We’ve all taken a bus at least once in our lives. If it’s been a while, think back. Remember how it works? You’re on the bus, enjoying the view, reading the paper, or judging a punky-looking kid who won’t offer his seat to an elderly woman. Minutes pass. ‘Oh, here comes my stop,’ you think. Time to push a button, or pull a cord. Time to make use of the nifty device those forward-thinking bus engineers designed for the sole purpose of delivering a universally understood message: Please, driver, pull over at the next stop. I would like to get off the bus now.
Now, if I may stretch your imagination a bit further: Imagine the driver does not stop. What’s going on? you wonder. Has a car bomb gone off in the street? An avalanche or other obstacle blocking the driver from stopping? Is the driver ill? No, nothing of the kind. You just happen to be riding the Italian regional bus line that goes by the name Sita.
My husband warned me about the ‘Sita ways’ when we moved to Grezzano, the year my commute mutated from a one-hour train ride to a 10-minute bus + 40-minute train combo. Already schooled in Italian railroad ways, and fairly familiar with Florence’s city bus lines, I knew the ropes of local transport means well enough. I wasn’t daunted. Besides, what was so different about this Sita, anyway? ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you have to go to the front of the bus and tell the driver when you want to get off. Otherwise they won’t stop.’
That’s just silly, I thought. And even if it’s true, it’s not something to worry about. Turns out it was true. Those buses have stop buttons but no one uses them! And it was worrying.
In the years since, the Sita experience has proven to be nearly as farcical as that of the 17, and certainly more dangerous. I’ve seen old Italians on the Sita inch towards the front of the bus in terror, maneuvering their fragile hips down the narrow corridor with only a wobbly cane between them and a mouthful of filthy carpet fuzz. Every so often, hefty men en route to the front are launched onto the laps of nubile young Italian women, or vice versa, as the driver brakes suddenly. (I think some drivers do this on purpose.) A mom carrying her infant and large purse, growing evermore anxious as the stop comes into view, shouts, ‘Next stop, please. Please!’ She thrusts her babe into the arms of the closest seated passenger, runs to the front. ‘Next stop,’ she repeats calmly, then returns for her child.
Why does this odd practice persist? Because Italians are conformists. Yes, they’re innovative and enterprising and creative and all that, but when it comes to social behavior, a ‘way’ of doing things guides Italians in every situation. It doesn’t matter how, when, or by whom the ‘way’ was established; what matters is that the ‘way’ is observed. Long ago the way of indicating one’s desire to get off the Sita bus was set. And since that dark age, none have questioned it.
You get used to any behavior, however bizarre, the more you witness it. Especially as a foreigner. After all, who am I to judge their ways? Slowly their ways start to seem normal. You even begin to make up little excuses, little validations. ‘These buses are so old,’ I remember thinking. ‘I bet those stop buttons have not worked since the war. So no one bothers with them. That’s smart.’
But when Sita got a new fleet of buses last year, I looked at the situation afresh. These babies were real dreamboats, all sky-blue, gum- and graffiti-free. Modernization and progress were in the air (or maybe that was just new-bus smell). The button labeled ‘stop’ tempted me brightly: ‘Go on. I work. I’m new!’ So I rang the bell. I did not leave my seat. I waited. And waited. And sure enough–well, you can probably guess what did not happen.
As I struggled to the front (the corridor was blocked by back pack-lugging teens), I shouted to the driver. She stopped, but not without scolding me for my misuse of the button. I protested. ‘But–but they’re new,’ I said. ‘They work!’ How could she not share my enthusiasm? Stop button functionality was a trifling detail apparently. Translated, her response was, ‘We don’t take those into account.’
Here’s a selection of similar driver comments, duly noted by yours truly over the following months:
‘You know you shouldn’t trust those buttons.’
‘Sometimes they work and sometimes not, so we don’t bother listening for them.’
‘What stop button? You want off or not lady? I’m driving here.’
‘Everyone rings them.’
‘They don’t exist.’
I can make my peace with the first three of these reasons, as they reflect various Italian characteristics that no longer baffle me. Italians are distrustful (of governments, of other nations’ foodways–why not stop buttons?); Italians rarely shed their shoulder-shrugging, che si puo fare? personas, even at work; and they are sometimes rude to foreigners. Nothing criminal or overly disconcerting here. But Everyone rings them? To that particular driver, the frequent pushing of the buttons did not for a moment recall their original purpose, only confirmed their inherent folly. What’s more, the buttons annoyed him to all get out. Fine, call him a peculiar case.
And They don’t exist? My Italian-speaking friends will sense another linguistic implication immediately. To say something doesn’t exist in Italian (non esiste) can mean that the subject is too absurd to be worth considering–that it’s beyond the realm of rational discourse. While I presume (and hope) the driver in question intended this, the less literal of the two meanings of non esiste, I can’t say I take much comfort in either possibility.