Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 5. Riding to Naples

Lane-splitting on freeway near Rome
                One block after leaving the CIMT garage, I found some shade on the side of the street and stopped. I knew generally how to get on the freeway, but needed to acquaint myself right away with the GPS. It took a couple of days to master it.
                I plugged in “Naples” and it came up with the general freeway route I knew I wanted. From the rental agency to the freeway, I was already having fun. The roads were never straight for very long. My ride began after the morning rush-hour commute had ended; traffic was light. The scenery was pleasant with lots of trees, apartment buildings, shops – a middle-class urban environment. I saw very few motorcycles on the road, but plenty of scooters. The freeway on-ramp came and suddenly I was introduced to real Italian driving. The speed limit was 87 mph, in my reckoning, but many people drove much faster. On the superbike, I had no worries about keeping up.
                The freeway, E45, was three lanes, straight and smooth. I had to restrain myself from hitting warp drive. The bike felt very stable and safe. Then I hit traffic. Bumper-to-bumper. And experienced lane-splitting for the first time!
California’s the only state that tolerates lane-splitting, and I haven’t ridden there yet. But I was mentally prepared.
It felt easy. When traffic was stopped, or just barely so, I cruised through the middle of it. People often moved out of my way a few feet as they saw me coming, which was very nice of them.
When the road opened up again, I knew to stay right as much as possible unless passing. The speeders stayed left, mostly. Trucks usually stayed right unless actively and forcefully passing, which some did. I completely ignored the photo radar signs and overhead average-speed trackers; if Francesco ever received a ticket for me, he never mentioned it.
What baffled me was the lane-straddling. I could never figure out why they did it. Even imagining that Italian drivers don’t give a rip about safety striping, there would be no reason for them to leave a perfectly good lane and straddle two lanes for a few hundred feet, or maybe a few miles, at a time. But many did that routinely, like it was taught in driver’s school. An American cop would pull someone for doing that, believing they were drunk or mentally ill. Maybe it’s an aggression thing: I own the whole road. Often, the people doing it weren’t driving aggressively, though. People were doing it while texting. Men, women, and families were doing it. The time to leave the lane and straddle seemed totally random to me. It made passing extra challenging on occasion, and it was another reason to pass strictly on the left.
                Near Frosinone, still on E45/A1, I pulled off at a service exit. Agip gas, and Autogrill food and stores were located every few miles. They were much-appreciated rest areas with espresso counters, snacks, and typical convenience goods.
                The first one I stopped was full-service. A guy who looked bored out of his skull stepped up to my bike. “Vorrei premium,” I told him. He nodded with an annoyed look on his face. It took me a few more seconds to figure out that he was waiting for me to open the gas tank, and my request to him was meaningless because the two choices at the station were premium and diesel, which no motorcycle takes.
                Filled up, I next pulled up to the store and parked outside next to two other motorcycles. Their owners, who didn’t know each other, chatted with me briefly when I came out of the store with some water and an Italian version of Chapstick.
                “How do you like the R1200RS?” One of the guys asked me. At least, I think that’s what he asked. I was unable to speak more than a few phrases to them, and neither spoke much, or any, English. When I struggled to respond, they asked me where I was from.
                They were all smiles when I told them, and said it was great I was doing it. Sure, I was another stupid American tourist, but like them, I was enduring the heat and the traffic and the freeway blues like they were. We attempted to chat a little more, then wished each other bon voyage.
                The freeways in Italy are toll roads. The toll booth areas can be eight to ten lanes wide, with cars and scooters breaking for any lane that looks the quickest. The first time I came to one of these I chose a lane randomly, took a ticket, and sped on.
                Time flew by, and I grew more nervous as I approached Naples.
                “Naples 50,” one sign said. “Naples 35.” Et cetera. With each indication that I was getting closer to the mythical land of the shittiest drivers in the country, I felt my anxiety rise. (Unfortunately, there was no cold sweat.) Rome had seemed simple, the cluster of cars much easier to negotiation than I had expected, but would I survive Naples? What sort of driving horrors was I about to witness?
                “Naples 10.”
                I swept off the main freeway toward a Naples exit and hit the toll collection blockade. Extra-wide, like the incoming toll spot, the first thing I noticed was that there was no way to back out, or get out at all, without going through the toll gates. I pulled to one side and got the ticket out that I had picked up before, then entered a toll booth lane. I put the ticket in a slot in the machine and some Italian words flashed on a screen. The machine returned my ticket. I shoved my credit card in, but the machine spit it back out immediately. Nothing happened – the gate didn’t go up, and the machine now appeared dead. I started pressing buttons arbitrarily. Nothing. Cars behind me began backing out, giving up on me and heading for other lanes. I pressed the attendant button. A tinny women’s voice came over a speaker and rattled off incomprehensible words that would have been hard to hear through my helmet even if they were in English.
Suddenly the machine seemed to wake up and the screen said in Italian, “insert ticket.” I put the ticket in. It didn’t come back out this time. The gate didn’t go up.
                I pressed the attendant button again.  A man’s voice came on, equally unintelligible.
                “I put the ticket in and nothing happened,” I stammered in English, all Italian words having left me. “It kept my ticket.” The man’s reply was a burst of static and alien chatter. More cars pulled behind me, waited a few seconds, and bailed. I was on the verge of a freakout. Would I ever get out of this toll prison?
A dreaded toll booth stop
The screen then asked for my bank card. Progress! I put in the credit card and it seemed to process.  I felt a wave of relief as the gate arced up in front of me. My card popped out, along with a receipt.
                The infernal thing had charged me 89.50 euro! It should have been 15 at the most.
I zoomed out of the stall and pulled off to the roadside where I stared at the receipt in disbelief, feeling anxious and stupid. I had no idea what I did wrong. Which meant maybe this would happen at every toll booth. Which meant I could not afford this trip and had no business being on any Italian road without a tour guide.
My confidence was blown. I’d probably die in Naples, I now thought, since the road problems would grow to insane levels there, according to everybody. Totally frazzled, I continued off the main freeway exit toward the city.

Next: Learning As I Go

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