License to be happy

Part of starting a life in a new country is accepting what bureaucracy foists upon you, and in Italy, this can be a considerable load. Walking to the weekly market on Via Vincenzo Monti last Friday, I passed the neighborhood driving school and, seeing myself reflected in the window, a transparent layer superimposed over the empty classroom, I threw the gears of my mind into reverse and traveled 120 kilometers per hour back to a time when I was less integrated here, busy with a newborn baby, and required by the bureaucratic powers-that-be to acquire an Italian driver’s license through specific channels despite having a valid Oregon license already. Welcome to:

As far as I can tell, all driving schools, scuole guide, are the same. When you walk into one and take your seat, you might as well break yourself into pixels and “photoshop” them into a faded image from the 1960’s. Multi-colored seats, the type used in pediatricians’ waiting rooms, sit in loosely organized rows facing an instructor’s desk and a barrage of yellowed posters inartistically displayed around a chalkboard. The visual information is dense and varied: everything from roadside first aid to the inner-workings of an the common engine to the myriad road signs and hand signals used in the European Union. And most impressively of all, there are always—always—the guts of a car mounted on one wall. This is a stylist’s dream, a photographer’s heaven. Never has so much random bad taste, government code, disregard for design, and mechanical trivia looked so perversely mod.

I sat in one of these seats for weeks, my mind preoccupied with rushing home for the next breast-feeding, surrounded by impeccably dressed nonchalant Italian teenagers, sniggering at the instructor and flirting across the aisle. This was at the height of my I’ll-never-fit-in-here period. The language was hard enough, without having to speak of valves, tanks and rearview mirrors in Italian. But I persevered. And the classroom soon led to the in-car portion of the course.

This was at best humiliating. I’d been driving for years in the United States, and considered myself an excellent driver. But I quickly found that learning to drive in Italy was the motorized equivalent of picking up a new language. Driving, like speaking, has a vocabulary, a lilt, a rhythm, a way of being done that makes it more or less recognizable (i.e. safe) in the company of other people (i.e. native drivers). I was, despite myself, starting from scratch in many regards.

My driving teacher was named Domenico. He was Pugliese, about 50, and had—I suspected—a horrible crush on me which he expressed between urgent directives (Frena! Brake!) shouted in an Italian so thickly accented that I only picked up his intentions, not his precise meaning. He used to override my efforts to drive, by using his controls to stop the car in the midst of dizzying traffic circles. He would then explain to me with his peculiar mixture of impatience and infatuation exactly how bad my driving was. How foreign. How American. Then, when we were both sweating profusely—he in his gray suit and I in my embarrassment—he would release the controls, nod and wave a hand toward the road. Si puo andare. You can go now.

The day I took the final driving test, Domenico confirmed my suspicions by kissing me on the lips after passing the driving portion. I was shocked. Non si fa. This is not something one ordinarily does. But then again, he probably did not ordinarily have 38 year-old, lactating, American women as students. I blushed, he blushed. Flustered, I said, “Grazie,” not meaning to refer to the kiss but to the fact that he’d helped me overcome this barrier. He misunderstood. I got my license.

This is what my mind remembers, before throwing itself back into forward gear and racing to the present. I back away from the window and proceed to the market. I feel happy, thankful. Whatever has gone before has brought me here, to this precise moment, and re-visited through the filter of that fact, it only gains in beauty.

My thanks to Ann Moore for copy-editing this post.

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