Bad ‘Carma’

Travel Stories: David Farley wanted to drive only occasionally during his stay in Italy. So why did something always go wrong?

08.11.11 | 12:43 AM ET

Photo: ciccioetneo via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

I‘m convinced I was cursed. Bedeviled by heavy machinery. Hexed by the highway. I had to have been. After all, here I was, once again, my hands firmly placed on the trunk of the car, ready to give it a push start. This time it was Stefania’s car that died on me. It was 8 in the morning and beads of sweat were already barreling down my forehead. I’d just sprinted to Stefania’s house to tell her that her car wouldn’t start and she’d walked back to the car with me to help get it going.

I was living in an isolated village 30 miles north of Rome called Calcata. I’d moved here to work on a book about the unusual holy relic that had been kept in the village church for centuries and had recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances—the foreskin of Jesus. I really did want to find out what happened to the Holy Foreskin, but at the moment I had other challenges. My wife Jessie had only been here for two weeks when we received some bad news: her dad, who a month earlier had suffered a heart attack and then undergone a quadruple bypass operation, was having some serious complications. Her stepmom asked if she could come to Minneapolis as soon as possible. Stefania, one of the locals I’d already befriended and who is so generous I swear she’d sleep in the square if I needed her house for a few nights, offered to lend me her car to take Jessie to the airport.

That is, if we could get it started. We’d recruited a passerby to help. And with Stefania now in the driver’s seat, we pushed the car onto the (only) road that passes by Calcata. I stood there watching the car coast down the hill, as it disappeared around the bend and down into the valley below.

“Did you hear the engine start?” Jessie asked.

I hadn’t. This wasn’t good. There were no buses for hours and, if we couldn’t get Stefania’s car to work, Jessie would miss her flight.

“I should have known better than to get in a car with you,” she joked.

I knew she was only half joking. In the six weeks I’d been here, a few other locals had been generous enough to lend me their cars. The problem was that every time I took someone’s car out for a spin, it broke down. How could I not think I’d suddenly come under a curse? 

Besides, Calcata, this bewitching medieval hill town now occupied by artists and aging hippies, seemed pregnant with curses. People spoke of them—as well as a strange energy oozing from the rock—in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s a good thing you and your wife aren’t planning to stay in Calcata for a longer time,” Gemma, the Belgian woman who runs the teahouse, told me. “Couples don’t stay together here. There’s a curse on couples.”

Others spoke of curses that turned people into drug addicts and alcoholics and raging maniacs who would flip out very publicly on the square. The most famous curse, of course, stemmed from the relic that I had moved there to find. When the Holy Foreskin was discovered in Calcata in 1557 by the parish priest, he took it to the ruling Anguilara family. At the time, they only knew there was a relic of some kind in the silk sack. The problem was that every time someone attempted to open it, their hands went numb. So, thinking they needed someone of “complete purity,” a virgin, to open up the sack, they marched in seven-year-old Clarice. With one gentle tug, the silk sack opened and the Holy Foreskin was discovered. Miracles, of course, occurred. People rejoiced. Pilgrims came. And, according to the story, young Clarice died a few weeks later.

After that, every girl named Clarice born in Calcata would die before becoming a teenager. At least that’s how the story went. And the people of Calcata believed it so much that before abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978, women in Calcata with unwanted pregnancies would tell themselves that the baby’s name was going to be Clarice. Not long after, they’d miscarry.

Another foreskin-related curse has apparently stricken Don Dario, the priest who was responsible for the foreskin when it went missing: half of his face became paralyzed not long after the relic disappeared, giving him an unfortunate Dick Cheney-like sneer when he talks.

Having shown up in Calcata with the explicit goal of trying to find the Holy Foreskin, I amused myself by wondering in which way the curse would strike me. The Vatican had actually forbid speaking or writing about the relic in 1900, saying it could cause “an irreverent curiosity.” I had just that, and at times I began to wonder if I’d never get out of Calcata alive—or at least without a limp. But the vehicle of my curse was one I didn’t expect.

It began a few days before Jessie was scheduled to arrive from New York. I’d received what I thought was a blessing. John, a jazz drummer from New York who owned an apartment in Calcata, had recently moved to Berlin, so he generously offered his car to me when he wasn’t around. I’d only have to pay for gas, and be his chauffeur to and from the airport when he came back to Calcata.

It was more than a fair offer. And the first day I had the car, after dropping John off at the airport, I felt like a 16-year old with a freshly printed driver’s license. The car wasn’t perfect—it was dented, the left blinker didn’t work, the back doors wouldn’t open from the outside, the radiator had to be re-filled with water before every use, and the motor clicked and clanged with strange (but, according to John, harmless) noises. 

Still, having a car would change everything. It would be the vehicle which would literally drive me out of the obscurity that is Calcata. I’d no longer be straight-jacketed by the two tiny food shops in Calcata Nuova. I could drive to Rignano Flaminio, about 10 miles away, and shop at the big supermarkets, which actually sold vegetables that weren’t a day away from rotting and offered an epicurean selection of edibles. I could now visit some of the surrounding towns I’d heard so much about—Civita Castellana, Sutri, Anguillara, Viterbo—and maybe even write a travel story or two to make some extra money.

Life was great! I couldn’t wait to pick up Jessie at the airport and, instead of turning to catch the train back to Rome, march her out into the parking lot and say “ta-da!” when we got to John’s car. 

The morning I departed for Fiumicino Airport, I made sure to leave early in order to get gas and re-fill the radiator with water. Two miles from the airport something thumped underneath the car. The battery light flicked on, shining bright and staring at me like the red laser of a gun pointed at my forehead. The water gauge shot up to the red zone.

I took my hands off the steering wheel and steepled them. “Please, please, please,” I begged out loud to the patron saint of automobiles, “please at least let me make it to the airport.” If I didn’t make it, Jessie and I would never find each other. Stupidly, I never told her how to get to Calcata on her own, which from the airport is a complex itinerary of taking the train to the subway, the subway to another light rail, the light rail to an infrequent bus.

My prayers were answered. Five minutes later, despite steam pouring through the cracks in the hood and every driver looking at me and pointing to the plume, as if I hadn’t noticed it, I pulled into the short-term parking at Fiumicino Airport.

I walked around, panicked, not sure what to do. A few bus drivers, huddled around smoking, were flirting with some English girls, so, I asked if they knew how I could get my car to a mechanic.

“You have very, very problem,” one of the drivers said. And just for emphasis, his two colleagues laughed.

Somehow I got it together enough to find out how to call a tow truck. In the meantime I met Jessie. After a long embrace, I said: “I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that I came here to pick you up in a car.”

She brightened up, just as I had imagined she might when I had fantasized about telling her of the big surprise. And then she frowned and tilted her head, bracing herself for the bad news.

“The bad news is that the car broke down on the way here and we have to go outside and look for the tow truck.”

Which we did. Two hours later we were at an auto shop in an industrial part of Ostia Antica. When the mechanic took a look at the blown radiator and the broken alternator, he shook his head. “Very expensive,” said Domenico, the sexagenarian mechanic. We waited while he called around for parts. Jessie and I bickered about what to do, Jessie’s argument being that John’s piece-of-crap car probably wasn’t even worth what it would cost to repair. But I couldn’t make that decision. I wasn’t going to email John that night and tell him, “Hey, your car broke down today and since it’s kind of a crappy car anyway, I decided to have it junked.”

The big question was: how much was all this going to cost? And finally, at 5 that afternoon, six hours after I’d met Jessie at the airport, I heard the mechanic say to his 20-something colleague in Italian, “You speak English, right?”

“A little,” said the other mechanic.

“Then tell him how much this is going to cost.”

Though Domenico and I were far from exchanging verses from the Divine Comedy, we had been largely successful in communicating with each other in basic Italian and miming. I wasn’t sure why he now had decided to have his colleague sputter out a number to us in English. Why couldn’t he have just written it down and shown it to me?

The young man approached us. “Eh…,” he started out. I recognized this sound—it’s the murmur we all make when we’re forced to speak a language we barely know. “Price for fix car is….”

This was the moment of truth. Jessie and I had been preparing for the worst. We figured the damages would certainly be over 200 euros, but there’s a chance it could get as high as 500 (roughly $650).

The young mechanic paused, trying to figure out the English words for the numbers of the price for the repair.

“....five thousand ninety euros.”

Stunned, I stared back at him in silence. I felt my mouth drop. That was $7,000. I know that mechanics sometimes have a reputation for taking advantage of customers, but this was beyond extortion. I was already wondering if I should tell John about his soon-to-be junked car tonight or wait till the morning. Then Jessie repeated the cost in Italian.

“No, no, sorry,” the young mechanic said. “Price for fix car is five HUNDRED ninety euro.”

Suddenly having to pay $750 to fix John’s car didn’t seem so bad. On the way back to Calcata—the arduous multi-vehicle journey I’d been hoping to avoid by taking John’s car in the first place—Jessie and I argued about whether we should help pay for some of the repairs or make John pay for it all. I wanted to put in some money—maybe half of the costs—while Jessie took a more conservative view. I understood her sentiments—after all, I’d only used the car twice. But I also didn’t want to penalize John for his generosity in letting me use the car in the first place.

A week after leaving the autoshop in Ostia Antica, Jessie and I picked up the car. It drove wonderfully. The curse was over. At least for the first ten miles. That’s when the belt began to shred; we could hear it thwopping against the motor as we drove along the autostrada. Fortunately we made it back to the autoshop; Domenico lifted up the hood, took one look, and shook his head from side to side. “See you on Monday afternoon,” he said. 

We eventually made it back to Calcata with the car a few days later. But I’d never drive the car again. I got one more use out of it—to pick John up at the airport—but then the car broke down on him. He had it junked.

Which brings us back to the morning when I was taking Jessie to the airport and Stefania’s car wouldn’t start. We were still waiting on the bridge in front of Calcata for Stefania to hopefully drive up the hill, having (hopefully) push started it.

“How am I going to get to the airport?” Jessie asked.

Before I could answer, I heard the hum of a car coming up the road. It was Stefania. She’d started the car as it was coasting down the hill. She stopped next to us and got out, leaving the car idling, and said, “Go. Go. But don’t turn the car off.” Which I obeyed; it was a little bit strange when I had to get gas, but I made it back.

I swore I’d never drive a car again in Italy, or at least one that was owned by someone in Calcata, but a couple weeks later, John was back in town and he and our friend Scot convinced me to take Stefania’s car to the big supermarket in Rignano. After a little cajoling and the promise of free wine that night, I grabbed the spare set of keys Stefania had left with me, and said that we could go. And an hour later, we were loading up the car with all the foodstuffs we’d never find in Calcata and were ready to head back to the village for a night full of eating and drinking.

I didn’t want to press my luck, so I told John to drive us back. John tried starting the car. The engine crunched and jerked and labored, but wouldn’t turn over. Both John and Scot looked at me. “Hey, I’m not the one in the driver’s seat this time,” I said. Still, given that I owned the spare set of keys to Stefania’s car, I felt it was my responsibility. Scot and I got out and tried to push the car.

But pushing didn’t start the car and by now the engine was flooded. We all sat there, leaning against the car in silence. I was pissed at myself for agreeing to this. That’s when John handed me the keys and said, “You’ve got to try it next. After all you’ve been through with cars in Calcata, your karma has got to come around at some point.”

I stared down at the set of keys in his open palm and shook my head. Grabbing the keys, I said, “Okay, but really, it’s not going to work.” I got in the car, leaving the door open, while Scot and John continued standing outside. I put the key in the ignition, took a deep breath, and slowly turned the key.

The engine started up immediately. I sat there, not really sure if I could trust reality at this point, before I noticed Scot and John were already inside the car and screaming at me to “Go, go, go, before it breaks down again!”

I did go. And, after that, I never drove a car from Calcata again. My “carma” had come full circle.


David Farley

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. Hes a contributing writer at AFAR magazine and his writing appears in the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, and Gadling.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University.


2 Comments for Bad ‘Carma’

Vitra 08.11.11 | 10:20 PM ET

I love how you intertwine the details of your temporary home with this Carma!  Did you find the holy Foreskin?

Rich Davies 10.03.11 | 7:31 AM ET

I’ve had something very similar happen in Belgium when travelling from Brussels to Verviers, with a broken down car on a small road and contacting a breakdown company that could only speak Dutch (as Dutch and French are the main two languages in Belgium - sadly, I only knew French!). Trying to describe the situation was a challenge to say the least”!

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