Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 8

Vicarious New-Car Ownership…

European Automotive Gimmickry…

Driving Your Mother-in-Law around Europe…

Getting behind the wheel of a car confers upon one an intoxicating sense of liberation after sequester in the fuselage of an airliner. Even in a sub-sub-compact, the legroom is better. There is also the illusion of being in control of one’s destiny (although that fades as soon as one has completed three panicky, which-exit-do-I-take?, revolutions in a European roundabout).

I’ve always enjoyed renting cars. Since I tend to keep my own for between fifteen and twenty years, renting gives me the exhilarating sensation of being a new-car owner (with the tranquilizing knowledge that, if it turns out to be a lemon, I can give it back). Rental cars are sometimes even new enough to retain that “new-car” smell (unless, of course, the previous renter has visited the Alps and is prone to car-sickness. But then, after a few cigars, I barely noticed.)

In the case of some cars I’ve rented (e.g., a 1969 Quatre Chevaux in Paris, a Soviet-era Zil limousine in Moscow in 2000, and a 2002 Miata), I sorely regretted having to give them back. The Fiat wasn’t one of them. In spite of its mawkish model name, our “Panda” (what tone-deaf genius comes up with modern car appellations?) was anything but cute. Like so many European models, its quirky angularity strikes the eye as a vestige from the Cubist era. And its interior is a triumph of plasticky cheapness last achieved by Japanese export manufacturers in the years immediately following World War II. Like many other European cars as well, the Panda tries to make up for its diminutive size and horsepower with an array of useless and imponderable technological gadgets.


My first encounter with this tendency occurred in 2004 at the Amsterdam airport, where I leased a “Clio” from Renault Eurodrive for a month. Because the Clio was nominally leased rather than rented, it was indeed “brand-new”—so new that when it was delivered to me straight from the dealership, the Renault salesman had no idea how to roll its electric windows down.

It may not seem so, but this was a desperate situation. It was hot and muggy (once again); early in the morning after another sleepless overnight flight; following nine hours in a smokeless fIying coffin, I desperately needed a cigar, which was permitted only with the windows open; and my ill-tempered octogenarian parents-in-law were sitting in the back seat, anxious to get to a hotel, where bathrooms are in predictable proximity.

Mrs. P’s parents had always enjoyed touring Europe, but were getting too old and frail to manage a trip on their own. So, in a gesture of filial gratitude combined with reckless charity, we offered to act as escorts and facilitate their return to a place in which they had formerly been very happy.


We eventually discovered the idiosyncratic location of the Clio’s window controls on p. 292 of the owner’s manual. In every car I have ever driven, they are located on the driver’s and passenger’s armrests. In the Clio, they were occulted under a hinged cover on the central console (like the red button for 007’s ejector seat, which, once the back-seat commentary had commenced in earnest, I began to wish the Clio had been equipped with).

While I was doing my best to negotiate the maze of highways between Amsterdam and Bruges without benefit of maps or GPS, my mother-in-law regularly emitted a high-pitched shriek every time another car came within twenty feet of us. (In her, I had my own living, breathing lane-guidance warning system, although rather too sensitively calibrated.) When she wasn’t emoting at the top of her lungs that she “didn’t want to die”, she was reminding me that she hadn’t “come to Europe to be on a boring superhighway”.

After three and a half hours of such back-seat abuse, I finally entered Bruges. A typical medieval European town, Bruges is a spider’s web of culs-de-sac and narrow, one-way streets, both sides of which are invariably lined with parked cars. After finally finding an opening in which to pull over (a long queue of Flemish motorists honking at me from behind), we asked Mrs. P’s parents to wait in the car while we searched on foot for a nearby hotel. They objected; we’re just going for a little walk, they assured us.

Bruges is a safe town, but naturally, with the luggage in the trunk, I was careful to lock the car and listen for the chirp from the key-fob. But something made me walk back to the Clio and check the doors. They were open. I pressed the padlock icon on the fob again, tried the driver’s door (spraining my middle finger in the process), walked away a second time, and returned to dispel any lingering doubts. The doors were unlocked! I performed this futile ballet three more times, before sinking to my knees in despair. How was I going to travel through Belgium and France (including Marseilles, metropolis of bandits) without being able to lock the Clio’s doors?

The answer was in the fine print on p. 383 of the manual this time. The Clio came equipped with a convenient little feature: a sensor in the key-fob that automatically unlocked the doors and rear hatch when the driver came within a ten-foot range of the vehicle. Now you’ll never again have to fumble for your keys while your hands are full of groceries, as the manual exulted in the Renault motoring company’s tradition of innovative genius. (Of course, it’s a useless gimmick, since you still have to open the unlocked doors with your grocery-laden hands. I did, however, employ it as a party trick on the Renault dealer when I returned the Clio, and thoroughly enjoyed his befuddled exasperation.)

Three hours after departing for their “little walk” my parents-in-law showed up back at the car, smiles on their faces, and incredulous that we had been anxiously hunting for them for the entire time—there was no hotel to be found in the area–throughout the city.