Italian zebra crossings: Swim into the sea of Vespas and hope | Jack Marshall’s column

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One of the most striking things about the Colosseum in Rome is the road encircling it.

You’re standing with your palm flat against stones hauled into place 2,000 years ago by tormented labourers dripping under the same high summer sun now seeping into your own bones, when a double-decker bursting with cameras slinks past barely 30 feet away.

But it’s not the road itself which provides the fascination - cities grow, so to see the seepage of modernity paved into the close surroundings of one of the planet’s most historic buildings isn’t that surprising. What is surprising, on the other hand, is the endlessly vexing, permanently confusing, and downright lethal concept of Italian zebra crossings.

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Feeling muddled and unsafe isn’t a nice sensation at the best of times. Feeling muddled and unsafe halfway across a heaving Italian intersection thick with waspish Vespas, delinquent taxis, and buses full of locals peering at you like you should be hauled to the Castel Sant’Angelo for attempting to cross a road is unnerving to say the least. And infuriating, too.

A rare moment of tranquillity on the roads of RomeA rare moment of tranquillity on the roads of Rome
A rare moment of tranquillity on the roads of Rome

Not to get all ‘leave means leave’, but why can’t they understand zebra crossings? What about them do they not understand? Those thick white lines stretching across the road mean one thing and one thing only: stop your two-ton metal boulder, there are humans about. Instead, you have to position yourself perilously in front of a vehicle and just hope it stops.

Plenty don’t, turning their moustachioed heads in your direction as if to say ‘are you actually insane?’ Back you scamper to the relative safety of the pavement, alive to cross another day. But fear not: it’s then that you spot him. The little green man, beacon of protection in the thick fog of lawlessness. Seeing him proudly lit up, you stride out. A horn duly sounds.

Wrong again, Englishman. You really mean to tell me that the presence of a zebra crossing and the illumination of the green ‘walk now’ man lulled you into thinking you could cross? Utterly baffled, you have no other option but to perform some kind of jinking dance before darting for the nearest gelateria. At least in there everything makes sense.