I know what you’re probably thinking. Worst idea ever, right? The Amalfi Coast Road might be one of the world’s most beautiful drives, but it is certainly not one of its easiest – from the driver’s seat. Full of twists and turns, barely wide enough for two cars to pass let alone big buses, blind curves galore, and 9 billion scooters (that’s the official count) zipping in and out of traffic make the Amalfi Coast a challenging place to drive. Let’s not even get started on parking …
John Steinbeck’s 1953 Harper’s Bazaar essay on Positano is very often quoted for the line about how Positano bites deep. It’s true. I love that line and I live on the Amalfi Coast for the way it hit me hard after only one visit. But what is rarely quoted is the part just before the famous line where Steinbeck describes in detail his first experience on the Amalfi Coast Road. It’s hilarious. If you didn’t know Steinbeck could be so funny, you’re in for a treat.
“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it. But there are other hazards besides the driving technique.
There are the motor scooters, thousands of them, which buzz at you like mosquitoes. There is a tiny little automobile called ‘Topolino’ or ‘mouse’ which hides in front of larger cars; there are gigantic trucks and tanks in which most of Italy’s goods are moved; and finally there are assorted livestock, hay wagons, bicycles, lone horses and mules out for a stroll, and to top it all there are the pedestrians who walk blissfully on the highways never looking about. To give this madness more color, everyone blows the horn all the time. This deafening, screaming, milling, tire-screeching mess is ordinary Italian highway traffic. My drive from Venice to Rome had given me a horror of it amounting to cowardice.
“Postano” by John Steinbeck, Harper’s Bazaar, 1953
I hired a driver to take me to Positano. He was a registered driver in good standing. His card reads: ‘Signor Bassani Bassano, Experienced Guide –all Italy – and Throt Europe.’ It was the ‘Throt Europe’ that won me. Well, we had accomplished one thing. We had imported a little piece of Italian traffic right into our own front seat. Signor Bassani was a remarkable man. He was capable of driving at a hundred kilometers an hour, blowing the horn, screeching the brakes, driving mules up trees, and at the same time turning around in the seat and using both hands to gesture, describing in loud tones the beauties and antiquities of Italy and Throt Europe. It was amazing. It damn near killed us. And in spite of that he never hit anybody or anything. The only casualties were our quivering, bleeding nerves. I want to recommend Signor Bassani to travelers. You may not hear much of what he tells you but you will not be bored.
We squirmed and twisted through Naples, past Pompei, whirled and flashed into the mountains behind Sorrento. We hummed ‘Come back to Sorrento’ dismally. We did not believe we could get back to Sorrento. Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassani gestured with both hands and happily instructed us: ‘Ina dda terd sieglo da Hamperor Hamgousternos coming tru wit Leegeceons’. (Our car hit and killed a chicken.) ‘Izz molto lot old heestory here. I know. I tall.’ Thus he whirled us ‘Throt Italy.’ And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us. Once during the war I came up this same lovely coast in the American destroyer Knight. We came fast. Germans threw shells at us from the hills and aircrafts splashed bombs at us and submarines unknown tried to lay torpedoes on us. I swear I think it was much safer than that drive with Signor Bassano. And yet he brought us at last, safe but limp, to Positano.”
After that entertaining interlude, we get to the real question. Why in the world would I decide to get my Italian driver’s license on the Amalfi Coast Road? The short answer is because I had to and the long answer is because I had to. I’ve been driving for about 20 years since I got my first license in America, but that license isn’t valid when you live in Italy. (If you’re coming on holiday, it’s a different matter.) Most of my time here since becoming a resident and later an Italian citizen, I haven’t really needed to drive much so I kept putting it off. Mostly because I didn’t want to. Like a lot.
But when it came time finally to take care of getting my driver’s license sorted in Italy, my best bet was to just deal with it right here in Amalfi. I marched my “I don’t want to do this” fanny over to the local Autoscuola (driving school) and signed up for the lessons and started the next day before I had enough time to reconsider and move to another country.
I wish I could say that it wasn’t as bad as I thought and that I learned some incredibly insightful life lessons. But I can’t. It was one of the most tedious experiences of my life and one that I got to spend a good chunk of money and many months of my life to enjoy. The first part of the process here in Italy is the theory test, which the lessons and the quizzes at the driving school helped me prepare for last November. This is no easy hurdle if Italian isn’t your first language. Many Italians fail the test because it covers so much complex information and, of course, many of the true and false questions are designed to trick you.
At some point last October it became personal. The entire process had become so annoying that it was no longer just a test. It was between me and the test and the test was going to go down. Oh did I study. I thought I was probably over studying, but there was no way I was going to go through this experience again.
The day of the test could only be described as tragic – the dismal weather, the industrial park setting, the clogged bathroom toilet, the yelling test administrator. I’m not sure, but it might have been a trial level that didn’t make Dante’s final cut for hell and they left it on the outskirts of Salerno.
But I passed the test. Aced it in fact. (Yes, did a bit overdo the studying …) We drove home and a chunk of the Amalfi Coast Road fell down east of Maiori the next day in a landslide. Now that’s a danger Steinbeck forgot to include about driving in Italy. I got my foglio rosa, or driving permit, the next day and definitely proceeded to not drive.
[Insert Christmas holidays where nothing happens and I pretended to not know what was coming.]
In January, it was time for the next step. The driving lessons. The driving school has a special car for learning with an instructor. This part should have been easy, but was actually more challenging to me than the theory test because I’ve only driven manual transmission enough to know that I hate it. Great … let’s make driving on the Amalfi Coast Road just a little more challenging.
So off I went again, this time with my foglio rosa in hand, for my driving lessons. I laughed. I cried. I hated every moment. After my first lesson in the dark where I was immediately instructed to drive down the street without knowing where the pedals were or much about shifting gears, I realized this was going to be perhaps my most Italian experience to date. I decided to embrace the wild ride as it came. And I did. (I also cried more once I got back home.)
But then it got easier as everything does in life when you practice. Even things you hate, as it turns out. One of the last lessons before the driving test, the instructor asked how I was feeling since it seemed I was more comfortable. (I was pretending.) I said, “I still can’t believe I’m doing this,” as I braked quickly for a cat darting across the road and thought at least it’s not a chicken. “It’s like a dream. But one of those really tense ones where you wake up with anxiety and are more tired than when you went to sleep.” He nodded. This is his job. Teaching people how to drive on the Amalfi Coast Road. He got it.
When test day arrived in February, I joined 5 other people (all about 18 years old or close) for the driving exam, which thankfully took place in Amalfi where I had been practicing. I was nervous, but by the time it was my turn to go last I felt much calmer as every student came back with more information. The exam itself was very easy and the instructor extremely helpful. Through the whole experience, I was glad that I had gone through the local Autoscuola as they made handling the loads of bureaucracy zero and everything else really as easy as it could be. After tooling around Amalfi and doing a few maneuvers, I had my patente, the Italian driver’s license.
It felt unreal. It was over. I headed out from the Autoscuola with my patente carefully tucked away inside my bag and went for a celebratory … walk.
. . . .
This is a humorous (and slightly although not excessively exaggerated) look at getting my driver’s license on the Amalfi Coast. It’s not particularly useful for anyone who is interested in actually getting a license in Italy. If you want to laugh or commiserate, you’re in the right place. However, there are plenty of good and actually informative (I ain’t got it in me on this topic folks) blog posts out there about the experience. Head over to Giovanna’s blog post on The Limonata Lounge where she wrote about How to Get an Italian Driver’s License or Jasmine’s blog post Getting an Italian Driver’s License is a Rite of Passage, which also includes many more useful links.