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Getting a Scooter License in Italy

Motorbikes in parked in Rome, Italy
Motorbikes parked in every available free space in Rome.

I want a scooter! Spring has sprung and the time is ripe. No, after a year and a half of taking public transportation, the time is positively rupturing, like the cascading wisteria of April in Rome. I too want to scoot, to join the swarms of Vespas and scooters surging gaily in the streets. Little do I know that my Vacanze Romane fantasy is to devolve into a tormented love affair: heady, drawn-out, and money-sapping, interspersed with peaks of passion and valleys of infuriation.

“Oh but first,” I think, “let me rent a motorino, i.e. scooter, for a morning.” For €30, I get three hours, during which I progress from wobbling to weaving. My Italian knight, displaying the very patience of courtly love, accompanies me at seven miles/hour, riding alongside on his 750-cc Nighthawk, until my time is up. We discover later that he clocks up a traffic fine of €85 jumping a red light to keep on my tail.

“It’s uncanny,” I say. “I feel safer and more stable on two wheels, than on two feet.” Italy’s (infrequent) sidewalks, riddled with potholes and packed with cars and motorbikes, are otherwise crammed with people chatting, old ladies resting their wheeled shopping baskets, and parents with strollers. When there are no sidewalks, this all overflows into the street. Frankly, I’ve got a greater chance of staying upright and getting timeously from A to B on a motorino than on the legs God gave me.

Motorbikes helmets for sale in Rome, Italy
Motorbike helmets for sale at Porta Portese flea market, Rome.

I start shopping around for a second-hand scooter. Pollution regulations implemented in January 2010 result in many models being no longer permitted for inner-city use, so I wander from dealer to dealer, looking for one with at least category EURO 1, that will take me anywhere. All I want is a 50-cc model with side-mirrors, a windshield, and that natty little oval box to store your helmet. At last, I find a Piaggio Free 2002 with all the required bits attached which is dashing in a shade of azure. It costs €500. “Oh, but first,” says the dealer, “you must pay me another €100, to go to the Dipartimento dei Trasporto, for the transfer of ownership.” We pay that too.

Motorino and cat in Italy
Motorbike and cat.

At home, I pore over photos of my scooter-to-be, whispering, “I love you, little bike! We will go adventuring!” My knight and I plan to collect it the very next Saturday. “Oh, but first,” says the dealer, sucking nonchalantly on his cigarette, “you must bring proof of insurance in order to collect it.”

Of course! So I phone around for insurance quotes. They range from about €560 to €1145 per year and phone response times vary from quick, to non-existent, to sheer trickery (where you get put on hold and then cut off). I choose Directline, who are one of the cheapest, promise 24-hour payment clearance, and will answer the phone if you outwit them. By selecting “Press 3 to pay now by credit card,” a human voice resounds promptly down the line and can be persuaded to answer non-payment questions. Yet, when I’m ready to issue payment, the Directline man says, ‘‘Oh, but first, you must send us a copy of your patentino.”

Patentino? I wish with all my might that a patentino had something to do with patate (potatoes), or patatine (french fries). But it doesn’t. Only a couple of years ago, Italian law declared that scooter users must get a mini-license, called a patentino ciclomotore. Somehow, nobody bothered to tell me this. Although I have 20 solid years of experience on my South African driver’s licensed, that counts for nothing. I’ve never even saddled my Piaggio Free and I am starting to hate it. I curse it whenever a Vespa zooms past me waiting at the bus stop.

The insurance operation goes on hold, the scooter stays at the workshop, and I start the rounds looking for an autoscuola (driving school), one close enough that I can get to it preferably without needing to use public transport. The schools’ quotes range from €170 to €250, and the one down the road from me is the cheapest. Because I’m not a minor, I don’t need to pass an exam, neither theoretical nor practical, but I must sit through 12 hours of theory classes and get my eyes tested. All this the school offers for €170: lessons, a cursory eyesight test by a frazzled doctor, and all communication with the traffic authorities.

The school is family-run and accordingly flexible about letting me complete the theory hours as fast as possible, in whatever lesson slots suit me. It dawns on me, as I trudge to and fro under the blazing June sun that they take no attendance register, and I could just as well skip school completely.

If I had a driver’s license issued in one of the countries listed with whom Italy has a bilateral agreement, I could convert it within three years of taking up residence in Italy into a patente B (i.e. for motor vehicles). Then the converted license would allow me to drive both cars and motorcycles. If only, for example, I had a driver’s license from the UK, certain EU countries, or other surprising places including South Korea, Morocco, Latvia and Iceland... Unfortunately, for those of us from South Africa, America, and numerous other places, no such loophole applies. We need to start from scratch.

There’s a hitch, because the classes are taught in Italian and mine is not rich in specialized vocabulary, the likes of “double-carriage freeway.” The thought of locating a school that will teach in English, and therefore costs more, sends me into a fresh rage. I’d rather throw myself under a bus than ride on it for the extra 24 hours required to make a dozen return trips to the center of Rome. “I will make it through 12 hours of difficult Italian, concentrating like a Buddhist monk,” I declare. Darnit, we’ve spent over €1450. I will get this license, before the end of fall, come hell or high water.

Concentration of any kind, however, is ruled out by the Italian classroom style, which encourages all and sundry to blurt out answers and comment arbitrarily and enthusiastically, like members of a beginner’s brass band. One morning, after class, I protest to the teacher that I have paid to hear him teach, not to filter out a running commentary from fellow students, making particular reference to one whom I dubbed Signora Pappagallo (Parrot Woman).

 “Ma dai, cara (Listen, my dear),” he replies sweetly, patting my arm. “I know you Anglo-Saxons. Proper and orderly, punctual and all that. This is Italy and we do it our way. Our students participate.” By the end of the month, despite myself, I am growing fond of them all. Even Signora Pappagallo. The air conditioning is delightful and I find myself enjoying the teacher’s sense of humor, blithely lacking in sensitivity to matters of race, religion, class, and gender.

Some weeks later, the driving school calls me to say that my license is ready. It is the day that hot air is funneling off the Sahara over Europe. Fiercely hot. The kind of day you’d rather be scooting than walking--scooting to the swimming pool, for example.

“Oh but first,” they cry, gearing up for a good laugh, “tell us again how it works at intersections in your country. That four-thingy-whatsit. Tell us again!” To my driving teachers, the 4-way stop (at which motorists stop at an intersection and depart, one by one, in the order in which they arrived) is colossally amusing. Absurd!

“Haha!” they roar. “Imagine that in Italy! Just imagine: Bastardo, I got here first! No, idiota, I did! Cretino, I’ll smash your windscreen if you drive off before me… Haha, you Anglosaxons!”

I know now how an intersection is done in Italy. It’s not as swashbucklingly haphazard as it looks. You go in clockwork direction, yielding to the right. More or less. Sort of. Depending. At any rate, I’m ready to try it with my motorino. With my patentino in my pocket and my insurance issued, I am free to learn to ride. I’m not sure if I love or hate this petulant little bike, but I do know we’re in for a riprollicking time together. And plenty, plenty of voomah.

For More Information

At Bici & Baci (meaning ‘bikes and kisses’) in Rome, one can rent scooters: www.bicibaci.com and www.biancoblu.com offers a similar service.

Tutto Stranieri offers a discussion forum (in Italian) on the matter of converting foreign driver’s licenses in Italy: www.tuttostranieri.it/forum/topic.asp?ARCHIVE=true&TOPIC_ID=9070.

The traffic authorities (Motorizzazione Civile) in Italy have regional websites, such as for Rome: www.motorizzazioneroma.it and for Torino: www.motorizzazionetorino.it.

www.scuolaguida.it provides national information about traffic regulations and various licenses obtainable, in Italian.

Online tests for various licenses are available in various languages, other than Italian, online: www.testpatente.it.

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