The used-car lots of Rome
by Yves Jaques
"Facciamo un giro," says the car salesman, tossing a set of keys in the air. Let's take a spin, he's saying, and so I nod and pop into the driver's seat of the ten year-old Volkswagen Passat.
About a quarter-mile into the test-drive the car starts to sputter and lurch, and before I know it we're stalled in the middle of a four-lane arterial with rush-hour Italians honking and gesticulating as they launch past us on every side. The salesman is in the passenger seat yelling at me to get the car going, and so I crank it over and over and over with no results.
He motions for me to get out. In my agitated state I open the door without looking and it's practically torn off by a group of nuns barreling down the road in a tiny Fiat van. I just catch a glimpse of the driver's habit trailing behind her.
The salesman gets in, and by using the starter as a makeshift engine he lurches the car onto the shoulder. He tries to get it started a few times and then motions back at the gas cap. "Benzina," he says. Yup, we ran out of gas.
Buying a car in Italy is the kind of experience that makes you reevaluate the pleasures of public transport. 'Leave the driving to us,' was the Metro slogan in my hometown of Seattle. In my third week of car hunting in Rome, I'm beginning to understand their pitch in ways I never have before.
The first week of looking for a car in Italy revolved around the very basic task of trying to figure out what models were what, and how to read a newspaper ad, and how to find a car lot using maps and buses. I recorded myself calling salesmen. The conversation consisted largely of me saying, "Excuse me, could you repeat that?" as the salesman unloaded a barrage of technical automotive terms at machine-gun speed. The conversation would invariably end with, Look, why don't you just come down and have a look at our lot?
There's one thing I came to realize. There was virtually no difference between a used car lot in the United States, and a used car lot in Italy. Well, there was one: in Italy, at least the salesmen wore Italian suits. But otherwise, it was the same. Every car priced double bluebook, or if not, you could sense that the car had been through some secret hell at the hands of a brutal master.
By the beginning of the third week I felt I'd scoped the scene and it was time to start test driving some cars. My first choice, a plush Peugeot station wagon with leather seats and loads of options. The salesman brought out the key and tried to start it but the battery was dead. He called a mechanic over who pulled up a jumper battery. Now the car turned over, but still wouldn't start. Before long there were the salesman and three mechanics all busily combing over the car searching for the problem. Finally he hit me with the most common word in Italy, 'Domani.'
'Domani' means much more than tomorrow. It's a word that encapsulates something central to the Italian experience, everything from long lines, to numbing bureaucracy, to the strangely varying store hours. And as I discovered with the Peugeot, 'Domani' is used in both a singular and a plural sense, that is 'Domani' often stretches into days.
I arrived the following morning as we'd agreed upon. Of course the car wasn't ready. Something with the anti-theft system. The day after that it was the tires. After a half week of daily phone calls, the car was at last good to go.
Arriving at the lot I could see immediately that they'd done a number on it -- it was freshly washed, new tires on the front. We hopped in and I turned it over and she started right up. It was when I pulled away that the trouble began.
I let go of the wheel for a moment to adjust the seat, and the alignment was so bad that the car lunged into the oncoming lane, practically flattening two teenagers on a moped. When I changed gears, the clutch pedal stayed pressed to the floor. I had to dig my toe under it every time to pull it back out of neutral. Was the salesman fazed? Hell no. "La macchina sta bene," he kept saying. "E tutt'a posto. Controlliamo noi." The car's in good shape, everything is in place. We'll take care of it.
I went away disgusted, but after test driving a handful of other cars, to my chagrin I realized that the Peugeot was the best car I'd driven. All the others had felt like tin cans, or were gutless, or had so many miles on them they were best left garaged.
And so I called the salesman back and we made an appointment. After a week of maxing the daily limit on my cash cards I returned to the lot with a pile of lire in hand. I'd already spoken to the salesman about what paperwork I had and didn't have. He'd assured me it was no problem. But as he called around to various agencies, with me pacing his office, it suddenly became a problem. Apparently I had to have a residency in Italy in order to buy a car. I'd heard varying opinions on the matter as I'd gone from lot to lot, but I'd already learned that in Italy everything was against the law and that every law could be evaded. In short, I hadn't worried about it. But it appeared that I had at last run into a brick wall.
At home that evening, I relayed my tale of woe to my neighbors. "Didn't we tell you to come to us if you needed anything?" they asked in tones of astonishment. "This is Italy. You can't buy a car from someone you don't know. You'll get screwed." Before long the father was on the phone with his son, and before I knew it I had a deal to buy a solid car at a fair price. "I Documenti," they said. "There's sure to be a way around that."
Yves Jaques can be reached at email@example.com