Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Lone American with an Italian Driver's License

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?


  1. So excited to find this post, as I am about to move to Italy from CA, and my husband and I plan to bring our car with us. How difficult was the written part of the exam, from the HUGE LANGUAGE BARRIER p.o.v.? I will need a driver's license in Trento, but I will only know 1 year's worth of Italian by the time I have to take this test.

  2. I am proud to state that in Genoa there is a Canadian and an American who struggled through Italian driving school together and are now full fledged Italian drivers :)

  3. Scusa, una cosa che non sono mai riuscito a capire è perchè gli americani abbiano dei problemi a guidare la auto a cambio manuale. Io, guido indifferentemente auto con ambio manuale o automatico e le trovo entrambe molto smplici da guidare.

  4. JGR-you can take the written exam in English through a driving school for an extra charge, if I am not mistaken. There are many foreigners in your shoes so the Motor Vehicle Authority has made certain previsions. My language skills were high enough to do it Italian-style.

    eloradaphne-it's good to know that I am not the only one!

    bimbotto21- non è necessario guidare in USA con il cambio manuale e la maggior parte delle auto vengono vendute con il cambio automatico quindi non è facile trovare il cambio manuale per fare pratica, nel caso che ti interessa. Solo gli americani appassionati della macchina sportiva sono quelli che in genere optono per il cambio manuale.

  5. Grazie Irene, sei estramente gentile. Era una cosa che mi aveva sempre incuriosito.

  6. Brava, brava. I will be facing this music soon, only because I want to take advantage of car sharing ogni tanto. Living in Venice (as you well know) there is little need for a car or a license (that, and l love having someone else drive, whether its a train, a bus, or otherwise).

    I had a car with automatic transmission for two weeks once. I cannot tolerate them. When I drive, I like to DRIVE.

    I am still trying to determine if there a way to get a license without the school? And what is the minimum cost...

    Pensavo anch'io fare l'esame in Inglese, ma alla fine si guida in Italiano, no?

    Keep up the great blog. :)

  7. Nan-thank you for the compliment and I still need to send you the guide/"kit" I mentioned before. As for Venice, that's a separate driving reality, of course. The car sharing is a great option there now.
    As for doing it in italiano, it's more of a challenge but gratifying to know that you did everything "authentically" in the local language. (It is also cheaper.)
    You have to work with the schools because you must do the on-road part of the test with a car that has 2 sets of pedals and the schools are the only ones who can provide that. Usually they make you buy a couple of lessons in addition to the test. They want to verify your skill (and make some more money in the process).

  8. Complimenti! Like the many others you mention, I too avoided getting a license when I lived in Italy. But then we moved to Switzerland and I took advantage of their kinder, gentler exchange policies to get a Swiss license without any tests or lessons. The best part is, thanks to reciprocity I'm now eligible for an Italian license if I ever move back there, and I can skip all the testing.

  9. Grazie Jul- I wish things had been that easy here. Supposedly you could do the same kind of conversion here until Italy started getting too many new foreign citizens and they got more strict with the conversion regulations.

    I admit that some of the signage I hadn't "guessed" properly until I actually studied it in the books.

  10. I just have to say that Americans of a certain age (i.e. not in their 20's) all know how and prefer manual shifts. Four on the floor. American Graffiti, know your heritage!

  11. Good for you! It sounds exciting, driving through all of that. I find that driving in cities is much more amusing than to and from, say, Baltimore on I-95.

    Also, I am going to be learning how to drive stick next semester!

  12. It is a pleasure to drive by historic monuments while driving, one of the pluses here.
    Good luck on your new driving technique!