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What's the Deal with Driving in Italy?

Before I moved to Italy, my vision was to take the train everywhere or walking. This vision did not include driving a car.

I didn't realize that in some parts of the country, it's pretty much impossible to get around without a car, like where I am in Calabria. There are trains, but they're few and far between, and they don't go everywhere.

So I had to rethink my strategy. I bought an old rattletrap from another expat when I first got here, and that's where the learning began!

I Know What You're Thinking..."I'm Afraid of Driving Manual!"

Most Americans aren't well-versed in driving a manual transmission, and that's definitely a drawback once you get to Italy. But let me tell you: you absolutely CAN learn to drive manual!

I had a brief lesson when I was 16 (I was more focused on the boy who taught me than retaining the information) and before I moved, my dear friend Jason and I rented a Fiat 500 in San Diego and practiced in a parking lot.

But the best experience has been just driving. Sure, for several months I stalled out just about every time I tried to go anywhere and broke out into a sweat when a gear slipped. But now it's second nature to drive with a stick shift.

And yes, you CAN buy a car with an automatic transmission, but you will pay dearly for it. I looked at new cars, and those that were automatic were €10,000 more! Reason enough to learn manual!

Does My Driver's License Work in Italy?

If you're coming from anywhere in the European Union, you're lucky because your driver's license is automatically valid in Italy.

But for us Americans, it's less simple. We can drive for up to a year, but we also need either an international driver's license (easy to get at AAA for $20 before you move) or to have your license translated by an authorized translator.

Don't ask me where to find this translator! I spent weeks trying to find one in Calabria and no one knew what I was talking about! Possibly someone at the tribunale, which is the courthouse, can help but I threw my hands up after calling a million times and no one answering! Life in Calabria! If you move to a bigger city, this may be easier to resolve.

I found out firsthand that you need to have your international driver's license (or translated certified copy) with you in the car. I'd thought I just needed the international license to rent a car (based on the information I found online), but I got pulled over a few months ago and threatened with a €300 ticket (multa). I used my feminine wiles to convince the policeman to follow me to my house where I legitimately had my international license (I think he thought I was lying!).

Now Let's Talk About Driving School

It amazes me that we're allowed to drive for a year because, now that I'm in la scuola guida (driving school) I realize how few of the street signs and rules I actually understood.

In Calabria, driving school runs about €500-700 and includes all the lessons, driving practice, and exams.

Not to scare you, but there are 30 questions on the exam (out of more than 7,000!!!!) and you can only miss six. If you fail, you have to wait another six months to take it again.

So I'm lucky because my driving instructor speaks English and is able to explain to my little class of foreigners words that we don't know.

Which are a lot.

We attend class for an hour and a half, three days a week. More or less. Often, we waste time by going to a nearby bar for coffee and pastries. And my teacher loves to go off on tangents (the mafia. How the US "owns" Italy. Why all the road signs in Soverato are wrong.). We'll be lucky if we can take the test after six months!

We have access to online quizzes (as well as an app), and I have to say, reading the questions has really improved my Italian. But I'm a month in and there is still sooooo much more to learn!

There are Road Rules...and Then There's Calabria

I'm actually learning two ways of driving in school. The first is what we need to know for the exam. The other is how people actually drive in Calabria.

Rolling through a stop sign will be familiar to most Americans (we call it the California Roll in San Diego), but you'll also see people parked on the left side of the street facing right. Or just, you know, in the middle of the street. Or, as in every country, they speed far above the speed limit.

You see people passing where they shouldn't. And as I said, the road signs here don't really jibe with what we're being taught.

I feel sorry for the 25-year-old girl in our class because she's never driven before. I at least understand the common-sense rules (which are pretty much: do what everyone else does and don't get caught or killed) and have been able to navigate well enough so far.

I'll admit, driving was a major stressor for me at first, but I finally have come to some peace with it. If you're planning on moving to Italy, just give yourself time and grace to adapt to how things are done, and plan what you need to keep the carabinieri (police) off your back!

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Wow! You are learning so many new things!

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