I accomplished a single and incomparably impressive task this week: I got my Italian driver’s license.
In the few days that I’ve had la patente di guida, I’ve had the joy of watching the look of wow-I-am-so-impressed appear on the face of any Italian to whom I tell this exciting (and truly shocking) news. As with pretty much anything in Italy, getting a driver’s license is no easy feat.
I will start with the obvious questions and answers: Can’t you just drive on your American license? Or trade in your U.S. license for an Italian one? Aren’t there reciprocity agreements or something? Well, no, no and no.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Italy:
“Americans registered as residents with the local Vital Records Bureau (known as Anagrafe) must apply for an Italian license within one year of the date of registration.
Unfortunately, there is no agreement for reciprocal recognition of drivers’ licenses between the United States and Italy. The Italian Ministry of Transportation has determined that bearers of U.S. driver’s licenses cannot obtain an Italian license directly in exchange for a domestic one. Interested individuals must comply with the usual requirements prescribed for obtaining an Italian license, (a written test, a driving test, a medical examination, and pertinent documents).”
And so let the games begin. April 30, 2011 was the one-year anniversary of our successful application for public nursery school and my deadline for getting an Italian license. With our disastrous car import weighing heavily on my nerves, I was less than enthused about having further dealings with the motorizzazione di Trento, where I would have to apply for said license. I determined to put the whole business neatly out of mind until at least the first of the year. In January, I told myself, I’d begin the driver’s license process.
Yes I, not we. Getting a license is pricey (we spent about 500 euro in total) and time consuming. We decided we could only afford one license between us, and J’s Ph.D. studies would leave him little time to study for and pass the exam, which means I was to become the guinea pig for this particular bureaucratic hurdle, with the grand prize of being both family chauffeur (I’m in earnest here, I love to drive) and proud owner of a unique–and quite pink–souvenir of our Italian days.
Unfortunately, my desire to put all this off until at least January was squelched by disturbing news last fall: The test was changing and as of January 1, 2011 would not only have 40 questions instead of 30 but would be in Italian only. After spending nearly a decade translating the written driving exam into multiple languages, Italy was giving in to xenophobic and anti-immigrant pressures and nixing all non-official languages from the exam, and they made this change through a simple edict released via memo, so as not to arouse too much attention. Thanks, Italy.
It was late October when I learned about the change. The Christmas holidays ruled out much of December for taking the exam. I had six weeks to learn, study and pass the test. I took a deep breath and transformed my life into a 10 hour/day study session.
And so, how to get an Italian driver’s license:
Step One: Foglio Rosso
To obtain a driving permit, fill out the appropriate application form, get an eye exam at the local health services office or (more money but faster) from a private eye specialist who squeezes quickie and lucrative patente visits into the end of his work day, pay a bolletino tax, affix a small photograph to the form and deliver payment and all paperwork either directly to the motorizzazione or to an autoscuola which will do this on your behalf. Hint: you might as well go through an autoscuola.
Step Two: STUDY
30 days after receipt of the foglio rosso, one is eligible to take the written exam. The test has recently changed with the intention of being harder than the one I took in December. Also, unless you live in a region which recognizes German or French as a provincial language, the test is only available in Italian.
I studied more for this test than I have studied for anything in my life. More than I studied, in fact, for every exam I took in college combined. The entire purpose of this exam is not to determine whether someone can identify Europe’s myriad road signs or understands the rules of right of way, but to get test takers to fail.
If you are able to delight in the ridiculous–an advantage or qualification for anyone wishing to live abroad–you may be able to read through a practice Italian driver’s license exam and let out a great big belly laugh. There were nearly 6500 possible question/answer combinations for the version of the exam that I took, and I studied and memorized the answer to every single one. Once I learned the questions in English, I also studied in Italian because often the translations were so poor that the Italian question might ask the opposite of the English. For example, can you park on a yellow and black curb? Oops! The Italian says white and black.
Step Three: Take Exam
The exam is computerized and the examiners can see your results as soon as you confirm your answers. At the conclusion of the 30 minute exam period, a list is posted with everyone’s scores. I knew I had passed when an older gentleman who had accompanied us from the autoscuola to the testing center patted me on the head and whispered “brava” as I exited the exam room. This was confirmed when the official posting the results winked at me. A third of those present failed that day.
Step Four: Behind-the-Wheel
30 days after passing the written test, you can take the practical exam. Prior to this, you’ll want to pay the hourly fee for private driving lessons. The autoscuola I went through, ACLI, had me drive on every road that is commonly used on the practical exam, pointing out common fail spots and clarifying right of way for all the intersections. Invaluable. I also had to train my ear to hear the difference between dietro and destra (straight ahead vs right), since all instructions during the practical exam are, of course, in Italian.
I’ve heard of Italian driving exams taking 5 minutes and involving a quick spin around the block, but Trento takes this part a more seriously than some other provinces (just as Trento takes itself more seriously on pretty much all matters than provinces further south). The exam lasts 20 to 25 minutes on two- and one-way streets with multiple roundabouts and through the pedestrian and vehicular traffic of Trento centro. The test concludes with an inversion (3-point-turn) and parallel parking.
The test must be taken in a dual-control vehicle with a driving instructor present in the front seat (one reason why you might as well go through an autoscuola from the get-go). The examiner sits in the back to watch, give directions and generally breath down your neck. Other students from the autoscuola waiting to take the test follow in another car so that the driver who has just passed or failed the exam can trade places with the test taker. Is this a bit sadistic? You bet it is.
When you register to take the exam, motorizzazione goes ahead and makes up your pink plastic patente with your photo and the Italian and EU flags on it. If you pass, the examiner will hand you your actual license. Yippiee! Depending on where your particular exam concluded, you can opt to walk home from where you are or continue in the follow-car to see how your fellow test-takers fare. My exam ended quite close to my weekly Italian class, so I walked happily away from the scene, joyously texting my good news.
Now it’s true that we still don’t have a legally registered car and so I have nothing to drive, but that’s a hurdle for another day.