This is a picture of our family car sitting in our garage in Italy. It has been sitting like this, alone and un-driven, for eleven months. It’s the reason I didn’t blog much last year, because every post was an avoidance of the car, and writing or even thinking about the car had me fighting off depression.
I can be a bit melodramatic, but I’m not being melodramatic now. I couldn’t think about our car without rage one moment and a sadness like shame the next. This country took a piece of me last year. After what happened with our car, I ceased to believe in fairness and stopped trusting in the rule of law, because in many ways neither exist in Italy.
Here, then, is the greatest mistake we made in our move abroad: we imported our car to Italy from California. If you’ve ever lived in Italy, you’ve already gasped in horror or bust up laughing at the audacity and foolishness of this statement. We were forewarned, of course. Every blog post and website and internet forum warned us off, told us to sell our car and buy something similar here.
Please understand, it’s not like we were reading horror story after horror story about car imports. Most expats stated that it was too much hassle and bureaucracy to import a car, so they hadn’t ever tried. We didn’t find this kind of nay-saying very convincing, and in any case we thought (again, foolishly) that our car constituted a rare case. We looked at the costs and determined that we’d never get enough money from selling our car to buy a reliable, used family car in Italy because after being rear-ended at a stoplight, our sturdy 2005 MINI Cooper had halved in value. Moving to Italy as a grad student and a self-employed writer, there was no way we could afford any car but the one we already had. It was as simple as that.
There were some other hurdles to consider, of course. EU compliance? Maybe some minor toggle changes, but MINI is an EU-made car and research showed no mechanical differences between those sold in Italy and the USA. Legality? We found a reputable importer to process the paperwork for a small fee. Value Added Tax? Not applicable since we’d owned the car outright for three years.
The only unknown in our research was registration. I found one or two blogs that told tales of bringing a car over but having difficulty figuring out how to register it in Italy. Still, we read every web article we could find, and all assured us it was possible. The American Embassy website detailed the necessary documents, and the Italian motorizzazione (aka Department of Motor Vehicles) website listed the full process for registering a non-EU vehicle and getting Italian plates. Ta da!
We scheduled a shipment, had our paperwork in order and sat back to wait for our car to arrive.
WARNING I’m not going to try to make my long story short. Now that I’ve started, it feels a bit cathartic, so I’m in it for the whole story. If you’re already feeling sick to your stomach, you may want to take a week’s vacation from this blog. This will take several posts.
The MINI arrived at the port of Livorno in April 2010, passed through customs and was ready for pickup. We took a train to Livorno, spent the night in a hotel and anxiously followed google walking directions to the import company. The importer had our paperwork and had agreed to drive J to the port to help him retrieve the car. Meanwhile, G and I wandered through central Livorno. Since we knew the car had arrived, my worst case scenario was that it wouldn’t start and we’d have to find a mechanic. In twenty minutes, I had a text from J, “Car looks great! See you soon!” Twenty minutes after that, another text: “They’re looking for our plates.”
The license plates were gone, stolen in transit. It’s pretty clear what happened. The ship spent a night in a Belgian port on its way to Italy, and we had personalized plates: REISEN, the German verb “to travel.” Someone working the docks thought that was pretty cool and took the plates home to hang on his or her wall or to sell on the black market (apparently there’s a black market for this).
We couldn’t drive the car without plates. Everyone agreed we’d be pulled over within minutes. And for some reason the port authority and our import company were disinclined to have us file a police report that morning. I imagine we were becoming a burden. The importer called in a favor (ahem) and was able to get the MINI on a truck that would deliver it to our front door in less than a week for only 210 euro. This is a steal. I don’t want to know what the original favor was.
Funny enough, the trucking company later told us they couldn’t possibly deliver for another month due to there not being any other deliveries to our province. We complained to the importer, and the car showed up the next day. Hmmm.
You can drive on foreign plates in Italy but only temporarily. With a naked car, however, we were doubly motivated to obtain shiny new Italian license plates. When the car arrived in Trento, we hurried to our local motorizzazione office to get it registered. Armed with the necessary papers (title, customs declaration, import forms, proof of insurance) and a print out from their own website outlining the process for registering a foreign car, we entered the Trento DMV. We’d been in Italy only four months and spoke very little Italian, but we had a darn cute one-year-old with a gift for making Italians swoon. We were also sopping wet from a long walk through a fierce rainstorm.
Within minutes, we were escorted to a small, second-floor office where a man behind a computer told us that registering a non-EU vehicle could not be done. I handed him the printout that listed the process and paperwork. I showed him our papers. He shook his head. It cannot be done.
“Only European cars can be registered in Italy.”
“Our car is European, we just happened to buy it in America.”
“Doesn’t matter. An American car cannot get Italian plates. It cannot be done.”
“But I have friends who have registered a car here. They have Italian plates on a Jeep!”
“It cannot be done.”
“Allora, che dobbiamo fare? What must we do?”
“Why don’t you drive on your California plates?”
Um…. I honestly didn’t know how to say “our plates were stolen” in Italian, and we hadn’t yet filed the police report, so the denuncia wasn’t among the papers we had brought. At this point, we thought we’d be getting Italian plates soon, so the missing CA plates would be a problem of the past. I instead replied that the law says I must register my car in Italy. This is true. Italian import law states very clearly that Italian plates and registration must be obtained within six months of import. What better proof of feasibility is that?! If the law says I am required to register my non-EU car, then there must be a way to register my non-EU car, but the man in charge of car registrations merely shook is head. Again.
It began to infuriate me that logic was not working in this situation and that my lack of Italian prevented me from all but simple, declarative sentences while the DMV official rattled off explanations that I could only one-tenth understand. Two other motorizzazione employees were in the tiny room as well, alternately watching my exchange with the man at the computer and J’s attempts to keep G content.
We were at an impasse. Mr. Motorizzazione was not going to process our paperwork, but I wasn’t leaving without a plan. At last he agreed to look up our car make and model and see if maybe it did meet EU standards. He would research what might be done to register the car and gave me a number to call in a week. Great, I thought. He’s never done a foreign registration before, but he’ll soon learn what needs to be done on his part and then he’ll be able to do his job. His colleague gave G a coloring page. We left.
I was cold and wet and we had a long walk back. As we crossed the river into downtown Trento, a semi-truck hit a puddle and fully drenched one half of me with storm runoff. Yeah, it was totally one of those days. On the other hand, we’d met the person in charge of car registrations, we’d understood each other despite the language barrier, and I was 100% certain we were on our way to having Italian license plates. Maybe by our next big rainstorm, even, I could drive my baby through Trento rather than struggling with the stroller and a plastic rain cover that only wanted to blow away in the wind.
However, when we told a handful of Italians about the encounter above, my optimism, which was unblemished by our exchange with the motorizzazione employee, began to crack. Our friends and neighbors all shook their heads. They assured us that the bureaucrat was just saying whatever we needed to hear to get us out of his office. He has no intention of registering your car, they said. He probably won’t even look into it.
Wait, so when an Italian bureaucrat smiles, shakes your hand and says, “I’ll see what I can do,” what he means is “Bugger off, go away?” Um, yes, pretty much.