Behind the Wheel in Rome

27 Sep

Yes, back early from the wild world of the movie set. Couldn’t take the crazy environment, and after all, there’s no place like Rome…

(sorry, sorry, sorry! I couldn’t resist).

Here’s a photo that begs a story:Yes, this was taken from behind the wheel of my Roman form of transport: a 1992 Fiat Cinquecento. It’s turquoise blue, no frills, a family hand-me-down (it was Ale’s first car) and it gets me from A to B. I usually only use it if I have to go out at night, but this particular day I decided not to use public transport to go to a friend’s house in the afternoon. Mistake. For as much as public transport is pretty horrendous here in Rome, it still isn’t quite as bad as driving in Roman traffic.

Question: can foreign driver’s licenses be automatically converted here in Italy? Well, the answer is yes. And no. Yes, if you are from places such as Bangladesh, as my Italian driving school instructor most helpfully pointed out. No, if you are from the US, unless you are a diplomat (please refer back to my suggestion about getting adopted by the US ambassador). That means yours truly, licensed driver since age 16, had to go back to driving school and not only take a driving test, but take an oral exam in front of an examiner as well.

There I was, surrounded by 18-year olds with dreams of car keys and freedom. Faithfully after work, twice a week, I would subject myself to explanations of Italian street signs and road regulations, until my instructor decided I was ready and scheduled my oral exam. In truly Italian (or perhaps just Roman) style, on the big day he actually placed himself strategically facing me, yet behind the examiner’s back, so that he could vigorously nod his head yes, no, or semi-silently send me any other helpful information for cheating purposes. Not that I looked. I didn’t need to: the examiner was practically giving me the answers anyways. This was due to the fact that it was her first day back from vacation and she herself admitted she couldn’t really remember how to administer the exam. Thank goodness for that, because one of the other examiners refused to hold the exam for his candidates. After getting a tape measure and measuring the classroom, he determined that it didn’t meet the standard testing room size. (And you think I’m joking. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Hoop number one successfully jumped through. Come to driving test day. You do realize we have now spanned about 6 months of time between lessons, oral exam, etc. After waiting over 3 hours outside in the rain, with squishy socks I enter the car, only to be told after a scrupulous examination of my documents (stay permit and ID card) that I absolutely cannot be permitted on Italian roads, because:

1) The city office made a mistake in printing my ID card, so instead of USA it reads GB for Great Britain, where I later found out that apparently there are 4 towns with the same name as my US birthplace.

2) The birthplace as printed on my stay permit is missing one letter. An S. I think I even asked in desperation if we could just “pencil it in.” That S cost me my driving test.

After being told to get new copies of both documents (easily a one-year or more proposition when dealing with Roman bureaucracy), I exit the car and proceed to utilize my now extensive collection of Italian and Roman swearwords.

Let’s not go into how I managed to finally get the document situation corrected, because that would warrant a 3 or 4 page story that would take you into the bowels of the Italian public administration, a place no one should ever, ever, go, at least not voluntarily.

Said license eventually in hand, I am let loose on Italian streets, and I leave you with these 2 golden rules of Roman driving, passed down to me by Alessandro, my primary source of knowledge on all things Italian:

1) Shelley to Ale: “Why don’t they stay in their lanes? Wait, why aren’t there even lane lines? How do you know where to go?” Ale to Shelley: “Do you see that space over there?” Shelley: “Yes.” Ale: “Go there.” (And that, my friends, is truly how it works.)

2) Use mirrors and blinkers at all times, even when moving 1 cm to either side. You’d be surprised how a Vespa can sandwich itself like a thin slice of prosciutto between two cars.

And really, let’s not even begin to talk about scooters…that can be for another day.

Happy driving!


6 Responses to “Behind the Wheel in Rome”

  1. Ms Adventures in Italy September 28, 2006 at 6:08 am #

    Ah, Shelley! I am going to have to do the same thing…I am kind of putting it off for as long as possible. Luckily (?) we still don’t have a car or motorino (or really need one) but my husband is ready….so I’ll have to get to it.

  2. Anonymous September 28, 2006 at 7:52 am #

    What you are describing here Shelley is exactly why I haven’t begun driving school yet. So far the public transportation thing although not perfect, has been better than facing the dreaded test in Italian. I heard (a rumor) that here in Torino they will begin offering the tests in October in Chinese or in English as well as Italian… so I’m kind of waiting to see. But I must admit what I dread most isn’t the test, but the actual driving. I will feel like a little goldfish swimming among sharks! Yikes!

  3. Stelle In Italia September 28, 2006 at 12:55 pm #

    okay, now i’m starting to worry about MY upcoming tests, as I just started out at driver’s ed school a couple weeks ago! This was a great read!Jackie

  4. African Kelli September 28, 2006 at 6:23 pm #

    I think I’d walk. That sounds terrifying!

  5. FinnyKnits September 28, 2006 at 6:55 pm #

    I remember asking Ale, “How come nobody honks? No one is mad that there are six people stacking up next to them to make the same right turn!” Ale to me: “Jessica, they saw a spot, and they went there.” Duh. How could I not realize this.

  6. Shelley - At Home in Rome September 28, 2006 at 10:27 pm #

    Folks, don’t worry about the test! It’s a piece of torta, really. Just don’t bother with all that nonsense about random car parts, how the brake system works, the official size of a baby car seat, etc., and worry only about road signs. That’s almost all they test us poor foreigners on. In bocca al lupo to my future fellow Italian expat drivers!

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