On Surviving Buses, Trains, Cars & Walking When in Italy

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Let me say right off that I experience joy through writing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything I write about is joyful! In the case of Italy, there are plenty of joyful things to write about, such as beautiful buildings, frescos, vineyards, piazzas and ancient castles. Italian public transport, on the other hand… well, let’s just say that isn’t one of them! So I thought I might share with you my survival guide on the adventure that is ‘Italian public transport’.

If you’re ready, then fasten your safety belts please, stow your tray tables to the upright position and have your tickets ready for inspection…

Surviving Buses…

Let’s start with public buses, shall we? As good a place as any. To me, it seemed as though bus drivers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia forget that their purpose is, in fact, to pick up passengers. They drive so fast! A repressed racing car driver behind the wheel of a mega-ton vehicle can only mean one thing: get your ticket ready! If you hesitate for a moment, whoosh! … the bus keeps on driving. If you don’t hail the bus, the bus will keep on driving. If you run after the bus, you better be wearing comfortable shoes… the bus keeps on driving! And if you have a pram or buggy, well, good luck – get ready for a fight!

Pretty much all of which happened to me on one occasion or another. But on this day… all I’ll say about this day, at this stage, is that I learnt an invaluable lesson in Italian ‘every-person-for-themselves on the bus’ etiquette. This day I was so keen to visit a shopping centre and spend the day lounging around in the food court and buying a few useless items on sale, that I finally worked up the courage to tackle the bus system. After living in Udine for around five months, I found myself craving for a shopping centre – and I wasn’t even pregnant then! It’s crazy the things you miss. But a shopping centre? “Shame” I hear you cry!

Surprisingly, I passed test one – getting the bus to stop, but dismally failed test two – boarding. Apparently, having a pram doesn’t buy you any extra sympathy tickets. I quickly discovered that if you take too long to board, the bus driver just takes off when he feels like it – even with one leg and half the pram inside. This particular bus driver had obviously failed the ‘how long do you give a mother with a pram to board a bus’ question on his test. Glaring at him sternly brought no response – he was too busy jamming his foot on the pedal!

As for my desperation to visit an insufferably bright, chokingly tight, wonderfully warm shopping centre on this day, I will save for another blog post. The lesson I learnt right then was: ‘(S)he who hesitates must walk’.

Surviving Trains…

The following points apply to anyone planning to catch the train while traveling through Italy (which is most of us living or holidaying there).

The number one rule when catching a train in Italy is that you have to ‘validate’ your ticket. Now, this may seem like rather boring and trivial advice. But the thing is, it’s easy to forget because you won’t find coloured signs and glowing billboards to remind you. Nope, you’re on your own, folks! Knowing that you need to validate your train tickets in Italy is a bit like knowing that you should never order a cappuccino after 10am – it just is. And I can tell you from experience that if you don’t validate, you’ll have to pay a hefty fine.

Rule number two states that you should (try to) enjoy the hunt for the validation machines! Imagine that it’s Easter time and you’re participating in a train station ‘chocolate egg hunt’. The validation machines are probably lurking behind stairwells, behind doors, or in some corner. The ‘fun’ is in finding them… right?

Italian trains don’t have maps plastered on the inside walls. This makes traveling by train a little like being on a mystery tour. It’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but if you’ve made plans to actually be somewhere, then you’ll need to follow rule number three, and that’s ‘know your stuff’: Know the name of your destination station. It’s also handy to be able to pronounce the station name in case you need to ask for help (I found out!). And while you’re practicing your pronunciation, get to know the names of the stations prior. It all helps you know where you are (or might be)! Also, know your expected arrival time – that’ll give you a clue as to where you are (or, yes, you guessed it – might be!). All this will enable you to maneuverer down the skinny train aisles with your luggage in plenty of time. Ahh… the bliss of arrival at your destination… Wait a minute, what’s the name of this station…???

Surviving Cars

Apart from the myriad of dialects and the Italian language itself, there’s also another language that exists in Italy – the language of Italian car horns. Italy is a horn-honking society. The natives are totally comfortable with their horn honking-ness, which can be a bit of a jolt for anyone arriving from a non-honking country such as Australia, where honking is regarded as a somewhat aggressive gesture. Yet rather than being something to scathe at, Italian honking is, for the most part, non-aggressive.

When driving through quaint Italian towns or hectic cities, it’s common to find that traffic lights or roundabouts have acquired their own idiosyncratic rules. In these instances, honking can be your voice and greatest asset.

Honk to tell the driver next to you he’s getting a bit too close…

…Honk to say hurry up…

…Honk to say you need a coffee

…Honk to say ‘hello’! …

But don’t think that your honk will stop traffic!

That said my advice is this: Sit back. Drive. And Honk. For when in Rome…

And for that matter, when out of Roma, when driving on Italian roads – be it on the autostrada (highway) or in the cities – this cliché comes to mind: The best defence is a good offence. That really sums it up. You see, each region has its own set of road rules. In Napoli, for instance, stopping at a red light is completely optional! Meaning that by their very nature, most Italians are alert and adaptable drivers. So there’s no need to be too timid because they’ll see you advancing and will make allowances. And, if they don’t: honk!

And finally, a few words on pedestrian crossings…

You’re fooling yourself if you expect Italian drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings. Most Italians do not stop at pedestrian crossings. And this is because they don’t see you… or, at least because they don’t want to see you. So to ensure that you’re not ignored, and forgive me for being serious here for a moment – make eye contact with the approaching driver. This way, they’ll know that you know you’ve been seen. Which translates to the cultural rule – they have to stop! Although, this tactic may be a little harder for the traveller arriving from a right-hand driving country… Until I got used to the change of traffic directions being the other way round, I would bat my head about like I was watching a game of tennis, which wasn’t really conducive to making good eye contact!

As a driver (oh yes! Now the sandal’s on the other foot!), I’d sometimes receive a honk or two when stopping at a pedestrian crossing… And this was not because I had stopped suddenly, or had done anything dangerous. No, it was simply because I had stopped. Period!

Needless to say, then, that navigating traffic in all its forms in Italy – buses, trains and cars – can be a… let’s just say a ‘challenge’ for the uninitiated. But it’s all part of the experience of Italy: you just have to “sit back and enjoy the ride…”*

*(2 clichés in the same blog scores double points, you know).

Do you have any Italy public transport tales – good or bad? What was your preferred form of transport when visiting Italy?

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