Red lights

An old boyfriend once told me a story about the Italians.

They made him laugh: he was a placid Anglo-Irishman, working in a fiery Italian firm. His trips to Italian boardrooms were an education, for every meeting was full of grand gesture and intonation. A small difference of opinion could become a volcanic issue and then folks would walk away, no grudges held. At least, not on the surface.

And the autostrada! Here in England we know the speed limit is 70 miles per hour. Some of us obey it, some don’t; police cars wait on raised lay-bys, waiting like crocodiles to slide into the swamp of cars and catch those who push the speed barrier.

But the Italians have pay stations, which punctuate the autostrada. The motorists stream through and everyone gets a ticket.

And each ticket has the time printed on it.

Thus, the time on the motorway is carefully calculated. It’s a speed check. You can’t go faster than the prescribed 81 miles per hour- 93mph tops in the best conditions- or you will arrive at the toll booth too soon, and you will cop a large fine.

But the Italians, said my friend, simply can’t go slowly. Asking an Italian motorist to travel moderately in a beautiful car would be like asking a cheetah to do pigeon steps.

My friend travelled with a group of managers in a nice motor: and they sped up that autostrada like a bat out of hell.

But at the side of the motorway, a short distance before the tolls, was a service station where one could get a good cup of coffee.

This is what they do, the Italians told my friend. We drive very fast up the motorway: and then we stop, and we have a coffee. And when our tickets reach the legal time: we get in our cars and we drive to the tolls and we pay.

Getting from A to B isn’t always a purely utilitarian business. Sometimes, the sensation of going very fast in a beautiful car takes over.

I didn’t even need a beautiful car: when I was young I couldn’t see the point in not being at B. Thus I went very fast to get there.

One of Phil’s earliest memories of me was when he was stuck in slow-moving traffic, trying to get to work; and I shot past him in the fast lane, hunched solemnly over the driving wheel, like Toad in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Perhaps, if he could lip read, he might have seen me muttering “Poop poop!” as I motored past.

Yesterday, I was an ambulance. Or rather, I drove one.

Not a real one. Not one with lights and a siren, regrettably. But used my car to make a dash into London with a poorly person on board at very short notice.

London driving: it is a business all its own. For a suburbanite like me it begins with about 45 minutes of hurtling down a motorway. But with my precious load I did not hurtle. No: I positively pootled, averaging between 60-70 miles per hour, past Maidenhead and Slough.

And so to signs for Hammersmith: and onto the A4. Suddenly the cars were packed tightly and taxis and London buses jostled. And the speed plummeted: stop-start satnav slavery was the order of the day.

And, though there was a pressing point to being at B, there were times when a red light showed, and there was nothing for it but to stop completely.

There are times when life does that. No matter the vision shouting from the horizon, waving its arms and gesticulating wildly, a red light shows, and you just have to stop. It fulfils its own purpose: for every sequence of events needs a pause, a moment to reflect and calculate the route ahead. If we had no red light on our journey to hospital we would have become hopelessly lost among the myriad motors of London.

And we used our red lights. We thought hard; we calculated carefully. And because we paid attention when the music stopped, we arrived safely at the great London hospital in good time, and got the patient safely to the ward.

Even those fiery Italians were forced to stop, drink coffee, and contemplate. And creatively many of us are in the fast lane, with paths which can become hopelessly blocked. Everywhere we look, every post for which we apply, every boss we have, every publisher we ask, each one seems like a dead end.

But it’s not. It’s just a red light. And some time soon, I firmly believe, it must change to amber: and finally green.



57 thoughts on “Red lights

  1. I remember getting a hire car at Naples airport to go to do a job in Positano. The hire company instructed me not to stop, ever, at red traffic lights when in Naples! It seems that they feared that seeing Naples may indeed include dieing.

  2. I hope the poorly person has richly benefitted from your transport!
    I wonder what the Italians would think of it if their traffic police got mean and clocked them into the service stations? A case of presto agitato?
    Definite food for thought on the red light analogy.

    1. It certainly is. I expect by now they have invented intelligent tickets which can detect the smell of caffeine and take away coffee break time from the final ticket.

  3. Glad your mission was accomplished, Kate. “More haste, less speed” as Wogan said when he came last in Star in a Reasonably Priced Car Top Gear challenge. One of the funniest things I’ve seen on that show – Wogan, driving sedately around the track wearing a white helmet.

  4. My friend, I loved this piece 🙂 I was with you hurtling down the road – there is something to be said for living and driving with passion! I hope your road is a sea of green lights all the way from today and at least for a little while xx

  5. I speed thru every aspect of my life and rarely acknowledge red stop signs because I have something else to do. The exception to this is driving a car, I see all the idiots weaving in and out like lunatics and I just keep driving the speed limit or a bit above it. When I was younger I did drive faster, but, rarely as I hated to part with money to pay for a darn ticket.

    I must say that I admire the Italians approach to enjoying a nice car on a great road along with a coffee.

    1. You sound like a calculating motorist indeed, Lou. I wish I had had your presence of thought and kept to the limit when I was younger. These days, kids are a natural speed damper! Come retirement I shall try the nice car-fast road-coffee experience once again 🙂

  6. I love Lou’s “I just keep driving the speed limit or a bit above it”, it’s exactly what I do these days and we both reckon that’s sensible driving.
    The conclusion of the post is great, very thought-provoking.

  7. Ha! I’m going to have to tell Tom about the Italian sports car way of driving, Kate. I love the logic (or illogic) of driving fast and stopping for coffee to beat a ticket.

    I tend to use the speed control button to keep me honest as I also tend to have a lead foot. Right now, however, I’m rather enjoying an amber light sort of morning, which is in anticipation of a green light, full speed ahead day coming upon me tomorrow. Sigh.

  8. I like the idea, speed off, have coffee to get all revved up again, then speed on.

    I’d prefer revolving numberplates, so after each tollgate i could be a different car

  9. I think it must be a law of nature or something that the faster we need to go and less time we have to get there, the more red lights we’ll encounter.

    As for the Italian trick … we used to do that on the turnpikes in Oklahoma, where we were also given time-stamped receipts. We planned our meal stops for the restaurant on the turnpike.

    And I must ask, do lights in England go from red to amber to green? Our lights only go amber during a green-amber-red sequence. From red, we go straight to green. vroom, vroom …

  10. As soon as I read the toll booth part of the story, I knew those Italians would find a way. And, that the way around is coffee is just brilliant.

    I hope all is well with the person in the hospital.

  11. Oh my but this is wisdom, Kate! It really is. I have reached an age when I know every word of this is true, and yet I still need reminders! A part of what you’re saying, too, involves the care for someone ill or in need of medical attention. I have friends caught in vicious cycles of battling illness and for them, life is one long series of medical appointments, waiting, and grave concern. I think of them often when I’m rushing from one thing to the next and feel like everything I’m doing has “urgent” printed on it. One medical diagnosis or large family concern and none of the things I’ve marked “need to do now” would be even slightly important to me, so why do I go about my life on high speed! And the set-backs in life can be times to reassess and recalculate our values. You’ve impressed some things on my mind today…and on a more humorous note–clever Italians! Debra

  12. kate, this is wonderful- warm, informative, humourous. You must have been extremely anxious, but still saw the red lights as a good thing- what a star. I hope there will be no emergency dashes for you!

  13. Those Italians on the motorway is an excellent story, so funny! I refused point blank to drive in Italy, they don’t even stay in lanes it is so frightening.. and yes high speed.. i hope you got your friend to help ok,.. terrible to be stuck in traffic with that responsibility.. c

  14. I always get stopped by red traffic lights, Kate. I’m always at the front of the queue. And I always get to the next set of traffic lights as they are changing to red. At times, I wish that I could just get going, but I’m being told to wait. To take things nice and easy. It should be relaxing… somedays it is, but most days it isn’t. After all these years of driving, I may have to resign myself to the fact this pattern isn’t going to change any day soon…

  15. Kate, are you at liberty to tell more about the outcome of your journey? Was your poorly passenger treated in time appropriately……?

  16. Terrific read as usual. Love the image of police cars as crocodiles – haha :). I sometimes think the best way to get to the best destination is to not know where you are going, that is why I rarely plan for the future. I’m sure you’ll get your green light soon. The Italians are amazing with their exuberance – I was in a plane from Italy to Croatia with my Mum (there was an Italian pilot and lots of Italians on board) once and when we landed nearly everyone applauded – I couldn’t believe it – haha).

    1. I have never been to Italy, Gabrielle: and I simply can’t wait to get there. If I won the lottery it would be the first thing I did. Must get to know a few Italian bloggers…

  17. A very good homily, Kate – I shall be sure to take it to heart. ;D (Were those gorgeous tulips ‘netted’ on one of those stops?)

    1. Whenever I sermonise you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m trying to convince myself, Ruth 😀 You know that second voice that chimes in to give the alternative take on a situation?

  18. Hope your passenger is better, Kate.
    Red lights..we’ve this horrid thing akin to your ‘big-brother’ toll ticker that will take picture & ticket you if you run a red light. A huge fine. It is best for all parties if I garage the car and bike, weather permitting ~

  19. Lovely post, Kate. Your mum and I were grateful for your availability and driving.
    I will be here with her today, and so far things are looking good
    Love Dad. Xxxxxxxxx

  20. Those Italians know how to live! You made the best out of a bad situation, Kate – well done for keeping a level head and getting you patient to hospital safely in daunting circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s