It was always something I knew I could do, but never really thought I would do – it was confusing, expensive and I wasn’t even sure it was possible.
The process would require me to dive deep into the vagaries of diplomatic agreements made decades ago. I would have to get fairly good at translating between languages. I would wait years for an appointment.
I’m talking about applying for Italian citizenship.
Three of my grandparents are Italian immigrants, however only one of them remains an Italian citizen: my Grandpa Joe. Because Giuseppe never renounced his citizenship, I’m can gain Italian citizenship as his descendant. Sounds simple, right? It’s anything but.
Last week I walked out of the Italian consulate in New York City having successfully submitted my application for citizenship, a moment three years in the making. It’ll be another year before I hear back, but it feels like a huge milestone none the less.
Three years ago I was studying abroad in Italy. I was captured by the beauty of that experience. I returned to the U.S. steeped in Italian culture. And after the unexpected death of my other grandfather (Domenico, not Giuseppe), it hit me hard: I cannot lose this.
So with that drive, I set about seriously figuring out this whole Italian citizenship thing. I wanted to cement my connection to my Italian heritage, and give myself the opportunity to return to Italy long-term later in life.
The first step seemed easy: gather birth and marriage certificates for myself, my mother and my grandfather. Except it wouldn’t be that simple: the consulate would hold on to the documents permanently, so I couldn’t just dig them out of the closet. I had to order (and pay for) new official copies from New York state.
Okay, manageable. But wait, Grandpa Joe was born in Italy, in a tiny town on the coast of Sicily (not exactly the model of modern bureaucracy). You’re telling me I have to get a copy of his birth certificate from that town? Yikes.
Thankfully at the time I was still in college, so I drafted a letter with the help of my Italian professor, enclosed with a few euro (unsure if it was required or would otherwise grease the wheels).
I was astounded to received a letter in the mail a few months later, with official copies of my grandfather’s birth certificate.
At this point at least a year had passed. I had these documents in hand, but I still struggled to understand the rest of the application checklist – the consulate’s website is outdated, vague and often poorly translated. Phone calls and emails asking for help are generally refused (not ignored, but actively refused on the basis that the website already has all the relevant information. Right.)
I did understand, however, that these documents needed to be professionally translated into Italian. Four hundred dollars later, I checked that off fairly quickly.
There lingered one other checkbox after the documents were collected and translated: something called “apostille.” I figured out this was a fancy way of saying the state of New York needed to verify the authenticity of the very documents it had just issued. Okay then.
Thankfully, I thought, I live in the state’s capital, Albany. But silly me, documents must be brought to New York City to be given the Apostille.
I took a day off work and ventured to Staten Island with my father alongside, mostly as moral support. I was prepared to criss-cross three (3!) boroughs of New York City to get county-level signoffs before the state office in Manhattan would give me the cherished Apostille. To my surprise, the Manhattan office took care of all boroughs, and it saved me the extra trips.
I was briefly charmed by the beautiful, renaissance-style buildings where I went to get the stamp of approval. It was a rare moment of joy in an otherwise frustrating process.
I returned home thinking I finally had every piece of paper I needed to make my appointment at the consulate. I just needed to fill out a few forms with personal information (and, of course, get them notarized).
Then I started checking the consulate’s website daily to grab one of those highly-coveted time slots. I was prepared for the reality that when I did snag an appointment, it would be years (not months) in advance. And I was right – after months of checking, I booked a date in 2021.
But I kept checking every day, just in case of cancellations. One day, in the ocean of red calendar dates I was used to seeing, an orange one popped up – this meant availability!
My heart was racing as I confirmed an appointment that was only two weeks away – in February, in 2019. This month!
At this point, I raced home and laid out all the documents to double check I had everything. When I went to reference the application checklist, I realized that it had changed over the years that I was gathering documents.
I started to sweat realizing I may be missing a few things – did I have the right papers proving Grandpa Joe was still a citizen? And wait, did I need one more form filled out and notarized by my mom? (Turns out I did, so I am very grateful for expedited mail).
Then for one last step: order the euro I needed as payment for the application. It’s only after I ordered the cash that I found a footnote somewhere instructing payment via money order only. I must bring 300 euro, in dollars via money order. Huh?
I settled on bringing the already-acquired cash, along with a money order worth $350, the most current exchange value plus a small cushion.
When I arrived in New York City on the big day, I ambled up to the consulate’s historic Upper East Side home to find a line outside the entrance. An Italian man in carabinieri (state police) uniform asked for my name, disappeared behind heavy metal doors to check the day’s schedule, and then allowed me in.
I was told to find the receptionist. To the left was a waiting room, already crowded at 9:15, and a small security booth labeled “Carabinieri.” It turns out that booth doubles as the receptionist office.
Harried Italian officials ran in and out, shuttling clipboards and passports to the waiting room. I filled out a clipboard and wait patiently. The room was decorated with Art Deco style posters advertising various destinations in Italy: Venice, Florence, Rome, you name it. Most everyone in the room was speaking Italian. Seemed like most of this business revolved around passports.
I was called and told to take the elevator to floor 3. The elevator was tiny, barely fitting three people, who asked: “Che piano?” “Tre.”
I went out and found the office for citizenship only by asking – it was not labeled.
I asked the woman if she spoke English, and she said only a little. I told her in Italian that I speak both, but I understand Italian better than I speak it. We worked through the appointment in a mix of both.
Her phone rang four or five times during our half hour appointment. The last time it did, she retorted, “It’s fun to work like this, no?” I was just impressed she kept picking up.
In a turn of sincerity I was not expecting, she asked me, why are doing this? I was disarmed, assuming she would be nothing more than a hard-nosed bureaucrat (can you blame me?)
I told her after I studied abroad in Venice I was inspired to reclaim my Italian heritage. She smiled. She told me my grandfather must be thrilled I’m doing this. I told her that he is.
She stamped my completed application and told me to send her best to “nonno.”
I left the office so overwhelmed with emotions that I hit 1 on the elevator, not remembering Italians call the ground floor L instead. I made an embarrassing exit to the unfamiliar floor one, then ran back in and my Italian friend, who knew better, hit L for me.
I walked out in the crisp February air and started tearing up, thinking about how amazing it felt to have finally made this a reality. To have pushed through all the unending confusion and made it happen. What a relief.
It may be another year before it’s officially done, but with all I’ve gone through, waiting will be the easy part.