Friday, January 10, 2014

My Italian Driver’s License Part 2: A Scofflaw No More

So it’s been more than a month since I posted Part 1 of my Italian driver’s license saga. And it took me more than a year to get my license, three years after the deadline had expired for me to do so. Do you sense a theme here? Procrastination, thy name is Liz. Well that, and I’ve been busy driving.

You also have to memorize all these road signs,and all the rules that go with them.
Still, when I finally decided to get serious about getting my Italian driver’s license, it’s not as though I had smooth open road before me. Italian driver’s licenses are notoriously difficult to obtain, even for Italians. The reason for this is an extremely difficult written test, which consists of 40 true/false questions. That might not sound so bad, but consider that you can only miss up to 4 questions and still pass the test, and that there is a pool of more than 3,000 questions from which your 40 are randomly selected. So the only way to guarantee passing is to memorize each question. Each and every one.

Consider too that the questions are intentionally tricky. For every softball question like, “A helmet is not required for motorcycle passengers” (umm, false) or “If you see an old man with a white cane attempting to cross the road, but he’s not in a designated crosswalk, you must stop anyway” (umm, true), there are 10 convoluted ones, with excessive wording, double negatives and hyperbolic scenarios. There are hairsplitting questions that could easily go either way. A few examples:

- “The maximum speed limit for a vehicle up to 3.5 tons on secondary roads it is 90 km/h.” Umm, no idea. How much does my car weigh, anyway? - “In one second, a vehicle moving at 150 km/h travels 20 meters.” Seriously, this test requires math?
- “On motorways and main roads it is prohibited to drive bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles with a cylinder capacity less than 150 cc.” I need 150 ccs of prosecco, stat.
- “In case of accident or breakdown, the mobile triangular danger signal should be placed on the roadway so that it is visible at a distance of at least 50 yards from approaching vehicles.” Sure, I guess? But unless I was in one of those approaching vehicles, how would I know it was visible at least 50 yards? 

Did I mention that the test is in Italian? And that it’s timed? And that foreigners can’t bring with them an English/Italian dictionary or any kind of translating device. And that it’s in Italian? 

She needs a license, Godfather.
And she needs it now.
So many Italians have difficulty with the test that there is a huge black market for driver’s licenses, most likely controlled by the Mafia. If you know who to ask and you have the money, you can get a real, valid license, issued to you by a corrupt government official. “Go to Rome and buy one,” Paolo’s aunt told me. “How much is it?” I asked, though I wasn’t seriously considering an illegally obtained license. “Only 1,200 euro!” his cousin chimed in. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I replied. I’ll take my chances going legit.

I began studying for the test by taking online quizzes on one of the many free websites designed as study tools. I started slowly, but intensified my efforts in the Spring of 2013, when the cabin fever was getting to be just. too. much.

By July, I was passing more quizzes than I was failing, so I was starting to feel like I was ready. Paolo helped me get all my required paperwork together. This involved a form completed by my doctor saying I was of sound enough mind and body to drive. It involved an eye test. It involved several francobolli, or tax stamps, attached to various declarations, which were then stamped fervently by persons of authority. Then, it involved me getting to Terni, the seat of our province and about an hour away, to take the test. I’d arranged for a friend to drive me down, and I felt my chances of passing were at 80% or better. Except the night before, Naomi was up sick with a fever all night long, and I got no sleep. I arrived to the test site tired, agitated and with entirely too much caffeine in my system.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just say I failed the first test. Test results are posted in the testing waiting room, for all to see. Once the test proctor tacks the results on the bulletin board, all the nervous test takers gather round to see if they passed. So while a dozen or so teenagers squealed and jumped up and down and hugged and high-fived—fuck all those little ingrates, anyway—my heart sank in disbelief as I saw my name on the list, with the number of errors I’d made right next to it. I’d missed 7. Seven. I could only miss 4. I walked out and got in my friend’s car, and we rode in near silence on the way home. “It’s a dumb test,” he said now and then. “Even Italians fail it.”

After a brief period of mourning, I attacked my studies with renewed vigor. I switched to a different study website ( for those in need) and spent at least an hour a day studying. When I was missing no more than 1 or 2 questions per quiz, I felt I was ready to try again. 

Rather than wake up at 6 am to get to Terni by test time, Paolo and I left Naomi with her nonna and went down the night before and stayed in a hotel. I took an Ambien to make sure I got a good night’s sleep. We had a leisurely breakfast and arrived to the test site about 10 minutes before I was called in.
I was all ready to do this...

Still, on my second attempt, I walked out feeling like I probably hadn’t passed. I counted 7 questions I wasn’t sure of. I changed my answers back and forth on several of them. Paolo, who could watch the test takers on a closed circuit TV in the waiting room, saw me put my head in my hands several times. I walked out and looked at him defeatedly, shaking my head in dismay.

When the proctor came out about 5 minutes later with the results, I elbowed a few skinny teenaged girls wearing too much eye makeup out of my way. There was no number next to my name to tell how many questions I’d gotten wrong. That could only mean one thing—I had passed! I gave Paolo a thumb’s up from across the room, then checked the results again. Then one more time.

But my driving school instructor
was all ready for me to do this.
It took me weeks to actually believe that I’d passed the test. I would be driving somewhere with Paolo—I had my foglio rosso, or leaner’s permit now, and I’d announce, incredulous, “I still can’t believe I passed that test.”

In truth, I still can’t believe I passed that test. I’ve spent a lot of time in college studying for difficult tests, and none of them gave me the anxiety this one did, and none of them did I study so hard for as I did the test for my Italian driver’s license. Yes, I still had to attend driving school and spend a set number of hours behind the wheel with an instructor. I still had to take the physical driving test and pray that I had unlearned enough of my lazy driving habits in order to pass scrutiny. But the worst was over. So over. So completely over.

Valid until 2024, bitches!

Within a month, I had my Italian driver’s license. To say that my outlook on life in the Italian countryside has improved considerably is a bit of an understatement. I am back to being taxi driver for my female relatives who don’t drive. I’m back to running errands and taking Naomi for spins farther afield than Allerona Scalo. I’m back to having lunches and cocktails with friends in Orvieto, because I can drive myself there. In short, I’m back. And freedom is a beautiful thing, indeed.

Now I can do this again with my friends!