Growing up, I knew that my nonni immigrated to Chicago from Italy in 1956, the year before my father was born (I like to joke that he was conceived on the boat ride over – the timing checks out). What I didn’t know was that this very important detail–my father being born in America to parents who were not naturalized U.S. citizens–would entitle me to Italian citizenship. Even though I eventually uncovered this information, going through the process of becoming a dual-citizen wasn’t something I thought about until I was in my late teens.
When my nonni, Filomena and Pelino, boarded a boat with three young daughters and set sail for America in 1956, like many Italians during this time, the objective was to adapt to the culture and become as “American” as possible. I call my grandma, who speaks in a combination of heavily accented English and Abrussezze dialect, nonna, we eat pasta at family parties, and my last name DiBacco pretty much speaks for itself, but otherwise my family really wasn’t overtly “Italian.” Because of this, my father and two of his sisters don’t speak much Italian, and the language was never taught to me, my brothers and most of my cousins.
As a kid, I always thought it was cool that I had a “nonna” instead of “grandma,” and I dreamt of the fabulous trips to Italy I would eventually take. That dream became a reality when I was 14 and I was invited to go on a trip to Italy with my aunt and nonna to visit my cousin who was living and working in Rome. I spent three glorious weeks falling head over heels in love with Italy. We traversed a good portion of the country, from Turin to Florence and the medieval towns in Tuscany to Rome, before spending our final week in Abruzzo visiting the hometowns of my nonna and nonno. It was a coming-of-age adventure more exciting than I had dreamed possible and something I thought only happened in the movies. I was 14 years old going out nightly to bars and clubs across Italy with my 20 year old cousin. We lied and told everyone I was 16 “visiting from America,” and that was sufficient ID for the bouncers at the door. Everything about my time in Italy made me feel electric and I wanted to feel that way forever. I thought to myself, “so this is how my life could be.” Hours-long delicious dinners filled with wine and laughter, followed by nights out dancing until the sun came up – Italy made me feel alive, I was totally hooked.
Fast-forward to University, where before I even set foot on campus, I was working with my advisor to ensure I could fit study abroad into my four-year academic plan. After studying the Italian language for a few semesters, I boarded a plane to spend spring semester of my junior year in Rome. The magic from six years ago flooded back and I was positive that I couldn’t envision a future without Italy in it – specifically my newfound home in Rome. My cousin, who was and is living in Rome, suggested looking into obtaining my Italian citizenship through blood lineage, jure sanguinis. None of my other family members seemed to have a slight interest in Italy or obtaining their citizenship, so I would be the first in my family to take on Italian bureaucracy. The requirements for citizenship through jure sanguinis are pretty straight forward, but it requires a significant amount of work by collecting a series of documents to prove your lineage. “Easy enough,” I thought to myself.
Having my last year of university ahead of me, I shelved the idea until after graduation. After the dust of graduation settled, I dove head first into the process of applying for Italian citizenship and immediately realized my first mistake. When I went to book an appointment, I thought there surely had to be a mistake because the booking portal wasn’t showing an available appointment for an entire year. I frantically emailed the consulate to confirm that this must be some error in the system and was shocked to find out that appointments book at least a year in advance. Being of thick-headed Italian descent, I religiously checked the portal everyday for three months in hopes that a last minute appointment would open up.
Meanwhile, my aunt and father helped me contact our relatives in Italy to obtain copies of the Italian documents, while we translated my American documents to Italian, and filled out the necessary forms. To my delight, one day in August, an appointment popped up for the 27th, and I nearly toppled over in my chair after I was able to confirm my spot. When the day arrived, I headed to the Italian Consulate off Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago with nervous, but hesitant excitement. For context, I hadn’t had the best experience with the consulate in the past; two years prior I left my study abroad visa appointment in tears after being yelled at for not having a copy of my drivers license. Regardless, I was confident that I had poured myself over the checklist more times than I can count and there was no way I had done a single thing incorrect or left a stone unturned. Ah young, sweet, naive Sammi, have you met Italian bureaucracy?
I sat anxiously waiting to have my name called and struck up a conversation with a woman next to me, stuffed manila folder on her lap. She asked if I was also applying for citizenship and how long I waited for an appointment. After telling her I had been preparing and waiting for a few months I expected that she would reply similarly. I was shocked when she said she had been preparing documents for three years. Shortly after, my name was called to present my application. After the worker flipped through all my documents to make sure everything was accounted for, I was informed through plexiglass that the marriage certificate for my parents didn’t have sufficient detail to be accepted. To say I was shocked and upset is an understatement, choking back tears and fumbling to put a sentence together, the woman behind the glass explained because the certificate didn’t have their birthdays on it, I would need to instead obtain an alternative document: their marriage application. Sensing a spiral, the kind woman told me that because I was only missing one document, she would give me her personal email and once I had obtained the marriage certificate (and required apostille and translation) I could email her when I was ready to submit my application. I don’t know if this is standard practice or I simply got lucky, but either way I felt a sense of immediate relief.
A few weeks later, I set-up an appointment with my new friend at the consulate and submitted my file folder stuffed with every required document to obtain citizenship. About one week later on September 30th, 2015, I received an email a brief email that said, “Congratulations,
Please see attached letter.” And just like that I was an Italian-American dual citizen. While the process was tedious and, at times, stressful, the reward was well worth it. Having dual citizenship has opened up a world of possibilities for me, and I took full advantage of my new Italian passport when I moved back to Rome in February 2017. I’ve been here ever since.
Truthfully, in the history of run-ins with Italian bureaucracy, I consider myself pretty lucky. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of frustrating moments since living in Italy, like finding out Italy was never informed of my citizenship when I went to apply for residency and being told I simply don’t exist. “Non c’e Samantha DiBacco.” Or having to visit four different banks who all provided conflicting information on how to set-up an Italian bank account as an Italian-American dual-citizen: plot-twist, it’s not straightforward. I’ve watched many American friends struggle with endless appointments at the dreaded Questura, and months of chasing down proper instructions and documents to secure their work visas and permessos. In spite of it all, there’s a reason why we are all willing to accept Italy for who she is: beautiful, frustrating, emotional, often-times inefficient, miraculous, and unique. For every one frustration and hurdle you encounter, there are five indescribable and exhilarating reasons to keep going and try as hard as you can to make your life in Italy work.
A love affair with Italy requires you to understand its tempo and way of life – you’ll need patience for the slow-moving bureaucracy and processes (oftentimes hard to accept for fast-moving Americans), but most importantly you must have a deep-rooted love and passion for the country, in the end that’s all that matters. The gift of dual citizenship and the opportunity to live in Italy is something I will never take for granted. If you have the possibility of obtaining dual citizenship but feel overwhelmed at the process, I encourage you to try. You have nothing to lose and all of Italy to gain.