Faster, Please!

See Naples and Drive

As of Tuesday, all the traffic lights in Naples, my favorite city, have been turned off. The Consortium in charge of maintenance hasn’t been paid all year, and the workers haven’t been paid for more than two months. A fine mess!

But put aside the thought that this will produce near-total chaos in the streets of Naples. Traffic lights never had the significance that they have here, or in places north of Naples. A few years ago there was an interview with the mayor on National Public Radio, and the interviewer asked him how his city would adapt to the mounting demands of European legislation. Traffic, for example.

“Well we have a different approach to traffic in Naples.”

The interviewer pressed on. Could he be more specific?

“Yes, of course. Everybody knows that green means ‘avanti, avanti…’ And red is a strong suggestion of caution. And the yellow, well, yellow is a cheerful color, I suppose it’s there for the gaiety.”

Red is a strong suggestion of caution, but not an absolute command. It is taken for granted in Naples that if you’re really in a hurry–say you’re about to miss your train–you’ll do everything possible to get there fast. And that’s proper, after all. So people will go through red lights, and other drivers have to be ready for it. Ergo, everyone is very alert at all intersections. Naples has a relatively low level of traffic accidents (although the real number may well be higher than the ‘official’ statistics, since reporting an accident to the authorities and the insurance company is generally considered a waste of time), and a relatively high level of serious injury per accident, as you’d expect.

The other ‘unusual’ fact about Neapolitan traffic is the attitude toward one-way streets. Most drivers consider them the usual meddling from on high in the affairs of man. I once got into a taxi at the Central Station and gave him my destination, in my grammatically fine but heavily accented Italian. He looked deeply into the rear view mirror. “You’re a foreigner,” he said, obviously concerned. “Right.” “But you speak Italian,” he continued. “Yes. I lived in Rome for many years.” “Ah,” he sighed. “Rome. Beautiful.” Pause. “How do you feel about going the wrong way on one-way streets?” “Usually the best way to get there, isn’t it?” Big smile. “Thank God,” he said, “because, you know, you get a lot of foreigners and when you go the wrong way sometimes they do the craziest things, yell, scream, I had one I thought was going to have a heart attack.” And off we went.

So Neapolitan drivers are quite ready to handle an entire city without traffic lights. It’s the same as usual. Except more so.