Our driver greeted us at the Pisa Airport, where we arrived after an overnight flight from New York to learn our bags were lost. “My name is Joe,” he said in heavily accented English, offering his hand and a demure bow of his head. “I have cousins in Brooklyn,” he added.
“I’m from Philadelphia,” I replied.
He told me his cousins’ names anyway. From halfway around the world, the odds were narrower. We climbed into the van and proceeded 20 minutes down the highway past stone Etruscan foundations, varicolored fields, a viaduct, and a lot of other fine scenery that we might have appreciated more if we weren’t feeling so tired and bitter about the lost luggage.
The highway, it transpired, was closed, so Joe made a U-turn. A half-hour passed.
“Joe,” I called, sensing we were lost. One of my travel companions, also named Joe, answered. “Not you, Joe,” I said. “Uncle Joe.” But Uncle Joe, the driver, didn’t answer. It occurred to me that he’d Anglicized his name for our benefit. “Giuseppe?” I tried. His dark eyes appeared in the rearview mirror. “How much longer?”
“A few minutes.” He turned and smiled. I could not guess his age and would not have been surprised to hear he was 32 or 48. He had very white teeth beneath a well-edged, shoe-polish black mustache, but his smile, despite its gleam and eagerness, did not inspire confidence that he himself knew what a “few minutes” really meant. Minicars, Mercedes, and trucks whizzed past us like we were parked.
If there’s one thing you want in a driver, it’s that he knows the way.
At last we arrived in Montecatini, an ancient Tuscan spa town with square shuttered buildings that have no open spaces between them. Uncle Joe was probably relieved to have arrived, but finding the hotel was another matter. We navigated block after block with Joe craning his neck over the steering wheel to read street signs. Finally he turned around and asked if any of us knew the way.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
He tried to say he was, and mustered a feeble smile to the effect that he wasn’t. The driver’s side door was broken, so he wriggled his lithe frame across the bench seat to the passenger door, got out, and shambled into a pharmacy to get directions.
Our group had come to Italy to play golf. It need hardly be said that Italy is not known for its golf, but that was part of the appeal. We thought we’d duff through the patchwork and terraced fields of Tuscany and Lombardy, see works of art, and eat and drink gustily and gluttonously. There’d be an adventure in it, for sure, but as things turned out, this wouldn’t be an adventure about golf.
We reached the hotel late in the day and, with our luggage somewhere in the netherworld of baggage handling, asked Uncle Joe to take us into town to a department store. We were tired and, having worn the same clothes for going on two days, possibly bacterial.
We piled back into the van, and about a block from the hotel, Uncle Joe stopped for directions. At the second light, he stopped again for a refresher course. His short-term memory seemed good for exactly two blocks or one turn, whichever came first. He asked cops, shopkeepers, couples pushing strollers, and another fellow with whom he stopped and passed some minutes in amiable conversation. Finally, he announced with triumph that he had found it, and pulled into the parking lot of a supermarket.
“No!” we screamed in unison. “Not for food — clothes! Clothes!”
He smiled and said, “Ah,” as though we could have avoided the whole excursion if we’d only told him that in the first place. We fled the van on foot, and found our way. We did not see Joe until the next morning.
At breakfast, he confessed what was obvious by now, that he’d never been to this part of his country before. He promised to do better, but the first hours were a prelude to what would become a daily misery. It did not matter how simple or complicated the route was or how far we had to go. We got lost in villages, cities, and on country roads. Twice we got lost on highways.The others tried to be good-natured about it. “Just relax,” my companions would counsel me. Whenever people tell me to relax, it causes the muscles in my neck to spasm. But I found it impossible to be breezy about spending my waking hours in Italy in the back of a not very comfortable van. It was not just the lost time, nor even the sheer environmental impact of the excess fuel we were burning, that bothered me. It was Uncle Joe’s imperturbability. His radiant smile was disaster-proof. Sometimes it would become meek but would always snap back into shape.
Why didn’t he consult a map? Why didn’t he plan a route in advance? I wanted signs of distress. I wanted him to say, “I know you were only able to play six holes today instead of 18, and that because I drove around the perimeter of Florence six times you only got into the city in time to see the Uffizi Gallery close. Alas, I am a donkey in the wrong line of work.”
But there was just the smile. “Relax,” my companions would counsel me.
When he wasn’t driving, Uncle Joe had a certain sweetness. He’d touch my shoulder and ask if I was having a good time. And I’d say yes, in the same spirit that I tell waiters everything’s fine even when the food is barely edible. We showed each other pictures of our children. Like me, he had three, his were all girls, and the way they smiled into the camera, it was clear they were well loved.
In spite of his driving, we had some marvelous moments. If we didn’t get in much golfing, we enjoyed food and wine that worked like a temporary antidote to the poison of frustration accumulating in my veins. If you are going to be miserable, Italy’s not the worst place for it. And by the way, our bags did eventually arrive. But just as I would start to relax, the time would come to get back into the van.
On the fourth day, having traversed from Tuscany to Lake Como, Uncle Joe wound up in my hotel room. No one had made a reservation for him, and the hotel had no rooms. “It’s okay,” Uncle Joe volunteered. “I will sleep in the van.” He made a game effort to smile, but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate. In the day it was warm, but nighttime offered strong hints of winter.
“All right,” I said. “You can sleep in my room.” I couldn’t very well let him freeze to death.
So he stayed in my room on the sofa, though he made himself scarce and only appeared late at night.
The next day we made a long drive out to the lake district. Starting out, none of us realized quite how far away it was, and some hours later, it was becoming clear that Uncle Joe had made some wrong turns.
“This is really too much,” I barked. “Don’t you have a map?”
He saw a police car and chased it down. At last, I thought, he is turning himself in for impersonating a driver. They consulted. One of the carabinieri cupped his chin in his palm, as though pondering a route, while the other started pointing into the distance, bending his wrist here and there in a slalom motion, squaring his shoulders to point north, then squaring them against west, and east, and south. These directions might have challenged Amerigo Vespucci, let alone Uncle Joe.
The carabinieri drove away and Uncle Joe started up the van. The vehicle, like a good horse, could feel its master’s uncertainty and seemed to sputter. We rolled weakly into a gravelly lot, and as we idled, the throttle burbled as though ready to make a last confession. “Why are we stopping?” I asked, my voice rising. “He just got directions. Someone tell me why are we stopping?”
“Just relax,” the others said, though they didn’t look too relaxed themselves.
Suddenly Uncle Joe killed the engine, wriggled across the bench seat and out the passenger door, and started walking away. One of my travel mates jumped out of the van and followed him. She had been the first to notice how whenever we arrived somewhere people treated him like an unwanted appendage, rarely acknowledging his presence, and how, after the first fiascos, he’d stopped taking meals with us and started eating pizza outside with other cabbies. So there she was, chasing him across the parking lot, and when she reached him, I realized what had happened.
Uncle Joe was crying. He was using two fingers as pincers at the bridge of his nose in a failed attempt to dam the flowing tears.
Even from a distance, I recognized the look because I’d seen it before — in the mirror. Five years earlier, I had been in a job I hated and wasn’t good at. One day, I made a mistake, and my boss dressed me down brutally in front of my co-workers. After that, I made more mistakes or I tightened up and couldn’t perform at all. The once-high expectations of me plummeted, and I lived down to them. The world seemed cruel, and I couldn’t get it right. It took a resignation and months of self-abasement to recover. You like to think you learn from experience. And you do. It’s just that you forget, and sometimes it takes a man breaking down in a parking lot — a breakdown you may have contributed to — to remind you.
That night, our last, we went back to a bar in Como called Hemingway that had pictures of Papa all over the walls. It was cold, and a man from Munich joined us and told us Hemingway had lived here for 10 years. To celebrate the trip, we had many toasts, and mixed drinks we knew with drinks some other fellows recommended, and stumbled back to the hotel very late.
Uncle Joe was asleep on the pullout sofa. The room was cold, but he had covered himself with only thin papery sheets. I guess he felt like an unworthy guest and hadn’t wanted to move things around in search of another blanket. Even in his somnolence, he had the look of a sad, defeated man.
I thought of the picture of his three adorable girls with their amber skin and bright smiles, and I could easily imagine that when he’d left them they were terribly proud of their father who was going north, to a part of Italy he’d never seen before, to guide visitors from far away. And I knew then that if his company sent me an evaluation form, I was going to lie and betray all future travelers intent on this same journey, and say he was a fine driver indeed.
I searched the closet for extra blankets, and when I found one, I laid it over him.