Cult of the Panda: Adventures & Old-School Fiats in Italy
Visiting the island of Ischia before the summer season is a bit like eating a strawberry in December—you could eat it, my Italian friends might say, but why ever would you? Italy, of course, prides itself on its seasons. Order an artichoke in August and the Roman waiter will tell you, welling with the proud, pleasant air of Roman waiters, that you must wait until September, when Italian artichokes are in season. An Italian restaurant that serves artichokes in late summer, a Roman waiter once told me, get theirs from France and, quite frankly, has no business trafficking in Italian cuisine. “We eat with the season,” he said. And he is right.
So my decision to visit Ischia in early April 2016 brought my “off-season” inclinations into a whole new league. One does not go to Ischia in early spring unless they already live there, or are having an affair, or are, perhaps, from Germany. Yet, like a true American, who is used to buying artichokes in August and mushrooms and strawberries whenever she wants, I wanted to experience Ischia when I wanted to experience it. Alongside many readers of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend series, I was drawn to her account of its idyllic, seaside charm, to the legendary hot sand beach where Elena Greco’s mother attempted to heal her arthritic leg, to the simple woman who brought Elena relief from a hot summer in grimy Napoli with her family; to the cottage that landed her under the same roof with Nino’s evil father, and later with Nino himself. I’d already walked the walk of what I had believed to be Greco’s admittedly grimy neighborhood in Napoli, where I ate a coronetto al ciocolato straight from the oven at a subterranean bakery and, at Café Parisi, been served the utmost best and most carefully made cappuccino I have ever been served, minutes before I had been mistaken for a prostitute on the stradone on my walk back to the city center (apparently, waiting for a bus on Via Taddeo da Sessa in jeans on a Saturday morning signifies something to someone).
So the Ferrante saga etched into my thoughts as I devised my plan to visit this island 50 kilometers off the coast of Napoli, along with another Italian phenomena that had become a bit of an obsession for me: the thermal bath, or terme. I’d spent the year teaching English at a small American high school in the medieval town of Viterbo, home to at least four active volcanic springs (where Dante and Michelangelo and a host of popes had once bathed) and these poggios (puddles) or termes had soon become my favorite way to relax after a long day at school. Every day, after my last class, I’d drive out to Le Masse de San Sisto, a rustic pool with a campground vibe to it (read: no toilets or plumbing), to soak in its sulphuric waters. For a €40 yearlong membership, I could relax in the poggio as the sky turned pink and ribbons of starlings in murmuration caught their evening meal. I’d people-watch the host of regulars who resembled characters out of a Fellini film, older men with spiked white hair and round thick lenses, or women in full makeup with their tresses glowing orange or platinum, sporting vintage oversized sunglasses and tiny bright bikinis that stretched generously across their curves. Bus drivers, car salesmen, carabinieri, a handful of foreigners, and retired campervanners who parked free for weeks on San Sisto’s vast lawn all came in flip-flops and robes and sat in amicable and relative quiet in the hot waters, as curious about me, a solo female soaker, as I was about them. Sometimes I’d take an espresso from the nearby machine and practice my Italian with the locals, who assumed, based on my accent, that I was from Spain, and on my way out I’d stop by the on-site farm stand for fresh tomatoes or zucchini or peaches—whatever was in season—for the next day’s lunch. I soon discovered Italy is filled with terme throughout the Lazio and Tuscany provinces, and on a weekend morning would drive an hour or more to investigate Le Cascate di Saturnia, a cascade of hot water pools just north of Viterbo, or head further west near Siena to the great Bagni di San Filipo, featuring la balena bianca, a wall of green and white copper residue from liquid minerals flowing over stones, and, downstream, a small rock-enclosed pool where people would change in open air, wade in, and soak. Without fail, these natural springs always had an elegant and expensive private spa nearby, and a host of medically approved treatments (a doctor’s note could get you a discount at the Terme di Papi in Viterbo), but I preferred the free springs, the ones that were as close as possible to their natural state. The volcanic springs, the Sulphur egg scent, the fellow bathers, my orange terry Italian bathrobe, the autotan that, even in February, did not fade, the stars ardent in the black sky as the plumes of thermal mist rolled upward into the ether: all of it hooked me in a way that gave shape and meaning to my Italian year, and connected me to Italian life and culture in ways no tour of the Colosseum or an Etruscan tomb ever could.
So it was no surprise that Ischia, with its history of volcanic water and hot sand beach, drew me in, and, as my school group returned from a 10-day tour of Sicily, taking the overnight ocean liner from Palermo to Napoli, I decided to forgo the free bus ride back to Viterbo and stay on for a few days at Ischia. Maybe for once I’d try out a fancy spa for a much-needed massage. Within an hour of our Sicily ship disembarking, I was on board the ferry to Ischia, just a few boats down the pier, where I’d secured online a quiet bed and breakfast close to town, and mapped out all the hot spring locales on my cheap Nokia phone. I thrilled at their names: Cassamiciola, Terme Manzi, Fonte delle Ninfe di Nitrod, Thermal Park and Spa Aphrodite Apollon, Idroterme Olympus. Their Greco-Roman God names intrigued me, and reminded me of the tour I’d taken in March of the public bath ruins of nearby Pompeii, rediscovered in near perfect condition by looters in the early 1900s, its citizens fallen victim to the great volcanic plumes of Vesuvius in the 1500s. I imagined the baths of Ischia might uphold their ancient traditional glory, stone pillars and all, and that my Viterbese terme, as much as I loved them, would not compare with what awaited me. But, as I’d suspected, surveying my Google map’s constellation of starred springs, I would need to rent a car to find out.
By then I’d already lived in Italy for eight months, and thus was no stranger to cheap European car rentals and, by extension, the manual transmission. In Europe, nearly all but the highest of high-end car rentals are manual. My father, a mechanic by trade, now retired, taught me to “drive stick” in deserted, after-hours parking lots of grocery stores in central Massachusetts, and while my reintroduction to manual transmissions upon my arrival to Italy in September nearly brought an untimely death to me and my boyfriend and my visiting parents, my driving skills were on point. I got better as my need to travel beyond the medieval walls increased, and soon I’d rented a car weekly, dropping one off and picking one up at the airport in Rome between solo budget weekend adventures to Bucharest, Athens, Brussels, or Geneva. My initial effort to embrace the public transit system had collapsed after the bus failed to show about a half-dozen times, leaving me stranded, or hideously late, or both. One time, while waiting with a friend for a bus that would (literally) never arrive outside Le Masse de San Sisto, we hailed a driver who’d just left the terme and I asked, in Italian, for a ride back to town. The driver, a man probably in his early 40s and who held some law enforcement job (he was evasive), had some English, and was friendly enough, but after I later refused a date with him, whenever I was at the terme solo or with a female friend, he would start to hum within my earshot, “New York, New York,” or “My Kind of Town,” somehow equating me with Sinatra, or with the Americanness that I suppose Sinatra represents.
Thus the “go when I want to go” attitude that I associate with being American flexed itself in Italy in ways that I had not expected. I realized that there is a part of my heart that contains a car, and that in order to feel most like myself, to feel at home, I needed one at the ready. Growing up in a gas station family in Central Massachusetts, I’d been around cars my whole life—watching my dad fix-up and sell his beautiful ’63 Corvette, riding in the back as he drove from one parts shop to the next, playing in the bay at the Texaco with my younger brother, our fingernails black with grease, melting my moon boots on the space heater in the front office while my mom both pumped the gas and kept the books. I owned and drove a car as soon as it was legal to do so, buying off my parents’ friends, for a mere fifty bucks, a hefty brown Buick Century with a penchant for running red lights. Later, my folks got me a frail but reliable Chevette hatchback from the 80’s for a college graduation present. When that car died, I moved on, at my mom’s urging, to a used sporty Nissan 200SX, which, after a minor car accident totaled it, led me in 2002 to a half-hearted save-the-world gesture of buying a Prius, which I drove for well over fifteen years (the experience of driving a Prius, by the way, is akin to driving a golf cart capable of traveling at ninety miles an hour). Prius aside, ratty but trusty cars have encoded themselves in my DNA, and so it made sense, to me anyway, that I’d become fascinated by the decades old Fiat Pandas that cramped the free parking lot near my house and rattled by me in my comparatively smooth VW Polo or Fiat 500, or the occasional Citroen (which, if the truth must be told, lives up to its name en français). The casual Italian car aficionado might tell you the Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, or even the Alpha Romeo is the quintessential Italian car. But I argue that the Fiat Panda is the true Italian auto icon—not as famous or as speedy as its sleeker, sportier, sexier Fiat 500 cousin, but the econocar, the Dodge Dart or Omni or Chevette of Europe: small, cheap and efficient. I’d also driven my share of the shiny newer Pandas as rentals, but I was drawn in particular to the thirty-year-old, ratty rust-colored or pale puke green Panda Young, with their rattling engines and lack of seatbelts. Even with all the jokes (“Fix It Again, Tony”) that I’ve heard about this little car, I admired them the way only a mechanic’s daughter could: for their potential. An everyman’s car at an everyman’s price, easy to fix and meant, on principle, to give mobility to people who needed and wanted it.
But it was not until two weeks after Christmas—Epiphany, to be exact—that cemented my love of the Fiat. Each village in Italy has its own festivals that brings its people out of their daily routines to assemble elaborate costumes and floats and foods and to line the streets with chairs to celebrate some religious or agricultural tradition. In Viterbo, one of those festivals is La Macchina de Santa Rosa, a 70-foot tall glowing tower carried by a host of men (facchini) dressed in white skirted uniforms, who are charged each September with delivering the obelisk on their collective shoulders from the gates of Porta Romana, through the city center, and up the hill to the Chiesa di Santa Rosa, Viterbo’s patron saint, about a kilometer away. I mention this because it is a sight to behold and speaks to the pride and effort that the Viterbese put into these annual celebrations. And in a way, La Macchina is the autumn corollary to the January Epiphany parade that features, among other things, leagues of women dressed up as witches (emulating La Befana, a witch who reportedly travels on Epiphany from house to house, delivering candy for good kids, coal for bad kids, and glasses of wine for their parents). La Befana parade of Viterbo also features the world’s longest coal- and candy-filled sock—52 meters long (about 170 feet)—which is ushered down the same streets as La Macchina, this time by about 100 vintage, high-gloss Fiat 500s, fifteen of which carry the sock on their narrow rooftops. Like most newcomers, I was skeptical about this Catholic Epiphany parade and its seemingly pagan origins. Who is this coal-and candy delivering witch? How does a massive sock fit on top of fifteen tiny cars? How do they keep the sock from rolling off? And, most important, how could I get this witch to deliver wine to me? But that afternoon, as the colorful Fiat 500s aligned bumper to bumper, and the witches, pointy hats and all, walked about, casting candy onto the crowd-lined sidewalk, all skepticism melted away and suddenly I knew that I could not simply watch this parade. I needed to join it. There was no time to make a witch costume, so I settled for the next best thing. Mustering my very best Italian, I spotted car idling in the queue, and leaned in. “Perdone… posso voi me portare nella sua macchina?” If the driver was surprised by my bold request, he didn’t show it. He nodded, silently excusing my poor Italian, and as we rolled into gear, and as the throngs of crowds cheered, and my students spotted me and cheered in bewilderment: what is our English teacher doing in the parade? my one wish, as I waved from the tiny window like a sashless prom queen, was that I’d brought some tossable candy. I found myself explaining to the man, in Italian, that I was a teacher for “la scuola americana,” and that my father was a mechanic, and that he loved old cars like this one. We cobbled together a conversation as best as we could—he’d actually heard of the ’63 Corvette, famous for its rare split window—and as the parade neared to an end, the massive sock “delivered,” and the witches marched their last, I thanked the man, emerged from his car, and walked home, all the more in love with the Fiat, and all the more determined one day to drive an ancient incarnation of it.
Several months later, when the locally-owned car rental company in Ischia delivered up for me a bone-white Panda, I was at first excited. Its key hole doubled as the door’s push-button entry. It was missing the passenger side mirror. And it had no radio and only one windshield wiper. The coiled seats were covered with chronically filthy but sturdy mover’s blankets, and the maw of the meager glove box was a mere shelf. What’s more, the Panda I’d rented was not just a regular Panda of the 80’s, but rather a Panda Young, one of the most compact of compact cars of its generation. The “Young” distinction, I later learned, is a starter-kit model introduced in 1987, as the lowest of the low end of the Panda Line. For a car that’s 30 years old, you still see plenty of them zooming down the busy cobbled streets of Viterbo and Napoli and Roma, and they are advertised for sale online unrestored for about €1,000. My ratty Panda Young in Ischia was not worth the cost of its tires, yet for all its flaws, it did not disappoint.
After I dropped off my stuff at the hotel, my ancient Panda Young bucked and started with each gear shift, and I found myself, as I set out on the winding hillside roads toward my first terme, singing “Long May You Run” by Neil Young as more of a supplication to the engine rather than a way to pass the time. Many of its dashboard features were warped or broken, and the gas gauge, which indicated it was more than empty, hovered in the mid-quarter range after I fed it €20 worth of gas. While in some other rental car, the lack of radio might have offered a quiet reprieve, but this Panda Young offered a sonic, blow-by-blow report of the effect the gear shift had on its ability to climb a hill, or careen down one, or hug the corner of a narrow lane to avoid getting clipped by a truck. Every tick and hiccup of the engine could be heard, and the air vent blew hot or not at all. I kept the windows open. The absence of the passenger side mirror made me extra careful when reversing and stopping, and the rear view’s clouded reflection made me think at times I was seeing double of whatever was behind me. As much as my Bucket List joy brimmed as I drove toward the great thermal pools of Ischia in my vintage Fiat Panda Young, I started to feel like this rental car company should have paid me €25 a day just to drive it, and not the other way around.
And I should have known better than to build up my expectations about Ischia and its terme. I was, after all, visiting out of season, and all of the thermal parks on the island, from Aphrodite to Nettunia, save for one municipal indoor pool downtown, were closed. After spending the day driving from one spot to the next, exhausted, I finally reached the one terme I knew could not close: the volcanic, heated sand at Sant’Angelo. The parking attendant there smiled wide with interest as I rattled into his lot that overlooked the beautiful serene bay where children waded and expensive shops sold Italian versions of Lili Pulitzer dresses and €4 cappuccino.
“Let me park this for you, no?” he insisted, and I insisted further on parking it myself, aiming for the spot in the far corner he’d offered, away from the shining BMWs and Audis and Volkswagens in the center row, avoiding embarrassment for once with the sticky, engine-killing clutch while in reverse. “This car, is yours?” the attendant asked, amused, and he offered to hold my keys, for collateral. Reader, I let him! The beach at Sant’Angelo is bisected by a small walkway that leads out to a large rock formation, volcanically inclined, and I could imagine Elena Greco here, tending to her children, buying a gelato from a nearby shop, mooning over Nino. As I walked the mile or so down the paved footpath, past the expensive homes with gardens that would soon bloom with color, past the closed spas, and onto, finally, the beach, I expected to find… what? I was here, and everything was quiet, off-season, shuttered. My feet hurt from riding the clutch and brake. I sat on the beach, took off my shoes, and felt the heat of the sand sink in. The volcanic core below heats the beach, and I found myself hiking up my skirt and covering my legs, as Elena Greco’s mother had done, taking in its warmth. I got up and walked along the shoreline, willing myself not to add to my ever-growing collection of shells, when I discovered them: terra cotta tile sea glass. Suddenly the shoreline gleamed with a dozen or so soft-edged tiles, elaborate designed lacquered surfaces, and I gathered as many as I could, tucking them into my bag, thrilled at my luck of discovery, when an Asian woman, approached me and, in a mix of Italian and English, offered to massage my feet for €5. My toes perked up. It soon turned into a full-body rub on my blanket, right there on the beach, for €30, and as I felt her firm touch press into the nape of my neck, and as the sand of the geothermal heat filtered up through my body, I had somehow got the thing I came for, or anyway, at least an off-season version of it. Upon returning to retrieve my Panda Young, invigorated by my terracotta tiles and my bit of human connection, I fell into conversation with the parking attendant, who, as he handed me back my keys, and discounted my parking fee, invited me to meet him later at a nearby bar. Intrigued but tethered to a sweetheart back home, and not wanting to drive in the dark, I refused him with all possible pleasantry of an American in Italy, and went on my way.
The next morning, I woke up around 6 a.m. and, reviewing a map, realized there was a natural terme I had failed to visit: the Sorgenti Termali di Sorgeto—part ocean, part boiling water—ruled by the tide, located not too far from Sant’Angelo. How had I missed it? My Panda Young seemed a bit hesitant as I once again powered up the hillside, but it huffed and rolled onward as I passed by the now dormant café bar where I would have met the parking attendant, and then down a tiny path until I found Sorgeto. I parked along the cliff and walked down about 300 staircase steps to the ocean, swimsuit on, and realized as I waded in, that the hot water on the ebb was too hot to bear and the cold water on the flow was far, far too cold. Finding the perfect mix was nearly impossible and if something happened, if I got cast out to sea, or burned, or twisted my ankle, literally no one was there to help. So I left Sorgeto after a few minutes and, galvanized by the prospect of breakfast at my bnb, rattled onward, relieved that my Panda, as tired as it seemed, did not fail me in this deserted spot.
It was not until I’d packed the car when, upon settling the bill and saying my last goodbyes to my host, that I had, in fact, tuckered out my poor Panda Young. Its engine refused to turn over, and I mustered the best possible Italian phrasing over my cell phone to the rental shop that “la macchina non lavoro!” and soon two young men on a scooter rode out to the bnb with a fresh battery and spent the next half hour working under the hood, attempting to start it, grumbling in my general direction when I spoke, as though I was somehow to blame for the demise of the thirty-year-old car, and me all the while grateful that this had not happened forty minutes earlier at the Sorgento terme, where, alone and hungry and with poor cell service, the end to this story would have been very different. As they finally got the engine to return to its usual rattle, I hopped in, and drove it back to the rental company, safe and sound. I’d planned on taking an afternoon ferry back to Napoli, but decided instead, like dear Elena Greco, to catch the earliest ferry out, and within minutes of faring well to the ailing Panda Young and its owners, I set off for Napoli. I found a taxi from the ferry, and after contemplating renting another car to get me up to Viterbo over a quick cappuccino and sfogliatelle, decided I’d had enough of driving, at least for a few days. Instead, I caught a northbound train to Rome on La Frecce, reviewing my reading of My Brilliant Friend for Monday’s class and writing in my journal, taking in the turned-over fields and tiny rural crossings. I switched trains two hours later at Termini in Rome, caught another to Trastevere, and people-watched until the arrival of my own Viterbo-bound train, where I got off at the Porta Romana stop an hour or so later, and walked from the station that sells the best ciambellas in the world, past the McDonald’s that is also a gas station, through the stone Roman gates of the walled-in city, down the cobbled streets toting my roller-suitcase, past the church and the San Sisto bar, and pausing, before I turned onto my street, Via Vetulonia, to admire the puke green Fiat Panda Young, sitting dormant in its ancient rattling glory, parked haphazardly in front of the Chinese euro store. I thought of its assembly-line cousin, hundreds of miles away, on a volcanic island that welcomed me in spite of my too-early arrival to its fair land and smiled. Hello, my friend! I thought, peeking in at the array of solar hula-dancers swaying on its dusty dashboard, and made my way toward home.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks, Sugar Mountain (2020) and Heard Around Town (2015), and her short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Greensboro Review, Meridian, Phoebe, The Southeast Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in Exeter, New Hampshire.