First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
A car has one job. To get me from Point A to Point B safely and efficiently. Nothing else about cars is relevant? Or is it?
Seven years ago, I bought myself a little red Fiat. A convertible. A Fiat 500. What the cognoscenti call a cinquecento. Candy-apple red. About the size of a large watermelon. Did I mention it was a convertible?
Why? We didn’t need a new car. We already had a minivan. Sensible and sturdy. And with six family members, plus two dogs, a Fiat was not exactly the spacious family car our situation demanded. Our driveway fits one car. And I was the only driver in the house. So why?
One word: sentimentality. Some things in life are evocative. The mere sight of the object kindles memories, brings back familiar smells, provides an echo of a sound or an experience. Despite my functional approach to cars, something in that Fiat brought back a flood from my past. And I knew I had to have one.
The Fiat is synonymous with Italy, especially southern Italy. As a brand, the tiny Fiat speaks volumes. And like a good Italian, it speaks in contradictions. It says “style” but the style of the masses, not the elite. It mocks the efficient but soulless gunmetal grey sedans but with a touch of self-deprecation given its ridiculously small stature. What car’s name could be considered a glum acronym for “Fix It Again Tony” and still be loved unconditionally? And let’s face it, a candy-apple red Fiat also cries out: Take the day off and go to the beach! Flip the bird to the boss! Just go, you devil you!
If you have ever been to Italy you can understand. Doesn’t a red Fiat make you think of long languid Augusts, driving on the autostrada to the sea? Your entire family stuffed into one tiny often ancient Fiat. Stopping for a panino at the gas bar when the car breaks down. Or careening down hairpin turns in the Southern Apennines with the Fiat in neutral to save on gas. Hoping you would survive the experience, but both you and the car screaming with laughter at your bravery and foolishness all rolled into one. Good times.
All these things and more went through my mind the morning I woke up and decided that I needed a little red Fiat. The truth is that the Fiat is also a link to my disappearing past. My Italian roots that seem farther away with each passing year. The morning of my momentous decision, we had recently buried my uncle. And before him, my dad. As I am getting older, the generation before me, the one that left Italy for Canada, for America, nears its end. To me, they were the original Fiat drivers. Guys like my father. The postwar, working class who smoked cigarettes from the age of 12, who survived crushing poverty and who could fix a Fiat and keep it running for 35 years using remnants from the street or the garbage if that’s what it took. The ones who immigrated to America with the clothes on their backs, grit and determination in their hearts and little more. A lot like the Fiat.
My dad loved cars. I wish he would have been alive when I bought my Fiat. The road trips we would have taken in that thing. Him in a red Fiat baseball cap and me with my hair in a kerchief pretending to be Sophia Loren. Perhaps not stopping for cappuccinos, but certainly the occasional Tim Hortons coffee. Dad would have been taunting me to give it more gas. Who cares about the speed limit? Besides, a Fiat can only go so fast. A throwback to a carefree moment in time, a time when the open road and a small car offered freedom, if only fleeting, from the worries of the world.
So instead of driving around with my dad, I drove the Fiat with my daughters. Instead of O Sole Mio, we were jamming to One Direction, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. And if given the opportunity, I would slip in Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road just so the kids could listen to some real music. We would put on our shades, crank the roof and let the wind blow through our hair. Pure heaven.
I loved that car. And believe it or not, I recently sold it. Probably for all the wrong reasons. Reasons that should not factor in the life of a candy-apple red Fiat convertible. The bumper-to-bumper warranty was about to expire. I am trying to be more practical. This is Canada after all. An SUV makes infinitely more sense in January than a Fiat.
I also felt a change in the air. Not just because fall is approaching and convertible season in Canada is soon to wind down. Maybe it’s COVID-19. Maybe it’s too much geopolitical turmoil. We all need to behave sensibly now. I am worried about what the pandemic might do to us financially, so I wanted to do some belt-tightening. It almost seemed wrong to drive my little red car. It is happy and cheerful and makes people giggle a bit when it passes. But right now, the world is in a serious place and I feel like everything is messed up. Times are tough. The world needs substance, not style. It’s my generation’s time to be tough and gritty. Arrivederci to frivolity.
Wrong! Now more than ever we all need our little Fiats. Or whatever mementos we have of happy times, of love and compassion. Sure, we need to be tough and gritty, but we also need whatever returns us to the goofy, slurpy, sentimental places that make us feel warm, safe and fuzzy. Places where the little engine that could really did climb the hill. And man, when it descended that hill, it threw one heck of a party. As only a little Fiat could!
I hope the Fiat’s new owner will experience the joy I felt driving it. And maybe some of that carefree sentimental feeling I had touring around with the top down, the tunes blasting, my family with me in person or in my heart. Ciao bella.
Anna Tosto lives in Ottawa.