Some years ago my partner Rob and I hired a car and toured the Italian province of Tuscany. One evening we checked into a charming little hotel, tucked behind the Campo within beautiful Siena’s medieval walls. However, there was a small problem. ‘Where can I park la macchina?’, Rob asked at reception, turning an imaginary wheel (private vehicles are banned from Siena’s steep, narrow streets).
Our hostess smiled. “Don’t worry”, she said, explaining that we could park outside the walls at the Stadium for a reasonable fee. Five minutes later we were edging our tiny Fiat through the city gates. However, on our way down the hill we found a closer car park. Even better, there was no pay station, so we could save a few quid…well, lira.
Rob and I had a lovely evening in Siena. We gazed in awe at the wonderful marble pavements in the cathedral and made ourselves slightly sick on wickedly rich panforte.
Next morning we caught the commuter bus down to the carpark. We were shocked to discover a ‘timed entry’ ticket under the Fiat’s wipers. Nobody else had one, so we were tempted to discreetly drop ours and drive off, especially as we had no idea how much we owed or where to pay. Only visions of being detained at the border forced us to enquire at a cafe across the road .
With typical Italian generosity, everyone tried to help. “Oh yes, you pay up in the city”, they gestured with sympathetic smiles. Arguments broke out about how best we could get there and two old fellows busied themselves drawing maps. Before they could finish another man offered to run us up the hill in his delivery truck. It was a tiny two seater, so his wife stayed behind and the three of us squeezed in among the vegetables. Half an hour later we were still criss-crossing the hillside; dropping off zucchinis and aubergines in cobbled lanes. Our kind driver was eager for conversation, but my Italian was extremely limited. I could only reel off the names of places we were intending to visit – presuming we could escape from Siena. Rob was too distracted to utter a word. Finally the dear man presented us with two oranges and dropped us off at a security carpark. It was completely full, and cars were lining up for spare spaces.
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The attendant inserted our ticket into a time clock where, to our great horror, it registered a fee of 80,000 lira. Rob paled visibly, but paid up and was handed a metal token. He stared at it in confusion until the attendant produced a sign in English reading: INSERT METAL TOKEN TO OPERATE GARAGE DOORS.
Dear God! The reason for our outrageous bill suddenly dawned on Rob and he tried to hand back the token; “Er scuzi, scuzi… I did not parco my macchina up here, it’s outside the … it’s fuori the…Oh God, what’s the word for walls?”. In his panic he abandoned all attempt at Italian; “My car is not parked in this building, OK? It’s in a really cheap place…outside the walls!” Of course it was hopeless. The attendant waved a Mercedes through to take the space we were supposedly vacating and impatiently gestured us up to the parking levels. In the end we did as we were told, but simply left the building through a pedestrian exit. Behind us, the Mercedes driver was honking in fury at being unable to find his spare spot.
It was a long way back to our car, but we ran all the way for fear of being slugged with another fee. As we drove off I noticed Rob still had the token clenched in his fist. “Why don’t you throw it away, darling?” I suggested gently, as Siena disappeared behind us. “It will only remind you of everything”. He gave me a withering look. “Like hell I will! We’re coming back one day and I’m using it to park in that bloody place for a week”. Oh my hat! I hope they don’t change their tokens in the meantime, it will break his heart.
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That night he lay awake in a hill town further north, lamenting the loss of his 80,000 lira. “Never mind”, I told him. “I’ll bet that parking attendant is awake too, going quietly crazy over the phantom foreigners who vanished without leaving an empty car space. We’ll probably become an urban Italian myth!”
Have you had a frustrating time in a foreign city? What happened? Do you laugh about it now?