Driving Abroad: How to Blend In

Mount Etna 4x4, Photo by: J W Foster

Mount Etna 4×4, Photo by: J W Foster

“It’s time to rent a car, roll down the windows and prepare for your first big thrill: the freeways. They’re so much fun they should charge admission. Never fret about zigzagging back and forth through six lanes of traffic at high speeds; it erases jet lag in a split second.” ~John Waters

Sicily is not known for it’s public transportation. Most people use a tour bus or car to get around. Since you can’t travel with your car strapped on your back, driving in a foreign country requires a rental. But what kind of rental?

When we arrived in Sicily, I asked about rental companies near the airport. There were a couple of choices.

1. We could rent from the traditional, well-established rental agency.  The pro’s were pretty obvious: reliability, a proven track record…available cars.

2. We could take our chances with a father and son operation a few miles away from the airport. The pro’s were…well…hard to pinpoint.

That’s why I took the second option. Actually, I’m kidding. The most immediate benefit was the price—about half the cost. Before we left for the local rental office, the travel agent said, “You should rent from Europcar, most of the people who rent from that other place end up stranded on the road.” Of course, this did very little for Elaine’s anxiety.

We took a bus to the rental car company in Sigonella. It truly was a small, father and son operation. The father was gone; he was picking his daughter up from school.  We worked with the son, “How long  do you want to rent the car for?” he asked.

I answered, “Ohhh, I don’t know… can we just bring it back when we’re done?”

Sal, the dad, had arrived just in time to hear my answer. He didn’t like it. He  waved his son away from his desk and sat down with a ceremonious air. First some conversation, probably to determine whether we were rental car thieves. We told him about ourselves, our professions, Elaine as a psychologist and me as a scientist.  Both from the US.  Still some foot dragging. We told him we were also travel writers. Now, he almost insisted that we go back to the standard rental car agencies!

Elaine moved to leave but I just sat there in front of his desk. I purposely relaxed, letting him see that I was in no hurry to go anywhere.  Elaine followed my lead and sat back down. She asked him about a picture behind his desk and he shared how the image was the last one of his mother before she died.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth saying again,  we really do create our own reality.  Sal and his son slowly relaxed along with us. We talked about our “no-plan” plan for traveling. How we just wander from place to place and how we avoid the more populated tourist areas. Sal heard this and started recommending some places he thought we’d like; the wine regions, the northern shore, and Mount Etna. Sal started understanding our approach and more importantly, we gained his trust. He reached down and pulled some rental paperwork from his desk drawer.

I asked,  “How much do we have to  pay in advance.

He asked, “How much do you want to pay?”

I handed him 200 Euros for a deposit and we were off with his blessing.

The old diesel Fiat they gave us had over 200,000 kilometers on it, the front bumper was cracked as well as the back bumper. Both the left and right rear fenders were pushed in about an inch, obviously from someone trying to squeeze through a narrow passageway. This is exactly the type of car I look for when traveling, especially in Italy. My anxiety level is so much lower when I know that, short of complete destruction, there is not much more I can do to this vehicle that would cost very much to repair. It’s also another way to blend in with our surroundings. Renting a brand new car from Europcar is like putting a big label on our foreheads, “Tourist$!”.

Two weeks later, I received a call from Sal. He told us he needed us to return at the end of the month to pickup a new insurance document. I think that was an excuse. I think he wanted to make sure the car was still in Sicily.

On the last day of the month, we were back in their little office outside the front gate of Sigonella NAS. We talked like old friends, describing our adventures so far. The city of Siracusa, my motorcycle mindfulness experience, the wonderful food. Sal bragged that he was a wonderful cook and that we should come over sometime for dinner (don’t expect this at your local Hertz counter).

During a lull in the conversation, he asked, “Have you gone to Mount Etna, yet?”

“No.” I said, “We saw it as we were driving in this morning. It’s completely shrouded in clouds.”

We stepped outside to take a look northward. The afternoon sun had burned off the clouds and the mountaintop was now crystal clear.

“You really must go, it just erupted 5 days ago.”

“What!” Elaine said.

Sal continued, “It was quite rare, all four cones erupted at the same time.”

“Joe, maybe we should be heading south now”

I looked at Elaine with a gleam of excitement in my eyes.

“No! I don’t want to go! I mean it, Joe!”

Whatever company, big or small, you choose to rent from, here are some tips to help you manage your anxiety when driving in a foreign country:

1. Make sure your license will work for that country. Some require an International Driver’s License.

2. Check to make sure you have a jack and spare tire before you drive off. It’s better to check and not need it than the alternative

3. Get a GPS to help you navigate if you are not comfortable with maps, but bring both since GPS are not 100% reliable. However, if ou get lost, remember Banxietyfree’s motto: “Being lost is just an excuse to explore.”

4. Check whether your insurance or credit card covers you in the foreign country your traveling, you may not even have to buy any extra.

5. When in doubt, watch what the other cars are doing, rotaries are a great example of this strategy in action.

6.  Practice staying in the moment and enjoy the freedom of setting your own course instead of being herded in a bus full of tourists.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *