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Of Clutches and Hills

Old car

You may remember that I have a tenuous relationship with stick shift automobiles.  Well, I finally made my peace with our old car and in time I was driving with some degree of confidence.  I didn’t think twice about backing out into the street from our parking pad and starting up our hill.  No more stalling out for me.  I was independent.  Driving to stores, towns, and wherever my heart desired – as long as there weren’t too many hills.

Then we left to go to the US for three months.  With that trip went our car.  We are leasing right now, so it made no sense to hold onto it for three months while it sat idle in our driveway.  When we got back, we got a different car with a different company.  This company came very highly recommended by several locals and it’s run by a local, so it seemed like a good fit.  He even speaks English, a real bonus for us.  However, the car he wanted us to have wasn’t available so he gave us a “loaner”.  It was an automatic, which made my heart leap – except it wasn’t really an automatic.  There was no clutch, but you still had to shift up.  Very strange, but I could handle it.  But is was old and squeaky and we wasted no time in trying to get rid of it.

Enter car number two.  This was a bright red Panda 4X4.  These cars are everywhere here.  I think they must have been the best car ever made because you see them 20, 30 years old still chugging along.  I don’t know what year this one was, but it was old.  Maybe something in the early 2000s or the late 1990s.  This, too, was a “loaner”.  He had another car in mind for us.  This car was OK, except the AC and heat only came out at your feet.  Big deal, you think.  Well, next time it’s a particularly hot day, put your AC on your feet and see how it works.  Sweat pours from your torso, your face and neck red from the heat.  Your feet are blocks of ice.  The air simply does move up.  Fortunately, it hasn’t been that warm here, so we didn’t really need serious AC.  But we knew we’d never make it in the summer with this situation.

But that’s not the worst of it.  My beloved Peugeot, the car that we relinquished, had something I’ve learned is called “hill assist” or “hill hold”.  I’m not clear on all the details, but the gist is when you’re taking off on a hill, it holds for a few seconds before starting the dreaded rolling back.  Guess what the bright red Panda 4X4 didn’t have?  The second you took your foot off the brake and were on the slightest incline, this car starting a backward descent like it was in some kind of race.  To say it freaked me out is an understatement.  My natural manual driving instinct was to shoot the gas, but when you don’t coordinate with the clutch guess what happens?  You stall out.  On a hill.  With no hill assist.  Then you start crying.  At least that’s what I do.

Which brings us to car number three.  A silver Hyundai.  Hill assist?  Uh, no.  But in addition to no hill assist (which I consider to be a fundamental right), the clutch was quirky.  The clutch is supposed to be my friend (that’s what my driving instructor/husband says), but this clutch was my mortal enemy.  You have to let it out very slowly when starting in first.  I can’t tell you how many times I stalled out in the cemetery parking lot (that’s my practice driving course because it has a variety of terrain, including one killer hill, and I figure the occupants won’t mind my driving up and down and all around).  I finally got the hang of it and was cutting donuts on the flat parking lot.  Not really.  But I was getting pretty good at it.  Then I tried it on the killer hill.  In addition to rolling backwards, I had to resist the instinct to shoot the gas and remember to coddle the quirky clutch.  Doing something slowly when you’re rolling backwards is perhaps one of the most counterintuitive things on the planet.  That’s a situation which demands immediacy.  Decisiveness.  Action.  Do you know what happens when you’re trying to start out on a hill with no hill assist with a quirky clutch?  You make black marks on the pavement and everything smells like burnt rubber.  I perhaps ruined the tires with my attempts to navigate that damn hill.  Then I cried.

You may be wondering why it was so important that I get the hang of this.  Here’s the reason.  Steve, my driving instructor/husband, was leaving for Atlanta THE NEXT DAY and I had to take him to the train station in Arezzo.  He’s making a quick trip back for a family event and I’m staying here with ailing and elderly Millie the dog.  So I had to learn how to drive this car in one afternoon, then drive it back from Arezzo by myself the next day.  My brain calculated the number of times I would have to stop and start on a hill.  Only two, but still.  I looked obsessively at the weather to make sure there was no rain predicted (can you imagine that being thrown into the mix?).  It was, then it wasn’t, could be, wasn’t sure.  I was a ball of nerves and wound just about as tight as I’ve ever been.

There are many things I can’t do here – speak the language, eat organ meats regularly, dress fashionably.  But not being able to drive a car is dangerous.  If I say “pleased to meet you” instead of “where’s the bathroom” no one gets hurt.  If I turn down the heart and lungs at dinner, they say ” tipica americana”.  If I wear Birkenstocks instead of spike heels, I get a sympathetic head shake, but no one’s car is going to the body shop.

This story has a happy ending.  We had dinner with our American friends who live here, Greg and Amy, that night.  We filled them in on the car saga and Greg graciously offered to drive Steve to Arezzo.  Who was I to argue?  It might have hurt his feelings if I’d said no.  I couldn’t do that to him.  He’s too nice.  So the next morning, Greg and Steve merrily went off to Arezzo and I glared at the car left in my driveway.

Can I make my peace with this car?  Will my training take over and allow me to get up these blasted hills?  Or will I take the bus to wherever I need to go?  I’ve already checked the schedule and it seems mighty convenient.  It’s just a week.  Maybe I could get everything I need in my little village without venturing outside the city walls.  Options are available to me.  Options much more attractive than rolling into someone’s engine.

When Steve gets back we have figure out a better car solution.  Life is all about compromises and I’ve made about all the compromises I can in the automotive department.  I wonder if my Peugeot is still out there?

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