There is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it viscerally. My husband and I just took a European holiday with two other couples. Each couple had a rental car. This particular day we…
There is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it viscerally.
My husband and I just took a European holiday with two other couples. Each couple had a rental car. This particular day we had all left the medieval Italian city of Siena, and were to regroup in Positano, a drive of several hours. We were driving in the "slow" lane of Italy’s autostrada, which is roughly equivalent to an American interstate. (In Italy, "slow" drivers go a mere 150 miles per hour. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. There is an excess of brio on Italian highways.)
Suddenly, the cars in front of us began skidding and swerving. A dog had wandered onto the road, and they were frantically attempting to avoid it. We weren’t so fortunate. We hit the poor animal with a sickening thud. Cars continued to whiz by us. Italian roads do not have luxuries like shoulders and deceleration lanes–there are three lanes of traffic with guard rails on each side. We had no choice but to continue. Or so we thought.
Almost immediately, we heard a siren. We were waved to a stop by a car containing three men in silk suits flashing badges and brandishing large guns. They brought us to a halt in the right lane of the busy highway, and one of them motioned the thundering traffic to swerve around us.
The officer apparently in charge approached my husband, who was driving. He stuck his gun in the window, within inches of my husband’s head, and began screaming in Italian. Neither of us speaks Italian, and we were both terrified. I began to open the passenger door, only to be waved back with a scowl and–again–the barrel of his gun.
We sat in the midst of the traffic for nearly forty-five minutes, while the officer intermittently screamed into his radio and watched the road. We had no way of knowing who he had called, or why. The angry scowl never left his face. Finally, he and his companions were replaced with the "autostrada policia" who motioned for us to follow them to a (mercifully) safe spot near an exit. With a good deal of gesturing and pointing, and constant reference to a list of phrases in French, English, German and Italian ("were your dazzlers [headlights]on? what time did this occur?), we completed an accident report and were allowed to proceed, still uncomprehending.
Last year, in Indianapolis, a young Hispanic man was sitting in a truck when a nearby shoe store clerk accidently tripped a burglar alarm. A police officer demanded information from the teen, who spoke no English. When the boy was unable to respond, the officer pushed him and shouted "In America, you should speak English." The boy and a bilingual bystander who tried to intercede were arrested for "disorderly conduct." The bystander later told an ICLU lawyer that the boy had been terrified. Both language and custom were barriers to understanding. He was at a loss to respond.
I understood the problem intellectually then. I understand it viscerally now.