April 06, 2022

Road Trip: Culture Shock and Renting a Car in Italy

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Culture shock is one of the most basic concepts in sociology, involving a feeling of confusion in a new environment that those accustomed to the location likely take for granted. Taking a road trip in a foreign country is a great way to experience culture shock: something at once familiar becomes strange in a place where the language and customs are different from what we are used to. Culture shock one of the most interesting things about travel.

Renting a car in most other countries often means that the instrument panels will look different, especially if the speedometer is based on kilometers per hour rather than miles per hour. While most rental cars in the U.S. have automatic transmission, nearly all European rentals are manual transmission, commonly known as a stick shift. And the one that we rented on our most recent trip didn’t even take gasoline, but instead ran on metano.

We’d never heard of metano before arriving in Italy in July 2021. We had heard all about the rental car shortage in the U.S. over the summer and were happy to get a rental at a relatively reasonable rate. So sure, a metano rental car would be fine.

Um, what is metano?

Metano is Italian for compressed natural gas (CNG). Far more popular in Europe than in the U.S., there are about 175,000 CNG vehicles here compared with more than 1.4 million in Europe, with the majority in Italy. That made it relatively easy to find gas stations that sold metano in northern Italy where we would be driving. We were given instructions for downloading an app that would use GPS to direct us to stations, and we were game to give it a try.

The good news: metano was cheaper by the liter than regular gas, and greener. CNG vehicles produce a tiny fraction of the emissions of gasoline-fueled vehicles and reduce greenhouse gasses.

The less good news: our rental car, a SEAT Arona (a make and model we had never heard of before), had a CNG range of about 400 kilometers. Val Gardena, our destination in the Alps, was about 350 kilometers away. We encountered lots of stop-and-go traffic on the autostrada near Milan and were nervous about running low on fuel.

It was nearly lunch time when we got started, but we didn’t want to make any extra stops, and unlike in the U.S., we didn’t see signs that indicated food or fuel stops coming up. On occasion, we would see Autogrill restaurants as we would pass under them: they appeared as overpasses above the highway without a clear route to get to them (see this story for an image). There we were in Italy, with its reputation as foodie heaven, and we ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we had packed for the plane as our first meal as we drove.

We figured we’d better get some more metano before we approached the Alps. The metano app worked well, and we followed the directions from the app easily enough, but found that Italian highways don’t necessarily have exits right by what appear to be roadside filling stations. Our exit required us to drive a few kilometers back in the opposite direction to get to the gas station. And then the first station we went to was inexplicably closed. Many stations are also closed on Sundays (but we arrived on a Saturday). The one we went to had a nice little shop inside, with a sparkling-clean bathroom for customers to use.

After getting back onto the autostrada, we used the app to find the next station on our route. This time we weren’t surprised by the doubling-back we had to do to, and the station was open, thankfully.

But pumping metano is not like pumping traditional fuel. The cap must form a tight seal, with arrows on the tank aligned with arrows on the pump. Thankfully, an attendant was able to help us, and we noticed with future fill-ups that other stations required refueling by an attendant (no extra charge). Our fill-ups were more frequent but cost a fraction of what the same amount of gas would have cost.

To prepare for the road trip in advance, you might think that doing a Google Maps search for point-to-point directions and printing them out would be a good idea, just in case cell service was spotty. But addresses aren’t always clearly marked on buildings, nor are street signs. We would learn that you needed to know the next town you were headed towards and follow the signs that way, especially if you found yourself at a multi-exit roundabout, or traffic circle. You often had to figure this out very quickly to avoid missing the correct turnoff, or you would have to go around the circle again. We literally found ourselves driving in circles more than once!

When you arrive at your destination, cars might not be allowed on the narrow cobblestone corridors, and you might have to park on the outskirts of town. I had no conception of what limited parking meant until circling a town trying to figure out where to park, and then from there figuring out how to pay to park, and then exactly where our hotel was if there were no street names visible and few addresses.

Because the U.S. is so fundamentally oriented around cars, and most cities and suburban areas developed along with or after the use of the automobile, we were not used to the challenges we faced in Italy. Even in crowded U.S. cities like San Francisco, Boston, and New York, there are places to park, albeit often incredibly expensive places.

Road trips—foreign and domestic—can be opportunities to experience culture shock. It’s easier to navigate if you know the local language, and another example of how we can “make the familiar strange” once back at home. What are your favorite travel culture shock experiences?

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