One of the major lessons delivered on the appointment of Pope Francis this week was that taking the bus is downright next to godliness.
At first there was the shock – the curious silence that fell on the multitude in St Peter’s Square when Cardinal Bergoglio was announced was probably caused by the sad fact so few people understand Latin these days.
But after the hush there was the cheering. Then there was the gaping information vacuum, because, like the Spanish inquisition, no-one expects the Argentinian priest.
So the first item of biographical detail to be grasped was that he takes buses and the metro when getting around Buenos Aires. His predilection for public transport was a sign of his humility and humanity, we were told. And while I was unaware that otherwise cardinals tend to travel in chauffeured luxury, the knowledge did have the effect of making me feel more saintly.
At the risk of coming across as holier than thou, the fact is I have never owned a car. When getting around I use my feet, the bus and, when it is raining (or I feel lazy), taxis – although I haven’t quite come clean yet to the man in my life how significant my taxi bill is each month.
If a personal vehicle is required, membership of the local car club does the trick. And because the club car has a dedicated bay, this also removes the need to play the high stakes game of on-street parking roulette which goes on in our neighbourhood. This involves trying to win a game analogous to the children’s party favourite, musical chairs. Except there is no music, or – critically – cake, and the people I see after having circled the streets repeatedly are seething with rage rather than screaming for joy.
Yet I love driving – or rather I did. On the birthday that meant I was able to get a learner’s permit I got up early to queue at the office for it. The best part was practicing handbrake stops in the icy car park after the mall closed. It wasn’t just thrill-seeking – it’s a handy skill to have in a northern climate. Albeit I’m sure my mum doesn’t know quite how close I came to skidding into the concrete barrier that one time. Because it was her car I used, not my own, remember. Perhaps this dims my smug claim to holiness somewhat.
I never crashed it. Although I did take Mum’s Honda on unauthorised trips with more passengers than there were seat belts to the next town to watch bands play. And then there was the rainy Saturday night I let my stupid boyfriend drive it up the local mountain track. Suffice to say, the reliable little motor stalled in a puddle so deep muddy water came gushing in when we opened the doors.
Eventually he had to trek down the hill and recruit some mates to tow us. We spent all of Sunday draining and clearing the engine block until it started again. You can imagine how pleased Mum was. Yet she eventually let me drive the car again – so you can guess which of us might actually be more like a real saint.
The truth is having a fuel-guzzling one-ton machine that only serves to get you from one place to another seems too much of a faff. And if, like me, you are a bit absent-minded, it becomes even more costly to manage than just the petrol, the road tax, the depreciation and the maintenance.
I still recall the sinking feeling at the campsite hearing the latch as I closed the boot of the (borrowed) car. Because at that same moment came the realisation I had just locked the keys in it, requiring a call-out to a rural road services man who knew very well on which side his bread was buttered. Then there was the flat on the way to the funeral. Hearing an ominous thumping, I rashly insisted “drive! drive!” as otherwise everyone would be kept waiting for us. Luckily his good sense prevailed, so we waited in the rain for assistance, coughed up £50 for a new tyre, and the vicar served everyone tea until we arrived.
Since being made Pope, Francis might have to give up his holy bus-taking ways and exchange them for a new set of wheels. Although the boxy shape of the Popemobile is hard to miss, I think he should personalise it with a bumper sticker that says: “Sona si Latine loqueris” (“Honk if you speak Latin”).