July in Rome, and it’s hot.
It’s so hot that when I wipe the perspiration off my face, it’s only a habit, a useless gesture. More sweat will trickle down to replace it, carrying the city grime that has accumulated on my cheeks throughout the day.
In any other place, I might feel beaten down. But I am here, in Italy, where extremes are sensual, provocative. Where colossal buildings like the Pantheon blithely regard vamped up fashionistas gamboling up the Spanish steps. Where food is rich, and heavy, coffee is strong, romance is a staple.
Where I first fell in love. He was red hot. And sexy.
Not with Italians, as might be expected. That love began years ago.
With a Vespa.
Like any crush, the feelings were instantaneous, dizzying, and stupefying. But this was no fleeting passion. This infatuation stuck with me, long after I had left Italy. So much so that the fascination would return to me, years later, when I spent a month in Vietnam. Every chance I could, I opted for a scooter instead of a taxi, despite the dangers of the congested traffic.
As with any impractical crush, I tried to shake it. But the love proved indelible. I trolled the motorcycle classifieds on Craigslist, looking for the One. I drifted through local Vespa dealerships in San Francisco and San Jose.
Last November, I found him. Like my first love, he, too, is red hot and sexy.
I named him Vincenzo.
And while riding a Vespa is seemingly as easy as riding a bicycle, I remember the accidents I saw in Rome. I recently read that while scooters account for 1.1 percent of all the traffic in France, 10.1 percent of all traffic accidents and 18 percent of all traffic deaths are related to scooters. France’s Ministry of Interior has recently decided to make car drivers either get a motorbike license (type A) or take scooter training.
I decided to sign up for a motorcycle class with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. At $250, its Basic Rider Course is a commitment. Would-be cyclists under 21 years old must take the course to get their M1 license, while older course participants can waive the DMV driving test if they pass the course.
I received my paperwork weeks before class, and it was the first time a green sheet had provoked a visceral fear. The course description included such dire admonitions as “this course is not designed to be fun” and “you may feel as if the instructors are yelling at you” and “there is no guarantee of graduation.” When I confessed how nervous I was to a motorcyclist friend, his response was serious and firm: “That’s how it has to be.”
I needed to be brave.
The course involves five hours of classroom instruction, which concludes with a knowledge test, and two days of skills training, which culminates in a skills evaluation. I was not worried about the classroom exam. I was petrified about the skills test.
Like my stick-shift car, motorcycles have a manual transmission. But most of the controls on a motorcycle are in different places. On a motorcycle, the right hand controls the throttle (gas) and the front brake. The right foot controls the rear brake. The left hand controls the clutch. And the left foot does the shifting. And unlike a car, a motorcycle must also be balanced. Oh my.
Now. Once I had the controls down, it was time to learn some skills. As it turned out, speeding down the freeway is not the trickiest part of learning to ride. Maintaining control and balance while going slowly is the true test of ability. On the first day, we learned such skills as how to navigate U-turns, execute quick stops, corner, and swerve. Not all of the exercises were easy, and danger was omnipresent. A student in the morning session flipped his bike, and a woman in our group dropped her bike (on top of her). By the end of the day, I had a headache that defied all aspirin.
Sunday arrived. Unlike the first day of class, I actually knew how to start a bike and make it move. But the second day culminated in that evaluation test. If I didn't pass it, I would have to take the class again. And that thought alone was enough to have me grinding my teeth.
When it came time for the evaluation test, I was inches away from a panic attack. But I braced myself. All I could do was try my best.
And I passed. Just barely. But I passed. In just two days, I had gained a deep respect of the skills, the thrills, and the dangers involved in motorcycle riding.
With freshly minted M1 license in hand, I am obsessed with all things motorcycle. I brag to friends and family about my new “culture,” which is, of course, laughable, given my 50cc Vespa is not powerful enough for the freeway. When friends and family suggest an intervention, they are not really joking.
But I am intrigued by this culture and a way of life provoked by wanderlust and the freedom and thrill that a bike offers. And as with so many cultures, its people are often misunderstood and stereotyped. I vowed to learn more.
My first stop was Alice’s, a restaurant at the intersection of Highway 84 and Highway 35 on Skyline Boulevard in California, where bikers and bicyclists alike stop to fuel up on diner fare after zigzagging their way through the twisty, shaded roads of Woodside. I worried that I lost some street cred when I rolled up on four wheels. But after lunch, I meandered across the street to look at the bikes, which stood lined up for viewing like a two-wheeled farmer’s market. The owners allowed me to gawk and were eager to answer questions about their bikes.
Another popular hangout for the motorcycle set is Zeitgeist, a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. The term “zeitgeist” refers to the “defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history,” which I thought was particularly fitting. Bikers park their rides on the sidewalk just outside the front door, and can choose to drink their beer or renowned Bloody Marys indoors or hang out in the extensive beer garden outside. I ordered some pub fare, played a few rounds of pinball just beneath a massive motorcycle affixed to the wall, and people-watched. I didn’t dare take pictures, as I was warned within seconds of entering the bar that that was not allowed.
The intrigue hasn’t ended there. I’ve also succumbed to a cinematic cycle fixation, dutifully watching everything from Long Way Round and Long Way Down, the documentaries about the motorcycle journeys of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, to Motorcycle Diaries, to classics such as Easy Rider and The Wild One.
A popular credo among motorcycle riders is to ride within one’s abilities. I am well aware of my very limited skills. But when I ride my low-powered scooter through the streets, I remember my first crush, a shiny little Vespa zipping through the streets of Rome, and the catalyst for this new development in my life.
I am still on the fringes of my newly adopted culture. But I’ve waited before. I know I must be patient. Because this is no longer a crush, but a deep-seated love.
Jennifer Anthony has her MFA in writing from Spalding University. More about her can be found on her website: www.jenniferanthony.net.