22 September 2013

LIFE: Across the Street

CHIAVARI, Italy – Crossing the street is such a simple thing. Even a chicken can get to the other side. But for some reason, people still think that crossing the street in Italy is easier said than done.
 Doing the Stroll
To understand this phenomenon you have to know a couple of things about Italians. To begin with, as Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini points out in his book “Italians in Italy”, Italians think obedience is boring. They want to be the ones who decide whether or not a particular law applies to their situation. A red light is the perfect example. While in other parts of the world a red light means stop, here in Italy it is an opportunity to reflect on what kind of red light it is. Is it a pedestrian red? If it is, and at this hour there are no pedestrians, why stop? Is it a red light at an intersection? If you can see in every direction and there are no cars coming, no reason to stop there either.

I finally learned that pedestrians have to apply the same rules of the road when crossing them. Each situation has to be evaluated. How well I remember those early days in Rome, trying to get across the street in front of the white marble “wedding cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel II at the end of the Via del Corso. It was a nightmare. But of course back then I didn’t know the rules.
 Why Go it Alone?
First of all there was the fear factor. I could never muster up the nerve to cross three lands of traffic by myself. With cars zooming around the piazza and taxis swerving in and out of lanes, I would stand there terrified waiting for other people to come along, preferably nuns or ladies with babies. After all, I reasoned, this is Rome, the Pope lives here so these crazy drivers wouldn’t run over a nun, or would they? And with all the fuss they make about Italian mammas, I felt pretty safe with them as well. But even when my selected entourage had gathered at the intersection, I would scoot across to the other side as fast as I could, my heart in my mouth. It was exactly the wrong thing to do.

But now that I have learned the secrets of crossing the street in Italy, I have a great deal of sympathy for my visitors when I take them firmly by the arm as we are approaching a busy intersection. I can hear them gasping as I step them off the curb right into oncoming traffic, and sometimes it is difficult to keep them from bolting. But the trick is to just walk at a normal pace, not to hurry and not to look to the left or the right. It always works but for some reason when we do get to the other side of the street, they always pull away from my grip and say: “What are you are trying to do? Kill me?” Honestly, I’m not. It just feels that way. 

See? Everybody Does It.
One of the major difficulties with crossing streets in Italy is getting used to the fact that the cars are not going to stop. What they will do is go around you. Some may slow down, others may not, but it doesn’t change anything. Your part of this scenario is to just keep walking. However, if you are going to try this on your own, it might be a good idea to remember these few essential tips:

Rule One: Crossing the street in Italy is a lot like skipping rope with two friends. With your friends turning the rope, you have to gauge the exact time to jump in, otherwise it doesn’t work. It is exactly the same with street crossing. Do not step out in front of a car that is going too fast to react to you stepping out in front of it.

Rule Two: Once you start across the street, keep a steady pace. Drivers are adjusting their speed in direct relationship to how fast or slow they see you going. If you suddenly speed up or slow down you throw them off and your chance of being hit increases substantially. So calm and steady is the rule. Remember that traffic is not going to come to a full stop and allow you to cross. The cars will slow down so you can pass in front of them, or they will go around you if traffic allows.

Rule Three: Don’t look at the oncoming cars. Let them look at you. They will do just about anything and everything, including drive up on the sidewalk, to avoid hitting you. This is a truth you have to know in your heart for it takes courage to step off the curb into oncoming traffic. It’s a little like a bull fighter entering the ring without his cape. 

 You Put Your Left Foot In, You Put Your Right Foot Out
Now I'm having second thoughts about advising you to step out into traffic. Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Maybe it's the kind of thing you have to ease into instead of jump into, I'm not sure. One thing I know is you can’t hang around thinking about rules when there is a lot of traffic, it just doesn’t work, so forget I even brought it up.


  1. Your technique is spot on. I remember years ago watching to Japanese tourists trying to cross the road in Naples. They duly pressed the button and waited the light changed and they were about to cross when a car passed. The driver realizing that the pedestrians where tourists jammed on the brakes reserved back to the stop line and waited for the then very confused tourists to cross.

  2. This is too funny! I'm from Miami and cars adhere to traffic lights, but as a pedestrian I always crossed when I wanted to. Not sure who taught be to be so obnoxious, but in retrospect it set me up perfectly for living in Florence now! :-) My husband gets upset and tells me to look at the driver to make sure they're not texting, but I glance way ahead of time and then just walk faced forward, nice and calmly.