mini adventures in a taxi
by Janice Nigro
When I lived in Norway I discovered that Norwegians, at least when they are in Norway, are not big fans of making small talk with people they do not know. OK, strangers, the kind you make casual conversation with at bus stops or in the elevator. I used to think that the way to really make a Norwegian who did not know me uncomfortable was to say good morning in the elevator on the way up to my floor, even at work where my face was at least familiar.
It wasn’t all in my own head. A local radio station once interviewed random foreigners on the street about differences between Norway and other countries. “It is difficult to meet people, ” they said. In response, the Norwegians interviewed just said, “Why would we talk to strangers?”
It is of course a gross exaggeration because some of the most entertaining people I have ever met were Norwegian (and quiet me is no one to pass judgement). Nevertheless, even Norwegians make jokes about what it must be like for a foreigner to navigate their country. Norway was the one country I never traveled solo in. Yes, I traveled solo to the country but I was never alone once I got there. When I mentioned to a Norwegian co-worker that I was disappointed for not having any solo adventures in the country, she replied that it might not be that much fun anyway because it might be difficult to meet people along the way.
I am not exactly sure how you unbecome being a stranger unless you talk to them. And in certain situations you may want to. Such as finding a romantic partner. Or you know, making conversation with your taxi driver! Cab drivers can be a great informational resource (it’s speed socializing at its best), but they are strangers. At home in the USA, it’s easy; just ask them about Uber or where they are from. Or use the tactic of one of my recent co-travelers; simply ask “how are you today?”
Cab rides are not cheap anywhere (maybe Bali relatively). In Norway you could easily wrack up a huge bill for a taxi, especially if you call for one. It might be less in the USA, but then it might be a longer distance with traffic. And in Italy the cost still seems somewhat random (per my most recent visit in October) from one driver to the next but never cheap. It seems then as if you don’t get the full value of the ride if you don’t bother to strike up a conversation with them.
I get the most for my money in taxis in Italy. For me a taxi ride in Italy can be at the very least a 15-minute lesson in Italian. Some speak English very well and persist until they realize that I can understand more than a little bit of Italian. Then they start to talk to me like another Italian (I am not that good). A taxi driver once asked me how long I would be staying (it was Florence) and then based on my answer, predicted how much weight I would gain. On the way out of Roma this last time, I asked the driver at 6 AM if it was the end of his day or the beginning, and he responded that it was the end of the beginning of his day (in Italian). In Bologna, the taxi driver complained about the price two guys were hustling us for to carry our baggage to our train.
The most relevant topic of conversation was once over a mutual appreciation of chocolate and gelato. While we were traveling at about 10,000 km/hr, the driver, Marcello, used both of his hands (just to be clear-at the same time) to passionately describe his favorite gelateria in Roma. If I survived the ride, I thought, it might be a good place to try.
I have since decided that even shy me can ask at least this one question in a taxi in Italy in order to start a conversation (even though it might be hazardous to my health). It isn’t clear that they will send you to their favorite hopefully local place but you can ask, and maybe asking in Italian is likely to get a more sincere answer than in English.
In Milano, the driver taking us from the train station to our hotel recommended Grom. Grom does not sound much like an Italian gelateria, but it is. It was started by two Italians in Torino, although the first time I ate Grom gelato was actually in Paris. Grom has grown (?; it is even in Hollywood), and now instead of one per large city, you can find them on many corners, almost like Starbucks here. This driver explained that he preferred Grom because the company uses organic ingredients.
Grom is not local, and local gelaterias are the ones that I like to try. So I waited until I asked another taxi driver in Milano which gelateria he liked. He said, “Not Grom!” He claimed that their ingredients were not as high quality as reported and instead referred me to a gelateria called Chocolat…hmmm a gelateria called Chocolat was one I had to find. I forced my mother to walk a few kilometers to reach this place. We did (I understood!), and along the way we discovered the Sforza castle.
When we arrived in Roma this past October, I knew which gelateria I wanted to go to so I started the conversation by asking our driver, who had magically packed four of us and our bags into his small taxi, if he was Roman. I love to ask if they are Roman, as if I am a woman in the third century BC or something like that. He was Roman, and although I didn’t ask him about gelaterias, he spoke in high speed Italian about speaking English and where all the tourists are from.
I never tried the gelateria question in LA but maybe it’s time to try!
©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com