Posted by: 4initalia | May 19, 2009


I have a new bike! Okay, my bike was made just after they laid off the bricklayers at the Colosseum, but it’s new for me. She’s a beat-up burgundy upright, with a wide seat, a basket in front, and a rack in the back. “Nice rack,” said Andy, but I think he was impressed that I could carry groceries. Biking is so good for marriage.

And she has a little bell, so I call her Bellezza: Beautiful one.

As we roll along, Bellezza constantly comments on the topography. “Bump there! DING!” “Little rough patch. Brrrinnng!” “Ooh, original cobblestone! Trrriiinng!” Bellezza has something to say about everything we pass. “Someone in the road! DIIING!” “A bit of yellow in that sign!” Trrrinnnng!” “Look, flowers!! Brrriiiinngg!”

The incessant chatter distracts me from my biggest priority, staying alive. All of the guidebooks say that Modena’s city center is closed to auto traffic, but this is turning out to be a big fat lie. I’m dodging bikes, pedestrians, cars and trucks, and that’s just on the sidewalk.

Now that we’re moving I’m learning more about my new friend. Bellezza has one gear: slow and creaky. At her peak speed, a slug wouldn’t break a sweat. But that works for me: the slower I’m going when I’m hit by a car, the greater my chances of a full recovery. Bellezza is stodgily conservative, changing direction is not her speciality. Around the time Bellezza was built, the ancient Romans finished a perfectly straight road, Via Emilia, that stretched from Rimini to Piacenza. Via Emilia was the street Bellezza learned to ride on, so turning left or right is one of those modern innovations that don’t interest her. Her brakes work, but she thinks  slamming into something is a perfectly reasonable way to stop.

We hum along the bike path, and Bellezza chirps to herself, which makes everyone look at us. That’s fine if we’re about to kill someone, but it’s hard to look cool on a bike that calls out to everyone in a three-mile radius. “Heeey – nice shoes there.” “Is that a new perfume?” “Where’d you get that scar?” People are getting annoyed. To keep from getting clubbed like a baby seal I muffle the bell with my hand. That makes it harder to work the handbrake, but there’s plenty to hit in Italy; I’ll stop.

The bike paths run beside the vehicular madness known as Italian roads. To keep cars off the bike paths, the city installed squat concrete posts. The posts are too close together to let cars through, but they’re so close they barely let bicycles through, either. They pop up everywhere. By the time I register that a concrete barrier is approaching, I’m about to it hit straight on, which wouldn’t be a problem except for Bellezza’s turning and brake issues. We have some things to work out.

But we took a glorious ride to the supermarket, and I was able to carry home groceries a lot faster than if I were walking. On the way home, Bellezza got quiet. Her rack and her basket were full, and we were outside of the city center, where motors run amuck and where a pedestrian was hit just days before. There is no bike path on that road, and it’s a tense ride.

As I pulled into traffic, a tough biker chick, around 70, pulled up behind me. She wanted to pass, but the only available space was occupied by a homicidal Fiat on my left, and a pedestrian on my right. She was gaining and I had no good options: I had to choose between taking the high road or being the low road. She inched closer, but I held my ground. She downshifted, and hit her bell, hard: “DIIIINNNG!” In Italy, a bike bell and the opening bell at a boxing match serve the same purpose: “Gloves Up!!”

I tried to remain cool; this woman is 75 if she’s a day and if she gets me in a headlock, I’m toast. So I need to fend her off from behind while facing all of the hazards of Modena traffic: perilous potholes, manic motorcycles, pugilistic pigeons. It’s Mad Maxx Geriatric Edition, but one of us has an unfair muscular advantage: she has support hose. She’s creeping so close I can feel the steam rising off her unnaturally auburn scalp, and, here it comes again: “DDDDIIIINNNNNG!!”

Bellezza, who was so quiet she was a dead ringer for a dead ringer, sprang to my defense. She spit right back “DIIIIIINNNNNNG!!!! Back off or eat pavement, babe!!” I cringed, expecting a volley of expletives, but Signora Nemesis dropped away. Now there was only the wind at my back and Bellezza trilling softly: We won.

Good friends know when to let it ride and when to take your side: I have the most excellent friend in the world.

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