The Clutch is My Friend

Our first day in Anghiari was July 28.  That means that today is my four month anniversary of living here.  For three-and-a-half of those months I did not get behind the wheel of a car.  Steve has chauffeured me around like I’m some kind of royal in our 15-year-old Fiat Punto.  We decided to lease a car instead of buying one, so we set a price with the car dealer and this is what we got.  More money, better car.  But it gets us where we’re going.  Or at least it did before Steve went back to Atlanta for a visit.  In the weeks leading up to his departure, I was forced to learn how to drive.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a perfectly good driver.  But this car, like almost all cars here, is a stick shift.  Me and stick shifts do not have a storied history, so this was like starting all over for me.

When I was 17, Brad Hightower taught me how to drive a stick shift in his 1975 Vega.  I learned in the parking lot of Southlake Mall and after my 10 minute lesson drove back to McDonough giggling hysterically the entire way.  That began and ended my experience with stick shifts.  After that, every car I seated myself behind the wheel of was a perfectly civilized automatic, one of the greatest inventions of all time.  Put it in drive and press the gas and you’re off.  Need to slow down?  Easy – press the brake.  Back up?  Reverse is right there beside drive for your convenience.

Alas, those days of the automatic car are gone for me.  Steve found a great place for me to practice – in the parking lot behind the Gala supermarket.  I went around the long oval of that lot dozens of times, practicing starting and stopping and negotiating the two turns at either end.  Through every lesson, Steve kept repeating to me “The clutch is your friend”, which seemed absurd to me since the clutch was thing I hated most in life.  Slowing down, stopping, accelerating – it all involves the stupid clutch.  I learned very quickly that just putting the brakes on was a sure fire way to make the whole car stop dead in its tracks.  And not in the way I wanted it to stop.  No engine, no nothing.  So then I would have to start the whole blasted thing all over again.

Eventually, I branched out to driving on an actual road.  On my first trip around a roundabout (there are a lot of those here), I encountered a guy who jumped off his motorcycle to retrieve the loaf of bread that he dropped in the middle of the road.  Only in Italy, folks.  That was unexpected and required me to make some fast calculations so as not to take him or his bread out.  We all somehow survived.  None of this came naturally to me and I found that instead of just driving, I had to actually think really hard about what I was doing.  Brake, clutch, downshift, upshift, gas – but not too much.  I had a couple of absolute breakdowns where I screamed obscenities at the stupid car and my at stupid husband for not springing for an automatic that I could drive with ease.  And don’t get me started on hills.  In my glory days of automatic car driving, I simply pushed the gas more to go up a hill.  No, that doesn’t work in the Punto.  Steve explained something to me about gas going to the engine and how it gets less the higher the gear.  Huh?  So to go up a hill, you have to put it in a lower gear.  I was in car-bizarro world.

Our plan for Steve’s departure was to spend the night before his flight in Rome.  That meant we had to drive to Arezzo and leave the car at the train station.  That meant that when Millie and I came back from Rome, I was faced with driving back home from Arezzo alone.  There were four checkpoints that I had on my radar.

1 – getting through Arezzo itself.  Arezzo is a fairly large city and has fairly large city traffic.  Plus, things look different in the driver’s seat.  Things I knew perfectly well in the passenger’s seat were now question marks to me.  Do I turn here or go straight?  How could I not know these things?  I was too busy chanting “The clutch is my friend” over and over in my head to be bothered with directions.  But I made it through the traffic, with no pedestrians harmed.

2 – making a left hand turn onto the highway.  To get back to Anghiari, there’s a pretty good road.  But to get onto it from the train station, you have to turn left with no traffic light.  And there’s a slight incline as you’re stopped at the stop sign.  And the highway is pretty well-traveled.  I was sweating bullets hoping that I could get onto it without stalling out.  I pulled up, waited for one car to pass and then had the road all to myself.  No cars coming in either direction for as far as I could see.  I could stall out all I wanted and not get creamed by a semi.  I pulled out onto the highway, made my left turn with not so much as a sputter and was on my way.

3 – the curve on a hill in La Ville.  This one Steve was concerned about, not me.  I was too ignorant to know it could be a problem.  When you’re almost to Anghiari, you go through a tiny village called La Ville.  At the end of town, there’s a sharp curve that is on a a pretty steep hill.  Those two things combined had Steve a little concerned.  That freaked me out completely because if he was concerned I knew it was serious.  We devised a work-around where I added about 3 miles to my trip, but avoided the curve-hill.  By the time I got there, I was feeling pretty confident.  I was clipping along pretty good with no problems, shifting and clutching like a pro.  I thought I could do this curve-hill thing.  At the last minute, I took the turn off for the work-around.  No need to overachieve, I told myself.

4 – getting into our driveway.  We live on a curve and our driveway is really just a big parking pad.  There’s no way to turn around.  You either pull in straight or back in.  I decided that I would back in so that I wouldn’t have to back out into the curve when I needed to leave again.  That meant I had to go down to the end of the street and turn around so that I would be coming in at the right angle to back in.  Again, I was praying that no one would be behind me and I could back in slowly and not run into the house (this is a real concern).  I made my way to the house and, mercifully, no one was behind me.  I slowly found reverse and eased onto the parking pad.  Engine off, trip complete.  My very first solo drive in a stupid stick shift.

Since that fateful day, I have made one trip each day.  Remember, Anghiari is up on a hill, so getting down and back up is tricky.  Especially coming back up.  My first trip back up was fine.  My second trip back up I passed a bus on a sharp curve.  He was swinging wide and I had to swing out and somehow the car died.  I don’t know what I did wrong – it all happened so fast – but there I was, a string of cars behind me, stalled out on a curve going up a hill.  I quickly started back up and took off, but not before every horn behind me started honking.  Their empathy for my plight was overwhelming.  After that, I devised a clever way to get where I need to go without going up that blasted hill.  I enjoy taking my little scenic drive through the country to avoid going up the hill, but I know that one day I’ll have to face it again.  But for now, I’m content with every work-around I can find.

I’ve made my peace with the Punto and its gears.  I don’t like it, but I am glad that I can go where I need to go and not be completely house-bound.  The more I drive it the better I get.  And I’ve also come to understand why the clutch is my friend.  It can undo a whole host of mistakes and gives me time to regroup.  Thank you, Steve, for laying all these pieces out for me to put together.  I thought you were crazy at first, but I see how it works now.  I still wish we had rented an automatic.

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