That’s pretty much the only thing I can say.
Wait…let me back up a step, fill in the holes, as it were.
You see, seven years ago, Keith and I went to the Italian consulate in Philadelphia to apply for visas to live in Umbria for a year. You can’t apply more than three months before leave-taking, so at the time of our visa interview, we had procured official versions of all our documentation, quit our jobs, purchased the mandated international health insurance and airline tickets, signed a lease on an apartment in Spello—basically, that appointment was the culmination of a lot of money, sweat, and time.
Other than making sure that I wore a scarf to please the Italian consulate workers and flossing twice because good dental hygiene never goes amiss, I didn’t second-guess our readiness. We even stopped on the way into the consulate to take a photo of ourselves in front of the consulate general seal. So happy. So excited. So thrilled to have the opportunity to take the bend in our upcoming family adventure.
We waited in a hot little room (where I regretted my scarf) until we were finally called forward. With plastered, suddenly nervous grins, we approached the plexiglass window.
Where we were denied.
The only explanation we got was that we needed $50,000 per person we were applying for (it should be said that we found out later that different consulates report different requirements, if they specify at all). For five of us, that’s $250,000. Serious cha-ching.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know we aren’t independently wealthy, we don’t have anywhere near that kind of money. Apparently, it’s to make sure we don’t run out of money and end up with our hands in the cookie jar of government hand outs. Not sure how much gelato the government thinks Gabe can eat, but 50K seemed patently ridiculous. Especially since the financial requirements to apply for a working in Italy visa, which are hard to come by because there are limited spots, is closer to 50K for a whole family. We sputtered and tried to protest. In exchange, we got the ubiquitous Italian shrug (not nearly as charming in this instance as it would be later when Letizia offered it when asked if she thought we’d get rain). The elective residency visa, we were told, is for retired people. It wasn’t designed for families. Next!
Our stomach in knots, we made the five-hour drive home, minds racing for what to do, what to do, what to do.
How to tell our kids.
How to move forward when the lid had come screaming down.
During the next few weeks, our minds and hearts were fragile, windswept things. Blowing all about. We tried desperately to think of solutions, to get our dream train back on track. One solution Keith came up with was getting his Italian citizenship. He had discovered a blog written by an American who bypassed the visa process by getting Italian citizenship by ancestry (jure sanguinis, as it’s known). She wrote about a little known loophole that you are allowed to be in Italy while your citizenship is being processed.
Keith contacted the author of the blog, Sarah Bringhurst Familia, who was kindness and generosity itself, taking the time to answer his questions and gently guide us to what seemed like possibly more compelling waters.
It occurred to me that perhaps I could get my French citizenship, too. Since my line is shorter than Keith’s (my mom was born in France, Keith’s grandfather was born in Italy), getting my citizenship should theoretically be faster, right?
To which the citizenship gods chortle anew at the folly of passport-seeking humans.
I had to begin the process by requesting my official birth certificate from Panama (where I was born). And that process took, literally, almost a full year. It arrived right before we left Italy to return to the United States.
Meanwhile, we hit on another way to get our visa, but that’s a conversation for another day. If you are impatient, it’s in my book The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad. A fun footnote, Sarah, who helped us out so much in figuring out the Italian citizenship puzzle contributed to The Road Taken, and has all sorts of excellent advice about getting a visa, finding a home, et cetera. It’s wonderful that that dark time sparked a friendship. I hope we meet someday. She lives in Amsterdam now, so I’m hoping we can cross paths there when we begin our around-the-world journey.
As you know if you’ve read Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, during our year in Italy, Keith kept chipping away at citizenship and got it approved right before we left. We learned that it’s far, far easier to get your Italian citizenship processed while you are living in Italy rather than managing the process via the local consulate. In the process of completing the final paperwork, Keith listed our children to secure citizenship for them as well. As he was writing in their names, he asked me, “Do you want me to list you so you can get citizenship, too?”
And here was my mystifying response: “Nah.”
What the heck?
I can’t explain it. Maybe it was willful pride, thinking I could get my own durn EU citizenship. Maybe I hadn’t had my coffee that day. Maybe I thought citizenship was like an impulse purchase I could always pick up later.
In any case, I wasn’t on the list and I didn’t get citizenship.
We had no real proof that anyone got it really, other than when we arrived back in Virginia, Keith got notification that as a citizen he needed to register at the consulate. Oh, and Nicolas started getting Italian ballots in the mail.
But back to the story.
Cue the end of the reminiscing part of this post.
Lights up on the present.
Now that our around-the-world trip is next year (yikes!), Keith and I realized that it’s probably time to get everyone’s paperwork in order. Including mine. We set up an appointment during the kids’ winter break, when Nicolas would be home, to head back up to the consulate for all of their passports. We figured we would talk to the consulate workers about starting my process, since my pursuit of French citizenship has all but stalled.
We arrived in Philadelphia late on January 3rd, and woke on the 4th to grab a hotel breakfast and walk to the consulate. My energy flagged with every step. Memories of that ill-fated interview swam in front of my eyes. I noticed the seal of the consulate general and felt a gagging sensation. Was it mocking me?
We walked into the building and I was instantly awash with the “Italian-bureaucracy-feeling”, which isn’t so much “Let’s get ‘er done” as it is, “Here’s the step we have to get done so we can bring the next step out of the darkness and into the murky fog.”
Up the elevator.
Out onto our floor.
Into the empty consulate office (not hot this time, though I was again wearing a scarf, I apparently learn nothing).
We were waved over to that forbidding plexiglass. The consulate worker gestured for us to all grab chairs and take seats. He proceeded to ask for documents (in Italian, I was so impressed that Keith managed the whole process without skipping a beat), request signatures, collate money orders. He then took a stack of burgundy passports out from his desk. It suddenly hit me—
He was giving out passports.
He was really doing it.
Not only that, given the fact that he was sticking them in machines to affix photos, he was going to give them to us TODAY. This was unbelievable.
A scarce 40 minutes after entering the office, the consulate worker handed us four passports.
We all looked at each other like, it must be harder than this, right?
As the consulate worker was turning away, Keith asked if they might be able to switch to English. Nod. Then Keith asked about if I can stay in Italy with them, and also how to begin my citizenship. A higher-up lady who was walking by came out from behind the plexiglass (look how we rate now!) to tell us that if we want to live in Italy, I just need to register for a permesso at whatever comune we live in (the same thing we did when we moved to Italy, but that time we needed a visa and this time Keith is the visa). In regards to citizenship, she said that we should look that up on-line, but I could only get it if our marriage was registered in Spello and that there is now a language test required.
Da-da-DUM. Looks like I need to start reading Pride and Prejudice in Italian again.
She summoned a consulate worker to find out if our marriage is registered in Spello… he came back with a file of papers, including that registration. So strange to see Spello letterhead in a Philadelphia office.
The process, even so, is not quick. It’s pretty doubtful that it’ll come through before we take off. So our options are:
Go back to the French citizenship drawing board. My cousin offered to help me with this, so it’s possible. Turns out, if my mother registered my birth at the French consulate in Panama, it should actually be easy (theoretically). I know that when I was born, someone from the French Embassy asked my mother if she wanted to get a French birth certificate for me, and she said, “Nah.” Which I grumbled about for years, but now I can’t since I so recently just waved away my own opportunity. I’m just hoping that since she must have talked to someone at the French Embassy at the time of my birth, that birth got registered. Fingers crossed, if she did indeed register my birth, the birth certificate from France that my cousin ordered for me will be on its way. If not, I have an uphill battle of getting the French embassy in Panama to issue me a birth certificate.
Make Italy our first stop on our journey and go through the process of registering at the comune. That takes a few weeks. It could be in Spello, or anywhere really.
Design our trip so that we aren’t in the Schengen zone (most of Europe, but notably not the UK or Switzerland) for more than 3 months out of every 6. So we could go to Scotland, Paris, Amsterdam, Spain, then leave for 3 months, and then return for another 2, then leave again, and come back for one more before we head home. Would this pinch our plans? Hard to say. Within the next few weeks we’re each creating wish lists and then we can see how much of Europe is on there anyway.
But that’s for another time, another day.
Right now it’s all about celebrating. With some hamming it up in front of the consular seal. And then after a day of walking around Philadelphia and stopping periodically in our tracks to say, “we got passports today!”, we indulged in an incredible Italian meal at Gran Caffe L’Aquila, recommended by Debbie, who responded on my Facebook author page when I asked for Philadelphia restaurant recommendations (so many great recommendations! This one, though, was walking distance from our hotel, so it was the one we chose). The lamb arrosticini were particularly splendid. Oh, and the fried carciofi. Oh! I can’t forget the carbonara with pancetta gelato (Seriously. And it was seriously awesome).
We had a blast, ordered way too much food, reveled in the flavors of home, chatted with the manager who is from Calabria. We realized over a lovely bottle of wine from Le Marche that if we hadn’t been denied that visa all those years ago, this celebratory meal would never have happened. It was only our search for a way to get to Italy that led us to 4/5 of our family becoming citizens. There is a Quaker expression “Way will open.” That feels particularly apt.
Our meal was so satisyfing that we went back the next day for a coffee and gelato. When we walked in, the manager from the night before greeted us with, “Bentornati!” Gabe got his first cappuccino and we shared a gelato and just sat back and smiled stupidly. Patrons were coming in yammering in Italian, one waiter sounded like he was from central Italy as he asked if a customer wanted her usual Napoli roast, but the other waiter sounded really different. We couldn’t place the accent, but we could place us.
We were right where we were supposed to be. In the midst of Italian people with their feet in the United States.
At least for now.
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