“Lemonade” is a series by Brandon Schultz chronicling his misadventures abroad, and how he turns his lemons into lemonade. Read the rest here.
Before moving to Italy, I’d never left my own country. When I had the chance to study abroad nearly anywhere, it didn’t take me more than a minute to choose Rome, and to opt for a full year instead of a semester.
At the time, I thought it might be the only time I’d ever get to travel, and if I could only see one other spot on Earth, it had to be the Eternal City, birthplace to so much of Western civilization, mecca of art and ancient architecture, and packed with pasta (not to mention gelato, which I didn’t yet know I couldn’t live without).
From the day I arrived, it met every expectation and blew my mind. The massive scale of its monuments and museums, the fierce Roman devotion to beautiful living; the city was even more than I hoped. But there was no way I was going to be able experience all of it, even in a year.
I’d been in Rome for a couple months when my friend Rich, who I called Padre at the time because he was studying for priesthood, asked if I wanted to tool around the city on a Vespa he’d rented for the day. It was the classic Roman holiday—casually whizzing by the Colosseum en route to a café or gelateria. Like the decision to move to Rome, I didn’t have to think twice about this offer.
Padre picked me up in the early afternoon and we sped off for parts unknown. Sort of.
Driving a Vespa for the first time isn’t as easy as riding a bike. To begin with, it was a lot heavier, and learning to balance it with two people on board wasn’t an instant success.
Our start was more of a wobbly crawl over the cobblestone paths of Trastevere—the medieval neighborhood of crooked, sloped alleys I called home—than a dramatic start to a wild adventure. The actual driving was simple enough, but we quickly realized Roman roads could only be described as chaotic, and rules didn’t seem to apply anywhere, if there were any.
When we were lucky enough to find roads painted with lanes, no one observed them. When we thought we should stop at red lights, others screeched, swerved and sped around us. It was an “every driver for themselves” ethos that seemed hard to navigate unscathed, but I realized that in the months I’d been there I never seen anyone crash, so I wasn’t worried.
That record wouldn’t hold long.
Coasting down a zippy road along the Tiber River, finally in decent control of the Vespa and ready to head toward the even-more-crowded historic centre, Padre hung a sharp left on the Ponte Mazzini. It turns out that last minute turns are ill-advised on a Vespa, and he couldn’t whip the bike fast enough to stay on the road. Short of hitting the bridge’s concrete wall, we leaned hard to the left and leapt as the bike fell to its side at the bridge’s entrance.
Plenty Vespa incidents lead to injured legs, but we escaped clean, having bailed successfully without trapping any limbs. Of course, a horde of people saw our clumsy and dangerous mishap—but we were having a grand adventure, and, since we were unharmed and the bike was insured, we had a good laugh, picked up the bike, and crossed the river a little wiser in the fine art of turning.
This was my first Vespa accident. My second was not as quick.
In no hurry, we drove aimlessly for a while after that, through neighbourhoods I hadn’t seen before. I’m still not sure if Padre had any idea where we were going when we encountered a neighbourhood that was busy even by Roman standards. This wasn’t a traditional traffic circle, with vehicles riding the perimeter and taking calculated exits; here, people just drove through the middle to their secret destinations. No traffic signals, no signs, no lanes. It was too late to turn away quickly—we learned the hard way not to try such things—so Padre led us fearlessly into the fray.
We made it to the centre of the circle, but somehow our presence there halted all sanity, and, when we reached the centre simultaneously with four others, we all we collided head-on.
If it had been a synchronized swim routine, it would have been spectacular; in reality, it was a five-person collision. This was my second Vespa accident, and I remember it fondly. I don’t know how it happened, or how it could have been avoided, but I’m glad it did happen.
No one was hurt, somehow. (I don’t even think any of the bikes were damaged because the speeds were so low.) We all backed up and waddled our way out of the circle, and I had an amazing day I couldn’t have had anywhere else.
It wasn’t until afterward that many people (hi, Mom) asked me why I would do something as stupid as get on a Vespa in Italy. But it wasn’t stupid. It’s something that people do every single day in a very normal routine, leading very normal lives; to me (and my overly protective naysayers) it was extraordinary, simply because it wasn’t a quotidian task, so it seemed an unnecessary risk.
Precaution and safety are important, always, but there’s no reason to pass on something just because it poses challenges and risks, even if some of those are physical.
I got in two accidents that day, but I didn’t even process that until days later, and I doubt Padre did either. For us, they were just mishaps—quirky speedbumps in our exhilarating journey. And I got to zoom past the Colosseum on a Vespa that day, making every one of my childhood dreams come true, and sparking a lifelong quest to be part of everything I’ve ever imagined.