Becoming an Italian Citizen via Marriage
When I arrive in Rome, unmistakably foreign on an Italian passport, it causes la grande confusione. Lashings of it. The bureaucrat I encounter at my local comune (municipality) hears an “English accent” (South African), reads an African birthplace, sees pale features and yet... I claim to be Italian.
“Come è possible? How is that possible?” he cries.
Wherever I go, administratively speaking, I explain in accented Italian, “I know I sound foreign, but I’m actually Italian.” Then I wave a suitably convincing documento. “Look! With Italian citizenship.” I need that something validating: my passport, my codice fiscale (tax number card), more recently, my carta d’identità and now, hot off the press, a tessera sanitaria (health card).
“Do you have Italian citizenship from your grandparents?” he asks, peering doubtfully at my Scottish surname.
“No, it’s via marriage,” I reply. Alas, his confusione isn’t over, because he wants to know where I’m “really from.” I’m from everywhere. Everywhere, except Italy. My far-back ancestry is a ragbag of Vikings, peasants, land owners, preachers, coppersmiths, and wagonmakers of French, German, Swedish, British, Australian, Afrikaans, and Scottish origins.
“I’m really from South Africa,” I say. “From seven generations back.”
The response is affably baffled. “But you’re so white, bianca come il latte! White as milk!” At this, a colleague peeks over from her neighboring cubicle to view the day’s curiosity: a white African-Italian. “With a surname like that, you’re really Italian? Figurati! Fancy that! E, va bene... How can we help you today?”
At this, we tackle the mindbender of entering my place of birth on the computer: Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, Sudafrica. Or is it Sud Africa, two words? Or under R, Repubblica del Sud Africa? By the time the department’s head of IT solves the puzzle, an unruly crowd has built up in the waiting room.
The acquisition of Italian citizenship by marriage sounds like a breezy romance. Not only does one get an Italian man with swarthy features who, unafraid of the apron, enjoys rustling up delicious pasta dishes, but he also glows when you eat seconds and is delighted to share his nationality. Too good to be true? Si! But for the obstacle course it takes to get there: mountains of paperwork, coffers of money dispensed for translations into Italian, and years of waiting, first in lines and then... just waiting, waiting. Living life, with your application lurking in the files somewhere.
It all started when after marrying, we registered our marriage with the local Italian consulate, in Cape Town. This was to be the first and most crucial of numerous such steps. My full marriage certificate, declaring me no longer a “spinster” and my husband no longer a “bachelor,” was supplied in translation and shuttled off via the local consulate to Rome, where marriages with spouses are lodged. Hundreds and thousands of them. In Italian, my husband persuaded the consulate to copy him on the correspondence thereof and thus began my “Signora Italiana” file. Containing fastidious photocopies of each and every document, it grew stouter by the year.
Since we were domiciled outside of Italy, I needed to wait three years from the date of marriage to be eligible to apply for citizenship. As a resident in Italy, it would now be a 2-year wait. In the second year, we started ferreting out all the records that would be required. And quite a list it was! Collecting official documents became a hobby. While my peers were collecting speeding fines, lovers, or shoes, I was sourcing every possible official paper pertaining to my existence and paying for sworn translations thereof. Call me a nerd, but I enjoyed the sense of purpose it provided.
Most of what was needed for my application was ultimately obtainable, with patience and tenacity. The consulate provided a clear list of their requirements. It included a full birth certificate (bearing both parents’ names, place and date of birth); a police clearance certificate from the local authorities; a full photocopy of the applicant’s passport, from first to last page; and everything in triplicate with sworn translations. A few documents were listed that the consulate itself was to issue on site (e.g. the statement of Italian citizenship of the spouse).
That was all doable. However, the requirement for a “full marriage certificate, issued by the municipality in Italy where the marriage has been registered” ( i.e. Rome) had us stumped. How to extract an official document from Rome from afar? Rome’s bureaucracy, which is the administrative seat for certain Italians registered abroad, is a vast and unfathomable beast, sort of like the Internet. Untold. Riddled with black holes. Maddening. Something huge which makes you feel demented and tiny.
Facing this obstacle, the whole operation nearly capsized. I saw no way to get hold of such a document, never mind the obligatory tax stamps in lire to be bought from the tobacco shop. At this hiatus, my Sicilian father-in-law stepped in and, on a preplanned visit to Rome, managed to extract it. I don’t know how many hours or trips it took him, but he succeeded. And so, the precious marriage certificate arrived... in French. On the following page, the field headings were translated into ten languages, including Italian. Phew. Out came the folder and in went the document. Later, I discovered this was an unusual requirement and not strictly necessary.
Promptly after our third wedding anniversary, we submitted the required paperwork thoroughly accumulated, plus the relevant fee to be paid in exact cash. The application form itself was a smudgy, poorly legible, and skew template supplied by the consulate. Yet this disgracefully undignified form could not dampen my excitement. What a grand day it was! And again, we were informed that we would be obliged to wait, this time for the official passing of 730 days before expecting to hear anything. Seven hundred and thirty spins on the earth’s axis. Seven hundred and thirty dusks and dawns. By no coincidence do Italians also have pots that don’t boil when watched: Pentola guardata non bolle mai.
So we simply got on with life. I climbed a few rungs of the career ladder, learned German, studied and taught after hours. We lived and worked in New York, where I did a Masters in Publishing. Every time we moved, we informed the consulate of our new address and were reminded that 730 days had not yet passed. Tick. Tock. And of course, inevitably, they did.
Then one April day, quite unexpectedly, my postbox yielded a letter from the local Italian consulate, notifying me that I had six months in which to claim my citizenship according to law such-and-such. The letter bore the graceful flourishes of Victorian calligraphy that I now recognize as the official font of ministries of the Italian government.
I prepared for my appointment by learning to pronounce the oaths I would be required to make: to swear my loyalty to the Republic of Italy, to observe its Constitution and laws. Although I spoke no Italian then, I practiced reading it aloud. That certain Consul-Generals required applicants to conduct informal language tests – and would only grant citizenship to those with at least basic Italian—made me feel very sheepish. But sheepish wouldn’t stop us. So two months later, I put on my favorite purple dress and rode my bicycle to the consulate, tinkling the bell jubilantly.
My husband and I were ushered into an elegant room where beaming, I made my vows beneath the flags of the Repubblica Italiana and the European Union. There and then, the office downstairs issued me with my Italian passport. In it were stamped those precious bellissimi, most beautiful words: CITTADINANZA: ITALIANA (Citizenship: Italian). Bravo!
My life as an Italian began then, on that balmy Thursday. Out we went for a cappuccino and I glowed happily over my pristine passport. Viva l’Italia! Little did I know that six years later, I would be setting up life in Rome, entirely in Italian, as a bona fide italiana. And starting a brand new paper trail.