I was on my way from Matera to a small town in the Province of Potenza called Pignola. I hired driver named Luigi to help me search for my Great Grandmother’s birth certificate at Municipio di Pignola.
I thought hiring a driver would be my best bet, since I assumed in small town Italy, my conversational Italian speaking skills would only get me so far. Luigi understood the mission at task and was happy to help, but there was a small problem. We did not leave Matera until 10:30am, on a Monday nonetheless, and the municipio closed at 12.
“Andiamo!” I enthusiastically shouted, and Luigi pressed his foot on the gas and sped down the windy roads of southern Italy. I was keeping my eye on Google Maps to see how our progress was going with him driving at the speed he was. I know in the U.S. there are little symbols for “speed traps” on Google Maps to indicate where police may be hiding. I saw a symbol coming up but was not sure how to describe this in Italian, and my service was somewhat nonexistent, so I was also not trying to inaccurately cause panic. I let it be, sat back, and enjoyed the ride. About ten minutes later, to our right, was the Italian police already on the side of the road, standing with their hands out as if they were hailing a taxi. Luigi pulled over and turned the car off.
The difference in the way in which drivers are pulled over in Italy verses the United States was already much less filled with fearmongering; no sirens, no flashing red lights, no megaphone screaming “PULL OVER.” It was just a simple policeman in uniform, standing on the side of the road, and Luigi abided with no problems whatsoever. I cannot speak for Italian police and citizenship relationships as a whole, as this was one of my few interactions with the polizia, but it seemed as though there was some trust and respect between the two.
Luigi turned his car off, and we stayed inside until the Policeman came over to the driver’s window. Luigi handed him his license and, what I assumed was, his registration. Luigi got out of the car with the policeman to open the trunk for searching. This was also already different than the way traffic stops are handled in the United States. You are not to ever get out of the car unless you have very clear instruction to do so. This is often how/when many African-Americans get killed by police brutality (often when instructed to do so.)
I sat in the backseat, confused as to if I should be getting out or not. I should note that I did not feel fearful whatsoever; the demeanor of the entire ordeal was calm, maybe even friendly. This very much could have been my privilege playing a role in the way we were treated, but as mentioned before, I am not familiar enough with the Italian police to have a strong opinion (though now I am keen to do some research!) I overheard Luigi and the Policeman talking outside of my window, and I heard Luigi explain I’m American trying to get to Pignola for a certificate in time. Luigi asked for my documents, or my passport, and looked at me and said, “Caldo?” implying that sitting in the car must have been hot. I assumed I was to not get out of the car, but Luigi made it clear it’s okay. I got out and explained that in the U.S. you cannot exit your vehicle. The police officer took my passport and Luigi’s documents and headed back to his car. Luigi lit a cigarette and leaned against the passenger-side door.
“Mi dispiace,” I said, feeling guilty about knowing the police could have potentially been there, and that I asked him to go fast to get me there on time. He laughed, said don’t worry about it. I was also thinking, Well, we definitely are not going to make it now.
The police officer came back and asked me which Comune I was trying to reach.
“Pignola per mia bisnonna’s certificate di nascita,” I replied.
He called the Comune, explained to them we got stopped because we were speeding, but instructed them to wait for us because we were still coming, just maybe a little late. He did not give Luigi a ticket and sent us on our way. I was flabbergasted.
When we pulled up the Comune di Pigola about thirty minutes later, the staff was out front waiting for us, with a warm welcoming smile. We went inside where each of our temperatures were checked by a machine due to Covid restrictions, and I continued the search for my ancestor’s history.
Kaitlyn spent two weeks in Southern Italy.