Benjamin Gibbs, Director of Student Affairs, Rome Campus
Being a perennial student, I’ve taken numerous national exams over the years — SATs, ACTs and GREs. But the first time I ever completed an exam with an armed guard patrolling the classroom was during my recent Italian driver’s license (patente) exam. At one point the burly Italian man, likely in his early 30s with a few days of stubble and a barrel for a belly, stopped and read over my shoulder while I entered answers. He mumbled something that sounded like “flat tire” (gomma a terra), too. Was this intimidation, an insult, a joke or maybe all three at once? As I looked back at him, with a mixture of fear and fury, it hit me that this was an entirely new and unexplored world of learning — il mondo della patente.
The examination for the Italian patente has always been notoriously difficult to pass, but perhaps more so in the recent past, owing to a change in the rules requiring everyone to take the test in Italian.
Imagine this: You have 30 minutes to answer 40 true-or-false questions concerning 25 separate driving categories. These categories concern everything from road signage and speed limits to vehicle maintenance, first aid, and insurance law. If you miss more than four questions, equivalent to a grade under 90%, you fail and sit for the exam again, but not until a cooling-off period of weeks and months has passed. And just to raise the level of difficulty, the Italian vocabulary in use is rich, tongue-twisting and practically indecipherable for any non-native speaker. Some of my favorite terms include tombino (manhole cover), tergicristalli (windshield wipers) and macchine sgombraneve (snowplow).
Here are two of the many trick—or at least subjective--questions embedded into the exam, translated into English for your convenience:
Q: To diminish the noise of your vehicle, you should sound the car’s horn as little
as possible, true or false? A: True
Q: No one should have a big meal before driving, true or false? A: Also true.
Hey, what about the faulty muffler and the squeaky axle in that first question? And what about that third slice of porchetta in question two, and BTW, how big of a meal are we talking about? You get the idea of the challenges here.
Faced with such challenges, my daily level of optimism typically fluctuated somewhere between that of Edgar Allen Poe and George Costanza, both having bad days. Before my first attempt, I sat outside the department of transportation in a small bar and failed to eat a sandwich because I was so nervous. I channeled that energy into a failed attempt at the exam. I missed 10 questions. Ten. It was a baffling experience because I had not missed that many questions on a single exam in months.
Then I resigned myself to a second attempt after a few more months of study. As my wife and I neared the department of transportation building on that fateful day, we were happy to find a parking spot given that so many cars were illegally double-parked. Ironic, right? Fifteen nervous students shuffled around in a waiting room for an extra 45 minutes before the exam room opened. This time the security officer also made me take off my wedding ring before entering the exam room, leaving me to wonder what he does for people with navel piercings. Needless to say, I failed the exam again, this time with six errors. This time even the exam proctor, a Christopher Lloyd lookalike in an impeccable pinstripe suit, lamented with me as he shared my result. Then he got cruel, making a huge “X” across my registration papers — including my headshot — and promptly throwing it into the trash.
There was an upside to that darkest of days, however: The shining light of my life — my intelligent, beautiful and caring wife — passed the exam. In hindsight, that might be my main takeaway from this experience — if you have the chance to marry up in life, you should.
All joking aside, the stress and annoyance of undertaking the Italian patente process offers a good lesson for any American life driving in the expatriate lane (forgive the metaphor). You have to contend with a foreign system and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, but on a good day there are warm people and a generous community worth appreciating. I am grateful for a kind and patient teacher who tutored me through many exam topics. I also took small solace in the fact that I had the same exam proctor for both of my attempts. He was much nicer the second time, even going so far as to wish me good luck, which put me at ease.
One last thought about this temporary yet painful part of adjusting to Italian life. My mother asked me recently if losing the ability to drive made life in Italy more difficult. Notwithstanding her subtle attempt to steer me back toward life in the United States, it was an easy question to answer. More difficult? Sure. But is this difficulty and loss of mobility worthwhile in pursuit of la dolce vita? Absolutely.