Updated: Feb 10
When I first moved to Italy nearly four years ago, I never imagined buying a car or needing one. In fact, as someone who lived in Chicago for 14 years, 12 of which were car-less years, the idea of getting around by walking and public transit suited me perfectly well. That is, until, my dog arrived, and I realized that adventures awaited us in the beautiful Tuscan hills - the same hills that were just out of reach without a vehicle.
Enter Esther, my colleague extraordinaire, who happened to be selling her adorable, little Fiat Punto. Esther and I made an arrangement, took the car to the meccanico to get it tuned up, and practiced driving together in a parking lot a few times to help me remember how to drive a manual transmission. (The last time I drove a stick shift was when I was 18, but it started to come back, and finally I was getting the hang of it again...phew!)
So, with the car purchased, we went to the place to change the ownership of the car, and her little Fiat became truly mine. I was thrilled to take Sam, the dog, on adventures, and to travel around Italy with family and friends who visit. It was glorious! But...it was short-lived. You see, in Italy, an American driver's license cannot be exchanged for an Italian one, like in other countries, and is only valid for one year from residency. After my year expired, in January of 2019, I needed to get an Italian driver's license.
"Well," thought I, arrogantly, " I speak Italian and I know how to drive, so how hard could it possibly be?" Famous last words...
I went to my nearest autoscuola and enrolled in driver's ed classes with the other teenagers. The classes were fast-paced and largely useless to me, so I mostly didn't go. They then told me I needed a medical check to continue, so I made my appointment with the doctor at the school. He took one look at the letter from my psychiatrist saying I take medication for anxiety, and he told me I needed to go see the county psychiatrist. "Ok," I thought, "this is tedious, but it should be easy." Famous last words...
I called the comune to book my appointment for the talky doc, but I was never able to get through. Finally, I decided to just walk to the office and find out what was going on. It was a good thing I did, though, because the phone number my autoscuola gave me was incorrect! The office, irritatedly, gave me the correct number, and I continued to try calling. When I finally got through, the earliest appointment was 6 months later!!! And so, my wait began...
Now you may be thinking, "well, at least she could study during that waiting period and be prepared for the exam." And, of course, you would be right! I could have been studying during that period, but like a total procrastinating chump, I didn't.
When I finally was able to go see the special talky doc, he took one look at the letter from my psychiatrist, stamped a form, and told me I was good to go. He asked me no questions, and made no eye contact. 6 months for that.
With the proper paperwork in hand, I returned to the autoscuola to continue classes and begin truly studying. I found the language archaic and the concepts familiar yet different at the same time. Things that were simple in principle were confusing in the way they were written, and though everything was true or false, it was never straightforward. It seemed like the test questions were designed to trick you!
Finally, I got my date for the theory test. I was underprepared but eager, and then the pandemic hit. My test was indefinitely postponed. It was now March 2020. I began this whole process in January 2019. So, I waited, and pretended to study. Finally, the government began allowing testing to resume, and my test was scheduled for July. Feeling, again, underprepared but eager, I took the test. For the written theory exam, one must answer at least 36 of 40 true or false questions correctly in order to pass. I scored a 34, and disappointedly went home.
I began to really study my butt off, and waited and waited for my next test date. Another 50 euros later, on top of the 250 I had already spent on classes, and my new date was scheduled for December 2020. I was feeling much more prepared this time, and was determined to pass. Luckily, I answered 36 questions correctly, and was given my foglia rosa or driving permit. This little pink slip of paper allowed me to drive with a licensed driver in the car, and I finally felt a twinge of freedom returning. "The next part will be even easier," I thought. Famous last words...?
And so, with the foglia rosa in my bag, I began taking my required behind-the-wheel lessons at the autoscuola until I had reached the required 6 hours, at 45 euros an hour. Eager to get my test date, I impatiently asked the autoscuola when my pratica or practical exam might be, and was told that, due to Covid, I would likely be waiting a good while, but not to worry because I had until June when my permit expires. Annoyed, I waited, and drove around in my sweet little Fiat with anyone who would ride with me.
Finally, I got my test date: April! I was so thrilled and so ready...until the cases in Tuscany began to rise and the region was declared a zona rossa or red zone, and all tests were temporarily halted. "Again," I thought, "stupid Covid is ruining my plans!" Luckily, though, by May Italy began slowly reopening, and I was given May 13th, 2021 as my new test date. I booked a final lesson wih my teacher for the morning of the test, and read through the textbook one more time. (Even during the driving test, they can ask you theory questions about car parts, sensors, rules for using lights, how to know when a tire needs changing - anything, really!)
Finally, the day arrived, and I met Mirco, my teacher, for my final lesson. Halfway through the lesson, after making several stupid mistakes in a row due in large part because I didn't understand what my teacher was trying to get me to do, I flipped out and told him I didn't understand anything and that he was being mean to me. He seemed wholly taken aback, and then proceeded to berate me about my attitude, my preparedness, everything - and I burst into tears. I am sure he thought I was a crazy person, and probably worried that I really would fail my test! I apologized on the way home, and then tried to calm my mind before the exam as best I could.
That afternoon, I met Mirco and the examiner to have my final test for the patente italiana in a small town not far from Florence called Lastra e Signa. The examiner was a nice, middle-aged woman who tried the entire time to calm my nerves. I was so anxious, my hands were shaking, and I couldn't breathe, but she just kept saying "tranquilla" and "don't worry."
Before the driving part started, she asked me several theory questions. Happily, I answered the theory questions correctly, and she seemed pleased, and then we got in the car to begin the driving. She had me explain every adjustment I made - putting on the seatbelt, adjusting the seat and mirrors, raising the steering wheel, etc - in order to assess if I were properly preparing the car for a safe drive. She seemed pleased, and with all our seatbelts buckled, we set off. Mirco was next to me, and the nice examiner sat in the back.
The test, I was told, usually lasts about 15 minutes, but we were gone nearly 30. She had me drive all over Lastra a Signa, but luckily we encountered no one-ways. I had to show my prowess at paralell parking, reverse, making a U-turn, navigating roundabouts, and much more. Every time something was even a hint less than perfect, for example, if I moved my hands from 10 and 2, I was paranoid that she would fail me.
At the end of the exam, she made me sign a form, and then - to my relief, amazement, and joy - she handed me my shiny, new, pink driver's license. She then asked me if I have an American license, and when I told her I do - and have for 20 years - she said "no wonder you were practically perfect." I felt elated!
I thanked her and told her that if it weren't for Covid I would hug her, and she laughed. We then did an elbow handshake and said goodbye. I wished the other students good luck. I then forced Mirco to give me an awkward hug, and I could tell how happy he was, and proud of his crazy student. I then began to slow my breathing and felt the anxiety slipping away.
So, after all those hiccups...I finally have an Italian driver's license. Adventure awaits!