Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 6

Italian Sophistry…

Our Europcar Ragazza

Credit Card Servitude…

I remain, like so many others, an unreserved Italophile. How could anyone not revere the nation that gave the world Pythagoras, Parmenides, Petrarch, Pico della Mirandola, Pietro Bembo, Palladio, Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Palestrina, pasta, pizza, prosciutto, prosecco, parmagiana di reggiano (and those are just the p’s), not to mention the three hour lunch, and the five-hour work day.

But Italy was also home to a number of the ancient Sophists, and thus her progeny have never ceased to be able to “make the worse seem the better case”. To deal with Italians, the muscles of eristic must be in perfect trim. Grasping the metamorphic sea-god Proteus is only slightly easier than pinning an Italian down to his word.


Our first experience of Milan was hardly propitious. Though already September, the temperature was in the mid-thirties and the humidity pushing ninety percent. After twelve hours of confinement, our clothes were already clinging to corporeal recesses that hadn’t been exposed to air, water, or soap for over a day. (One of the peak pleasures of European travel is the first shower after touch-down–assuming the water heater in one’s rented apartment is working).

Exacerbating the heat and humidity was the dust with which the atmosphere was choked from the construction around Milan’s Linate Airport. With its trailers and port-o-potties, the scene outside the terminal building resembled an Eritrean refugee camp more than the gateway to the fashion capital of the world. Things will improve (I reassured myself) once we get into the city itself.

Linate is at least a blessedly small facility, so that finding the car rental area (a dreaded ordeal of international air travel) was relatively easy. I booked (and paid for) our car well in advance on an omnibus website called Auto Europe. Auto Europe recommended itself for many reasons, besides the fact that their prices were considerably lower than those of other third-party car rental clearinghouses on the web, not to mention Hertz, Avis, Budget, and the other international chains. First, I was able to get in touch with their representative by that quaintly old-fashioned (and occasionally time-saving) device known as the telephone. Second, a living human being answered the phone—Auto Europe as of yet eschews the sadistic “voice menu” that has become the impregnable roadblock of modern communications—nor was I ever put on hold. Third, the young man at the end of the line was located in Maine (rather than Mumbai). And most miraculous of all, in addition to speaking standard English, he was knowledgeable, efficient, and polite. He reminded me of that wholly anachronistic, clean-cut species of college student one still occasionally encounters in small-town America.

I called Auto Europe four times before committing myself, in part for the exhilarating ease of the experience, but mainly to confirm (redundantly, as required by my congenital suspiciousness) that, indeed, the $900.00 for my thirty-one day car rental included (1) full insurance coverage (collision, third-party liability, and theft) with zero deductible; (2) all conceivable local taxes and bribes; and a guarantee of the model of car reserved. Finally, I was assured that Europcar (the local car rental company, whom I had never heard of) was indeed a well-established firm with operations all across the Continent.


I nonetheless entered the office of Europcar in Linate with a prescient sense of trepidation. Having looked cursorily at my paperwork–I came armed with the entire dossier of orders, confirmations, and receipts, including a long email catena–the ragazza behind the counter proceeded to improvise. The car that we had “requested” would not serve our needs. Looking at our luggage, she could see that it wouldn’t be big enough. Besides, they didn’t have a Fiat Panda on the lot, and it would take an hour to procure one. Why don’t we “upgrade” (at only a small increase in cost) to a larger vehicle?

Standing my ground, I managed to parry this first assault. (Miraculously, a Fiat Panda materialized within minutes; it was “brand new”, “not yet logged into the system”, which is why our ragazza wasn’t aware of it.)

But having survived this first skirmish, I knew that I was a long way from winning the war; and the Protean slipperiness of my opponent had already begun to sap my confidence. Trying to forestall any further surprises, I showed her a number of clauses (which I had underlined in red) in my sheaf of documents, and asked her to confirm that the car was (as it said in black and white) fully insured, and that there would be no other charges. She laughed. Insurance has be arranged and paid for at the site, she said with condescending deliberateness, in both English and Italian (as though I were incapable of understanding either language). And there are always local taxes. Now I’ll need your credit card to process your “request”.

When she printed the rental agreement and thrust it unceremoniously in my direction to sign, I noticed a charge of 677 Euros posted opposite my credit card number. Having returned to consciousness, I was assured that it was the “usual” security deposit. I doubted it; the figure was rather too specific. It could only have referred, I assumed, to those ubiquitous “local taxes” she had mentioned. When I left the Europcar office, I resigned myself to the probability that my $900.00 car rental would end up setting me back closer to $2000.00.

Naturally, I thought about telling our ragazza to find some other bleary-eyed traveler to gull. (A suggestion for a Europcar advertising slogan: Rent a car with us: we’ll take you for a ride.) But I had no reason to believe that I would ever get my nine hundred dollars back. In any case, I’d be left with having to find another rental car on the spot (and there’s nothing Italians are better at than sensing when a supplicant is negotiating under duress). So I capitulated, like a political prisoner who, after days of sleep deprivation, is willing to confess to anything.

The most depressing realization (which would turn out to be the lesson of the entire trip) was that all of my vigilant preparedness—the careful internet research, the multiple phone calls to Auto Europe, the amassing of the documentary evidence–was an onanistic waste. A traveler can be girded with the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of truth, but once his opponent has his credit card, he is confronting a nuclear power.


Before collecting our very expensive economy car, we decided to retire to the lounge to lick our wounds. This would be a good time for Mrs. P. to telephone Donato (our host in Milan), from whom we needed to procure the keys to his apartment. Mrs. P. had purchased a plan from our cell-phone provider in Toronto for the purpose of arranging such rendezvous. But she had forgotten to charge her phone. The call would have to be made on mine, and while dialing I mentally added the outrageous roaming fees I would have to pay to the ever-rising sum of costs we had so providently, but vainly, attempted to avoid. We had also (providently) purchased a European map program for “Mrs. Garmin” (our GPS device) before we left, and I thought that this might also be a good time to see if it worked. It didn’t. When I turned the unit on, the screen was blank. I later realized why: I was still inside the terminal building, where satellite reception is apparently impossible. But never mind. I had ample cause to be confirmed in my sense of touristic doom. I took out pencil and paper (a technology I could count on) and made a list of everything that might possibly go wrong before the end of the day. It was a long one, but not even the most prescient Cassandra is capable of foreseeing the horrors that a malevolent Fate has in store for her vacationing victims.