This week I’ve had a few occasions to reflect on the concept of risk. Earthquake, tornado, air travel, rental car.
Thursday Tizi and I went to the Bologna airport to pick up a car. At the rental car booth it always takes a while. There are documents to present, long phone calls to make (by the car rental rep, to whom I don’t know), explanations and payments, initialing and signing. This day when the guy at the Drivalia desk finally hands me the paperwork and the car key, he says, in English for my benefit, “It’s a Soobe.”
“Soobe,” he says again.
“You mean, like, Subaru?” What do I know.
He shakes his head, probably thinking, Why try? Moron.
I mean me moron. He realizes I’m not going to get it. And I know I’m not going to get it, because Soobe is not in my vocabulary or in my product knowledge.
Out in the rental lot Tizi and I hunt for the vehicle among hundreds of rental cars. We go looking for it in the Drivalia section. I tell Tizi we’re looking for a Soobe.
“A Soobe?” she says.
I tell her I have no idea.
Halfway there it occurs to me I forgot to ask what color it is. On a tag attached to the key is a license number. But come on. Modern car tech comes to the rescue. When I press the button on the key that is more than just a key, a car somewhere squeaks like a mouse. I re-squeak it several times, and there it is, our ride for the next twelve days.
Based on the squeak, I was expecting a small car. Usually our budget Italian rental resembles a large roller skate, with enough room for two people and a suitcase. This Soobe is the biggest car we’ve ever rented over here. It’s also the bluest car. It’s royal metallic luminescent burn-your-eyes blue. Okay, I think, hard to park but easy to find.
“This is it?” Tizi says.
“Yeah, but what is it?”
I walk around the car, looking for its name. Not a Fiat. Not an Opel. Not a VW. “It’s a dr,” I say.
My thoughts exactly.
Getting into a rental car, I always feel thrill and dread in equal measures. Thrill: Will it be new? Will it be sporty? Hey, a Lancia, cool. But dread? Will it be clean. Will we have a fender bender. One year in Chicago, I got into a rental car that smelled like a recently cleaned men’s room. We’re talking urinal cakes. But the big blue Soobe, we sense right away, is going to be okay. Smells good. Spacious. Comfortable seats.
I step on the brake, push the Start button. Nothing happens. Repeat the process, expect a different result. No go. Our seatbelts are fastened. We are prepared for take-off. Repeat the process. Same result. On the display, below the speedometer, these words scroll: Put your foot on the clutch, moron.
One of the disturbing stories in the news this week involved a Southwest Airlines pilot passing out in mid flight. I used to think the most disturbing message you could hear on a flight’s intercom system, after “kiss your ass goodbye,” was “Is there a doctor on board?” Not anymore. “Is there a pilot on board?” Would they have said that?
It’s a feel-good story. There was a pilot on board, a certified pilot from another airline. He got behind the wheel, and all systems were go. In this instance, go back. Back to the airport where the flight originated, to seek medical attention for the afflicted pilot.
Having just piloted the big blue hr Soobe from Bologna to San Marino, I pictured the certified pilot sitting down, looking at the instrument panel and thinking, “Okay, I don’t fly this particular model. But yeah, I can fly this plane.” Like me taking my place in the Soobe’s driver’s seat. Yeah, once I figure out how to start the engine, I can drive this car.
We’re five minutes down the road when I realize I need to adjust mirrors. How do I do that? Ten minutes down the road I want to adjust the heat. How do I do that in this high tech vehicle? Where’s the gizmo? And while we’re at it, just in case, where is the control for the wipers? Does a Soobe come with cruise control? What are all these buttons on the steering wheel for?
I touch a button in climate control for AC and a television screen lights up.
I can’t look. I want to look, but I can’t look. I’m flying the plane.
There is a time to familiarize yourself with these features, and it’s not when you’re merging with traffic on the tangenziale going 90 km per.
That night we attend a poetry reading. It’s a small room–it’s a poetry reading, after all–but all the seats are taken. A few minutes after the reading starts, I experience a faint jiggling sensation. It’s coming from the direction of my feet, and I think it could be seismic. A little more jiggle, then no more. Later on, the big guy sitting beside me begins to get restless–it’s a poetry reading, after all–and begins bouncing both legs in a nervous, rhythmic, theoretical gallop. And I think, Maybe the jiggle I felt wasn’t seismic.
Next morning I check. Yes, it was seismic.
Four years ago, we felt two earthquakes over here. They were more than a jiggle. One was on the scale of: I’m taking a shower but I don’t mind stepping outside. In our building stairwell, excited voices echoed, doors were flung open and closed as residents took to the street.
Shortly after we arrived here on this trip, four weeks ago, there was a little earthquake, more than a jiggle.
You can go online and check seismic activity in any part of the world. In some places, Detroit, for example, it’s an academic exercise, a curiosity. Two little earthquakes in the last two years. If you’re in Italy, I don’t advise checking, because this country is a hot spot. They don’t talk about “the big one” over here, the way they do in California, but you begin to wonder.
The site I consult for earthquake info over here is called Raspberry Shake. I appreciate the humor. The name calms the nerves, if only slightly. Here’s the news: “In the past 24 hours Italy had one quake of magnitude 2.6. There were also 55 quakes below magnitude 2.0, which people don’t normally feel.” Fifty-six earthquakes. In 24 hours.
At the poetry reading, it was a (very) minor earthquake. I’m putting my money on Mag 1.8, 22 km SW of Folignano, Provincia di Perugia.
How dangerous is it over here? What is the risk? Our daughter and her husband own an apartment down the coast in Pesaro, which is getting closer to seismic central. Fall, winter, and spring they rent the place. Their latest tenant, because of frequent jiggles, moved out recently, seeking a safer zone seismically speaking. Tolerance for risk varies. When it exceeds your limit, you act.
In the main, here as elsewhere, California, for example, I think people simply accept the risk. “It’s where we live.”
We’re lying in bed a few nights later. Tizi says she can’t sleep.
That’s never a problem for me. I tell her to try listing the fifty states of the union in alphabetical order. That tends to knock me out.
“There’s bad weather between Michigan and Florida, and those kids are on the road.” Our daughter and her two boys, she means.
I ask her: “How many M states do you think there are?”
“Lisa said they’re spending the night in Nashville.”
“There are eight M states,” I say. “In the M’s I think of them east to west. Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland . . . ”
“And I saw on the news, tornado possible.”
“Mississippi, Missouri . . .”
I saw the same weather forecast she saw: rain, heavy rain, torrential rain, unGodly rain; and tornado. They might have met up with those conditions in Nashville. Before we came to bed I saw a text message from her that was not reassuring. “Weather BAD. Hale. At least the car isn’t hydroplaning.” She’s crazy, our daughter. Don’t use the term “hydroplaning” in a text your mother might read.
Next day, late in the afternoon, we will see this headline: “The massacre at The Covenant School in Nashville . . . “
It’s an earthquake, a category 4 hurricane; an unspeakable unnatural disaster. Three nine-year-olds, three school personnel, shot dead. The assault weapons were legally purchased.
It’s where we live.
I drive through Rimini in our big blue dr, an SUV (the Italians, I’ve learned, say Soove). Day or night, it’s dangerous. Let me be clear: I am a danger to others.
Unlike back home, there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic here. People on foot, people on bicycles and scooters and motorcycles who take their lives in their hands slipping between, around, and past cars. And every 100 meters or so, there is a crosswalk. In the US, the crosswalk is a suggestion. Driver, would you consider stopping? People in cars think of themselves as primary. I’ll stop and let you cross if I feel like it. Here most pedestrians assume you will stop. You are supposed to stop. I’ve had to train myself. Stop. Night time is worst, in the rain. I could kill someone.
To lower the risk I pose to others, I scan the sidewalks, the crosswalks and gaps between bushes where an old lady on foot might step in front of me assuming I will stop. I’ve trained myself: don’t look at Soove’s tv screen, don’t try to do anything except watching, searching, to avoid hurting someone.
Next week we’ll fly home. Out over the Atlantic, traveling 500 mph at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the only thing I’ll worry about is will they run out of the chicken before they get to my seat. The real danger that day will be driving the Soove back to the airport.
When I was a kid in school, there were emergency procedures–mainly tornado drills. I think we also still practiced what to do in case of an A bomb. A few families in town had bomb shelters in the backyard. Mayhem was an abstraction. Today schools in the US have active shooter protocols. Every day is an earthquake. I’ve heard friends say when they go to a public place, they’ve learned to scan the area, with escape routes in mind.
It’s where we live.