Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 9

Italian Drivers…

Tailgating with Sprezzatura

Hitting the Wall: H at the Crossroads…

Travel as Going around in Circles…

As a Recipe for Melancholy…

Asking Directions and Local Ignorance…

Having located our rental car, loaded the luggage, and programmed Mrs. Garmin with the address of our apartment, we finally left the dust and debris of Linate’s construction behind, and set out on the short trip to Milan. As we merged into highway traffic, it occurred to me that our Fiat “Panda” was once again rather inauspiciously named for a conveyance that would have to keep up with the carnivorous Ferraris and Alfa Romeos piloted by the testosterone-crazed Italian youths who prowled the Autostrada. To my surprise, however, it had just enough power to hold its own for a few seconds in the passing lane, before yet another would-be Mario Andretti appeared out of nowhere and attached himself amorously to my rear bumper.

Despite their reputation for insanity, by the way, Italian drivers are remarkably safe and competent. Unlike North Americans, they understand the meaning of “passing” (in the phrase “passing lane”); they keep up with traffic—disparity of velocity, in obedience to absurdly low speed limits, being the principal cause of accidents in North America–; and though tailgating is both a sport and a religious obligation in Italy, Italians tailgate with that insouciant confidence and skill to which Castiglione in The Courtier gave the untranslatable name of sprezzatura. (On a ride into downtown from Rome’s airport a couple of years ago, the distance between the front bumper of my taxi and the rear bumper of the car ahead–between three and four feet–never varied, despite speeds in excess of one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour, and frequent stops. A long catena of vehicles sped down the road in this fashion for miles, as if linked together like the cars of a train. Google can only dream of such precision.)


At Italian speeds, we traversed the ten kilometers from the airport to Milan’s outskirts in no time. It took us another twenty minutes or so to reach the periphery of Milan’s centro istorico; but there we hit a wall. Not the medieval fortress walls of the Lombard dukedom, but a wall of construction that encircled them and was hardly less impregnable.

Hercules could at least rely on his own moral compass when he came to his famous “crossroads”. But with a concrete barrier preventing my forward progress, and no idea where I was–the dark shadow of the miracle of GPS is that, without a physical map in hand, one is always effectively lost–, I had to make a choice. I chose left, and proceeded as slowly as the tailgaters would allow while Mrs. Garmin “recalculated” (as she would have to do so often in the coming weeks). I continued to obey la donna Garmin in good faith and confidence as she led us through a maze of streets, commanding me to “turn left in 500 metres”, “take the second exit at the next roundabout”, and so on. But after twenty minutes of this, another concrete barrier lay athwart our path. This time, I elected to go ad dextram, but a second “recalculated” voyage of discovery left the Panda facing what I thought was a third construction barrier. (In fact, being the sharp-eyed observer that I am, I soon realized that Mrs. Garmin had merely returned me, twice, to the same place. We had been going around in circles, literally, for the past forty-five minutes).

Having endured the curry-and-cologne ambiance of Jet Airways; the video-game-addicted delinquent kicking the back of my seat; the touch-and-go race to our connecting flight in Brussels; the oleaginous larceny of the Europcar ragazza; the Sisyphean ramps of the garage at Linate, climbed and re-climbed in search of our rental car; and sleep-deprivation now into its second day; and with La Scala, the Galleria, the Ambrosian Library, Leonardo’s Last Supper, and the other glories of Milan lying across a Hesiodic chasm of construction, as near but as inaccessible as the fruit that lay just beyond the grasp of Tantalus; I came to the inevitable conclusion that travel is nothing more than the illusion of going somewhere, beneath whose pleasant integument is concealed the futile reality of merely going around in circles.

Shakespeare’s Jaques said it best in As You Like It, when he observed that it is easier to suck melancholy out of travel than any other vocation or pastime:

I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s, which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s, which is proud; nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.

Rosalind. A traveler! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

Jaques. Yes, I have gained my experience.

Rosalind. And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad—and to travel for it too.

Surely I had gained enough “experience” in the brief time since leaving Toronto to justify a Jaquean case of melancholy. Staring at the construction barrier for the third time merely confirmed my original intuition that the gods did not want me to visit Northern Italy, as Juno did not want Aeneas to reach Latium, and Poseidon did not want Odysseus to reach Ithaca.


Having probed the limits of Mrs. G’s computer intelligence, I pulled over while Mrs. P went into a bar across the street to ask for help. While, admittedly, I suffer from the proverbial male horror of getting lost, combined with the stereotypically male aversion to asking for directions, it is not, I insist, merely a matter of masculine pride. In my sad experience, when one becomes lost, the perfect recipe for getting desperately, hopelessly lost is to ask a local inhabitant for directions. If your local is familiar with whatever landmark you are looking for, he will assume that everyone in the world must be as familiar with it as he, and his directions will be correspondingly indefinite: “Keep going for a few traffic lights and you’ll see it on the left. You can’t miss it”. (Ah, but you can, and certainly, will. The “few” traffic lights might turn into a dozen, and “on the left” might mean in a strip mall a block in from the road.)

There is another species of locals, moreover, who are cognizant of nothing in their environment (however proximate) that doesn’t lie directly on their route to work, market, or home. It is too often true that those who have lived longest in any given city, town, or village will know the least about its amenities–as I learned, for instance, when, after two weeks of exploring Rome, I was giving travel advice to those who were born there, but had never heard of the Palazzo Massimo or Santa Maria Maggiore, though they had walked passed these celebrated monuments practically every day of their lives.

The denizens of the bar belonged to the latter category of locals. And so we telephoned the owner of our apartment in the hope that he could be our Sibyl and guide us across the Acherusian moat of construction.