The raison d’etre behind our year abroad is, so we are informed, to teach us the sort of context and nuance in language that only living in a place can really give you. Let me give you an example:
I recently took up cycling in Padua, after over a decade without having sat on a bicycle. Luckily, riding a bicycle is a lot like a simile, so you never forget. Cycling also opened up a new source of vocab for me, words I’d never previously needed, such as freni (brakes), ruote (wheels) and oddio, sto per morire (oh lord, I’m going to die). Another example, which is particularly helpful in terms of understanding the difference between what something says and what it means, is pista ciclabile. These two words, pista meaning track/path, and ciclabile, meaning cycling, seem self-explanatory. Had I never taken up cycling here, I would have taken them at face value to mean a cycle path. Having cycled here, I now know that pista ciclabile can also mean any of the following: a place to leave the car, the section of pavement where bins are left out to be collected, or a communal meeting place for people to stop and have a chat. In local council terminology, a pista ciclabile is “that part at the side of the road that never requires maintenance”, whilst if you go into your local DIY store, you may come across pista ciclabile on the Dulux Colour Chart, with the description “a changeable colour, which often alternates between yellow, bright red, and dark purple with no explanation or warning”.
In typically Italian style, the person commissioned with this particular piece – that of the city’s roads – was well-served by creativity and stylistic flourishes, but was a little less willing to be bogged down by practicalities such as safety and efficiency.
They also tend to swerve around without much notice, dodging trees and bus shelters, randomly dropping onto the road, disappearing for a stretch before reappearing on the other side of the road entirely. Essentially, and in typically Italian style, the person commissioned with this particular painting – of the city’s roads – was well-served by creativity and stylistic flourishes, but was a little less willing to be bogged down by practicalities such as safety and efficiency. He may well be a descendant of the guy who designed the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It reminds me a bit of the time I visited the synagogue in Siena, and I’ll explain why. The synagogue itself was very ornate and beautifully designed, but a few things instantly caught my eye as being out of place. In one instance, the Hebrew script was upside down. On the ceiling there was a painting of a cloud with rays of sunlight coming through it, deeply Christian symbolism which I’d never before encountered in Judaism.
When I enquired, it turned out that the original architect of the synagogue was not Jewish, and hadn’t thought it necessary to visit any synagogues before taking up his commission, so essentially, he was working on something he’d only vaguely heard about. The same appears to be true for Padua’s cycle lanes. Italy has been designed for people who walk. The evening passeggiata (post-dinner stroll) is as much an Italian tradition as Carnival, Ferragosto, and paying employees cash-in-hand without written contracts. Walking serves a purpose, both social and cultural. Similarly, the Italian love affair with any form of motorised transport, from the Vespa to the Ferrari, is well-documented, and the country is well-equipped to handle it. The idea of cyclists however – people trying to get from A to B quickly and safely but without the money to purchase an engine – still eludes many Italians, and cities such as Padua simply don’t know what to do with them.
Italy has been designed for people who walk. The evening passeggiata (post-dinner stroll) is as much an Italian tradition as Carnival, the Ferragosto holiday, and paying employees cash-in-hand without written contracts.
And all this has been without mentioning Italian cyclists themselves. Their approach to cycling appears to be “if it is to be my fate to die while cycling today, then so be it”. Which is fine, but I can’t help but feel like fate may help them out if they were to put their phone in their pockets, detach the headphones from it, put out the cigarette, put the book down and look around at the traffic every so often.”
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-The Wandering Jew-