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La Vita Della Vespa: Five Life Lessons From Driving a Vespa in Italy

When I decided to spend my first year of my master's program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Italy, I knew I wanted to live with a host family...

My Italian stallion rests on the sidewalk (see Lesson #2). Photo courtesy Virgil Doyle.

When I decided to spend my first year of my master's program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Italy, I knew I wanted to live with a host family. I chose my particular host family because they had hosted the mom of a good friend 30 years prior. However, the family's home is almost ten kilometers outside of the city. In order to help me out, the family told me that they would repair an old Vespa for me to take to school everyday. So went the plan.

From when I arrived in Italy until now I believe that my experience with the Vespa has taught me a few life lessons that are worth sharing, if not for actual intellectual stimulation then for posterity's (and hilarity's) sake.

Lesson #5: Commit to a plan and stick to it

After the 5th trip to the mechanic in the 1st week I began to doubt the longevity of the arraignment. The Vespa would either not start, or would start and allow me to drive away from the mechanic just to not start again. Between the costs that were borne by the family and my complete lack of knowledge of Italian I began to consider abandoning the host family project. When the Vespa didn't work I would take the bus twice a day (I teach English at home during lunch), which meant 3 hours of commuting. While no rent was nice, it was not that nice. After three weeks of intermittent functionality the Vespa was finally fully operational! I felt like Lord Vader gazing upon the rebuilt Death Star for the first time - my baby was ready for action!

Lesson #4: Don't look back

After the majority of the Vespa repairs were completed I began to attempt to improve non-essential but functional parts of the Vespa such as the mirrors. The rearview mirrors didn't actually face towards the rear but rather faced down. My host dad and I went to go see if we could fix this. He looked at the mirrors for a while and started twisting the mirror before, in a swift motion, snapping the mirror off. In semi-disbelief I looked at him and he simply glanced at me and simply said "boh" before walking away. But it was not before long that I got used to driving without worrying about what was behind me.

Lesson #3: Things don't always go your way - deal with it

On my way home after class one evening I hit a bump and the tire lost air making the Vespa wobble until I caught it. Being on the main ring road of the city during rush hour, I jumped off and pushed the Vespa as fast as I could to the closest gas station. There was no one there so I left it in a corner as to not block the pumps. The next morning when I returned the Vespa was no longer there. Thinking it had been stolen, I called a tow truck number on a nearby wall to see if they had seen it. As it turned out, they thought they had it had been abandoned and so they towed it. They also wittingly informed me of the flat tire before telling me that I could un-impound it for 120 euro. I took a bus 40 minutes out of the city to their garage to pay the ransom and got lost twice before the mechanics came and found me.

Lesson #2: Rules are meant to be broken

When driving in Italy it is important to note that the lines on the road and the lights overhead are more of guidelines than rules. The only real enforcers of order are the cameras that deter drivers from driving in the bus lanes. While one may be fined for driving in the bus lanes, no one said anything about driving the opposite direction of traffic in the bus lanes! Because the fastest way to town is around stopped traffic and because the cameras only face one direction, Italy's Vespas can achieve near pareto-efficiency by driving in the bus lanes and breaking the rules.

Lesson #1: Find your niche

The most important unspoken rule of driving a Vespa in Italy, in my experience, is not stopping simply because cars are stopping. The beauty of Vespa travel is that you can almost fit into every nook and cranny in a traffic jam and easily get to the front of the line before car drivers even realize it's a jam. Whether you're using the space on the shoulders or driving on the double line in the middle of the road, you go the furthest, fastest when you take advantage of your (Vepsa's) own strengths.

Driving a Vespa has taught me a lot, but winter is coming and undoubtedly more lessons are coming with it.