Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

Driving toward Cheer

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Driving in Milano is a challenge. The lane markers are inconsistent, the signage is sparse, the traffic rules are unpredictably enforced, and the roundabouts could double as roller derby competitions. I have a number of expatriate friends who are duly licensed drivers in other countries who simply refuse to drive here.

While I understand their intimidation, however, I am an American and my car is important to me. It lets me get my children to school before the gate closes (on most days). It lets me go grocery shopping at the one supermarket in the South East section of Milan that is actually a supermarket – and to bring home more bags that I could shove into a rolling shopping bag. It let’s me travel outside the city (to church, to the lake country, to picturesque hill towns) without being subject to the timetables of the Italian rail system. It is not the sole means of transportation that I use in my daily life, as life in the US usually entails, but it is still important. So, I have learned to drive in Milano without fear, and without any accidents (knock on wood!).

Parking in Milano, is an entirely different story. As in any large metropolitan area, the number of parking spots available is inadequate for the number of cars that roam its streets on any given day. The Milanese are perhaps more creative in their response to this problem than the citizens of other cities. There is some double-parking, of course, but much more frequently drivers simply stow their vehicles in any open space of pavement that is not the active driving surface of a roadway. Such “parking spots” can include the curbs of medians or the painted stripes that are meant to substitute for a median when a roadway splits. More frequently, however, the preferred parking spots are on the sidewalk. Provided that you do not obstruct pedestrian crossways, and that you allow sufficient space for other cars to squeeze past along the open portion of the sidewalk (with side mirrors tucked in tight and parking sensors blaring the single note that is supposed to indicate “you are too close, buddy, BACK UP”), such parking opportunities are apparently free to all takers.

This permission to park unconventionally, however, has not alleviated my anxiety with the inevitable conclusion of journeys completed by car. I will frequently take long or convoluted trips on public transportation, braving ugly weather and trying to balance stroller, bags, umbrella, and metro card, in order to avoid the requirement to park my car at my intended destination. If I do not know there is a parking lot, with marked stalls that are actually wide enough to fit anything larger than a fiat, I think twice. In part this is because of the particular car I have. Now, I really should not complain. Tyler’s company has provided us with a very nice Volvo S80 sedan. This meant nothing to me before I moved here but I now know this model to be a very safe and comfortable vehicle complete with seat warmers, navigation system, ample trunk space, and room to accommodate our family of four quite comfortably (and occasional fifth passengers somewhat less comfortably). Unfortunately the consequence of all that space is that is has wide bumpers and a long wheel base, making parking in smart-car-sized spaces a nightmare!

Thankfully, the blessed relocation package has come to the rescue yet again. Whatever parking disasters I face when touring Northern Italy in my trusty Volvo, I know that when I return home there will be, waiting to receive my unwieldy chariot, a box. No joking – that is really what the Italians call a garage unit in an underground parking structure. Our box is not exactly a heaven of open space. Parking the Volvo in our box (which is mockingly situated at the far end of a corridor of much bigger boxes), requires that I reverse the car the length of the corridor and execute a precise 4-point turn. The car can still only be pulled into the box, of course, after manually opening the garage door, pulling in my side mirrors, and allowing right-side passengers to exit the car (because they will not be able to open their door once the car is inside).

All these requirements aside, I love my box. It is my guarantee that I do not have to scrape my bumper, or someone else’s trying to squeeze my car between the side of a building and a long line of other cars in order to maneuver it into the one narrow strip of open sidewalk in a four-block radius. I rarely even look for street parking anymore. Now that I have mastered the tricky angles of my 4-point turn, I just head straight for the big metal gate that marks the entrance to our parking garage, located just below our apartment building.

But yesterday my progress toward the oasis of my box was blocked by a little red car parked at a slight angle across the sidewalk cut-out. Now, I should explain that there is a clear exception to the implicit Milanese permission to park on any sidewalk wide enough to admit a vehicle. Sections of sidewalk that need to remain free to admit other vehicles are always clearly marked (in a marvel of Italian consistency and clarity) with the words Passo Carrabile. Of course, the prohibition is not always absolute – there are some passo carrabile notices that mark only the large portone, or front entrance to a building. Milanese drivers all understand that the prohibition in these cases is only against abandoning your car in this spot for any extended duration of time. It is perfectly acceptable to just pull into one of these spots for a moment or two or run up a delivery, or to load or unload your car. I have done so numerous times in front of my own building, or when picking up friends. However, when the passo carrabile sign marks the entrance to a parking garage, it really is discourteous to block it with your car unless you remain with the car to move it in the event that someone needs to pass.

In this case, the driver was most definitely absent, and repeated honking did nothing to effect his or her appearance. My response was not gracious. It was the end of a long day. I had both of the kids in the car and a drizzling rain outside. I did not want to have to walk from whatever street parking I might miraculously be able to find juggling an umbrella and school bags, and two squirmy children who delight in splashing through puddles. My parking oasis was supposed to save me from that!

My kids were in the car, so I did my best to control my temper and to respond calmly to their innocent but annoying queries about why someone had parked so we couldn’t get it. I honked a few more times, looked around futilely for someone rushing from a nearby building in responses, and then decided to chance it. Thankfully, the training of 20+ months of driving and parking my boat of a car around Milano had given me a very keen awareness of its dimensions and turning angles. Inch-by-inch I was able to slide it past the little red obstruction and angle it through the heavy metal doors down the ramp to safety. I let out an explosive breathe that was a substitute for the expletives I would have liked to scrawl on the back window of the blockade. Then I heard an incredibly sweet sound from the back seat. Clapping.

“Great job, Mommy! You did it!” The Gigglemonster was cheering for Mommy, and when I looked into the rearview mirror I could see that his face was split by his signature grin of gleeful delight. It was a humbling but joyful moment. He was right. I had done it. While the absentee driver’s parking selection had been inconsiderate, it hadn’t actually hurt me in any way. We had reached our destination unmarred, except for my evil mood. And that mood was entirely my responsibility. If I chose, I could be happy instead. After all, I was getting a round of applause from my son for my driving skills. How frequently does that happen?

So, I am trying to learn from my little three-year old to drive and park in Milan with more cheering, and less muttering. It’s not easy. When I came home from school drop off today in the continuing rain I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see a large delivery truck completely blocking my access to the garage. As I wound around the extended route of one-way streets to circle back to the garage entrance my frustration rose on each of three circuits. But I breathed deeply, and I tried to hear my son’s sweet voice in my head. “Great job Mommy. You can do it.” You can stay calm even when you are tired, and have a cold, and just want to get home to some hot tea. You can put things in perspective and realize that having five minutes to waste driving in circles is an incredible luxury. You can remember that the world was not actually created to serve your own convenience, and that the people getting in your way might actually be doing something much more important with their time than you are.

So, when the driver finally emerged and waved his apology, I waved back and smiled. It might not have been my warmest smile, but I smiled. And I know what my Gigglemonster would say if he had seen it. “Great job Mommy. You are not being cross.”


Author: Serena Gideon Rice

In early 2011 my family moved our home, temporarily, from New Jersey to Milan, Italy. In the process I quit what had been my dream job conducting policy-directed social science research, to focus on my other dream job, raising our two young children. The three-year adventure was exciting, exhausting, disorienting, fulfilling, and countless other contradictions. It also birthed in me a desire to share my reflections on life's joys and challenges with anyone who cares to reflect with me. Now that we have returned to the US I'm finding that the new perspective I gained in Europe has come with me, and gives me a whole new way of interacting with my home. There's still so much to learn and share! I hope you'll share the journey, and add your own lessons to my daily education.

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