When in Rome, it helps to have an experienced driver

Posted Oct. 06, 2011, at 8:33 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — While it appears all roads in Italy do lead to Rome, trust me when I say you do not want me behind the wheel driving on any of them.

Italy is, after all, the country that gave the world chariot races and Ferraris.

I, on the other hand, have entered a driving phase of life in which a clear quarter-mile of empty road is preferred to the right and to the left before I pull out into traffic.

This is not a desired trait in a major world metropolis with a population of roughly 2.7 million — all of whom, it seems, have a car.

Sure, there is public transportation including an underground metro line, but Romans are united on this one point — the system is woefully inadequate.

“If you work in Rome you have to have a car,” I was told by Evi Choutou, a Greek native now living in Rome. “You can’t get anywhere on the metro.”

Well, not entirely true — on a recent whirlwind tour of the city, three friends and I were able to get to Vatican City, the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum by way of the metro.

All tourists’ stops, Evi pointed, out. Perfect for a vacationing American, not so much for the gainfully employed residents.

That’s because the Roman metro has only two lines with no access from the outlying neighborhoods to the central city. There are plans for expanding the system, we were told by a cabdriver, but building anything underground in Rome has one inherent problem.

“They keep digging for new [metro] tunnels,” our driver told us on the way to the airport. “But they keep finding more ancient ruins and have to stop.”

The alternative? Take the wheel.

Which is exactly what we did the night I met up with a friend living in Rome whom I had not seen for five years. Giusy Spinom — a research biologist I’d met on a trip out to Oregon and maintained a pen pal relationship with — brought her best friend, Evi, along for our dinner date.

Evi works as an architect and personal trainer, but if she ever wants to give up those gigs, I’d back her for the Indy 500 any day of the week.

The ladies picked me up at my hotel in a car slightly larger than my living room recliner.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out you do not see in Italy any of those SUV behemoths so common on American roads, Italy being a country where gas prices run as high as $8 a gallon.

Rather, the streets in Rome were choked with Mercedes Smart Cars and mini Fiats, Citroens, Peugeots and Toyotas.

Buzzing about in between were riders on all manner of scooters and motorcycles.

In fact, I grew quite accustomed to seeing men in expensive business suits or women sporting inches-high stiletto heels zipping to and fro on their Vespas as they joined the early morning commute.

For our evening out, Giusy and Evi had planned to take me to an out-of-the-way pizza joint for my last supper in Rome.

One hand on the wheel, the other on her smartphone with the GPS app, Evi pulled out into a tiny opening in the steady stream of early evening Roman traffic.

Given that she was occupied with driving and Giusy was busy tending her 1-year-old daughter and I had no idea where we were heading, I figured the best thing I could do as we wove in and out was cower in the passenger seat.

At one point — just after she had navigated a completely counterintuitive-looking intersection — I commented to Evi that it was a good thing an Italian was driving.

“Oh. I’m not Italian, I’m Greek,” she said. “And Greeks are terrible drivers.

“But don’t worry,” she added as I cinched my seat belt a bit tighter, “I may be Greek, but I have an Italian philosophy of driving.”

This became readily apparent as she zipped around a six-lane traffic rotary which, thanks to scores of cars and scooters all trying to pass each other, had morphed into 10 lanes.

Once out the other side we drove down a series of neighborhood streets before finding a parking space that looked just big enough for a riding lawn mower.

With Giusy directing from the outside and a few deft turns of the wheel, Evi had that car parallel parked with room to spare.

After a delightful supper of real Italian pizza — and I fear I am now spoiled for good — it was back to the car and off to the races.

On the way back to the hotel, Giusy and Evi suggested we stop so I could try “the best gelato in all of Rome.”

Who was I to turn down such an offer?

Never mind there was zero parking up or down the street from the gelato shop — Evi simply pulled alongside a line of trash containers and double-parked, something that is apparently standard operating procedure in Rome.

Now, while I hadn’t yet sampled every available gelato — that ubiquitous Italian frozen dessert that resembles American ice cream only with a fraction of the butter fat and double the sugar content — Lord knows I tried.

And, I have to say, of the samples I did try throughout Rome, the chocolate chip-meringue gelato from Giusy and Evi’s favorite shop was the best.

First of all, it was organic, but more importantly, the ladies pointed out, the different flavors were each kept in individual covered stainless-steel containers, not mounded in open tubs as I’d seen elsewhere.

“Gelato must be flat on top and never mounded,” Giusy said.

“And it must always be covered so the flavors don’t mix,” Evi added just before dashing out to move her car ahead of an approaching sanitation truck aiming for those Dumpsters.

Gelatos polished off, it was time to head back to my hotel and bid my old and new Roman friends a good night.

Observing Evi’s demeanor behind the wheel was a bit of a lesson in traversing the streets of a city that is both ancient and modern at the same time: Show no fear, commit totally to your move, and never make eye contact.

Skills I was able to translate into pedestrian walking the next morning while crossing busy streets. Or if I ever find myself in a chariot race.

Hey, when in Rome …

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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