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Hemingway was in uniform a month shy of his eighteenth birthday.

Gears, Hooves and Excitable Italians

In "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway recalled the ambulances he drove on the Austro-Italian battlefront in the summer of 1918. He talked about how their brakes frequently burned out on the mountain roads. They were later replaced by Fiats with better brakes and a good H-shift.

Their 1999 versions are still made by Fiat, but they are sophisticated affairs with lots of gears and $36,000-worth of equipment in the back alone. Which may account for the nervousness with which the Italian Red Cross has acceded to my request to drive one. I'm sent out to the main depot, given a uniform, and directed to an ambulance. Piero, the regular driver, has a mournful face and a dark beard line. He hasn't had an accident in twenty-five years' driving, and looks at me dubiously, as if the record might be in jeopardy today.


Palin takes a turn at the wheel of one of today's modern Italian ambulances.

"Left here, please! OK, OK, yes, right is good."

I want to set his mind at rest by telling him that I've driven vehicles under many testing circumstances. Whilst making the Monty Python series I had to drive an E-Type Jaguar through the Scottish countryside whilst dressed as the front half of a pantomime horse. If you can change gear with a hoof you can do anything. But I don't know quite how to phrase this in Italian.


Photo credits: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John F. Kennedy Library, © Basil Pao, 1999. Text excerpt: "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" by Michael Palin © Michael Palin, 1999 Used with permission of Cassell & Company. Buy the book in the Palin Store.