Jul 2008

You Say Rotatoria, I Say…

Since I suddenly have no valid drivers licence, I am sure my photo has been posted on the “Most Wanted” wall at the Questura headquarters. They seem to be everywhere, standing languidly on the side of the street, with a cigarette in one hand and a red lollipop stop sign in the other. I watch carefully for warning headlight flashes from oncoming drivers and heed them, just in case there was a check point up the road. As I was returning from my lesson last Friday, a woman flashed a warning. With the reflexes of a cat, I took a sharp right to get off the main road and then meandered through unfamiliar tiny streets, trying to work my way home. Twenty minutes later I somehow popped back out onto the main road where immediately on the corner stood the carabiniere, his sharply uniformed back to me as he peered down the road. I could have tapped him on the shoulder, but didn’t, being a fugitive and all.

I flipped the text book open to study with extra fervor that night. I was covering turn signals. With the amount of detail presented I got even more nervous. Who could imagine that there are thirteen different points for this sign?



As I sat in the waiting room at the testing center I fought the rising panic in my gut by flipping open the practice book to take one more test. Seven mistakes. Ok, that was not helping. Our instructor fluttered in front of us, repeating, “Are you ready? Are you ready?” He had driven us into town like a kindergarten teacher on a field trip, doing everything short of pinning our names and contact information to our sweaters. Nervous beyond reason, I turned to my fellow students, a boisterous Ukranian woman and a calm teenager, for moral support. They were chatting about the weather and plans for the weekend. How could they possibly look beyond this looming exam?

We finally were escorted into the testing room, a bank of blank computers hummed on individual desks. As the instructors from several schools wrung their hands behind us, we were given directions and the order to begin. Thankfully my test was in English and Italian so I could not get tripped up by the haphazard translation. Nevertheless, I changed my answer so many times on the more convoluted questions that what I finally submitted remains a mystery. Afterwards in the waiting room, I had trouble getting a full breath and I put my head down between my knees. I could not do this again. What would I do it I had not passed?

I looked up to see the instructor standing before us. He appeared calm, even smug.

“You all passed.”

“Really?” I couldn’t believe it. “Really?”

“Yes. Now we can schedule driving lessons.” He spoke quickly now as he briskly escorted us back to the car and flipped his cell phone open. “Ten one hour lessons for you, Serena, should be enough.”

Ten lessons?


“Serena always fights with her driving instructor.”

I shot Luciano a look. So much for loyalty. Anna Maria turned to me, shocked.

E vero?" Is that true?

“He thinks I do not know how to drive and snaps at me while I am parallel parking, which makes me tense. I know how to parallel park!” I think I got an eye roll from Luciano, but ignored it.

I had in fact discovered that my instructor began his job the year I got my first license, in those early days of yacht-sized station wagons and potent power steering that sent us hurtling across intersections with the touch of a finger. I learned to drive a stick shift on the hills of San Francisco. I had driven in Italy for five years, without incident, where a more willy-nilly adherence to rules could not exist. Yet, even with all this experience, my teacher found fault with everything. What went on daily on the streets of Italy had no place in this man’s reality as I drove around and around the roads of Conegliano, muscles bunched and hands clenched at ten and two on the wheel, with this critical man by my side. This cost me 24 euro per hour.

No wonder I was tense


Practical Test Day. The car windows steamed as I sat in the parking lot. In the back seat of the driving school car were two young men, fellow students I had never seen before. Rain slanted out of the dark sky rendering everything kind of fuzzy and our car a metallic cocoon, but I could just make out the instructors disappearing into a bar across the street. The other school car was parked alongside us where another student, an elderly nun, sat stoically at the wheel, gazing into the distance. The two in the back seat squirmed and chatted nervously.

“At exactly 20 minutes I am stopping the car and getting out. End of test.”

“Do you think he will make us park?”

“Well, of course!”

“Signora, is this your first driving test?”

Oh! This was directed at me. I am not used to hearing
Signora, nor the formal “Lei” pronoun. Suddenly I was old…and incredibly experienced and calm. I pivoted in my seat.

“No, no. I have been driving for many, many years.”

They threw up their hands in exaggerated laughter.

“Then you are not nervous at all!”

“No,” I lied. “It will be easy.”

An hour passed as we sat there in the parked car in the rain. Not even sure why I was sitting there, I began to fume. Finally I could see three forms approaching through the rain splashed windows. As one instructor approached our car, the others entered the second car. The instructor and the examiner, I imagined. The nun, his first victim, sat up and gripped the wheel.

As we watched, she slowly edged out of the parking place, and headed for the street. We followed as she motored off through the rain. At the first
rotond…er, rotatoria, she tossed out a right turn signal, but turned left. To correct this error, the examiner directed her to turn left at the next street and return to the original route. It was raining, lunchtime, and one of the busiest streets in the Veneto. As we waited, we all urged her on.

Dai, dai!” Come on, come on!”, only to drop our heads in frustration as she missed another opportunity to go. For ten minutes we sat behind her until she gathered her courage and shot out in front of a truck. This was all wrong. How could she hope for a license?

Back on route, she drove slowly, edging off the road once or twice. My critical eye failed her again and again. When she unsuccessfully parked, leaving the front wheel in the street, the examiner had enough and ended the test. Our instructor looked around our car.

“Who wants to go next?”

I shot my hand up. Compared to this woman I was Mario Andretti. Let’s get it over with. As the nun and I switched places I felt sorry for her, averting my eyes from her certain embarrassment. Yet I silently thanked her for the confidence I felt as slid behind the wheel and adjusted the mirror. I nodded to the examiner and sailed through the test, with a cannon roll and a reverse 180, ending with a sliding 90 into a parking box. Ok, maybe I was showing off, but it was a sweet moment when the disheveled but impressed examiner handed me my brand new license with a shaking hand.

I sauntered to the “victim” car where my moment of bravado vanished, poof. For there, with a private smile, the nun was admiring
her new license, holding it delicately in slender fingers.

Yet, I would not let this bother me as I let the relief wash over me like a cool of water and I texted Luciano and his parents. Messages came back,


As I sat relishing this absolute liberation from worry, I gave the nun one more sideways glance, making a mental note to forever drive defensively when in the presence of a wimple.