If I was going to really fit in while in Italy, really feel like an Italian, one of the things I would need to master was driving like an Italian, and that meant much more than simply mastering the stick shift on our little Fiat 500.

Driving on the autostrada in Italy is terrifying for a first timer, and although this wasn’t my first time, it still took me a few days of driving to settle into the routine. Italians pass only on the left thankfully, but passing is nothing like anything I’d ever experienced in the US. At home, when I wanted to pass another car, I would simply glance over my left shoulder to be sure the blind spot was free of any car, turn on my signal, and pull out to pass.

In Italy, the blind spot isn’t what will get you—it’s the Ferrari bearing down on you at high speed, manically flashing his lights to make sure you know he wants you to get out of the way quickly. The first couple of times I drove on the autostrada during our time in Italy, I started to move into the left lane to pass only to realize there would be no way I could get around the truck on my right before one of those Ferraris would crash into the back of me. I would watch the lights of the car behind me quickly approaching and realize I needed to quickly dart back into the slow lane to avoid an accident. Every time, my pounding heart and sweaty palms reminded me that this was new to me. It wasn’t just how fast the passing car was coming up behind me. I also had to consider my speed and gears—I needed to punch it to get the pickup needed for passing, which meant downshifting before even considering whether I could pass in time. Seeing David’s frustration, his inability to understand why this was hard for me, only made me feel worse.

Even driving off the autostrada was challenging. Italians don’t have a high regard for lane markings, tending instead to straddle them in case they need to go left or right. They also pass when they want to or need to, regardless of the no-passing lanes and signs. On many occasions I watched drivers pass other cars—or worse yet, enormous trucks—close to a blind curve on a two-lane road. Every time, I fully expected to find a massive accident around the corner when I arrived, but through some miracle, that never happened.

Initially, I spent most of my time driving in the slow lane without passing, feeling safer and more secure. “There’s just so much more to consider when driving here,” I said to David. He was the passenger and navigator on this trip, not the driver, and I suspected he just thought I was too timid. But David had never driven in Italy, and it frustrated me that he didn’t understand that for me to even get behind the wheel to drive here meant I was showing a huge amount of bravery. I knew I was going to get better as time passed, I just wanted him to appreciate the challenges I was facing every time we got in the car.

One of those challenges was that I am just over five feet tall with very short arms. I’d spent my entire life climbing up grocery store shelves to reach something and asking tall friends to get stuff down for me—no big deal. But the toll booths in Italy presented an entirely new challenge: how to shift into neutral while pulling close enough to the booth so that I could pull out the ticket or make payment. Every time it seemed I wasn’t close enough and I’d need to put on the parking brake, remove my seat belt, and hang out the window, or even open the door, all the while knowing how much I was annoying the Italian drivers waiting not so patiently in line behind me.

But I kept practicing. Just how close could I get to the booth without damaging the mirror? If I leaned left without unbelting, could I insert the money without the wind whisking it right out of my hand? If I had to unbelt, could I keep my foot on the brake without engaging the emergency brake, making it faster to take off? You would have thought I was training for an Olympic sport.

Perhaps the biggest toll booth challenge was the time I didn’t take a ticket at all when getting onto the autostrada. I wasn’t yet confident with my Italian, and probably misread the sign saying to push the button to take a ticket—or maybe I was just too excited to reach the first rest area on the highway so I could get one of those fabulous panini stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella at the AutoGrill. For whatever reason, I didn’t take a ticket. I knew it was going to be a problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

“Maybe this isn’t really a toll road,” I told David. But when we needed to exit near Gubbio, I saw the toll booth, and my heart sunk.

“Mi dispiace, ma non ho un bigletto,” I said to the toll booth inspector. He looked at me like I was nuts, I’m sure wondering how I had gotten through the gate at the toll booth and onto the highway without the ticket. In reality, I wasn’t even sure how I’d done that, as I hadn’t crashed any gate. I was waiting for him to pull me aside, fully prepared to pay a fine, but he simply asked me where I entered the autostrada.

“Vicino Monte Sant Angelo,” I told him. He looked at the rate sheet and charged me only what the toll would be from where we had started. “Grazie mille!” I said, before shifting into gear to exit the toll booth. Later I realized I had gone through the open gate meant for cars with transponders on them. I never made that mistake again.

Over time, I figured out which lanes to enter at the toll booths to get my ticket since our car wasn’t outfitted with a pass. With practice, I learned how to maneuver the car as I entered a toll booth, and without unbuckling my belt or engaging the emergency brake, was able to quickly insert the payment and retrieve my change without dropping it outside my window. By the end of our time in Italy, I had mastered getting through the toll booths quickly and effortlessly, which I’m sure my fellow Italians in line behind me appreciated.

During one of our last road trips, driving east through Basilicata to reach Bari on the Adriatic Coast, David was happily snapping pictures of buildings and animals and windmills that we passed along the way. I wanted to reach Bari before lunch, so looked in my rearview mirror to assess the car coming up behind me. I downshifted and hit the gas as I pulled out and was safely tucked back into the right lane on the other side of the truck I had passed before the car behind me even got close.

At one point the road narrowed to a single lane in each direction. It was a heavily trafficked route for trucks, and they were slowing down traffic considerably with their heavy loads. I peeked around the side and the oncoming traffic looked sufficiently far away still. I downshifted again and pulled out, passing two trucks in one maneuver, despite the do not pass solid line on the road. As we exited the highway through the toll booth, I effortlessly inserted the ticket and paid the toll in seconds.

Through the entire drive I had remained calm—no pounding heart or sweaty palms. As we cruised into Bari, David smiled at me. “You seem to have the hang of it now, don’t you?”

“I do!” I said proudly. “I just hope I don’t get a ticket driving like a crazy Italian when I return to Denver!”