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If you ever go to Pagliara, Sicily, leave your car behind or you may find yourself as I did, with my rental car firmly wedged between two buildings, courtesy of Google Maps.
My wife and I were leaving our B&B for a short 20-minute journey to the famous hillside town of Taormina via the autostrada toll road. The only problem was that my car was parked facing the direction opposite to where it needed to be and there was no room for an easy U turn. I proceeded in the wrong direction expecting to find a crossroad to manage this simple driving manoeuvre, but Google Maps promptly provided me with an alternate route that was only 10 minutes longer, did not involve tolls and appeared to be much more scenic.
After a few minutes of engagement with some hilly terrain and sporty turns in my standard shift Fiat 500X, the gentle female voice within Google Maps instructed me to take a sharp right turn up a steep embankment, followed by another sharp right turn down a slope. The idea then, based on the directional arrow of the map, was to follow with a sharp left turn after about 100 metres.
As I approached the left turn, it seemed as though the walls flanking the car were closing in on me. My co-pilot and I reached to pull in the mirrors and we carried on until the sound of scraping metal was clearly apparent. The car came to an abrupt halt. Forward motion and reverse motion yielded the same piercing sounds. I sat to consider my options while adrenalin pulsed through my arteries. Time seemed to stop until I finally decided to renew my faith in my Google guide and to painfully scrape my way through the sharp left turn. Reversing back up the slope seemed to be the least favourable of the two options.
By now some of the locals were alerted to the presence of tourists and came out to investigate the racket. One kindly thirtysomething woman told me that it was impossible to proceed in my intended direction and that the road became even more narrow at the next turn. The only option was to excruciatingly scrape my way back to my point of origin.
Fortunately, there was just enough room for me to navigate a 13-point turn to get my car oriented in the direction from whence it came, all with the expert directional assistance of this helpful woman. With my vehicle then in position for its shameful retreat, I took a moment to step out onto the cobblestone, in part to relieve the steering wheel of my sweat-drenched hands and also to bathe for an instant in the peace of this village that I had inadvertently interrupted. I took in the sight of the angelic face of the young woman whose gaze was frozen in my direction, observing the purity of her complexion, adorned with dark eyes that could at once see the fear and sadness in my own eyes and that bore witness to my failure to contain the tremour in my hands.
Without a hint of judgment over my driving ability or my condition, she volunteered to get behind the wheel and have a go at it herself. Soon a young man appeared and began to direct her attempt. Even together they could not penetrate the limited space that the yellow walls allowed, without producing a new chorus of scraping metal. Before long, the young lady called out to a woman bystander to summon another man who was obviously known to them as an even more skilled driver.
His arrival seemed to usher in a sense of calm. “Tranquillo,” he said to me as he sat behind the wheel while the younger gentleman taped plastic to the walls as a kind of lubricant. There appeared to be less than an inch of clearance on either side of these stucco walls, which by definition were uneven and could only be navigated with the degree of finesse possessed by this man. There may have been more scraping. I really don’t remember. I do remember watching the rubber on the tires strike the walls as this man weaved side to side threading this needle using rubber as his guide.
Once he reached the top of the hill he invited me to take over and said that I could follow him as he patiently walked me to the path of redemption. I offered to pay to restore the broken stucco walls of the village homes in Pagliara that I had disfigured but he would not hear of it. I wish that I could go back to thank the young woman who selflessly allowed herself to become separated from her two young children while she helped me and while my wife tried to console them and manage their distress, obviously amplified by the sorrowful sounds of scraping metal. And to thank the young man who appeared from nowhere but who eagerly tried to solve my dilemma. Such was my experience with all of the locals. There was unparalleled kindness and caring throughout the region.
As I drove away toward my intended destination my thoughts began to swell as to how things could have been much worse. What if I had not encountered the young lady? Might I have reached a point where my car doors would no longer open? What then if I needed to go to the washroom as I waited for help to arrive? How much more of a spectacle might I have created? How would my rental contract have dealt with the need to disassemble the car in order to turn it around? Would it have voided my insurance? My thoughts consumed me and ushered me effortlessly toward my destination. No doubt as well, that the sight of my car gave other drivers cause to give me a wide berth, making my drive all the easier.
Take caution that Google Maps never tells you how wide the streets are or when passage using bicycles only should be recommended. Thankfully, I paid for the ultra-luxury, no-deductible insurance package. When the clerk at the car rental agency told me the price, I said, “So, I’m really just prepaying the damages.” He broke into a hearty laugh. I suppose no one ever before expressed it to him in that way. I couldn’t wait to see him again to show off all the scraped paint on the mirrors, quarter panels and doors. I knew that I had definitely gotten my money’s worth that time, in a way that was unimaginable to me when I begrudgingly said “yes” to the price. Insured damages rang in at 5,770 euros. And with an exaggerated Italian shrug, the clerk said, “It happens.”
Martin Marino lives in Ancaster, Ont.