I could hardly believe my eyes when I read recently in La Nazione that Florence was to try out an American-style Four-way Stop at one of its intersections. I had to check it out for myself, so I headed over to the corner of via Ficcanaso and via Pelo di Gatto at about 10:00 am. (I must admit I was skeptical, since the concept of taking turns is about as alien to Italians as serving potato chips as a contorno). I stationed myself under a shady tree and proceeded to observe.
An ancient green Fiat 500, driven by a wizened gnome in a tweed cap, puttered right on through his Stop without the slightest hesitation.
A minute later an Alfa sedan reached the intersection and stopped, but the Lancia who approached from the other street saw this as weakness and took the opportunity to speed on through. Hearty curses from Alfa.
A Bravo, whose driver was a withered prune leveraging herself via the steering wheel so she could see over the dash--and sporting mega-size black blinder-style sunglasses--without so much as slowing down at her corner, braked dead center in the middle of the intersection and looked around frantically. Four cars immediately surrounded her on all sides and started blaring their horns. She was pelted with oily bread crusts*, but managed to drive off while crying out prayers to the Holy Virgin Mary.
A Carabinieri car rolled through with admirable indifference.
A truck, whose cab held 12 African immigrants, stopped, looked both ways, then proceeded prudently ahead. An Ape (essentially a motorized tricycle with a platform on back, for those of you who've never seen one), stopped, but instead of actually waiting for the truck to clear the intersection, jerked forward right into the truck's wheel well. The Ape's load of Sicilian oranges disembarked in a most disorganized and haphazard fashion, scattering the road with bright blobs of color. The 12 Africans piled out, began shouting in tongues, and gesticulating wildly. The Ape driver, a grizzled man in a dirty white tank top with great tufts of, apparently, a medieval hair shirt peeking from beneath--got out, yelled at the Africans for getting in his way, then sank to his knees, moaning to the heavens about his fallen fruit. Meanwhile, about twenty-five cars had piled up on all sides, horns clamoring and epithets volleying. It seemed things were at an impasse until one of the Africans lugged out a giant garbage bag filled with *designer* bags and belts. Ape guy was presented with a Rolex watch, which he instantly snapped around his hirsute wrist, looked at admiringly, then drove off satisfied.
Four cars arrived at the intersection at the same time. They all stopped. They looked at each other. They smiled. They shrugged. Then they all lurched forward in the same instant, only to come to a screeching halt, their four front bumpers forming a neat quadrilateral. Heads craned out of driver's side windows, "Ma che cazzo fai?! Toccava a me!" (What the f*** are you doing? It was my turn!) "No, macchè sei grullo [blockhead]! Toccava a me!" "Ma vaffanculo!" Just then an ambulance's siren signaled its approach, so the drivers, disgruntled and muttering to themselves and grinding into reverse, pinwheeled around and spun off in their respective directions.
An old Panda packed with smiling Benedictine nuns sailed serenely through the intersection--without so much as a genuflection aimed at their Stop--sure of their place in the afterlife, or eyes on the Prize as it were.
A camper with Netherlands plates pulled up to a Stop, and a split-second later so did a Smart car with its blonde, tanned, cell-phone-chatting female driver. In a gesture of magnanimity and recreational gratitude toward this country that showed him and his family such a lovely time, Camper Man waved Smart Woman an invitation to pass ahead of him into the intersection. She gave it the gas, and him the finger.
A battered blue Citroen putt-putted up and with a great sigh of exhaust, stopped, with terrific conviction. Still staring straight ahead, the driver hit the pedal and the car staggered forward, on through the intersection and just past where I was standing. Next to him in the passenger's seat, sitting very erect, was a German shepherd. A white cane was on the bench between them.
Three cars, each with big letter P's taped to the rear window, reached their Stops almost simultaneously. (P is for principiante, or beginner, i.e. student driver). With contemptible naiveté, each P-eon in proper turn ventured forth cautiously through the intersection without incident, even using blinkers where necessary.
Just as I was about to leave, feeling a bit tired and peckish, sirens signaled the approach of a motorcade, and indeed the first pair of Carabinieri on motorcycles were coming fast down the street. Right at that moment, Wizened Gnome was back at the intersection in his Fiat, having approached from another direction. No one had any intention of stopping, that much was clear. I tensed up, sensing disaster. The advance motorcycle convoy missed the Fiat by a hair, but sure enough, there was a loud crack of metal when the politician's limo slammed into poor Gnome. The perennially-tanned fat cat himself--I'll call him S.B. to preserve his anonymity--got out of his limo and unleashed such a vigorous torrent of obscenities that his jet-dyed comb-over stood straight up from the top of his head, like some kind of fascist salute. Wizened Gnome, unhurt and unperturbed, struggled out of his mangled car, straightened his curved spine as best he could, looked S.B. straight in the eye--and bent his right arm up while slamming his left fist into the crook of his right elbow in a salute of his own.
Mayhem ensued: police and carabinieri choked the intersection, strutting like bumptious cocks and shouting like brokers in a bull market; angry civilians cooled their heels in cars and on mopeds, leaning on horns and yelling into cellphones; mothers and nonni gaped on the sidewalk with wide-eyed children licking lollipops.
The next day I read that the Four-way Stop had been summarily dismantled. It had been declared--by a certain powerful politician--to be unquestionably unconstitutional. And thoroughly un-Italian.
* credit for the oily bread crust pelting goes to my dear, and direly witty, friend Gordon.