to go far out of my way via the Autostrada to northwest Milan, and to approach the hotel as I’d done from the Malpensa airport the day before. From that direction, the combination of streets was relatively simple. I’d handled them during the day on Saturday. I could probably handle them at night. The fact that it meant an additional twenty minutes of driving to reach that spot was irrelevant. Getting lost in downtown Milan could consume hours. It was the safe bet.
The plan collapsed almost immediately. I missed the intersection for the autostrada that would take me northwest of the city. These crazy highway signs! Why couldn’t they shine the lights on the words, not on the empty places!
But for whatever reason, I’d missed the intersection. This scared me for two reasons. First, it meant my simple, but longer, way of reaching the hotel was no longer an option. I was going to have to do it a harder way. Second, if I could miss something as prominent as a major intersection on the Autostrada, what hope was there? My only option now was to try to retrace my steps taken at 7 a.m. this morning: miles of twisting and turning on nameless streets right through the middle of the city. The possibility of a night in the car seemed increasingly likely.
A large percentage of the Italian population was on this highway, no doubt returning from their weekend jaunts in the countryside, as was I. But the heavy traffic was not a problem. All of us were driving fast. As expected, I’d encountered no problems driving three hours to Pisa and back. There was really nothing here in Northern Italy that could challenge my Sicilian driving skills. We were only about five miles now, from where I’d exit the Autostrada and try to pick my way across Milan.
Suddenly the high-speed autostrada, now 5 lanes wide, shut down. Cars dropped to a crawl. Then they all stopped. After what seemed like minutes, we began to move again. Stop. Start. Stop. Something was going on. Then I realized we were approaching a toll booth area. A quarter mile ahead was a toll booth. I guessed we were looking at a thirty minute wait, given our present speed. Longer than that, possibly.
I allowed myself several moments of fury. Civilizations that have evolved to the point of using toll booths to collect highway taxes deserve to be destroyed by comets. The existence of tolls booths is scientific proof that those ruling the society have an intelligence quotient below that of normal plant phyla. If one wishes to impose user fees on highways, by all means do so. But do so via gasoline taxes, not by the infinitely retarded system of toll booths. I was prepared to condemn Italy, all Italians, and the Italian highway system to the sophistication level of stone age tribes likely to be wiped out by the advance of the polar ice sheets until I remembered that certain areas of New Jersey are still doing the same thing.
None of this was helping in the present circumstance. The line was now moving even more slowly. In fact it had stopped completely. I do not know why this was so, only that it was. I waited five minutes. No movement. Recalling my affinity with Galileo, I computed that at our present rate of progress, the universe would quit expanding and would begin to retract before I made it up to that toll booth. At which point I would no doubt be required to pay the equivalent of twenty five cents in tolls. Where was that comet when it was needed? Destroy this society! By all means! Do it quickly! We do not deserve to procreate and pass on our genetic material!
Didn’t some scientist predict once that if a comet hit earth and wiped out everything, probably the only life form that would survive would be the cockroach? Well that was just fine by me. Cockroaches may not be all that intelligent, but they aren’t so stupid as to build toll booths to collect highway taxes. Even cockroaches have some sense. Perhaps Earth would be in better hands if they took charge.
The line to my right actually was moving slightly. I changed lanes. That by itself would have been impossible for most drivers. I managed it with little effort. My Sicilian skills at least were good for something. Hours passed. Well, maybe not that many hours, but it seemed that way. And the plot was thickening. Of the twenty or so toll gates, several were out of service. Because these several were together and no one was queuing up for them, a large open area existed between the two groups of lines. Theoretically a person could leave the line they were in and drive swiftly right up to the toll gates, but it wouldn’t do any good as those toll gates were closed. Of course a truly foolish person might try to do this, move far up the line, and then try to merge back in. Move back into a line of rabid Italians insane with fury over someone who was trying to cheat the system? The best driver in Sicily might theoretically attempt such a thing, if for no other reason than to prove his skill. But even were he to succeed it would mean swift death. The other drivers would rip him from his car and kill him on the spot. Even Northern Italians would do this. I would help them do it. All of us were furious at being in cars that were not moving. We were all sitting there getting madder and madder. We were ready to attack anything, for almost any reason, and rip it to pieces. A thousand cars backed up on the autostrada. A thousand fuming Italian drivers, and one American, looking for something to kill. It was a very tense situation.
What! What was this? Something huge, something horrible, something all aglow with fiery lights. It came hurtling at us from somewhere over our shoulders. Was this the comet? Had Zeus finally decided to put a toll-booth-building civilization out of its misery?
And then this gargantuan, glowing, high-speed object from the darkness came nosily and violently to a stop. It stopped in the middle of the empty area, a hundred yards ahead of my present position. It sat there, pulsating, lights flashing, steam coming off of it. A demon from the pit could have looked no more hideous. If it was not a comet, it was certainly some kind of apocalypse of doom. As the steam cleared, the beast was revealed and I gasped at what I saw—so huge it was blotting out all the stars. It was a double-length, oversized, tractor trailer from Hell. I had no idea such monsters existed on the continent of Europe nor anywhere in the Eastern hemisphere. This horrible beast could only have been birthed in the steel mills and truck factories of America. Yet even on the freeways of the Midwest it would have looked obscenely large. Drivers in Montana would have cursed it. Whole townships in Massachusetts would have been overcome had it tried to park near Boston. Yet here it was. Sitting in Italy. Perhaps it had driven across the Atlantic—the waves parting in terror to let it through.
But what was it doing in the middle of the empty area? It had just roared in there and stopped. Maybe it’s brakes had given out. Maybe it was filled with construction workers here to repair the broken toll stations. Anything was possible. Well, not quite anything. Surely this truck wouldn’t try to… Oh my God! The beast was inching forward. Its mammoth front wheels had turned slightly to the right. It was actually going to try to merge into the queued up line of drivers! This was beyond crazy. This was world-class criminal insanity. World wars have been started with less provocation. But more to the point, it was impossible. As I mentioned, the best driver in Sicily might attempt such a thing, but not with anything larger than a microscopic small-even-by-Italian-standards, automobile. With 28 wheels, two trailers, 500 tons of weight, and a size greater than all the other cars queued up on the highway put together, it was the worst possible vehicle imaginable with which to try to sneak surreptitiously between two other cars in line. Delicately prying two cars apart and slipping into the space between them would require skill and maneuverability worthy of the hands of a brain surgeon. This monstrosity couldn’t maneuver easily in any space smaller than the Nullabor Plain of Australia.
Of course there was one thing I was forgetting. He had 28 wheels, two trailers, 500 tons of weight, and was larger than the rest of us put together. Who was going to tell him “no”?
A thousand pairs of hands gripped tightly a thousand steering wheels. Who would tell him no? We would tell him no. Forget about it. It wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t know where this planet-sized bastard had come from. But we sure knew where he wasn’t going.
Yet here he came. He was inching closer. The driver did seem to be able to maneuver at least in one direction. Forward. A little bit at a time. He had the mass, and the speed, of a large glacier in Alaska. I began to have a very uneasy feeling about what was going to happen.
Fortunately it wasn’t going to happen anywhere near me. This drama would play itself out 20 car lengths ahead. I would have a ringside seat, but not really be affected. And I didn’t really care if he succeeded or not. Long though this truck-like creature might be, it was still just one vehicle. It would pass through the toll booths consuming no more and no less time than any other single vehicle. Despite the horrible insult to the honor of all of us sitting in line, he would add no more than probably 30 seconds to our queuing time. Good heavens, the entertainment value was worth more than that. This toll-booth line had been transformed from a scene of incredible boredom, to probably the most interesting place to be at the moment in all of Western Europe.
OK, here he came. Closer and closer to the line of cars. I wondered why he was approaching them so slowly. Why not just get right to work with the business at hand? Then I realized he was being coy. He was pretending that he, too, was in a slow-moving queue, and it wasn’t his fault that the two queues were having to merge. He was trying to pretend he was one of us. A victim! All of us waiting patiently in line together. Compassion and common courtesy being due all of us in equal measure.
Interesting strategy. Hard to believe the driver of a truck the size of Chicago would possess such people skills.
Closer. Closer. His angle for the merge attempt was about 15 degrees. He was moving so slowly. So politely. Knock, knock. Would someone please let me in? That’s what his speed was saying. What a worm.
I was pleased to notice that those drivers now under attack had instantly moved into Sicilian autostrada formation. That is, each had closed up so that all their bumpers were touching. None of them minded having their bumper physically in contact with the car both ahead and behind. It was like cowboys circling the wagons to form a defensive perimeter against the Indians. It was the necessary, communal thing to do.
Ha, ha. The truck was now stopped. No one was letting him in. He kept trying to inch closer but he simply couldn’t. Not without physically hitting a car. The first car he tried to sneak in ahead of was now completely past him. So was the second. Now, so was the third. The Sicilian Formation was working! Evil truck monster was being held at bay by the shear will of 1,000 grim and determined Italian drivers. And one American. Fourth car was past. Fifth car was past. Sixth car. Evil truck monster hadn’t moved for ten minutes.
I was actually getting quite close. Seeing we were winning, I was ready to try some single warrior combat with the creature myself. Heh, heh, heh. I was from Sicily. OK, maybe I’d never faced a challenge quite like this in Sicily, but I was confident. If these Northern Italian drivers could keep him out, he’d be putty in my hands.
And sure enough, here came my turn. Nineteen cars had made it past him. I was going to be #20. This sorry bastard would be stuck at the Milan toll booths for a month. No one would ever, ever let him in.
My car was now directly beside the truck’s front bumper. It towered above me, like the prow of the QE II. The bumper inched forward. Or tried to. The truck was actually lurching, much as do African elephants, protecting their young, sending threatening, aggressive “lurching” signals to anyone they consider a danger to the baby elephant. You don’t scare me with your threatening lurches, Mr. Truck. I not only learned to drive in Sicily. I’ve had experience with elephants in Botswana. You can eat my tusks!
Wait a minute. Something wasn’t right. A sliver of truck fender somehow had appeared between my car and the car in front. How could that have happened? My bumper had been touching the car in front’s bumper the whole time. How could a sliver of truck fender get in there? It wasn’t possible! This wasn’t right! Uh, oh. Now there was more than just a sliver of bumper. There was an inch of bumper. The prow of the QE II was somehow forcing our two cars apart. Damn it! Now that it had started, it was impossible to stop. It was suddenly my vehicle which couldn’t advance without smashing into the slowly-moving steel wall blocking the path.
This was a calamity beyond my imagination. I was never, ever, going to live this down. No more arrogance for me. I’d been beaten in single-warrior combat with Evil Truck Monster. Not just beaten. But beaten by someone who’d been unable to beat 19 Northern Italian drivers. Beaten in full view of a thousand Northern Italian drivers.
This was perhaps the worst thing that had ever happened in my life. I’d never be able to look in the mirror again. Any mirror I looked in would probably crack, so disgusted would it be. And properly so. Other drivers—those behind me, to the side of me—were all looking away. They would have liked to have been angry at me, but this was too much. They knew that no man should have to bear this much shame. It was beyond human capacity. The pity hanging in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Monster truck was all the way in, now. I was going to have to look at his backside all the way from here to the tollbooth.
Oh, no. Just when it seemed my humiliation could get no worse, the driver in the row to my right was motioning to me. He was holding back, motioning to me to change lanes and move ahead of him. He was doing this out of pity. Probably no Italian had ever done this voluntarily before, ever. But he understood my shame, and was trying to be charitable. His line was moving slightly faster than Monster Truck line. His kindness would spare me from having to follow the truck itself any longer. I’d be in a different lane. It wasn’t much, but I appreciated the kind hand from a fellow human being. I accepted graciously and merged into the right lane.
I’d been there sixty seconds and then realized what the driver had just done. The car I was now behind had a defective muffler. The fumes coming out of it were shutting down my sinuses. Poisoned air quickly filled the interior of my car, and I had no way to escape it. That driver who’d let me in hadn’t been showing kindness. He’d done this as punishment! He was kicking me in the teeth for having let our side down in the battle with the truck. I couldn’t be angry at the man. I deserved it. I breathed in the poisoned air, finding some moral strength from the mere act of bearing my shame honorably.
The episode should have been over at that point. There was nothing more that could surprise me. Everything had already happened. I just wanted to get back to my hotel and cry myself to sleep. But things weren’t over.
From my new position in the right-hand lane, I realized that both of these lanes were queuing up for the same toll booth. These two lanes had to merge! And it was really more the lane to my left, the lane still containing the truck creature, that was having to merge with us. A combination of traffic dynamics somehow had resulted in the truck creature being far ahead of my present position. I knew what could happen here. When it came time for the truck to merge, no one would let him in. Until I got there. Then, recognizing me as his beaten foe, he’d slip in easily. How could I win a game of chicken with an entity that had just beaten me in a game of chicken? The humiliation catastrophe would be repeated. This was just wonderful.
I brooded over this for several minutes, drowning in a sea of personal misery, and then started paying attention to what was going on. Something wasn’t right. Neither line had moved for a considerable time. No movement in five minutes? What could cause that?
Then horns began honking. For all my belittling of New York cab drivers, I must confess that Italians simply don’t honk as well as New Yorkers. But Italians stuck in a non-moving toll-booth queue in Milan honk pretty well. A cacophony of sound erupted as a barking frenzy descended on all of us.
Then I saw, at the very front of my line, a small car dart around to the right of the car ahead of him—a maneuver which somehow succeeded—and enter the toll booth directly. Then the car following did the same thing, and the one after that! The horns were going totally nuts now. All order and civilization had broken down. Had the comet chosen this moment to arrive, no greater chaos could it have caused. At this rate, cockroaches would be inheriting the planet before sunrise.
But my line was advancing! Everyone in front of me, in my line, was going around some car at the very head of the line—a car that was opposite the monster truck. Now it was my turn, and I pulled around as well, and suddenly understood. The truck had finally tried to edge in to a place where he was resisted. The car opposite him was crushed against his fender! Livid Italians representing both vehicles were circling each other, out on the pavement, preparing to come to blows, shaking fists angrily at each other, and screaming what surely were magnificent insults. The mess was simply never going to get unsnarled. The drivers in the cars behind the truck would grow old and die, never seeing their grandchildren, before escaping this Charybdis of Italian traffic madness.
But it wasn’t my problem anymore. I was into the gate in a flash and finally earned the privilege of paying my twenty five cent highway tax – by credit card, that’s how it works. If the card had been declined the Italian highway system would have backed up from Venice to Messina. And soon I was traveling at high speed again towards Milan. A small portion of my self-esteem had been restored. I’d lost the battle but won the war.
And I did eventually find my hotel. It took an hour and a half from the point where I’d exited the freeway. And during that hour and a half I came to know intimately most of the streets in Milan. But any frustration I may have felt at the process evaporated when I remembered those poor bastards still stuck behind the truck whose driver would be filling out accident report forms until well into the morning. In any case, Truck Monster had been defeated. Civilization had restored itself. The cockroaches were going to have to wait.
As for the other Wonders of the World—I’d love to see them. But if any more of them were in Italy—maybe next time I’d take the train.