By Sarah White
The first clue that this might not be purely a joy-ride was the weather. The temperature hovered at the cold edge of comfortable, wearing the jacket I had brought to Italy. The scowling clouds looked like they could easily unleash rain. This was not auspicious for a ride on a rented Vespa through the back roads of Chianti. But dammit, it was my birthday, and this rural spa–medieval hamlet–hotel rented scooters. It was now or never.
To prepare, I spent the morning watching Vespa how-to videos on YouTube: how to start the engine, how to get the scooter on and off the kickstand, riding skills refreshers. It had been 13 years since I parted ways with my beautiful little vintage 150cc Vespa Primavera on the byways outside Madison. But scootering is like riding a bike—the body remembers. Right?
The second clue that this might not be purely a joy-ride came when I realized that the map in my hand bore little resemblance to the landscape around me. The place names at the first fork in the road were not those on the map. But no worries, I had my iPhone with Google Maps as my copilot. I took the right fork, didn’t like the looks of the broad agricultural plains ahead, and made my first cautious U-turn back toward the cozier-looking hills to the left. Scooters are definitely more stable at higher speeds. It has something to do with the gyroscopics of those tiny wheels.
The third clue came when, thoroughly chilled but smiling from head to toe, I pulled into a little parking lot in the village of Gaiole in Chianti. I carefully turned the scooter around so its nose faced the road and killed the engine. Then, I could not for the life of me get the Vespa to “hop on its kickstand” as the YouTube videos had suggested would happen so easily.
The concierge and I had rehearsed this in the parking lot of the hotel. “Well, you can always get a man to help you,” she suggested as she waved me on. Now, I spied my helpers–three men at an outdoor table at a café across the road. “Scusa?!” I called. “Scusa? Aiutamé?” Finally, after several shouts, one detached himself and crossed the street to help me hoist the scooter onto its stand. To break the silence, I asked him if I could park in this lot. For thirty minutes, he told me.
My difficulty was not a matter of lack of strength, or body weight—it’s just that I am barely 5’3”, and a 200cc scooter is built for an average-height man to ride. My center of gravity isn’t situated where it needs to be for the scooter to respond to my leans. It behaves instead like a recalcitrant horse. Or more accurately, dead weight precariously balanced on two small wheels.
The scene was repeated in reverse when I finished my pizza lunch. I spied a man unloading bread from a van nearby and again, “Scusa” and”Aiutamé” got me what I needed. But now I knew the truth—this wasn’t going to be an afternoon of point-to-point touring through Chianti villages to meditate on turning 65. I’d be lucky to get the beast and me back to our hotel without losing control on a turn or dropping it sideways in some awkward blind spot, at the mercy of Italy’s overly casual drivers.
And so day went down to dusk on my 65th birthday. I motored past vineyards and olive groves into hills of dense forest, spotlit in green and gold by shafts of sunlight that randomly broke through the clouds and just as randomly disappeared. I navigated hairpin turns at angles of ascent and descent that brought back the long-ago lessons of motorcycle driving class, where I learned to slow the beast on approach, plan a through-line, and accelerate gently along it while fixing my eyes on an exit point beyond the curve.
At days’ end I was finally back in my warm resort, drinking red wine and meditating on turning 65. On this day I had by turns been thrilled, terrified, disappointed, satisfied, and perplexed. And multiple times, I had been forced to ask for help. As far as being a harbinger of things to come—if as goes the day, so goes the life—then this is what turning 65 means. Study up, courageously attempt, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Oh, and—avoid falling. Above all, do NOT drop the beast.
© 2021 Sarah White