KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD AND YOUR HANDS UPON THE WHEEL
I could no longer say, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
I had a driving lesson. This was the penultimate step … with the actual behind-the-wheel test being the last lap on my journey to Italian Driver’s LicenseLand.
Twelve 30-minute in-the-driver’s-seat classes … and those would be my only practice. Why?, you ask. Good question. My unique problem is three-fold … partly us, mostly Italy. First, we do not have a car with manual transmission … so even with my foglio rossa (learner’s permit), I have no appropriate car to drive. Second, the cars we do have are “too powerful” for a neopatente (first-year driver) to drive. It has to do with a formula of weight and kW power. Nothing to do with age. Or experience in a country that has good drivers. Or a good driver discount with the Italian insurance company. Or that I had my license longer than the instructor has been alive. Or that our Jetta was my car in California … even our Polo was one toke over the line. Third, even if we had a manual transmission car and even if it had a small engine, I cannot drive with David. The law says I can only drive with a person who has had an Italian driver’s license for 10 years.
I spent the evening prior to the first lesson remembering the foot work, since it had been years since I had my blue Volvo 840 with manual transmission. The most recent time I drove a stick shift was last year in a rental car … for about 20 minutes. But I was able to start the car uphill and not slide backwards through the parking lot and into the adjacent building.
Right foot, on brake … left foot, depress clutch … right hand, shift into first gear … right foot, accelerator. Gently, slowly, one up, one down, pretending there’s a raw egg is under each foot.
I told Chiara that if, after the first two lessons, I was a total disaster, I’d go to a driving school in Florence that had a car with automatic transmission. I also told her my raw-egg technique … so she’d realize I was just rusty, not a novice. She said they had a student who took 60 lessons. Five times the minimum. At 20 euros per lesson … 720 euros … that’s a lot of Uber-ing. And no, I don’t know if she quit or if the school said basta.
But there also was a glitch.
I was born in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. Motorizzazione (the DMV) has registrations for our two cars saying Los Angeles, U.S.A. .. but the location on my Carta d’Identità from the comune and on my Permesso di Soggiorno from the federal government states it’s California, U.S.A. Close, but no cigar. No match = no license.
Cesare, who owns the local AAA-type agency, is a master at this sort of [pause] Italian-ness. He helped David through the driver’s license steps several years ago, and we have remained friends. So the driving school suggested I talk with him, explain to him … and let Cesare wave his magic wand.
David & I are reminded, in a slowly-I-turn kind of way, of the reason I couldn’t get my driver’s license years ago … because the comune couldn’t unravel the gordian knot of Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. You can read about it in POETIC LICENSE.
We were still waiting to hear back from Cesare. Who would reign supreme? Would the Department of Transportation (through its minion, Motorizzazione) be persuasive that I was born in Los Angeles, USA? Or could the Department of Interior and its companion, the comune, prevail that my birthplace was California, USA? Either way, documents would need to be changed … either by me (at considerable aggravation, including one visit to our comune and at least two trips to the Questura in Florence) or Motorizzazione (who cares what they think).
In an abundance of caution, I opened my Important Documents folder, and retrieved my certified-apostilled-translated-authenticated Birth Certificate and Marriage License-Marriage Certificate. I knew I’d need them for the comune and maybe for the Questura. Original and a copy.
Chiara is my instructor, just as she was for David.
Fasten your seatbelt, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.
Lesson 1 … Click seatbelt, confirm seat, check mirrors. Exhale. Practice the feel, the throw of the stick shift. Position the left foot to work … today it’s not just along for the ride. One’s right hand could only move the stick shift for the necessary moment, then it must immediately go back onto the steering wheel. At 10.00 and 2.00. Keep the corner sharp when turning left.
Lesson 2 … Only 1 abrupt stop. Getting used to the clutch, when to start pressing it. And speaking of clutch, that’s the appropriate term for using the steering wheel. The relaxed hands I’ve been using successfully for years need to give the appearance of a secure grip.. At 10.00 and 2.00.
Lesson 3 … My secret wish is that I could spend half-an-hour driving MY car with Chiara, so she knows that I can really drive. I’m glad that I only stalled it once … and I have that feathering-the-clutch thing. Back in the day, in my Volvo 840, I had no fear driving up La Cienega Boulevard and … getting to a red light at Sunset Boulevard. There are no whiplash stops or starts.
I soldiered on.
Lesson 4 … Two words … parallel parking. Two more words … stick shift. Keeping it smooth, keeping it real. Chiara reminds me to relax … I explain “white coat hypertension.”
Cesare calls. He has worked his magic, and Motorizzazione will change their records. Come by at the beginning of next week to pick up the revised Carta di Circulazione for each of our cars. And oh … there’s a fee of 78 euros. Per car. Nothing comes without a price.
Chiara is happy to say she has my corrected foglio rossa.
Lesson 5 … I proudly told her that on our recent trip to L.A., I drove a lot. In traffic, on the freeway, day and night, over the speed limit. Oops, no, I didn’t tell her that last part. Today I get to parallel park Italian-style. None of the fancy schmancy turning the steering wheel while the car is moving … position the car — turn the wheel — back up to 90 degree angle — stop — turn the wheel — finish backing up. It worked. The same for a U-turn … it worked, too. But that silly clutch. If only they’d invent a car that didn’t have a manual transmission.
Lesson 6 … I’m clutching at straws … clutch play. Get that right hand off the shifter … even though I’ll be shifting in 3 seconds … it must be at 2.00 on the steering wheel. I remind myself that I was confident in my blue Volvo.
Lesson 7 … New rule: use 2nd gear when you approach an intersection. It’s not really a rule, but Chiara says that the examiner pays attention to every detail, and says this is a good “trick” to avoid “mistakes.”
Lesson 8 … Press down on the frizione firmly. Bam, straight to the floor. But not when you release the clutch, then you want to feather it … to hear the motor, to feel it, to be one with the gearbox. 30 minutes once a week to learn, practice, remember, relax, exhale.
Lesson 9 … At the school, my mentor and teacher, Franca, is there. I confide in her that I am not feeling very confident … and ask her for a pep talk. She just says a few words, and they help. I’m pumped, I’m ready. I got in the car, and Chiara gave me the date for my driving exam. Dio mio! It’s a good lesson … I remember instructions from prior lessons, and incorporate them more fluidly into my driving. But it’s not perfect. I parallel park too close to the curb for Italian standards. But I’m not quite as scared of the clutch … and shifting is improving.
Before the exam, there’s also an “under the hood” lesson. Students huddle around the engine and learn the various parts. I will learn the various parts in Italian. I already know catalytic converter … catalizzatore … because that dashboard light came on last month in our Jetta. It pays to pay attention.
Lesson 10 … I am stressed. Not sure why, but this seems to be a two stick-shifts forward, one-stick back kind of lesson.
David gave me a pep talk. He reminded me that I had passed the hardest part … teoria … this was easy peasy. I tell him there’s a new step. The examiner asks questions about the car (how do you check the oil, what are the 4 main systems of a car, etc.) … I have to do my figures before I do the free skate.
Lesson 11 … Today’s takeaway is that I should use the side mirrors more than the center rearview. I laugh … silently to myself … knowing I’ll be one of the few people here using any mirror at all. Chiara says she realizes I’m a good and confident driver, that she has no fear when I drive … she’s being strict so I can pass the test.
Chiara mentioned that my examiner is someone new to the area. She doesn’t know him, so doesn’t if he’s nice or strict, a mensch or a stickler. She’ll tell him, of course, that I’ve had my license for years … that I’m an experienced driver … ma …….
Lesson 12 … The ultimate drive before D-Day. My parallel parking was great … smooth backing up, with both hands on the wheel rather than my California-style, with my right arm bracing the passenger seat … nice U-turn. The drive itself was ok … feathering the clutch more securely, shifting is my bugaboo (why upshift if I’ll have to downshift in 100 feet?)
D minus 1.
Final review … we discuss the dashboard lights, what each meant, and how to react to each. Chiara laughed when I said it was my first car (a hand-me-down Chevy Nova) taught me about overheating engines … and my Jeep Cherokee (that lasted 10 years) had a recall for both the brakes and the ABS system.
And D-Day arrived. I had told only a couple people (jinx it if you blab), given my misstep with teoria.
As I got ready, I had my morning coffee in a special little cup (hand-thrown ceramic by friend Lena) … I did something my dad always did (that’s his and my secret [heart]) … I wore green pants (Laurie’s favorite color) … ate peanut butter for lunch (Pattee’s favorite power snack before winning ! triathlons) … had on my California necklace (a gift from Petra). I had surrounded myself with the energy of strong women. And I wore pink, my favorite color, to remember that I had The Power, too.
Like sands through the hourglass, the moment was here.
First, the questions … both concise. Gentlemen, start your engines. As advertised, we began with parallel parking. I got the nervous part out of the way immediately. NERVOUS. The Czech judge was particularly harsh with good reason … but the Italian coach seared a look of you-know-this-stuff-!! into my brain, and I maneuvered into place. (It might not have been pretty or preciso, but I stuck the landing.) Textbook, schmextbook. Backing up … nice. U-turn …1–2–3 done. My nerves had settled down … smooth shifting, timely braking, a sudden stop for an unexpected pedestrian, turn signals, glancing at the side rear-view mirrors, rolling smoothly to the limit line. He and Chiara chatted amicably, interrupted only by the occasional “turn left here.” The drive ended where it began. Dov’è il bagagliaio?, asked the examiner. Alrighty then, what’s that word… ??? … as my brain scanned its memory, but it was something Chiara and I had never discussed.. His body language gave me the answer … It’s back there, I said, indicating the hatchback area under the rear window. Bagagliaio, he nodded with a smile. How do you say bagagliaio in English?, he asked. “Trunk.” (Only now do I realize that I gave him the American answer … the reply in UK English would have been “boot.”) Then he asked me to show him how I got out of the car. Hand on lever, check the mirror, turn of the head … brava.
HERE’S YOUR LICENSE.
Three beautiful words. A lifetime of driving, he commented, as I took the little card in my no longer sweating hand. E x h a l e.
Riding along in my automobile … cruisin’ and playin’ the radio / With no particular place to go …
2–¾ cup flour
1 tsp. salt … plus more for sprinkling
⅔ cup + 1 oz. (2 Tbl.) white wine
⅓ cup olive oil … plus more for brushing
- Preheat oven to 395°F (200° C). Line a cookie sheet with a silpat.
- In a large bowl, mix flour and salt. Pour in wine and oil, stirring to create a soft dough.
- Press or roll the dough on the cookie sheet into an oval ¼ inch (0.65 cm) thick.
- With a serrated knife, score the dough to create a diamond pattern … the pieces should be about 1 inch x ½ inch (2.56 cm x 1.30 cm).
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until lightly browned and crisp.
- Score again, then brush lightly with a LITTLE olive and sprinkle with a LITTLE salt.
- Serve at any temperature … broken into pieces.