As I walk along the road I see a girl in a barrista’s apron come out of the bar where she presumably works. She’s on the phone and quiet tears are rolling down her tired-looking face. Her man takes her free hand and draws her towards the safety of her moped which is standing outside the bar. She crumples onto the seat and rests her forehead on her boyfriend’s shoulder as he stands beside her, stroking her hair. Neither of them seem aware of anyone else around them, despite being on a busy street corner.
At a traffic light, another boy loses his temper with his girlfriend, riding pillion behind him, who has just nearly knocked him off balance as she fusses with her hair. “It’s not a pushbike, you know!” She flicks her long brunette ringlets back over her shoulders and turns up her nose, uncontrite at the scolding.
It’s Friday night. The street that cuts through from Via Sant’Orsola to Piazza Teatro Massimo is lined with mopeds and packed with people, and the air is thick with marijuana smoke. A large number of the people creating the smoke are lounging on mopeds. Many are sitting side-saddle. Some are even cross-legged. It’s the best way to avoid losing your precious transport: don’t let it out of your sight. Even better than that, don’t ever dismount. Just stay on it until you decide to move on, like a small-scale, motorised gypsy.
An old man buzzes along the road at a snail’s pace, one leg hanging off the footplate of his ancient Vespa to counterbalance the weight of the engine, which would otherwise tip the bike over. There’s little to no regard for any other traffic: a line of cars stacks up behind him as he pootles down the middle of the road, not giving them space to pass. A car coming the other way, overtaking other mopeds, seems about sure to take out the old man’s extended leg, but at the last moment the car pulls a few inches across and disaster is averted. The old man continues on his way, oblivious.
A pair of mopeds, each with a man driving and a girl riding pillion, travel abreast along the road. The four riders are deep in conversation, laughing and joking with each other. A car behind bips at them and the moped driver closest to the middle of the road glances over his shoulder before accelerating ahead of his friends momentarily. The car passes. The second moped pulls level, taking the first moped’s place in the middle of the road, and conversation resumes as before.
A Vespa comes towards me down Via Umberto. On each handlebar there’s a laden plastic shopping bag. A man is driving, grinning as his girlfriend, sitting behind him with her arms wrapped around his waist, whisper-shouts in his ear. A dog’s head pops out from the side. He’s big and honey-coloured, with long ears which flap in the wind. He can barely fit onto the footplate, but he doesn’t seem bothered. He wriggles around the man’s feet and yet another shopping bag so that he can look down the road from the other side of the steering column with a big doggy grin. Forget hanging out of car windows: real canine heaven is a seat on a Vespa, the open road and a shopping bag full of sausages.