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.