Dustin Hoffman drove a convertible model in one of my favorite movies, "The Graduate," but that represented the extent of my knowledge about Alfa Romeos.
My rental was a slightly less inspired four-door, but what did I care? I had just slipped into the vehicle, made the proper seat belt, mirror and seat adjustments, and prepared to pull out of the airport parking garage. A parking garage outside Milan. Milano, Italy.
After nearly a full day of air travel last month, including flight time, layovers, delays and customs, my wife and I - and now our zippy little Alfa Romeo - were ready to hit the open autostrade.
We jerked out of the garage as I tried to get accustomed to the unfamiliar clutch. Not the smoothest display of driving skills, which my wife's rolling eyes confirmed, but I accelerated and pulled onto the access road, hoping I was heading toward the autostrade. I was, but not without zooming up on a roundabout, those standard European intersections that Americans (think Carson City, Douglas County, Truckee and South Lake Tahoe) can't seem to embrace.
For my wife, it instantly revived long ago memories of my first stab at driving in her native England, where roundabouts are common as well. Fortunately, Italians drive on the right, so maneuvering through a roundabout is immensely easier. Unfortunately, the combination of an unfamiliar clutch, unfamiliar road signs and unfamiliar language did not help my brain process the information assaulting my senses.
That's the good thing about roundabouts. Not sure which way to turn? Just stay in your lane and go 'round another time. The additional spin, complete with a few fits and starts, gave us time to decipher the directional signs and propel us toward our initial destination of Lake Como on the Swiss border north of Milan.
The way to Como was well marked, and we negotiated the route with surprising ease. Surprising for me. When in unfamiliar territory, my usually low-key demeanor does a Jekyll and Hyde, and my wife recoils in horror, as I crazily demand assistance from the co-pilot's chair.
"Where's the turn, where's the turn?" I'll frantically shout, waiting for an immediate answer. Instead, as I glance toward the passenger seat, my wife not only isn't providing answers, she's still unfolding the map.
Somehow, this time, we avoided that for the most part. We're still scratching our heads how that happened. Dulling with age, I guess.
OK, we did have a few incidents of "You're driving way too fast - you're doing 100! Slow down!"
"One hundred kilometers," I pointed out. "That's only about 62 mph. I'm not even doing the speed limit."
"Oh," my wife said, pausing briefly. "Well, stop driving like my granny and put some effort into this."
So I did, regularly hitting 140 km (nearly 90 mph) on the motorway. That was still slow compared to the many high-powered European luxury sedans that sped past, making us seem to travel no faster than a horse-drawn carriage.
Other than confirming my poor social and motoring skills, the driving episode, like many situations during our weeklong holiday, exposed something fundamental about foreign travel. The Sistine Chapel, Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian pyramids are wondrous sights to behold, but it's often the small things we remember, and indeed savor most, from our journeys.
Compared to my wanderlust-struck Appeal colleagues, whose exotic travel adventures are periodically chronicled within these pages, my itineraries seem as tame as a grade-school class trip to the Governor's Mansion. While grueling backcountry treks, wintry feats of stamina, African safaris and cycling trips around the world (go to our Web site to follow the progress of former Appeal photographer Rick Gunn) are the norm for others, I tend to favor comfortable hotels within walking distance to the beach or city center.
Thanks mainly to my wife, we attempt to plan a fairly ambitious trip every few years. Mortgages, careers and family responsibilities temper travel's intoxicating and stimulating effects. We'd love to drink in more but reality makes us stop at the legal limit.
Even for those who view Europe from a tour bus window, there's something compelling about stepping outside one's comfort zone and sampling the variety and excitement of a new culture.
Grand sights are irresistible, yes, but we tend to seek out the simpler pleasures, such as people-watching and eavesdropping on conversations at sidewalk cafés, soaking in the ambiance from a bench in a bustling seaside shopping district, or quaffing a pint at a corner pub and, on the walk back to the hotel, slowly inhaling the cool evening air.
The foibles of everyday life somehow take on attractive dimensions when in a foreign land. A recollection of a past driving misadventure, for instance, elicits immediate laughter whenever my wife dredges one up.
I've disrupted traffic and frustrated motorists in at least five European countries now. Wrong turns onto pedestrian malls, near misses with trains, becoming stranded inside a closed parking garage, riding the brakes, and irritating the drivers behind me or pulling away from the curb with a travel bag - containing passports, wallets and other valuables - left on top of the car represent a few of my highlights.
On this recent trip, my wife and I unwittingly became trapped in a bank entryway because we didn't know how to operate the locking doors designed to thwart robberies.
We're poster children for "stupid tourist tricks." If you have the right attitude, however, therein lies the fun of it all. After jumping off the train at the unintended next stop, during the hour we had until the next train going in the right direction arrived, we stumbled upon a sidewalk artist. My wife had been searching for a print or watercolor for days with no success. The artist's display was the best we had seen, and we found the perfect piece to take home as a memento.
There's probably no better time in history than now for an American in Paris or any place abroad to listen and soak in how the rest of the world views our country.
The influence of American culture is not universally beloved throughout the globe. One can see it in the English-language newspapers and newscasts (CNN Europe, for instance), and one can hear it in the conversations with residents of the foreign lands visited.
Overall, Americans need to listen more to what others in the world have to say about us. In our smugness, we forget people love their own countries as much as we do ours.
One evening at the bar, we engaged in conversation with an off-duty waiter just completing his shift at our seaside hotel. He loved travel and yearned to relocate to a more cosmopolitan area. London and Paris were fine towns he said, and he expressed some interest in visiting the states. When queried where he'd most like to live, he answered enthusiastically and without hesitation.
"Venice, of course. It is the city of love!"
I thought for sure he was going to say Pahrump.
n Peter Kostes is associate publisher for the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1271.