Driving in Italy: SOS!
The morning we left for a long weekend in Tuscany started like any other road trip: We filled the car up with gas, purchased venti-sized coffees to give us stamina for the three-hour drive, slipped sunglasses on to shade our eyes from the rising sun, and let the sweet sound of The Eagles entertain us as we drove along the autostrade.
Ah, the autostrade. The speed “limit” is set for 130km (about 80 mph), but Italians usually consider that a minimum speed to drive. So there were, on our way to Florence. I was checking out some new apps to buy on my iPhone when all of a sudden the car’s dashboard started beeping and a bright red “STOP” illuminated on the screen.
We both looked at each other but kept driving. This particular car has given us a few issues from the beginning (that’s what you get for buying a very used car—they don’t call them “beaters” for nothing), so we cautiously continued on our way. A few seconds later all of the symbols came on and started flashing on the dashboard.
“Well that’s not good,” I said. No, it wasn’t good at all. What also wasn’t good was what happened next. First, the radio that was once working fine started to fade—both the music we were listening to and the words on the screen went from working to dead in a matter of seconds. That’s when we started to slow down.
At first I thought my husband finally decided to pull over. (Side note: there are certain, designated places where you can pull over on the autostrade, for obvious reasons.) I asked him if he was slowing down and he replied that it was the car slowing down—not him.
Luckily, the car worked in our favor for once and actually came to a stop at the exact place we needed it to: right under an SOS sign. Once we stopped we collected bearings and tried to figure out what to do next. We have USAA who are absolutely fantastic to work with, so I started figuring out how to get in touch with them. While I did that, Kenny got out of the car and lifted the hood to see what was going on—we assumed the battery kicked the bucket.
Frustrated because I couldn’t find the number I needed to call USAA, I got out of the car. That’s when we noticed a help van pull up behind us. We were shocked they were there so quickly; we pulled over less than five minutes earlier! A man who spoke absolutely zero English came over to see what was up.
Helpful hint #1: Have an Italian/English dictionary in your car. That seems like a no brainer, but we apparently didn’t have one this time. #fail
After using lots of hand gestures and our minimal Italian we explained that we thought the battery died and we needed a jump. I kept telling him that I would call our people, but he kept insisting that he call. About an hour later a tow truck arrived.
We hopped in the car with the tow-truck dude and that’s when I started praying. Our driver decided to talk on two cell phones at once while driving—not slowly—on the autostrade. Oh, Italians. Since we were facing this with a language barrier, we had no idea where we were or where we were even going.
Around noon, the tow truck dropped us off at a mechanic in a tiny town called Mogliano near Venice. After we paid the tow-dude on the spot ($110 for those wondering), we waited to see the fate of our car.
Helpful hint #2: carry cash on hand while traveling. (I carry money, my husband carries money, and we have some more hidden throughout our things).
Our Jetta’s fate, it turned out, was not good. The reason the battery died was that the alternator sucked every ounce of its energy before it died, too. They had a new battery but had to get the alternator from another mechanic in town. The mechanic told us—in complete Italian, mind you—that they may be able to get the car up and running later that evening…or by the next morning.
Again, using limited Italian we explained that we were on our way to Florence and had no way to get back home. If they couldn’t fix the car he suggested we either take the train back to our town (€80 per person, one way) or find a place to spend the night. Well, crap! As we left our phone numbers with him, we basically pleaded that they try their hardest to get our car running again.
With nothing to do, we started to explore Mogliano. Long story short, I’m working on a post* called: “10 Things to do if you Break Down in Random Italian Town.” Basically, we needed to kill at least five hours so we walked around, ate pizza, walked around more, people-watched, had coffee, window-shopped, and walked around even more.
Around 5 pm we made our way back to the mechanic to check on the status of the car. It was a HUGE sigh of relief when he said it was fixed and ready to go—halleluiah! There was only one thing left we had to do: pay.
Here’s a fun fact about rural Italy: a lot of places don’t actually accept (American) credit cards. If they do have a credit card reader it’s only for their specific cards with a special chip inside. Our cards do not work with this machine. This presents a problem when, for example, you’re handed a bill for €642 and can only pay with cash.
No, that’s not a typo. (I’ll let you convert that amount into dollars. It still hurts just looking at how much we paid and I’d rather not think about it again. Oh how we missed America then and the ability to shop around for the best price on parts.)
Clearly we don’t travel around with that kind of cash on us, so we headed to the nearest ATM conveniently around the corner and started taking money out of every one of our credit/debit cards. This is why it’s important to have an emergency fund, because you never know when you’ll need to have extra money on hand.
Helpful hint #3: Know how to use your credit/debit cards
to get more cash out and always care more cards than you need to. My
husband and I have joint accounts, but we each have our own card and I
have a separate credit card for emergencies. This was an emergency. Most bank cards limit you on how much you can take out per day, but we took money out via the credit card option and essentially beat the system that way. We have to pay more via interest, but at that point it didn’t really matter. Also, had we called USAA they would have been able to open the limit up so we could take more out at a time.
After we all counted, recounted, and then triple-checked that all the money was there, we thanked them for fixing the car under the time they estimated and then quickly got the hell out of dodge…or Mogliano, for that matter.
Once we were on our way we decided to try our best and not think of the GINORMOUS hole in our bank account or the fact that we lost an entire day of exploring Tuscany. Instead of getting grumpy we turned the crappy situation into positive points: It was a gorgeous day; we explored a town we never would have stepped foot in otherwise; despite the language barrier, everyone was friendly; we had the money to fix the issue; and now we have a memory of something very few people will ever experience.
“Hey honey, remember that one time we were stranded in Mogliano?!”
Ugh! That is one of my biggest fears being in Italy, that we will get stranded on the side of the road. Thank you for the tips, I will keep those in mind in case it ever happens to us.
How was Tuscany btw? I want to go but we are stationed near Naples, so it's a bit of a drive.
Oh my goodness..how awful! That is the reason why I get so nervous about driving long distances! I'm glad you posted this so we will have an idea of what to do if it ever happens to us!
L O L – the picture of you and Kenny and the truck driver… love!
you guys are awesome!!!
Wow that would be so frightening to have happen when you are in another country and no one is speaking English!
Good tips-I would have never known about the credit cards!
Holy moly that's a lot of €!!!! I'm always afraid of something like that happening to me! Glad you were able to get it fixed & get back on the road!