Something happened as we drove  home the other day.

Skinniest two-way traffic in Borgunto

Returning from a routine visit into Fiesole to buy a few groceries and for Em to get a haircut, we rounded the curve just beyond the small town of Borgunto, home to the “bottle-neck capital” of Italy. To our surprise, an oncoming car flashed its headlights. It was broad daylight and we wondered, “What’s that about?  Was that a friend and we just didn’t recognize their car?” A few more yards and we encountered another oncoming car. Again, headlights flashed. “What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with the car that we don’t know about?”

Lollipop police

Then, just after the last turn off (and the final escape route) we saw them: Two police officers were randomly signaling cars to pull over for a routine check. Their style and flair in doing such a mundane task was actually a thing of beauty. They each wore the recognizable uniform of the Carabinieri, local police—navy blue head to toe, single-breasted blazer, silver braid around the red and white collar and cuffs, red piped epaulets on each shoulder, single red stripes down each trouser leg, a dramatic white diagonal sash, and black boots, where they store their little hand held “stop sign on a stick” when it’s not in use.

Carabinieri in action

We amuse ourselves by calling those ridiculous signaling devices “lollipops,” and so of course we refer to the historically significant and highly esteemed carabinieri as the “lollipop police.” Oh yes, they carry another piece of equipment at all times, a holstered pistol, which is classified as an “ordinary” weapon. But, as beautiful as they are, these dedicated enforcers of the law are far more than “eye candy.” They are the keepers of all things lawful.

We thought little of the request since we had all the necessary documents—title, registration, and international driver’s license—neatly stashed and at the ready in the glove box. We were seasoned “residents,” models of perfectly honest, part-time Italians with flawless organization skills. We had been randomly pulled over before, so this seemed somewhat routine. We soon discovered that it was anything but!  

The rule book looked sorta like this

One officer strolled over to the driver’s side window, while the second remained at a safe distance, evidently serving as the back-up “protector” just in case a fight broke out. The impressive figure at the window examined the neatly stacked documents in his gloved hand, and then without a word, walked over to his colleague. Together they looked at our documents as we watched their faces change from “cool Italians” to “puzzled police officers.” Then, after several minutes, they opened the trunk of their subcompact Fiat squad car and took out a voluminous book of rules—so massive, it took both of them to pick it up. One started leafing through the pages and then turned it over to his partner, pointing to a particular place on the page. His forehead wrinkled and eyes squinted. We laughed to each other thinking that maybe we had a couple of trainees on our hands. In previous checks, the officers had only made cursory glances at the documents. These guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing—or so we thought.

The first officer returned to our car and said, “C’è un problema. Parlate italiano?”  “There is a problem. Do you speak Italian?” Since our language skills were iffy at best, we said, “No.” We thought under-stating was the best strategy—they might feel sorry for us and let us go. 

Sidelined—our little car given a “time-out”

Without hesitation, the officer continued his explanation in full speed Italian. We clearly understood key words like, invalido, invalid, and knew that we indeed had a problem. We just didn’t know exactly what, yet. Time to call our friend and attorney, Barbara. After about 5 seconds of hearing our explanation, she asked to speak to the officer. We heard her muffled chattering and his responses. We understood quasi niente, almost nothing. The officer handed the phone back and Barbara’s instructions were clear, “You have no chance. You must pay il multo, the fine, sulla strada, on the road. And you cannot drive la macchina, the car—ancora, again. 

WHAT?!! A FINE?!! CAN’T DRIVE THE CAR?!! BUT, BUT .  . . 

A lot, but not nearly enough

Once we realized that we had to pay, we asked, “quanto costa, how much?” (Even tourists can ask “how much” but usually to buy souvenirs and pay the check after lunch). 275 euro was the reply, plus an additional 73 euro for something else, yet unidentified. Nearly 350 total! We asked, “How do we pay?” “In contante, in cash,” came the answer. 

Okay. Let’s review.

We just received a fine of over 300 euro that must be paid in cash right now. We usually have about 40-50 euro between us on a good day. We can’t drive our car to the bank in Fiesole to get the money. Our international driver’s licenses were useless. The only choice was to ask the carabinieri to give us a ride to the bank. 

The Shaq in action

At first they seem surprised, but soon realized that it was the only possible solution. So we climbed into the backseat of the subcompact Italian squad car, sequestered criminals locked in, and headed in the direction of town. One officer apologized for the inconvenience. “Mi dispiace per questo, I’m sorry for this.” Then, the other officer decided that small talk was in order, probably since they didn’t often have captive Americans on board. “Gioca pallacanestra?” We gave each other blank stares in disbelief. Then he offered in stilted English, “Bahs-keet-ball, you play?” Oh yeah . . . that question. Em is 6’5” and so it’s the single most-asked question of his entire life. (But in Italy, his height earns him the distinction of fetching top-shelf items at the grocery stores for many Italian mammas). The officer went on to say that it was his dream to play basketball—with Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is 7’-1”. Mr Carabinieri is  maybe 5’-8” in his police boots. The idea made us chuckle but we didn’t let on—B-ball talk or not, we were still in trouble with the law. 

As luck would have it, the local carabinieri headquarters is directly across the street from Banca Toscana. Once out of the car, we headed into the bank before returning to finalize our paperwork at the carabinieri headquarters. Fiorella, our favorite teller saw the looks of dismay on our faces and immediately asked, “Che è successo, what happened?” We mumbled our new vocabulary words and phrases, “la macchina, multo, sulla strada, carabinieri.” She said, “Mamma mia! Quanto costa? She shook her head side to side, grimaced and offered her condolences with a deeply sincere sadness, “Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.”

Off to Driver’s Ed—Italian style

After making the report and paying the fine, we were told that neither of us could drive the car. The car documents showed that we had not done the mandatory revisione, which is the bi-annual service/safety check required by Italian law. Unfortunately, we didn’t know such a law existed. The car was to be parked until the revisione could be scheduled. In addition, they confiscated Em’s US driver’s license just for good measure, since we had resident status and were required by Italian law to have patenti italiani—the much dreaded Italian driver’s license. Oops! 

So here’s the riddle: Can a car, that can’t be legally driven, arrive across town for a scheduled appointment, when driven by people who can’t drive because they don’t have valid driver’s licenses?

Answer: Maybe.

This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.

A friendly hello, or goodbye—you choose

The two pleasant carabinieri officers kindly returned us to our car with strict orders not to drive it—except for our immediate drive directly home (that favor required some significant begging and groveling). We were under strict orders that the car was to remain parked until we were legally able to drive it again. We promised to comply as we climbed out of the back seat of the tiny squad car. Then, in one wonderful moment of total linguistic confusion, rather than saying “Goodbye,” Mr Carabinieri extended his hand, and in an effort to close on a high note of international accord, simply said, in English, “HELLO.”  Then he turned in confident military fashion and climbed back into his government-issued Fiat squad car. Their work was finished. 

They surely went immediately to Riccardo‘s bar for coffee, but as for us, our “problemi“ problems had just begun!

This is a true “Italian Moments” story that took place in Fiesole Italy in the spring of 2005.

You might be interested in another kind of “Italian car story,” except this one has a happier ending—called “True Italians.”