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The One Word You Must Know When Driving Abroad

In the mid-spring, I took a solo trip to the Alto Adige region of Italy, staying in a small town near Merano. The plan was to write, walk, drink wine, and spend the weekend in Cinque Terre. The plan went off without a hitch. Until my drive home.

Fueling up …

I had half a tank as I left Italy and headed back to Frankfurt on a beautiful Sunday morning. As I got closer to the Swiss border I considered my gas gauge. I had enough fuel to reach Switzerland, but I’d forgotten Swiss Francs and was worried I wouldn’t be able to pay with a credit card at a Swiss gas station.

So, still in Italy, I stopped at the next gas station. Unlike anywhere else I’ve driven in Europe, the Italian station had a pump labeled diesel, another called gasolio, and a third option that I immediately dismissed since it had no semblance to the Super and Super Plus, or 95 and 98 labels I was used to seeing. I picked up the gasolio nozzle, filled my car, and paid the attendant watching me pump.

… and breaking down

I was back on the road, about five kilometers from the station, when I stopped to pay a toll. As the gate lifted, I heard my car sputter. “No,” I whispered to myself. “No, no, no.”

I turned the key over again and again but the engine didn’t start. Drivers lined up behind me—in a panic, I managed to coax the car through the toll gate. Maybe I can make it to the side of the road, I thought hopefully. But I’d picked the toll gate farthest from the shoulder. The car sputtered again. “Nope, we’re stopping here,” I said to the car.

The power of charades

Heart racing, sweat coating my palms (and the steering wheel), I took a deep breath and planned my sprint across the toll plaza. Feeling like Frogger, I dodged between cars and trucks and managed to make it to the official-looking building perched alongside the toll plaza. But it was Sunday, and the doors were locked. I was close to despair when I noticed that one of the toll booths held an actual person. I ran up to it and knocked on the window, asking “Parla inglese?” “Do you speak English?” This was not an interaction I was going to be able to muddle through in poor Italian.

The man shook his head no, so I started gesturing toward my car. He picked up a phone and handed it to me. The voice on the other end shouted, in enthusiastic English, “10 minutes!” and then hung up.

I trotted back across the toll plaza, weaving between cars, put on a reflective safety vest, and stood beside my sad, broken Honda. After a few minutes a giant truck rumbled up, flashing a large arrow on its back to direct other cars around me. In broken English, the driver assured me that they were calling a tow truck while the passenger nodded along.

As I was trying to explain to them in hand signals that I probably just needed an oil change, the truth struck me. “Oh no. Gasolio isn’t gasoline,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Tomorrow is holiday. Nothing open. You will have to stay. And probably tomorrow, too,” the driver said.

“Don’t stay in Como,” the passenger added, making the money sign with his hands, referring to the Italian Lakes District town made famous to Americans by George Clooney.

Along for the ride

Before I could start planning an accidental-on-purpose run-in with Clooney, the tow truck showed up. Gesturing at my German license plate, the driver seemed to suggest that the garage owner spoke a bit of German. I felt a moment of relief; my German was better than my Italian.

After a short trip down the road, we reached the garage. The owner, clearly off duty in fitted jeans and leather moccasins, arrived with his wife. He took a look and in a mix of German and English explained, “It’s a holiday tomorrow.” I nodded, despair creeping into my expression. “Fünf Minuten, wait,” he said, and then drove off.

I looked around. The garage was surrounded by (closed) shops, forest, etc. “Where else am I going to go?” I laughed.

A family affair

The owner arrived back with reinforcements—his daughter, who spoke some English, and his mother, who seemed to be along for the ride. Soon after, his son—one of the garage’s mechanics—appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The son got straight to work, sniffing the gas cap and nodding, murmuring words. I caught “gasolio” and “benzina verde.”

I quickly Googled the term benzina verde—that mysterious third pump I’d dismissed as not-for-my-car was, in fact, unleaded gas. I smacked my forehead.

The owner and his son started ripping apart my car and draining my tank. I shook my head, mumbling to myself, “So stupid.”

“No, no,” said the daughter, overhearing me. “It happens.” But I had to wonder how often.

After draining the tank, they poured in some benzina verde and waited, as the engine smoked. Finally, we heard a sputter.

Hugs all around

After I paid and thanked everyone profusely, the emotional goodbyes commenced. I got a hug from the daughter and a kiss on both cheeks from the grandmother. Intoxicated by relief and the unexpected warmth of the family, I went to hug the shop owner … and was met with confusion until his daughter laughed and explained my intent. We settled for an awkward pat on the back.

As I began to drive away, the shop owner yelled after me directions to the next gas station, “links, zwei kilometer.” Left, two kilometers!

Fueling up in Switzerland after all

I crossed the Swiss border and there was the gas station. It, of course, had the familiar Super and Super Plus pumps. And it accepted euros.

All I could do was laugh. Alone in an isolated stretch of an unfamiliar country with a broken car—it was one of my worst travel nightmares. But I’d gotten through it. “What new nightmare will replace this?” I wondered. As I thought about it, I realized as long as I’m still able to walk on my own two feet, there’s no travel nightmare I can’t conquer.

I’m just better off Googling “gasoline” in the local language before getting to the pump.

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