Where the hell is first gear?! Left foot on the clutch, right foot on the brake, then gas. Wait, no. Start in neutral. Shift to first gear. Foot on the brake and clutch. Let go of the brake and clutch, wait for it to catch, then step on the gas.
Click, froom. Click, click, clunk.
I repeated these instructions a thousand times before I ever got in the car. Out loud! (If it had been part of a college drinking game, I would have been hammered for days!) Now, I sat trapped in a ditch on a dirt road in a private vineyard in the Tuscan countryside.
Where to go from here? Only up, as my friend and I trudged up the hill ahead of us searching for help. I looked back at the tiny manual Fiat and mouthed a “Mi dispiace” as it stared back at me from its dirt death patch.
This morning, I confidently convinced my friend and the woman behind the rent-a-car desk that I knew how to drive a stick shift to take us to a winery two and a half hours north in Montalcino, most known for two famous wineries: Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino.
“Wouldn’t it be fun,” I exclaimed, “to drive through the Tuscan countryside?”
In reality, my only experience driving a manual was years ago with my mom, who gave me step-by-step instructions while on an open, empty road for 10 minutes. Off we went on our journey, struggling to get out of Florence without stalling the car at every red light and stop sign.
I had never felt such panic as I did while turning my car on and off to get back into first gear as a line of cars grew longer behind me. Worse was that we stalled on a hill, and each time I took my foot off the brake and clutch to go forward, we slowly descended back into the cars. I was suddenly grateful for my weak grasp of the Italian language as drivers maneuvered around me, yelling at me. I was fine, however, understanding their many hand gestures. My friend simultaneously returned the gesture and calmed me down enough to start the car and make it around the hill and off to the open freeway.
At this point, we were only going to be 30 minutes late to our wine tasting at 2 pm. As long as I stuck to the freeway, or what Italians call the autostrada, I thought we would at least make it in one piece. I even started to get the hang of switching gears. Third, fourth, and even fifth! Exhilarating! I felt like a racer in a Fast and Furious movie with each shift switch. Driving through the Tuscan countryside, the wind kissed my face as I put on my shades, too blinded by the lively verdant hills surrounding us. The wordless instrumental songs of Piero Piccioni blasted through the tiny Fiat, adding to the ambiance of our real-life movie.
Thirty-three miles or however many kilometers of pure bliss, I almost forgot that eventually, I would have to exit the freeway and enter the worst nightmare of my journey.
I felt that I had mastered shifting gears from second through fifth, but I hadn’t gotten the hang of coming to a complete stop without stalling. I drew a blank and completely stalled the car in an intersection. Panic surged through my entire body as I exited, and my friend calmly repeated the Wikihow steps of how to stop and start the car. In our 20-year friendship, we had tiffs and disagreements, but nothing as intense as our tones got sharper and more peeved with each word between us. The test of true friendship.
After what felt like an eternity of being stuck and on the verge of tears, a man behind us came out of his car to help. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, yet after seeing the panic and desperation in my eyes, he assisted me with kindness and patience and got the car moving. I neglected to thank him, as I was so deathly afraid of having to stop and restart the car again. Many deep breaths later, my eyes still on the road, I expressed, “Thank you for being patient with me and helping. I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without you.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see her soften and smile. She started to laugh as she shared, “I think if I was doing this with anyone else, I would’ve ripped their head off.”
I laughed in agreement.
After driving through multiple small towns checking if it was the place we were looking for, we opened up to the hillside of Montalcino, which felt like a dream I never wanted to awaken from. Ancient stone-covered roofs with large open windows all stacked upon each other. The fortress that clung to the outer side of the hill painted the perfect medieval town. A bell tower stood tall amongst the condensed fairytale-like buildings.
We were too in awe of the Brunello vineyards and town before us to notice I had missed a turn. The GPS rerouted us away from the glowing village before us and toward a private vineyard. I followed further as the road turned from asphalt to pebble. I decided to follow the tractor marks that left a passage around the bend toward what looked like someone’s home.
“Are you sure we’re in the right area?” I asked in a panicked tone.
She responded, “It’s telling me that we need to continue straight.”
So straight I went. As luck would have it, we went straight down, and if I had continued to listen to our GPS, I would’ve driven us right into a tree.
Stuck once again. Now here we are. Neither of us knowing how to reverse. No cell phone service. Trudging up that hill. We both looked back at the abandoned little Fiat, glanced at each other, and began to laugh.
Hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. What else was there to do?
Our borderline insanity continued as we made it to the clearing of the hill, and like a glowing miracle, we saw a group of construction workers. None spoke English, but with some patience, kindness, and a dash of Google Translate, two of the workers were able to help us. Like highly trained special agents of mercy, they backed our car all the way to the main road and even gave me a brief tutorial on how to manipulate our vehicle into reverse. As we hopped back into the car, we saw it was already 3:30 pm. We had completely missed our wine tasting.
Knowing the winter sunlight would soon fade, we decided it would be best to call it a day. I regretted not staying longer and being able to see more of the city, to meet more of the people who called Montalcino home. The compassion and helpfulness of the strangers we encountered along our way opened my eyes to how easily kindness can be expressed and the powerful impact it makes. I glanced at that small glistening town in my rearview mirror and at that moment, made a silent promise that I would return.
Feeling the shift over the bump headed towards the yellow dotted lines of our car return parking spot, my friend finally let go of the safety handle with a sigh of relief. Of course, by the end of the day, I got the hang of driving a manual.
Now proud of my acquired skill, I looked over at her as a smile crept onto my face and asked, “Are you free next weekend?”