Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Life in the Slow Lane

View from the Slow Lane
As we were receiving instructions in Rome about mission rules and policies, one of the subjects Elder Steuer covered had to do with mission driving policy. One rule is that no mission vehicle is to travel more than 120 kilometers per hour – 72 miles per hour. The speed limit on Italian Freeways (Autostrade) is 130 or 78 mph. So, we pretty much drive in the slow lane –sometimes in the middle lane. In Europe, it is forbidden to pass on the right. All passing must be on the left. If you are in the fast lane and going too slow for the car approaching you, he will flash his headlights to let you know you must change lanes so he can pass. Even in the second lane, cars will sometimes flash their headlights to let you know they want you to move over so they can pass. Mainly trucks, old people, and missionaries drive in the slow lane.

When we lived in Germany, I had a very nice company car – a Mercedes E240 I think. In Germany there is no speed limit on the freeways (autobahns). So, I normally cruised at 180 which is 108 mph. I spent my share of time in the fast lane, but was frequently being passed like I was standing still by larger Mercedes, Porsches, Ferraris, etc. When I crossed the border into Italy, I was probably aware of the 130 speed limit, but no one seemed to pay any attention to it, so I cruised at around 160 and never had any problems.

As missionaries, we are trying to use a much different approach. We want to be courteous and calm. We never want to get a ticket for speeding or even for improper parking for that matter. (I have never been quite sure what the definition of illegal parking is in Italy – especially in southern Italy where people seem to view driving as a non-contact sport – kind of like soccer-- and parking as a game with rules that must be followed only when they are convenient.) Cars are commonly parked illegally with their emergency flashers on indicating that the driver will return relatively quickly to move his car which is probably at least partially blocking traffic. So we are very careful to travel at or close to the speed limit and to take extra care to park legally. This has been a bit challenging for me, but I am quickly learning to love life in the slow lane. We have had quite a bit of rain, so driving slowly has been a good idea for several reasons.

Local traffic is also interesting. The streets are frequently narrow, so people choose to adjust their driving habits. It is not uncommon to be driving down a local street, following a long line of traffic and have a car from a side street nose its way in front of you. Stop signs are really yield signs. In traffic circles, the cars in the traffic circle have right of way which is usually respected. Drivers in southern Italy are worse than in northern Italy and much worse than in Germany. However, they are better than in Honduras or Morocco.

I don’t really feel I am driving aggressively. I frequently stop to let vehicles enter from side streets and I usually stop for pedestrians trying to get across the street. I do nose my way into a line of traffic if there have been no spaces for a while. I hardly ever honk my horn and not too many other drivers honk at me, so I think I am gradually getting more comfortable driving in the slow lane.

On Monday, February 25, we went into Salerno to visit the local police (Questura) office to get fingerprinted and to finish applying for our two year permessos which allow us to be in Italy legally. Salerno is a very old and picturesque town right on the Mediterranean Sea. It is beautiful to look at, but a bit challenging to drive in. The Questura office was located in a very old section of town with tiny winding streets and virtually no parking. Our Tom-Tom led us to kind of a dead end area which turned out to be within 150 feet of the Questura office, but we didn't realize it and couldn't have parked there anyway. It wanted us to enter a "Ingresso Limitato" (limited access) area. Other missionary couples have racked up beaucoup fines for doing this, so we decided we wouldn't risk it. I carefully backed out of the piazza. After driving around for a while, we realized our Tom-Tom was taking us basically in a circle so we felt we must be close to our destination. When driving in narrow streets with high buildings on either side, the Tom-Tom occasionally loses its signal. "Recalculating" is a common phrase for us. So, we don't trust our Tom-Tom absolutely.

Sister Scherbel said she started praying we would find a parking place. We immediately found one. However, it was in a "blue" zone which means you have to pay to park. We read a nearby sign which emphasized this point.

I went to a nearby magazine stand and asked how one pays for parking. It turns out that he sold parking vouchers -- one Euro per hour.

We had heard horror stories of people having to wait a long time at the Questura, so we purchased three hours’ worth. I managed to parallel park in a pretty tight space (with expert coaching from Sister Scherbel) and we were set.

The parking vouchers must be displayed on the dashboard, visible from the front.

They are designed to indicate the year, month, day, hour and minute within 10 minutes when you park by scratching off the appropriate information. We scratched off the info for our three and headed off.

We were about half a kilometer from the Questura according to google maps on Scherbel's iPhone. We started waking and ended up right back where the Tom-Tom had taken us in the first place. We had to ask several times where the entrance to the office for foreigners was. One man said, just go like you're going to church and you will be right there. I didn't understand what he meant until I asked a couple more people as we got closer. Actually, the door to the foreigner office was literally just to the left of the main entrance to a nearby church. We walked up the stairs as though we were going to enter the church and at the top of the stairs veered left and there was a little door to the foreigner office.

(This is a copy of a Google Map showing our walking path. You can double click to make it bigger or double right-click to make it smaller. To the right of the green pointer with the black "B" about an inch and just a little bit down, you can see the round top of a church copula, kind of aqua in color. To the left of the copula along the roof line you can see the steps leading up to the church. Just to the left of the entrance to the church is the entrance to the foreigner office. The courtyard shown in the photo below is just above the copula.)

Courtyard where we awaited the next step
Inside there was quite an unorganized crowd of people. We had been given appointments at 10:03 a.m. and at 10:08 a.m. The precision of the appointments lead me to believe that we needed to talk to a specific person at a specific time. I asked a couple of the people waiting in the waiting room who we needed to talk to. One lady indicated a man entering the room dressed in plain street clothes -- no uniform. Even though we were half an hour early, he immediately took our documents and told us to wait a minute. In a couple of minutes he ushered us into an area where three agents sat behind bars and bullet-proof glass. We had each brought four photos which our agent mounted on a form. Then one photo was mounted onto a special card which we had to sign. It was then inserted into a type of scanner. The agent indicated to us in order which finger to place on a finger scanner and a digital image of our fingerprints was taken -- very high tech. When that was finished, he asked us to go out a locked door and cross a small courtyard to another unmarked door for the next step.

Sister Scherbel waiting for the next step

We tried several doors with no success -- all were locked. I finally found an open door and wandered into their offices. I finally found someone to talk to who was surprised to see me in the office area, but showed me where we had to wait. We had to wait outside in the courtyard until the people doing the next phase showed up. We waited about twenty minutes. By that time a dozen or so other people had finished their first step and were waiting with us. We met some very interesting people. A very nice looking woman was from Georgia, near Russia. She had come to Italy to find work and was taking care of an older woman. We met a small family from Albania, also in Italy to find work. We met two women from the Ukraine and another couple from Albania. It is interesting that many Italians are having trouble finding work, yet people from these poorer countries find Italy a much better place to work and live.

Anyway, we were the first to proceed to the next step which was basically a bunch more fingerprinting. A man guided and pressed each of our fingers onto a scanner and then scanned our palms and the heel of our hands. That was it. We then headed off to District Meeting in Castellammare.
When living life in the slow lane, the forgotten beatitude we learned in the MTC often comes to mind: Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.

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