Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Long-Standing Affair

Italians are wedded to their automobiles. In fact, Italians own more cars per person than citizens of any other country in the world32 million motor cars for 57 million people. That’s more than one car for every two people. Be it a Fiat or a Ferrari, it makes Italian hearts flutter.


Italy’s love affair for the automobile is reflected by the language. While the word automobile exists in Italian, the word macchina is more common. Macchina means machine, obviously, and is used in conjunction with descriptors to refer to other objects, such as macchina di fotografica for camera, but just say macchina, and Italians immediately think you’re talking about a car.

I’m sure this love for automobiles led Pope Pius XI to appoint a patron saint for automobile drivers in 1925. The Pope tapped Saint Francesca Romana for this position, so the legend goes, because an angel always carries a lantern ahead of her to light her way, keeping her safe from harm. Canonized in 1608, Saint Frances never had a glimpse of an automobile of course, but the image of a light darting in front of her must have been the closest thing the Vatican could find. People still drive by the Santa Francesca Romana church (near the Colosseum) on March 6 in hopes of being blessed. Watch the 1936 ceremony below.

 
This deep-seated cultural predilection for cars is being combined with the Italian love for coffee come October when Fiat introduces the new 500L which has an optional built-in Lavazza espresso machine between the two front seats. I’m not sure the combination will catch on. Going to the bar for a cup of espresso is as integral to Italian life as driving. Besides, the economic situation is making people cut back, and an option that can only be used when the car is in park could be easy to pass up. If you’re going to park anyway, why not just go to the bar?
The economy is ravishing the romance in other ways as well. Gasoline prices in Italy are the third highest in the world at $9.35 a gallon. Taxes account about 54 percent of this amount, a rise of more than 25 percent over the last year. These increases are part of Prime Minister Mario Monti's plan for economic recovery, and a two euro-cent increase in May aids earthquake victims. These higher prices have reduced both gasoline and automobile sales. Even so, the tax raised 33.5 billion euros during the first six months of this year. I do notice less traffic, however, and people are cutting back on holiday driving.
 
Will Italians divorce themselves from their macchine? Not a chance. Like any marriage, this one is facing a rough spot, but love will prevail in the end.

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