Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Free chocolate is always a good thing

What a bizarre, random and wonderful morning yesterday. G and I got up at 6.30am (yikes) and dragged our sleepy selves to viale dei Mille to give out free chocolates to complete strangers on bikes. As I said, bizarre and random.

You could be forgiven for not knowing that yesterday was European Car Free Day. Of course, Florence was as grid-locked and smog-filled as ever. The avenues were playing out their usual early morning symphony of honking car horns. I often think how pleasant it must be in countries like Denmark or Sweden, where everyone cycles and where wearing a cycling helmet isn't the social equivalent of admitting that you spend your evenings putting your DVDs in alphabetical order (ie: something that most people would rather throw themselves off the Ponte Vecchio than confess to doing themselves, no matter how much of a good idea it might be). Of course, this is car-loving Italy, not some Nordic paradise where people actually stop and give way at roundabouts (give way at roundabouts?). The first rule of the road here is 'It's always my right of way', shortly followed by 'I'm bigger than you, so it's definitely my right of way' and then 'If you don't get out of my way then I'm going to grate you through the grill of my SUV'.

Nonetheless, as part of European Car Free Day, the FIAB - an Italy-wide cycling association - organised volunteers in cities across the country to stand at important junctions at rush hour and hand out free chocolates to anyone cycling past. The idea was to reward all those people who leave their cars at home, as well as to promote local pro-cyclist groups, like Florence's 'Firenze In Bici'. We had fluorescent vests and signs hanging round our necks explaining that we weren't complete lunatics, although most people looked at us us with suspicion at first.
'Free chocolate?' They would say, eyes narrowing, 'What's the catch?'. Once they realised we weren't trying to sell insurance or help them find God, they loosened up. Everyone smiled and chatted. One elderly gentleman, who was approximately half my height and rode an ancient creaking bike, told me that unfortunately, he couldn't eat chocolate anymore. He wobbled off his bike and informed me that he had been born on 17th January 1918. He then proceeded to slowly trundle across the busy intersection diagonally, completely ignoring the traffic lights, to go to a bar on the other side. 10 minutes later, he crossed back to his parked bike, going diagonally again across about 20 lanes of traffic, waggled his finger at me and cycled off.

So it was a bizarre morning. What was wonderful about it was the feeling of giving something away for free, telling people how great they are and making so many people smile. Wow. I was buzzing for the rest of the day. The most difficult part was worrying about my Italian while explaining what we were doing to complete strangers. By the end of the morning though, I could even pronounce 'associazione' without getting tongue-tied or spitting in people's faces. Result.


Emma said...

If I had known I would have cycled all the way from my house to Florence just to get some chocolate from you in your fluorescent vest. I feel rather smug though as I very rarely drive (about once a week) and walk whenever I can.
But then I'm not Italian.

Anonymous said...

What a great I idea, here in Chichester my local cycle group give away free breakfasts twice a year..... this year they even had a bike doctor to help fix the problems with the bikes. Unfortunatley he just laughed at my sisters 15 year old bike that I was riding with one pedal, on brakes and a basket on the back! Up the pedal power

A Little Gnocchi said...

Back in the US now after 6.5 months in Florence and back to biking to work. I think that you're terribly brave for biking in Florence and those that do should also be given free bottles of Chianti to steady their nerves as they take to the roads.

Mel said...

Chianti sounds like a great idea... ! And Matt, what's all this about them LAUGHING at your sister's 15 year old bike? Bike doctor is a brilliant idea though and I think I'll suggest it to my cycling association.
Mel x

Bari said...

Okay Melissa you have convinced me that YOU are the person I want to advise me on making FITC as green as possible. SO... when we have an office, a theatre, a rehearsal room.... and all the things we don't have now..... I would like them GREEN. We can create not only an international theatre center.... but one that demonstrates environmental responsibility... creatively. Want to help me? Brava with your stories... and thank you for them. Bari

Anonymous said...

All this cycling instead of using you car stuff is so positive but I have to share one little grumble. Why oh why do Italians who cycle as a sport (you know, the ones with all the gear on) behave SO badly? I always find them riding 5-aside, in the middle of the road chatting to each other. No matter how long I patiently wait for them to move over so I can overtake them in my car, they never do! They also disregard red traffic lights and junctions where they should give way and shake their fist at you or shout obsenities if you so much as dare to honk your horn.
Gli darei altro che cioccolatini!!