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Fear and Fascination: Secrets of the Italian Bus System

Updated: May 19

Whimsical collage featuring a Greek sculpture boxing with a train and newspaper clippings

Well, hello!

I’ve got a ridiculous little vocabulary-boosting story for you today. I wrote it back in Italy when our English teacher asked us to write about something unexpected in our new life abroad (I think...truthfully I don’t remember the exact prompt!).

This is what I came up with! For your convenience, I’ve included the audio below, as well as the text of the story. However, you can also get the downloadable version, with definitions at the bottom of each page, here!


A perplexed looks steals across my face as I re-read my host sister’s enigmatic text message. “You go towards down,” she writes. “Cover the reduction and ask for the Sacrario.”

I contemplate exactly where “down” is. I’ve been advised to head toward Hades? My feet? How can this possibly get me closer to my elusive bus stop? 

It is an appropriate beginning to my relationship with the Italian bus system. On the bus, nothing is simple. Strategies must be devised for obtaining seats before glitter-sporting adolescents snatch them. Deference must be shown to grandmothers who can no longer drive. And if possible, one always wants a good view of the driver, who never fails to entertain.


A month later, with my bus routine firmly established, I am more familiar with the ins and outs of legendary bus number nine. If one takes the 7:15 bus, which arrives at its destination at 7:50 having covered a scarce three miles, one should expect to be respectfully spooned for at least a quarter of the ride. 

One can maintain a semblance of personal space until the gaggle of boisterous school-goers boards around 7:30. Ranging from 10-18 years old, they have no concept of volume, and do not realize that their backpacks are an extension of themselves. As a result, it’s not unusual to be repeatedly smacked in the stomach (or the face, in my vertically-challenged case), depending on the age of the inattentive wearer. 

In an effort to avoid these inadvertent beatings, one subconsciously tries to occupy the least amount of space possible, but unfortunately most Italians only see your void as more space they can occupy.

Searching for a seat at this point would be futile, so one must find the least offensive-smelling person for the final component of the drive. If you’ve managed to avoid full-body contact thus far, it will be impossible to maintain once the whistling bus driver takes a speed bump at a casual 30 mph.

Yet we plebs are not the only once with a lack of personal space. A crowd of fawning females perpetually encircles the emperor of the bus, though at first I do not understand why. 

In America, the taciturn bus driver would sit on the other side of a bright red line. Riders would be warned with signs and fines not to cross, and few would care to in any case.

Yet here, I consistently see made-up and boot-wearing women falling over themselves in an effort to speak with the motorist. I decide to unearth the mystery behind the womens’ not-so-secret adoration, and the drivers’ easy affability.

I begin my study with the drivers themselves, who alternate route-to-route and bus-to-bus, leaving me ample opportunity to sample their population. Age is quickly ruled out as a determining factor. The youngest is in his twenties; the oldest in his sixties, yet they all receive the same treatment. Hair color, state of teeth, and chubbiness factor all vary, as well. 

The only theme that remains constant is a carefree approach to life and the road. Light hands turn the steering wheel as the bus comes within inches of nearby cars/pedestrians/bikers. My own knuckles, by contrast, are often white around my pink iPod as I watch the perils of our daily route with a mixture of horror and fascination. 

I eventually come to realize that Italians do follow traditional laws of the road. Rather, they put themselves in positions where, if the other car doesn’t yield, an accident will inevitably ensue. I ALWAYS close my eyes at four way stops. 

Yet the drivers remain calm and detached, taking risks as if they were driving the bus from a computer screen. I come to realize that this mix of humor and detachment, combined with the power to control such a monstrous vehicle, is the mysterious charm that enthralls bus-riding women.

The drivers are the heart and soul of the bus system. These men — who undoubtedly blow-dry their hair in the morning like all good Italians — take risks most sixteen-year-olds wouldn’t dream of, and they do it with ease and skill. They transform the bus from a mundane event into a spectacle, where excitement mingles with fear and fascination. For bored middle-aged women, these men are like gods. I often sit in my coveted bus seat thanking God I was able to decipher Sabrina’s cryptic text.

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