Sunday, January 5, 2020

European Traffic

I am looking forward to our next European trip, this spring. Due to illness, we didn’t get to travel much in 2019. As we get older, international travel becomes more challenging. However, my wife and I haven’t thrown in the towel yet. Unlike many of our friends, we still tough it out driving, taking trains, sleeping at small hotels and walking around foreign cities as much as we are able to, rather than going on cruises.

This year, though, we will not rent a car. We’ll spend a week each in Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, and only a suicidal imbecile would rent a car to circulate in those cities, where public transportation is cheap and efficient, and vehicular traffic is nerve-racking.

Many American drivers find driving in Europe challenging, and many American pedestrians find crossing streets in foreign cities scary.

Actually the single greatest traffic problem overseas is not that Europeans and other foreigners are wild and dangerous drivers. No. By far the greatest risk to your life exists in those countries that still drive on the wrong side of the road, namely on the left. These countries include Australia, Britain, most of the Caribbeans, India and South Africa, courtesy of the former British Empire. They also include Ireland and Japan, and a few other countries that refuse to come to their senses.
In such countries you are at great risk both as a pedestrian and as a driver: As a pedestrian, whenever you prepare to cross a street or a road, you look the wrong way for oncoming traffic, so you die. As a driver, same problem.

The worst situation occurs at roundabouts. A roundabout is an intersection where half a dozen or more roads meet. I guess roundabouts are cheaper to build than bridges or tunnels, and they don’t slow you down as much as stop lights or stop signs.

The most basic rule regarding roundabouts is that any vehicle that IS ALREADY ON the roundabout has the right of way over a car that has not yet entered it.

The mother of all roundabouts is the Etoile (= Star) in Paris. There, around the Arc de Triomphe, twelve gigantic avenues converge and form an immense multiple junction, all of them disgorging hundreds of cars every minute onto the circular square. These cars then go on circling around the giant arch, in a mad cut-throat race. This is a racetrack which makes the Indianapolis 500 look tame by comparison. Applying the right of way rule here would be absurd. It’s every driver for himself. As the French say, “Sauve qui Peut!”

As a young and foolish man, I drove my wife and children around the Etoile in a rental car. They’ll never forgive me. It was more terrifying that Disneyland’s Space Mountain.

The greatest challenge, you see, is not getting ON the Etoile roundabout, but getting OFF it. Lanes are of course not marked, yet there are ten rows of cars circling the square side by side. You can signal all you want, that you want to move over towards one of the exits and onto one of the radiating avenues, but this is 100% ignored. My family and I must have driven around the Etoile a dozen times, unable for a long time to move towards any of the exits. I finally managed to escape, exiting on the Champs Elysées, which was the very same avenue from which I had arrived an hour earlier. I heard that archaeologists have found the bones of drivers who never managed to get off of the Etoile.

Now, imagine a roundabout, but in a country such as England or Ireland, where they drive on the wrong side! Entering the roundabout for the first time, you are sure to look to your right, to see if there are any cars already on the roundabout. But here, the cars come at you from the LEFT, so you die.

How about pedestrians wanting to cross a street? In Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson is particularly mad at the French, joking that Parisian drivers are out to kill him and any other pedestrian who tries to cross a street (Pp. 41-46). To be sure, he also lambasts Italian drivers, joking that “Italians should never, ever have been let in on the invention of the motor car.” (P. 33). Really? The home of the Ferrari?

The fact is that traffic in Rome is more hairy than it is in Paris. However, there is a secret to crossing a street safely in the Eternal City:

Say you are at the Piazza Venezia, Rome’s largest and busiest square, right in front of the gigantic Victor Emmanuel “wedding cake” monument. You want to walk over to the Corso, Rome’s most important shopping street.. It is about a mile long, linking the Piazza Venezia at one end with the Piazza Del Popolo at the other. It’s a very busy and fine strolling street. In order to get to the Corso, you first need to cross a couple of streets, and there are no stop lights.

At each of these crossings, a throng of dozens of pedestrians is itching to cross. After a few minutes, the bravest among them step off the sidewalk and start to cross. As they do this, they stare menacingly into the eyes of the approaching drivers. The most fearless and resolute are the native Romans, especially little old matrons. And you know what? The cars, the Vespas, the motorcycles, the giant city buses and tour buses all stop. No driver would dare to harm one of the native Roman pedestrians. My wife and I know what to do: We position ourselves right behind one of these fearless natives. Then, the moment she or he steps off the sidewalk and starts to cross, we follow. We remain prudent, though. We usually use them to run interference for us, just in case...It’s a cinch. Trust me, you’ll be alright.

To his credit, Bill Bryson writes that he has “fallen spectacularly, hopelessly and permanently in love with Italy.” (P. 179). His description of gorgeous Capri is magnificent (Pp. 175-7).

However, he harbors the same familiar misconception as many other non-Italians: He writes that Italians “are entirely without any commitment to order. They live their lives in a kind of pandemonium, which I find very attractive.” (Pp. 156-7).

This stereotype is factually wrong. What non-Italians fail to understand is that Italy DOES have a cultural, social and economic system which functions wonderfully well. This system may not be official; it may be hidden. It involves such things as under-the-table payments and untaxed income. Bryson himself admits that Italy has the world’s fifth largest economy. How does non-stop pandemonium achieve this? How come Italian life expectancy beats ours by five years? Why are Italians among the happiest people? Naples may be dirty, but it has the best pizza in the world.

The way Italian pedestrians cross streets is a good example of something which may SEEM chaotic, but is a perfectly well functioning method once you recognize it.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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