Frances Bula header image 2

Riding the bus without paying, driving on the wrong side of the road: the breakable rules in cities and countries

July 2nd, 2011 · 10 Comments

Nothing like seeing a car barrelling towards you IN YOUR LANE to make you appreciate the differences in culture between one country or city and another.

Coming up to almost three weeks now in Italy, we’ve had lots of time to do what is the best part of tourism: ponder what is the same and different about the place you’re visiting compared to the place you come from and think about how it got that way. We’re armed with a pile of books on the Italian national character but also our own observations about the ways in which this place is more rule-bound that Vancouver and Canada and less rule-bound.

For instance:

– Transit. Although there is a system requiring people to buy tickets for the Metro, there isn’t one for the bus and tram system in Rome, which is what is the most heavily used inside the central part of the city (where there are no metro stops). Therefore, as far as I can tell, hardly anyone pays except tourists from the more rule-bound countries and possibly people who commute every day and have passes.

Bus drivers everywhere seem to have eliminated collecting fares from their job descriptions, so it’s up to people getting on to decide whether to buy a ticket from the machine on the bus/tram, if there is a machine. We noticed after a couple of days that no one except us was buying tickets, as we bounced around on the busy system. So we abandoned it too. (An excellent example of how cultural mores spread.) Young friends visiting said it was the same in many European cities they visit. A great way for us to see the city inexpensively, but how do they pay for the transit system?

– Driving. As I said, nothing like a car barrelling towards you in your own lane to make you appreciate the differences. We’ve adapted pretty well to winding roads that take you up through the mountains at a rate of 1,000 metres of lift in a few minutes, city streets that are so narrow that you have to fold in your side mirrors to get through the tunnels and passageways. But we’re still freaking out when we see the way cars/buses/trucks casually cross over the line as they round a turn or come up behind you at approximately 150 k-hr to let you know they want to pass. This is all in spite of endless signs saying the roads are being monitored electronically, warnings about drinking and driving, and more.

So driving means being endlessly alert, even if you think you’re on an abandoned country road because around any corner could be someone who will force you into a ditch or take off your side mirror (first happened to me, second to a friend).

– On the other hand: the rules. For instance, cellphones. You can’t buy a cellphone or buy cellphone time or buy time, not so much as 10 euros worth, from an Internet company without showing your passport and other documentation, which gets photocopied and filed away. Can’t figure out if this is an anti-immigation thing, an anti-terrorism thing, or simply an Italian love of documentation. What can possibly be happening with all those pieces of paper?

– Same with hotels. Every place you stay takes a photocopy of your passport. Oh, and that 11 a.m. check-out time. Don’t even think about being a few minutes late or you’ll be scolded.


– Prostitutes. Unlike North America, where most of see prostitutes only in certain parts of certain cities, the prostitutes here work the pull-offs on highways that are big enough to carry truck traffic but small enough not to have controlled access. At first, I just assumed that the women dressed to the nines, sitting on chairs in the little highway rest stops here, were simply another example of how much attention women here pay to looking stylish at all times. But eventually, as I saw a couple leaning on the doors of trucks, chatting to drivers, I realized what the score was and that, in fact, night-club style was not the standard for women traveling the highway. All conducted quite openly in a way that would be unthinkable in Canada.

More later on the role of cities in Italy, once I plough through David Gilmour’s book, and how it compares to the place cities have in our mental maps.

Categories: Uncategorized