If you’re American, and you want to drive in Italy, you can’t dodge this requirement.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings if you haven’t already figured this out. Practical driving instruction in Italy is required. Italy and the U.S. don’t cooperate regarding existing driving privileges, obliging a new resident (after a year’s grace period) to hold a valid Italian driver’s license. That means a fairly involved process and significant expense attending scuola di guida (driving school), passing a written exam that is only given in Italian, and then taking a practical driving exam. As if the written exam isn’t daunting enough (read my previous post about it), you have to hop in a specially marked scuola di guida vehicle and start from scratch. You can’t bypass the practical driving instruction in Italy on your way to the practical exam. Believe me, I would have it if had been possible.

But, I am living proof that it can be done and the patente di guida procured!

I was watching Out of Africa and a scene in which Meryl Streep’s character is philosophizing about how a bend in a road sometimes is a blessing so that you don’t get freaked out about what lays in wait further on. We might not journey on if we know too much. I can apply that to my nine-month journey of scuola di guida and the written and driving tests. So, this informs my advice to you if you’re coming to Italy to live and are fretting about the driver’s license experience. Take it in pieces! Start with the classroom experience and learning the unfortunately substantial manual for the patent di guida. Pass the written exam. Then start wrapping your head around practical driving instruction in Italy.

Okay, let’s start managing expectations for the experience…

Dispense with any notions of a romanticized experience.

You’ll be a needle in a haystack if you end up with eye candy as an instructor, whether in the form of a handsome Italian man like Raoul Bova or a stunning Italian woman like Monica Belluci. Perhaps they exist but I haven’t seen them, and I’ve peered in many a driving school car when stopped at a traffic light.

Count yourself lucky if you get an instructor, male or female, who is measured and even-tempered. This is Italy, after all, and Italians are passionate in everything they do, so the likelihood of moments of “energy” during practical driving instruction in Italy is high.

Practical Driving Instruction in Italy

It’s a return-to-high-school experience.

For me, as if weeks in the classroom with mostly teenagers weren’t enough, climbing into the instructor’s car with a giant “Scuola Guida” plastered on the back made me cower inwardly. I had to park my pride and indignation at the unfairness of being a solid driver with decades of experience under his belt. There was no getting around this. Any high that I had from passing the written exam with only one error (a rare feat, even for Italians) evaporated.

Then there was the instructor, who I will call “Pietro” for the sake of privacy. Pietro was an older Italian man who seemed nice enough at first, especially when he took me on a private drive for me to show him my stuff. But, when the actual driving classes began and I had an audience in the backseat, he was a different person.

About the backseat… Unless you are paying extra for private instruction, don’t be surprised if you have a couple of other students (teenagers again, most likely) waiting for their turns. My first outing was with two girls who mostly were chatting with each other (thank God).

Dual braking controls

Pietro had his own set of braking controls, which he used frequently. I believe he was determined to let me know he was in charge even though I was a seasoned driver. Maybe I was overly sensitive, but I felt he would go out of his way to correct my driving, often unnecessarily. And, man could he be vocal. One minute he’d be muttering, “Piano piano” (slowly slowly) when I entered a roundabout, then he’d be shouting, “Vai vai!” (Go go!) seconds later when I needed to exit the roundabout.

I had to practice my best breathing and restraint techniques.

On one hand, I had Pietro interrupting my natural braking intuition and barking inconsistent orders. On another hand, I had to navigate a road populated mostly with Italian drivers. That includes the speedsters impatient to get past that damned scuola di guida, tractors, little Apee cars that sputter along, and overly cautious elderly drivers who can barely see above the steering wheel and who drive at a pace well below the speed limit. Yes, I was stressed for the first time driving in Italy (apart for driving in Rome).

If I’d thought Pietro had it in for me, the American, he was even harder on the young  Italian girls. Even from the backseat, I could see shoulders tensed in fear.

I survived.

I just had to go with the flow. Not only is this rule becoming a cardinal tenet for living in Italy. It’s becoming, more and more, a tenet for my life. Crap happens. Difficult people seemed to be placed in my path to hammer this point home.

My experience with practical driving instruction in Italy is by no means the experience you will have.

If I had to do it all over again, before signing up with the particular driving school I attended, I would have interviewed both the classroom teacher (she was awesome) and the practical instructor to be sure I’d found a good fit with both. If you end up residing in a place with multiple scuola di guida options, I’d visit them all and try to talk to other students who have graduated to get their take. I believe that most driving instructors are solid, respectful, and exemplary teachers so don’t be fearful!

My advice, just do your homework to be sure. Then you’ll cap off your journey to earning your Italian driver’s license with a smile on your face!

Other resources: If you want to explore more online details about taking the Quiz Patente di Guida B, check out this site (though you might have to translate it in English)