Perhaps nowhere on earth do the ancient and modern come into such stark juxtaposition as on the narrow streets of a small Tuscan town. Pedestrians, pets, strollers, bicycles, walkers, wheelchairs, motorcycles, private cars, taxis, trucks, buses, ambulances and horses all share these cobbled laneways, apparently with equal access. There are no lane dividers (there being only one lane), no bicycle paths, no sidewalks. The only rule, unwritten of course, is that if something larger or faster is approaching, best get out of the way. Adding to the apparent confusion, most people are smoking, texting and talking (actually yelling) on cellphones, some all at the same time. Keep in mind that most of these folks are Italian, a people not known for either patience or stoicism. And yet, it all seems to work. Everybody moves along, no fuss, surprisingly little agitation.
To the North American sense of order and compulsion for efficiency, all this seems bewildering. How is this allowed in a presumably civilized country? How do these people tolerate such apparent chaos and, one must ask, why do we in Canada seem to have so much angst about what we perceive as “traffic”, given more space, wider streets, fewer people, and sensible rules that are generally adhered to. How do we account for this? Is there something to learn here?
To all this, I offer some theories, developed after making the strategic decision to stop moving and instead spend more time sitting in one of the many sidewalk cafes and watch the flow of humanity over plenty of espresso, dolci and vino rosso.
Firstly, there’s a sense of permanence and continuity in such places that provides perspective. When you find yourself casually leaning against a column or archway that dates back two millennia, you gain a sense of yourself in time and history that is rather humbling, promotes acceptance and disavows one of the responsibility to improve upon every imperfection. The urge to “bring order” becomes a decidedly new world notion.
There’s also a profound respect for what is established and has withstood the test of time. One would no more paint a traffic line on these ancient streets than one would paint trousers on Michelangelo’s David. There is a certain humanity and humility in the acceptance of chaos in order to preserve the history.
And, of course, there’s that famous Italian temperament. Italians, it must be said, have no love of rules and regulations. In fact, they fundamentally reject direction. However, they are an instinctively generous people who will generally do the right thing, as long as it isn’t required of them. Moreover, they seem to almost admire a creative flouting of the rules. Any understanding of how Silvio Berlusconi was able to gain and hold power for so long in the famously fickle Italian political structure must really begin with an acceptance of this quintessentially Italian characteristic.
Finally, perhaps the best lesson of all, I found I learned much more when I stopped trying to dodge collisions and instead found a comfortable vantage point to observe and ponder. Surely, a lesson to take home and apply to the steady stream of challenges and unexpected obstacles that continually come our way. And the vino rosso certainly didn’t hurt.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education