I had forgotten how Europe smells, that sweetly acrid bouquet of flowers and cigarette smoke, men’s cologne and diesel fumes. I had forgotten the song of unknown tongues filling the air around me, and the colorful jostle of humanity that is an international airport terminal. Instantly I remembered the bewilderment of jet lag and culture shock, the wholesome singularity of the outsider, the sudden necessity of a bank machine—but I had forgotten how much I loved it all.
We stepped out into the pallid May sunshine, my friend and I, regarding a maze of construction barricades, directional signs, and rental car lots. My heart thumped painfully as I clutched the plastic fob of the key the woman had handed me at the Europcar counter. The only thing I was not looking forward to on this gift of a European adventure was driving in Italy. My friend is French and, as such, a woman of decided (and generally correct) opinions. On the subject of the Italian Autostrade she was of the opinion that my metro Atlanta was a far better preparation than her Paris for the daily Grand Prix of Milan traffic. I had looked into alternate means of getting to Bellagio, nestled an hour away on the Alps-girdled shore of Lake Como, but trains were too unpredictable and private cars too expensive. There was nothing for it but to drive. I hoped Delphine didn’t notice the slight edge of terror in my voice as we laughed and chatted our way across the parking lot.
When we saw our car, however, we both stopped laughing. A white whale looming above the coupes and hatchbacks all around it. And brand new—I don’t think it had been driven since it was first poured into this parking spot fresh off the assembly line. Leaving our luggage in the middle of the road, we squeezed alongside, cracked open the doors, and slid within. Delphine placed the suction-mounted navigational device on the windshield and I pulled up the Google Maps route I had saved to my phone, trying not to think about the dire warnings I had practically memorized out of the guidebook about steering clear of the Milan Tangenziali at rush hour. Glancing at the dashboard clock I curled my fingers over the wheel until my knuckles stood up like tiny white mountain ranges: ten minutes till five.
“I think we should pray,” Delphine said, after we’d collected our luggage and re-stuck the TomTom device to the windshield for the second time.
We did, clutching hands over the console. I thought of Rose Arbuthnot in Enchanted April, when she and Mrs. Wilkins stood, drenched and bewildered, before their dreamed-of Tuscan villa.
“We’re in God’s hands now!” Rose cried, between claps of thunder.
I knew exactly how she felt.
The ring road was a real-life video game, a high-stakes bumper car ride. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, as if that would help me see better, scarcely daring to blink for fear of missing one of the Fiats or Ferraris zooming around me like moccasins whipping past a lazy water spider. There’s something of the primordial swamp about driving in Italy—it’s very much a sink-or-swim situation, wherein the fittest not only survive, but sprout scales, fins. Wings. I squared my shoulders and lowered my foot on the gas pedal.
My phone was yelling at me in feet and miles, while the TomTom, usually from the floorboard at Delphine’s feet, was screeching metres and kilometres. Both of them were telling me to cross four lanes of traffic, take this undecipherable exit, then cross back four lanes once more. I must have exuded a confidence I did not feel, for in between retrieving and re-attaching the TomTom, Delphine was catching me up on the news in her children’s lives, asking questions.
“Delphine, darling,” I said, without taking my eyes from the road, “I love you, and I haven’t seen you in four years. But can we not talk right now?”
She understood. But her evident ease soothed something in me. My knuckles started to turn pink again.
I remembered weaving through the Dolomites with my husband a number of years before, unable to enjoy the white-capped vistas and rocky gorges for the guardrail-less stretches of road and the lorries that kept riding our tail then careening past us on hairpin curves. Philip loved every second of it, shifting down at the inclines and navigating the long tunnels cut straight into the heart of the mountains. But by the time we reached Florence there were fingernail-shaped bruises on his arm and I was limp as a dishrag in the passenger seat. It was rush hour (of course), and traffic and construction conspired to reroute us along narrow alleys, unmarked streets, even the occasional sidewalk.
“I need a glass of wine,” I told him when we pulled up to our pensione at last. I was already calculating the days until we had to get in that car again and drive to Venice.
Couldn’t we just walk to Venice?
Driving to Bellagio with Delphine, however, I realized something rather startling: it was actually more frightening to be a passenger in Italy than to drive in Italy. Behind the wheel, you’re in control: you’re mentally one step ahead, and adrenaline-laced as it is, it’s an undertaking you’re prepared for, engaged with. Passengerhood, on the other hand, is the most helpless feeling in the world.
I began to be aware of Delphine’s passengerhood as we gained the gorgeous SP583 skirting Lake Como. Here, an endless series of one-lane blind curves cling to wooded shores above a sapphire expanse. Villas gleam out, pearly and golden, among the trees. Clouds banked against a sunny sky blur the distance with dreaming hazes while lacquered taxis skip weightlessly over the water, cutting swaths of white wake into the blue. It’s nearly impossible to keep your eyes on the road driving around Lake Como, a fact to which the miles of low, lakeside walls of stacked rock attest. Delphine started to shift in her seat, clutch the armrest, catch her breath.
“Oh, do you see—,” she’d splutter, as a car met me head-on at one of those curves, backed up, hiked its wheels into the hillside to pass me.
Or, “You’re really close over here,” craning her head out the window to judge the distance between us and those low rock walls.
“Delphine, look at the lake!” I laughed.
Lanier, look at the Dolomites!
The shops were closing when we reached Bellagio and began to ascend the steep road to the Via Garibaldi by which our little hotel was accessed. I made a sharp, impossible left past the prominent No Entry sign (our proprietor had assured us it was the only way), and nudged our shining white behemoth into the cobbled lane. Shopkeepers leapt to snatch their wares out of our path and small dogs barked from doorsteps as Delphine and I bumped along the narrow route, collectively holding our breath as if to make ourselves smaller. When we finally reached the postage stamp-sized parking lot at the Piazza Della Chiesa, I half-expected to find silk scarves and leather handbags hanging off our side-view mirrors.
Our hotel, midway down the Salita Plinio, could only be reached by foot, and we reached it rather breathlessly, tugging our suitcases over deep cobbled steps never meant for 21st-century travel. The proprietor, whom we privately nicknamed Papà, greeted us with characteristic Italian exuberance and offered to show us to the way to the private “box” across town wherein we could stow our car without fear of vandalism—or worse, ticketing.
“Do not be frightened,” he said, cramming his motorcycle helmet over a shock of white hair. “It is not as far as it seems.”
We realized how necessary his caution had been as we followed his scooter through the cramped streets, struggling to keep pace with the zigzagging form. But I’d pored over maps of Bellagio, and I knew that what was inconvenient by car was easy and charming by foot. I wasn’t concerned about finding our way back to the hotel. What was frightening, however, was the size of our box, and the hair’s breadth of an alley within which I was to ease our car into it. Papà parked his scooter and began gesticulating and shouting instructions, but I was too focused to pay him the least attention.
“I think I need to get out,” Delphine gasped.
I inched and crawled, a millimeter at a time, wriggling that four-door monster backwards into its box. I’ve never considered myself a good driver; I nearly failed my initial exam over the parallel parking segment. But when I shut off the ignition and slithered out of the two-inch crack the box afforded, I felt like I’d just won the Talladega 200.
I thought Papà was going to kiss me.
“Never,” he said fervently, “never in all my years, have I seen a woman park like that.”
That evening, Delphine and I sat out on our little terrace sharing a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. The sun was just flinging out its last glints and blushes across the lake, and the air over our heads was thronged with bell-song and homing swallows.
“We are going to look back on this time for the rest of our lives,” Delphine said meditatively, in her lovely French-inflected English.
“Mais oui,” I murmured.
I was thinking about the miracles that had brought us here: my intercontinental flight, our reunion in Paris, the two decades of friendship leading up to it, the loving husbands at home who had made this trip possible. I could not see the sunlit days ahead, the hour in the hat shop over straw chapeaux, the lakeside lunches. There were wisteria-hung gardens in our future, ferry rides across the lake, sweet silences in contemplation of the same view. I knew, as always, that Delphine would make me laugh until I cried, and cry until I laughed again, but I could not imagine how, amid the olive groves and gelateria of Italy, she and I would regain the insouciance of a happy girlhood.
On our last day, we took a drive into the mountains overlooking Lake Como. We were seeking guidebook-variety scenery: what we found, after a couple of wrong turns and the utter failure of GPS navigation, was a staircase in a hillside and a secret trattoria and a terrace nestled in a break of trees. From that height, lake, mountains, and villages felt like a personal possession, a small treasure we could pocket and carry home with us. We could even see the church tower and piazza of our own dear Bellagio.
We ordered cappuccino and talked little. After coffee, we wandered down the road, crafting crowns for each other out of wayside flowers; in all of the pictures we’re laughing our heads off.
As we walked back to the car, I wrapped my fingers around that plastic key fob with a painful throb of joy. It felt like a handful of gold.
This essay was first published in the Art House America blog, February 2017