Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sutri

At coffee bars, on the street, talking with friends we hear names of places that sound appealing, then want to go there. One day Meri came home wanting to see Sutri. She had heard about it. It took little convincing. A few days later I was navigating, she was driving. We were on the way.

When we got out of Roma and near the ancient city, it’s stone walls were still far above as we circled the hill looking for a road up. There were a couple to choose from. I had her turn at a sign pointing toward the historical center. I saw an arrow indicating something. We went left and upward.

Italian street arrow indicators can point up or down and mean the same thing – go straight ahead. The placement of the arrows are arbitrary, depending on who placed the sign. Some sign placers think like you do. Others think it’s time to wrap it and leave the sign anywhere, so they can hurry home to mama who has good food ready.
This day in Sutri we had a minor problem. I was navigating without a map, guiding us on courage and common sense. Scary words. Ominous. Harbingers of wrong doing.

After I told her to go left we were immediately driving the wrong way on a one way street. I knew I wasn’t navigating well, but with conviction in my voice I had her drive on. After all, I had often seen Italians drive the wrong way on a one-way street. It seemed okay to do. Of course it was always the other guy and maybe he knew where he was going.

The street narrowed as we gradually climbed toward the center of town. We went through a parking area, continued behind apartment buildings and wound our way up the left side of the hill.

The farther we went the more the street narrowed. Soon there were no other cars. We were about halfway up when I was certain that it wasn’t going well. I thought if we were lucky there would be something to save us, a turnoff, a magic tunnel or an elevator shaft. Elevator shaft? What was I thinking?

My wife was worried, I was shifting in my seat and when our upward inclination was severe enough, she was near panic. We had one of those moments when we glanced at each other quickly, a silent lightening quick bolt of agreement and understanding that all looked bad.

I was hoping no one would be driving down this street toward us. There wasn’t even room for a dog or cat to get. She said something about going back, but there was no way to back down this upward jetting alley with buildings on both sides. I insisted we continue forward. We argued a few seconds and by then it was obvious I was wrong, we should have tried backing out. I was afraid she couldn’t stop without stalling and by then it was impossible to back down.

We had to hope for the best, keep going, not damage the car or get it stuck between the buildings in an alley. Any second now we’d start scraping the sides of the car against the enclosing walls almost too narrow to get through.
It was getting really steep. I told her to step on it because I was afraid of slipping back on the loose stone road, and of her losing confidence and stopping the car.

She stomped on the accelerator. We roared up and popped out like a cork out of a wine bottle. Out of the alley we soared, and then slammed down on the shocks, jiggling as we settled into an open piazza. We made it free.
All heads turned to view us. People walking stopped, everywhere people sitting at tables over wine and coffee or tea were motionless. We heard gasps and then a whistle. Ours was the only vehicle in this piazza. We both took deep breaths of relief.

A lone policeman had spotted us. We heard his voice, or someone else shouting a startled exclamation as the cop meandered over. I don’t know if he had a hand on his gun looking for trouble.

By then she had turned off the engine and had rolled down her window, looking casual as one could at a time like this. He kept watching carefully, checking out the car.
I let go my grasp on the dash and slowly sank back in the passenger seat with my sunglasses on, sitting perfectly still trying to appear sightless and obviously innocent of all charges. She was driving, after all. She was the one taking me somewhere.

The policeman at last came up to the window and said calmly that “ Cars are not allowed here.” He paused, then added, “This piazza is closed to traffic.” He was looking for our reaction. Maybe he was looking for scratches on the car to, and was surprised there wasn’t a lot of paint scraped off.

My wife looked around to see no other vehicles, but allowed that the policeman probably knew best and after saying we took a wrong turn she remained quiet. He checked our papers and found everything in order. Pointing the way, he indicated how we should proceed with the car.

With no citation for violation and with great relief she started the car and we pulled away. As she slowly drove along we had to go under a large arch in the center of the piazza. Heads were still turning as we passed.

For us it was a victory parade of sorts, to pass under that arch and without a scratch. Yes, we were the only car in the piazza. I had the feeling that our error and unexpected arrival to the central piazza was not a regular occurrence for the little town of Sutri.

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