You see, this post was supposed to be my postcard to you from Asti. Just like the postcard I wrote you about Cremona, I was going to share with you some lovely pictures of this Northern Italian town and some thoughts about the couple of hours that we spent there on our way back to England.
It didn’t quite work this way, I am afraid.
First, I didn’t get any photos of Asti and second, we didn’t get to see the town at all beyond a huge parking lot. The photo above is actually from Turin. This distressed face is repeated several times on the grand iron fence of the Royal Palace and it really reminded me of my state of mind a couple of days ago in Asti, even though outwardly I did try to keep it cool.
Due to a past experience in Barcelona when I was attacked in a tunnel of the local metro, I am a little bit jumpy when I travel and I am always on the lookout for potential security issues. To minimise the risks, we try to park only in well-lit and secure parking lots, preferably underground and with restricted access.
In Asti though the parking lot we found was in the open and bang in the middle of town. It was paid for and there were lots of people around, so we figured it was OK and started getting our stuff ready for a short walk around town.
Just as we had opened the boot of the car to get some snacks out, we were approached by someone who was begging for money.
Now, feel free to call me cold-hearted, but I have been conditioned not to give money to beggars. For many years in London there has been a campaign to educate the general public about the dangers of donating money directly to people begging on the streets. What you give out of the goodness of your heart to help a fellow human who is down on his luck, often gets spent on feeding an addiction or to finance something you may not agree with and it is never taxed. It is better to donate to a charity and I agree with this.
So, whilst this person was pressuring us into giving him money and getting a good look of the contents of our boot, I pressured my husband to shut said boot as fast as possible. No, there was nothing really that special there, just our suitcase with all our clothes for the journey and I panicked a little thinking that we would leave the car unattended for two hours and this person may be tempted to return and what were we going to do without clothes if our suitcase disappeared.
My husband shut the boot. And, guess what?! The car keys got shut in the car, too. They were winking at us through the rear window, yet there was no way in heaven we could reach and retrieve them.
Ah, so close and yet so far! Now I had a really good understanding of what this saying actually means.
To make things even more interesting, all our documents, the car papers and our mobile phones got shut in the car, too. So, we couldn’t even call road assistance or our insurance company.
What to do?!
In such moments your brain works overtime and you are prepared to do things which your ego and pride may not allow you to consider otherwise.
‘We need to ask for help!’, I told my husband. The parking lot was suddenly empty, all the people had disappeared, including the guy who had been pestering us for money.
Just then, a couple of cars away from us, we spotted a young man texting on his phone. My husband ran to him.
He knew a little English and with our limited Italian we explained our predicament. ‘I have a friend who is a policeman’, the young man said, ‘He will know what to do!’. We felt hopeful.
Unfortunately, the friend, once contacted, said that he was at work in Milan for the day and couldn’t help personally.
‘No problem!’, said the young man, who all of a sudden was completely at our disposal and took our issue to heart. ‘Let me call 112!’.
112 is an emergency number operating across all Europe. Just like 999 in the UK and 911 in the US. If you are in trouble in the EU, dial it.
Our new friend explained to the operator that we were ‘stranieri‘ (foreigners in English) and that we had a child with us. To our surprise the operator immediately organised for a fire brigade to come to our rescue and we were also assured that the car window wouldn’t be broken during the retrieval of the keys.
Wow! We were speechless. To top it all, the young man said that he would stay with us until the fire brigade arrived in order to translate for us and then he added that he was actually waiting for his fiancée who spoke fluent English.
Coincidence or what?!
Just then his fiancée – a beautiful girl in a stylish blue dress – walked across the car park and after hearing our story from the young man, enthusiastically agreed to stay with us and help us as much as she could.
Ten minutes passed and the fire brigade appeared. I had expected a huge fire engine and instead this cute little Fiat (just like this one) parked in front of us. Three firemen came out – the youngest one with a perennial smile on his face and two older more serious colleagues of his.
They had a look at the situation and started working.
I am not going to reveal what they did exactly, so as not to give people bright ideas. I just want to tell you that these three men worked very hard for close to an hour, never giving up, never making us feel stupid for what had happened, nor making us feel like we were wasting their time.
We watched them in dark suspense. A myriad questions was swirling incessantly in our heads. What if the glass had to be broken?! How were we going to continue our journey?!
For me, it was all laced with lashings of self-recriminations. Why had I insisted that my husband shut the car boot then and there?! Why had I panicked?!
All through this, our new friends – the young man and his fiancée – stayed with us and kept our spirits high.
Then she got a phone call and after a rapid conversation in Italian said that they needed to go to a nearby shop as they had an appointment and would be back in a few minutes to see if we needed any help.
We thanked them profusely!
Another half an hour passed and bang, the firemen managed to release the latch and open the car’s front door.
A swish of relief ran through me.
We couldn’t thank them enough. They were very gracious. We filled the necessary paperwork and off they went wishing us a good journey.
Allowing ourselves to feel a bit shaken after such a happy ending, we stayed around the car a while longer, just talking it all through and speculating how much worse it could have been.
We loitered there also as we were hoping for our new friends and saviours – Andrea and Bianca – to come back so that we could treat them to lunch, to a coffee or at least to once again thank them for being there for us.
They never came back.
After a while, we decided to cancel our plans to explore Asti and simply piled back in our little red car, all the while obsessively checking that the keys were on us and looking around trying to spot Andrea and Bianca, then drove to our next stop – Turin.
We kept talking and talking about the whole thing, constantly obsessing over the fact how the first person we had asked for help managed to have the time and the good will to help us plus he also had a fiancée who was fluent in English. We were also puzzled as to why they never came back.
After some thought, I turned to my husband and said: ‘They didn’t come back because they didn’t need to. They had done their job. They were our guardian angels.’
We are not religious, but all of a sudden this seemed to make perfect sense.
So, thank you, Andrea and Bianca for being there for us. I can’t even put it in words how much we appreciate it!
Thank you so much to the fire brigade who opened our car and were so lovely.
And now you know it.
If you are in trouble in Italy, your guardian angel may come to help you. In the meantime, don’t forget to call 112. And if you see someone in genuine trouble, don’t turn away.
Be their guardian angel!