A few days ago, I asked my friends in my Instagram stories what I should write about. I’ve been having a bit of a creative BLOCK if you will. I got a few requests for my Italian citizenship story so I knew the time had come to share the juicy details.
I’m a little hesitant to tell this story because 1)Writing about it means having to relive THE ITALIAN DRAMA AND LACK OF ORGANIZATION of it all and 2)I have Italian grandparents so that gave me a big head start and it feels a little unfair.
Now before I go any further, you may be asking yourself “But Lisa, you’re so pale and wear SPF 50, how could you possibly be half Southern Italian?” And my answer to that is BLAME MY PALE FRENCH CANADIAN FATHER. My mom had dreamy golden Italian goddess skin, but I was gifted with this pink/white face.
Okay, back to the citizenship thing. (Warning: this one’s LONG. Grab a snack, some coffee, maybe a second snack just in case, you never know).
PS. The cover picture is my Nonno at 18, Nonna at 14 and their friend a few years before immigrating to Canada. It was taken in 1953.
My maternal grandparents are from a small town in the Molise region of Italy called Morrone del Sannio. In the late 1950s, they immigrated to Canada for a better life. It was during the huge postwar boom of Italians moving to Canada and the United States for work.
My grandmother still talks about that almost 10-day transatlantic boat ride to Montreal and how terrifying it was to only see water for days and days. Ocean Eyes. For a 17-year-old from a tiny Italian town in middle-of-nowhere-Molise, I can’t imagine what that must’ve felt like. She moved before my grandfather did and he met up with her later. They didn’t even have a wedding. I’m pretty sure they got married by mail.
Anyway, they were obviously both Italian citizens when they moved to Canada. In the 1970s, they were eligible to obtain Canadian citizenship by naturalization. And at the time, Italian citizenship was exclusive (the laws changed in August 1992) so if you wanted to become Canadian, you had to renounce your Italian citizenship. And that’s what they did.
The only reason I was able to apply for my Italian citizenship is that my mom was born in 1961 when my grandparents were still Italian citizens (they became Canadian in 1975). So citizenship was automatically passed down to my Mom and then to me. If they had decided to naturalize before her birth, I would’ve never been able to become an Italian citizen through “Jure Sanguinis”. It’s the fancy Latin word for obtaining citizenship through your ancestors.
The Impossible Documents
The nightmare of applying for citizenship begins when you call your local Italian consulate 43 times to make an appointment and they never answer so you send them 12 emails and maybe they answer one of them telling you to call to book an appointment and the back and forth continues until someone eventually gives in and books you an appointment.
During that first appointment, I was handed a list of everything I needed to apply for citizenship. Some of the normal things were my birth certificate, my mother’s birth certificate and death certificate, grandparents’ birth certificates, marriage certificates, a certificate stating I had never gotten married in Canada, blablabla. But the most important thing was for everyone’s name to be written correctly on every single document (but I’ll come back to that later).
Then, there was the juicy stuff I needed like my grandparents’ “Italian passport or last certificate of Italian residency at the moment of emigration” and their “foglio di sbarco.” The “foglio di sbarco” (landing card/paper) is what they give you when you enter Canada for the very first time. Surprisingly, my grandparents had kept this famous landing card but it didn’t have my grandfather’s name on it so I couldn’t prove it was actually his.
I sent letters to the Canadian government asking where I could obtain a copy of a landing card, I applied for weird documents online and sent stacks of papers to a bunch of different offices, but Canada never got back to me (RUDE) so I did what any normal person would do: I moved to Italy and decided I would try and apply from there.
Let’s get back to the name thing. As I mentioned earlier, your name and the names of all of your relatives need to be exactly the same on every single document you hand in. If there is ONE letter missing, they won’t accept your application. So my first step was changing all of my documents because my mom’s official name was Maria Giovanna but she shortened it to Giovanna when she was young and then also went by Joanne so I needed to fix that. This isn’t a complicated process, it’s just annoying and costs money.
But my mom wasn’t the only one in my family who used different names. Here comes the Rachel story.
The Rachel Story
My grandmother is one of the weirdest and wisest people I know. Her name is Maria, but not that many people call her Maria. One of our neighbors calls her ANNINA (because she’s from the south and everyone in her town used to call her “ANNINA” but it translates a little weird in English), some call her Mary, some (who aren’t her grandchildren) call her Nonna… I could go on. But her middle name was the center of a big family debate. My Nonna has always been CONVINCED that her name was MARIA RACHELE. I have proof of this.
But my grandfather (my Nonno) always told her that her name was Maria RachelA. She didn’t buy it. She kept living her life thinking her middle name was Rachele. After gathering all of the documents and realizing her name would be way too complicated to change on everything I needed for my citizenship application, I decided to apply through my grandfather. But just for fun, here’s my grandmother’s birth certificate:
Her name is—and always has been—MARIA RACHELA.
Sometimes, my grandmother’s name is also MARIA RACHEL. I guess she decided to go full Canadian and just drop that last letter like a modern queen.
But you know who never changed his name? My grandfather. Antonio was always Antonio. Let’s all take a moment to thank a simple man. Nonno Antonio, the reason why I’m an Italian citizen today.
The Italian Journey
When I officially moved back to Italy (for the third time) on December 30th 2016, I applied for a permesso di soggiorno within 8 days of being in Italy and I checked the box that was something like “I’m a freelancer and can pay for my own life here without a job” or something of that nature. I probably wasn’t eligible so I knew I needed to start the citizenship process ASAP so I could change my permesso application status to “in the process of obtaining Italian citizenship.”
The First Call
It was 2017. My Italian wasn’t as good as it is now. I was/am a little shy and hadn’t learned that Florentines yelling at me on the phone meant I had to yell back a little (I love Florentines so don’t come at me) to show them I wasn’t PLAYING AROUND. So I picked up the phone and called a number I found online. I said, “Ciao, io vorrei fare la domanda per la cittadinanza Italiana” (Hi, I’d like to apply for Italian citizenship). It was a very innocent statement. The extremely annoyed woman answered “GUARDA CHE NON È COSÌ FACILE. TI SERVONO TANTI DOCUMENTI. NON PUOI MICA CHIAMARE E CHIEDERE LA CITTADINANZA COSÌ.” (Look, it’s not easy, you need a lot of documents. You can’t just call and ask for citizenship). She was so rude and mean so I just said OK GRAZIE CIAO, hung up the phone and cried a little.
I decided to go to an immigration office that helped people with citizenship applications instead.
The Rita Days
I’m gonna call her Rita.
Rita was my North Star for a few months. I think I went to see her 4 or 5 times at the beginning of my citizenship application. She worked at the Immigration office in a very sketchy area of Florence and she was the only one I trusted.
Rita told me what I had to do and who I had to write to. She helped me understand all of the documents I needed to get translated and notarized. (There were a lot of important FedEx documents sent to my Dad in Montreal who brought them to an official translator, got them notarized, brought them to the Italian embassy to get legalized and sent them back to me via FedEx). Once again, a lot of time and a lot of money.
When I finally had all of my translated and notarized documents, I finally felt ready to deal with the Palazzo Vecchio immigration office again.
I booked an appointment and was ready to show them everything. The names were all the same and all of the required documents were translated, notarized and legalized by the Italian consulate in Montreal.
When I arrived, the woman looked at all of my documents, pulled a FRESH YELLOW FOLDER out of her drawer, wrote my name in juicy black Sharpie and OFFICIALLY STARTED MY CITIZENSHIP APPLICATION! She didn’t speak English either (or pretended she didn’t so if you’re trying to apply for citizenship, you better start working on your Italian). I was happy.
In the meantime, I had to go back to the questura to change my permit to stay application to “applying for Italian citizenship” or something like that. If you’ve been there, you know the struggle. I don’t need to explain the waking up at 5 am and waiting 6 hours at the questura every few months to get a card that says you can legally live in Italy and leave the country without the fear of not being let back in.
The San Donato Ugly-Cry Email
Two months had gone by since I handed in all of my citizenship documents. I was walking Kiwi at San Donato park in Novoli when I got an email. It said this (It was IN ALL CAPS and had AN AGGRESSIVE EXCLAMATION POINT AT THE END).
MANCA LA LEGALIZZAZIONE DEL DOCUMENTO CANADESE!
I hadn’t legalized my grandfather’s official Canadian citizenship certificate because I had already asked the Italian consulate in Montreal TWICE, TWO MONTHS EARLIER, about legalizing it but they said they NEVER TOUCH ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS so they legalized a photocopy. But that wasn’t good enough. I had no idea what to do. I sent her an email (during a full on ugly-cry meltdown at the park) and said IT WAS AN IMPOSSIBLE REQUEST.
Turns out YOU CAN ONLY LEGALIZE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS OF THAT NATURE AT THE MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS IN OTTAWA. I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO LIVES IN OTTAWA.
So my DAD DROVE TO OTTAWA TO GET THIS DOCUMENT LEGALIZED. The things parents do for their children. We fixed that problem, but this is Italy so there were still a few more things that needed to go wrong.
The Final Steps
A few weeks after the Ottawa drama, I found out that nobody had ever informed the Italian town my grandfather was from that he had died 15 years earlier. So once again, the woman working on my case told me I needed to deal with that. So my Zia Pina who happens to live in Morrone Del Sannio went to the town’s registry office and showed them my grandfather’s death certificate so they could update his status. Problem solved.
But wait, there’s more. Because I had lived in Montreal AND VANCOUVER, I also needed the Italian Consulate in Vancouver (WHY THOUGH) to confirm that I had never renounced my Italian citizenship because I could’ve woken up hungover one day in Vancouver and gone to the Italian consulate and yelled “HEY GUYS, I DON’T WANT TO BE AN ITALIAN CITIZEN. I’M NOT INTO IT OKAY.” I’m not sure what went wrong, but it took almost 4 months for that confirmation to come through.
We’re almost done…but not quite. When I stopped hearing from Palazzo Vecchio, I emailed them to make sure that they had all of the necessary documents (and to remind them I was still waiting for my citizenship). They said everything was alright, but they were in the process of changing their online systems and all applications were blocked... WELCOME TO ITALY, THIS IS WHY WE LOVE HER AND CAN’T STAND HER. That was on October 10th, 2017 and they wrote to me once again on November 7th, 2017 to book ANOTHER IN-PERSON APPOINTMENT.
November Flush and Dual Citizenship
On the morning of November 10th, I was crestfallen because I thought something was wrong with my application. When I got to Palazzo Vecchio for my appointment and found out they were preparing everything so I could sign my citizenship papers right then and there, I FREAKED OUT AND RAN TO H&M (a 30-second walk from the Palazzo Vecchio) to buy this terrible shirt with puffy sleeves and gold specks because I WANTED TO LOOK GOOD. Out of all the available shirts and blouses, why did I pick that one? We’ll never know. I’ve shared this picture before but it means a lot so I’m just gonna share it again.
And just like that, in my terrible 10 euro H&M blouse, I became Italian. To celebrate, I had a solo cappuccino at Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria and then I walked home.
I know people sound like broken records when they say that living in Italy isn’t for everyone. But it isn’t. You have to fight like hell for every single thing you want because nothing comes easy here. But don’t quit. Or maybe quit, have a glass of wine and then try again tomorrow.
Lisa, your Canadian (and also Italian) almost Fiorentina friend xx
8 thoughts on “The Everlasting Pursuit of Italian Citizenship”
I got the new-article-posted email while standing waiting for my order at my favorite Seattle bakery, and I was SO EXCITED to dig in to this story that I waited to bring it back home to savor over my quiche lorraine & latte. I mean, what a combo: I truly love your writing and also I myself am knee deep (or… 5 years?) into my own dual US/Italian citizenship journey. I absolutely understand the dramatic highs & lows that come along with the process, and it was lovely to read about yours.
A couple things I found especially cool: what I wouldn’t GIVE to be able to talk to my people who came over!! I’ve got on GGM who has an intriguing story, but in general the boats my people came on had 1000+ below deck in the steerage. Just crazy. I think it’s wonderful that your grandma is a living tie to that stage of your family’s journey.
Also, I really appreciate how you pointed out how the process is a beautiful way to learn about your ancestors on a deeper level. I’ve learned so much about the lives of my family members, through the details that I’ve had to dig up– there are a lot of clues about their lives in there, aren’t there?! Visiting their villages is so powerful, too– I don’t know about you, but when I first started to visit my ancestral comunes, I felt a soothing surge of familiarity when I’d find myself face-to-face with the locals; there was just something so familiar about them, their eyes, their ways. That totally took me by surprise, but I’m smiling now just remembering the feeling.
I know it wasn’t easy to succeed in your journey, but I’m glad you had help from some kind people who saw you. Also, I know that you’ve had some really tough (heart)breaks in your family life, so I’m glad that this was (believe it or not) relatively easy for you to acquire. I mean, just look at what you’re doing with your citizenship!!
In my case, I’ve got to fight via a court case in Rome; women didn’t used to be able to pass citizenship on to their children, and since I need to go through my grandma for mine (my grandpa’s line was cut with a naturalization) I will need to argue that the law was sexist and illegally discriminatory. I mean, of COURSE I’m going to argue against that, and this is my big chance to do it within the legal system of all places! The process has been such a mess that I keep having to tell myself that if you REALLY want to be an Italian citizen, navigating the dysfunctional bureaucracy of Italy is a great training for being Italian. Also, a byproduct of the citizenship is earning the patience of a saint.
Long long too-long comment. In short: Thanks for the post! I loved it! Complimenti!!
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Lisa, I love this so much!! Thank you!! 💗
I was reading your comment and aggressively nodding after each paragraph. Every time I go back to my grandparents’ hometown, I feel like I’m home… It feels like food for the soul.
Good luck on your citizenship, that sounds a little complicated! I’m sending you the most positive vibes and hope you get yours soon!!
Patience and wine is key!
A presto xx
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Great story Lisa, brings back a lot of stressful experiences:) Love that blouse! I remember that day when I received a call from my Italian daughter… I was so happy for you as I always wanted you to connect with your Italian roots You deserve your Italian citizenship not only because it is your birthright but because you did it all on your own. this is why I am so proud of my Italian daughter. You are by far my favourite daughter. xxx
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Thanks Dad 💗💗💗Was so happy to tell you I was finally Italian!! xx 😘
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Great read! As someone who has been pushing off applying for citizenship for years, it is both an inspiration for me to get back and track and also a great reminder as to why I’m dragging my feet (Italian bureaucracy is simply the worst). Thanks for sharing
Grazie, Katie! Good luck with your citizenship application. It’s a pain, but you can do it!
Having spent summers as a kid in Livorno (where my parents were born) and Florence I’ve been compiling all my documents to begin the citizenship process. The NYC consulate was closed the past 2 years so that’s been a time vacuum! Hoping to buy a house in Italy and wondering if I will obtain citizenship from here or when I get there? Not sure. It’s been a blast watching you document your journey! Sei simpaticissima!! And you are so right about speaking the forced or pretend Fiorentina accent, lol. When I was a kid I didn’t realize it wasn’t proper Italian when I would say …ma dè or il cencio, or boia or una ‘oca!
Sending much love from N America!
Bona ci si !!!!
Love that! Good luck with everything!! How cool to have spent summers in Livorno, what a dream. xx