“Why don’t people stop?” I asked a taxi driver in Naples as we saw car after car passare col rosso (run a red light). He shrugged his shoulders and explained that in Italy traffic lights are “optional.” So, it seems, are designated lanes, speed limits, and parking under signs declaring that it’s forbidden (divieto di sosta).
Cruising around in a car (fare un giro in macchina) is a great way to see the Italian countryside, but the more Italian car talk that you know before mettere in moto (starting the engine). the better your odds of getting to your destinations safely.
You can find a place to noleggiare una macchina (rent a car) at airports or in most large towns and cities. You will want to find out quanto costa (how much it costs) and if you have to pay a supplemento per il chilometraggio (mileage supplement) or dare una cauzione (give a deposit).
If you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission, Italy is not the place to learn. Request una macchina con il cambio automatico (an automatic). For a premium, you can ask for a cabriolet or a decapottabile (convertible), a gippone (SUV), or a fuoristrada or quattro per quattro (offroad or 4 by 4 vehicle). Just make sure you don’t get stuck with a carcassa (carcass), a macinino (grinder for coffee or pepper), or a carretta (cart) -- all slang for an old jalopy or a clunker.
Perhaps because speeding is so common, Italian has a lot of ways to describe fast driving: avere il piede pesante (have a heavy foot); correre (run or speed); andare come una scheggia (go like a piece of scrapnel); andare a tutto gas, a tutta birra, or a tavoletta (go full-throttle); schiacciare, premere, or affondare il piede sull’acceleratore (put the pedal to the metal); sgommare (burn rubber); and andare sparato (shoot along). But sooner or later even a pilota automobilistico (race car driver) has to arrestarsi con uno stridio di gomme (screech to a halt).
If you get stuck behind a lumaca (snail) or an autista della domenica (Sunday or slow driver), resist the temptation to effettuare un sorpasso azzardato (make a daring pass). Watch out for a pirata della strada (road hog) who tries to tagliare la strada (cut the road, or cut you off). If you find yourself in una coda interminabile (bumper-to-bumper traffic), you may want to fare l’inversione a U (make a U turn) and find an alternate route.
Above all you want to avoid an incidente stradale (car accident), whether it’s uno schianto in autostrada (crash on the highway), un tamponamento a catena (a chain crash or pileup) or un tamponamento (a fender bender). You certainly don’t want to fracassare (wreck) or sfasciare/distruggere la macchina (total one’s car) or end up with il colpo della strega (the whip of the witch) -- whiplash.
If you are going to mettersi al volante (get behind the wheel) in Italy, my advice is, “Guida piano!” (Drive slowly!) As the saying goes, “Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano.” He who goes slowly goes sound (as in safe and...) and goes far.
Words and Expressions
Mi scusi, dov’è...? -- Excuse me, where is ...?
Si va diritto -- Go straight ahead.
Si gira a destra -- Turn right.
Si gira a sinistra -- Turn left.
l’incrocio -- intersection