When I first moved to Tuscany in 2017, how to get around wasn’t my primary concern. I was far too busy meeting family and friends, getting to know the little town of Camaiore, and trying not to embarrass myself: culturally, linguistically, professionally or emotionally (actually, though).
But as my confidence grew – and I wanted to get out and explore more – I started to crave the independence that came from having your own transport. Italians get their scooter - or motorino - licence when they are just 14 years old. Seriously. When my husband’s aunty handed me the keys to her son Leonardo’s scooter, which, in a very Italian kind of way, had just been laying around unused for some years (not much Marie Kondo influence here), I was thrilled, then bemused. For starters, how did you turn it on? Fill it up with petrol? And the big one…what about my hair when I got off? All of that, plus the obvious: that I actually didn’t know how to drive it.
After many misadventures, including dropping the scooter (on my shins), having it fall over after I’d secured it in place (or so I thought), nearly losing $70 after filling up at an automatic pump that only gave a voucher as change (and I only had 50 euro at hand); getting lost under a full moon on a series of small country roads with sub-ten per cent phone battery and next to no fuel (again), I feel at least partly qualified to dispense a list of tips on what and what not to do. #scooterlife
What to wear
Perhaps should be titled what not to wear. One day on the main road between Lucca and Camaiore, whilst riding past my father-in-law’s office, my dress came undone. It was a *hot* summer’s day, and I was in a good mood – until that point. I was more worried about my undies being seen by someone in the office than the actual potential of my dress flying over my head and not being able to see the road, or it getting stuck in a wheel.
The upshot? You can’t wear a skirt shorter than proper knee length. Don’t wear things with ties or bows. If you’re a passenger on the back, you can’t really wear a skirt, period. Long flowy dresses work, as long as you tuck the material in before you get started (they also work because the Italians are still a pretty conservative bunch and it’s an easy way to stay cool in summer). Always carry a jacket: you’ll get cool if you’re riding in the shade or the evening, even in summer.
For me, riding in winter and wet weather is out. In spring and autumn, layer up. I’m talking three or four layers on top, gloves, beanie under your helmet, and scarf. Don’t leave your ankles exposed. Wear proper shoes.
Try to wear sunnies. It will keep bugs from flying into your eyes. On that note, keep your mouth shut. I developed a habit of singing to myself while riding along, which was very romantic, until I accidentally ate one too many mosquitoes. A little bit of sunscreen will also protect you from both sun and wind.
How much you care about your hair at the other end is obviously a personal issue. I’ve learnt to care less. I inherited my helmet, so who knows if and when it has ever been cleaned (!) If you are fussy, chuck some dry shampoo and a hairbrush in the seat of the scooter (also always carry your insurance documents here). You can also fasten a clean handkerchief or headscarf to the inside of the helmet, and remove and wash it as often as you like. Just make sure it’s not going to slip in front of your face.
Get a box on the back
Seriously. I haven’t yet, but it’s on the list to do – soon. I would also have been very helpful when, for example, I went grocery shopping, got distracted and ambitious and forgot I had a scooter outside and not an actual car, and purchased $100 worth of groceries which I then had to balance in between my feet (and ok, maybe also handlebars) on the 40-minute drive home. Having a scooter is pretty much just like having a fast fancy bike, and that little bit of storage space will give you greater flexibility to carry stuff around with you.
Don’t be afraid to go slow
In Australia, we divide the road in half. Your half. My half. In Italy, we take whatever bit of road is free and safe to use and go for it. Italians are much more switched on drivers (they have to be - things move faster!) They are also accustomed to layers of road users: from road cyclists, scooters, motorbikes, apes (the tiny, iconic, three-wheeled ute that is still in use all over country), cars, and trucks. Stick to the right-hand side of the road, go slow, and pay attention. People won’t get cross with you as long as you’re not hogging heaps of space. If you can see a big queue of traffic behind you, do the sensible thing: pull over and let it pass.
Get your international drivers licence
You need to carry it, and your normal home licence, around at all times.
Don’t get distracted and don’t get too excited
I was nearly at the top of the mountain pass I drive up to get to Lucca, when out of (seemingly) nowhere, I was headed for the barrier between the road and…the mountain. I managed to escape unscathed but for a scratch on my finger but it was a good reminder to breathe and just keep paying attention. Like any new skill, you need to just keep practising. You’ll see the Italians either on the phone or sending voice messages through WhatsApp (a national past-time second only to sweeping and watching soccer) while driving. Don’t do it: it’s illegal, and dangerous.
Let’s talk about gas
My scooter costs five euros to fill up – so there’s no point doing a half tank. You need to be judicious and gauge how far you can get on, say, a quarter tank so you don’t end up sheepishly having to give the petrol station staff (no, most places are not self service…) a euro and twenty five cents (for example). Although that’s probably still a better option than landing high and dry somewhere. Another note: depending on where you live, stations will be closed on Sunday, so fuel up on Saturday. If they are closed (like the one I referenced earlier), some offer automatic pumps, but they’ll give you a receipt in change and you’ll need to return to the same place to redeem it, during opening hours. Which to me, seems unnecessarily complicated. It’s easier to keep a stash of five euro notes handy.
They are fantastic
My husband didn’t realise that once I had the keys, I wasn’t off quite yet: he had to teach me to use and drive the scooter. This meant everything from making sure it had oil to actually, you know, driving it, on the other side of the road. The first time I got on, I was a passenger on the back and it was two (gloriously panoramic day and evening scooter rides to dinner dates) weeks of white knuckles clenched together around his waist before I even relaxed into being a passenger. It didn’t help that after four years overseas, he was basically reliving his teenage years of zooming at speed around the backstreets, tiny towns, and through the windy mountain roads. When I first got on myself, the kids next door laughed and ran away yelling ‘help’ (seriously). But it didn’t take too long to get into a groove, and as long as you are patient and can enjoy the ride (general principle for living in Italy as well as scooters), it’s one of the cheapest, most fun, and liberating ways to get around.