That's me. It's been a revelation to realize that I am the only female American that I know up north with an Italian driver's license. This is not to pass judgement but rather an insightful look into the phenomenon. All the other women appear not to bother. They just use public transportation or their bicycles to do everything. If a car is necessary for anything, they depend on their significant other to drive them. That's fine but I could only survive about 2 years in those conditions.
This topic came up again as I was leaving the Euganean Hills this past weekend and yet another person seemed surprised to see me with car keys in-hand.
For me, it is important to have my own autonomy and a license helps ensure that. Although public transportation is much better in Italy than in the US, it doesn't get me everywhere I would like to go, especially outside of Padua's city center.
Yes, I did have to go through the hassle of getting a learner's permit, taking some driving lessons, studying for a written exam in Italian and paying a lot of people a lot of money to get my little pink plastic patente. It was one of the strangest experiences, going through what most 16 or 18-year-olds do while I was at the ripe age of 28, and being tested to do it in a foreign language.
The worst part was how the driving instructor treated me: like I didn't know how to drive after 12 years already behind the wheel of American cars! But I swallowed some pride for those "whopping" 3 lessons and saddled up to the test, passing with flying colors. (The old man reminded me of my former orthodontist who always ranted at women.)
You see, as Americans (and extra-communitari), we must get an official Italian license within 365 days of receiving our permesso di soggiorno (Permit of Stay). After 1 year, the Italian government will no longer acknowledge licenses issued outside of the European Community. So you only get a year of "free" driving and then you have to stay on foot or go through the hoops of obtaining the necessary certification on European soil.
I must admit that some situations as a driver in Italy had me scared at first: driving in the dead center of downtown Padua with things moving in all directions at all times, such as pedestrians, scooters, buses and impatient drivers. There's also the perennial fear of ending up in a z.t.l. (limited traffic area) by accident and getting a massive ticket! As for the countryside, the Veneto is full of important routes which are flanked by large ditches within only a few feet of the traffic lanes. One small mistake and you can end up head-first or toppled-over in them. There are no such things as emergency lanes along these roads to help abate this possible "demise". Plus, the lanes are narrow and large trucks are barreling toward you in the opposite direction at a distance that seems dangerously close. The wind they kick up alone almost makes you veer off course into those feared ditches.
In the end, you get used to everything: chaos, fog, people who stop randomly in the middle of a roundabout, reckless scooters and stupid cyclists who insist on being on the road at night without any lights or reflectors. Somehow, you don't get in an accident. Then more time goes by and when you return to the US, you find yourself bored by driving along large and orderly beltways and being able to immediately find an open parking space just about anywhere you go. You also have to remember to go slower on the highway.
In all, getting the Italian license has made me a better driver. I am prepared for anything now. Most importantly, I can drive a stick shift! How many American women nowadays can say the same?