Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Thoughts on citizenship
Not too long ago, I became an Italian citizen (I maintain dual citizenship; over my dead body would I ever relinquish my rights to free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and midnight grocery shopping). My main reasons for tackling this gruelling bureaucratic procedure were that: 1) the bureaucratic procedure for renewing the permesso di soggiorno and then the carta di soggiorno was even more gruelling, and more frequent; 2) I wanted to have full rights to any benefits which might eventually be due me (I missed out, for instance, on the 1000 Euro government bonus for having a second child in 2004 because mothers were required to be Italian citizens--apparently, the father being Italian was only good for getting pregnant in the first place); 3) I wanted to have the option of being able to live anywhere in the EU should I desire it; and 4) my kids were born here and are dual citizens, so I thought I should cement my status as well.
The first step toward citizenship in Italy is to try to use your connections to jump ahead of others (this concept, vital to all aspects of Italian life, is actually codified in the Italian Constitution, a copy of which was given to me when I was sworn in). So, through my sister-in-law who works at the Prefect's Office, I was actually given an appointment in this century in order to present all the documents I had assembled, and instead of the normal two-year turnaround time they tell everyone to expect, my citizenship was granted in a year-and-a-half.
I was sworn in in the Red Room of the Palazzo Vecchio, along with a few others (me the only American) by a blind consigliere who wore over-sized black ladies' sunglasses (perhaps Fendi), and in addition to his official tri-color sash sported a rainbow pace (peace) pocket hankie. He shook my hand warmly and pointedly asked me to read an anti-war passage from the Italian Constitution. I was given an Italian flag.
I must say I do not feel one ounce Italian. I have lived here for eight years, have always worked and paid taxes, have two children in the public schools. Speak the language, albeit imperfectly. I am recognized in my neighborhood for being the wife of Paolo who grew up here, and here I am smiled at, greeted, more or less made to feel welcome. However, in nearly every other aspect of my life here, and certainly outside the neighborhood, I am made aware of the fact that I am "foreign." I am simply not Italian--no matter what the government says--because I neglected to be born here. There is a palpable sense of exclusionism in Italy, of outsiders and insiders, of--quite simply--Italians and non-Italians.
It's a regional thing too--open your mouth in Italy, and if you are Italian, you will be immediately placed by your accent: Florentine, Livornese, Tuscan, Milanese, Sicilian, Neopolitan, whatever. My mother-in-law was recently the victim of a con-artist, and afterward she said with profound surprise, "But he spoke Florentine!" as if to say, "he wasn't even foreign, but one of us!"
At my old job at the church of Santa Maria Novella, many Italian tourists would rudely dispute the museums' hours (insisting on their right to enter after closing-time) or the fact that there was an entry fee--often very ugly arguments would break out. Once, when trying to calm down an irate woman who insisted that her status as an architect made her exempt from such trivialities as posted opening times, I was bluntly cut off with, "Excuse me, but this doesn't concern you [insert withering scorn]--this is our cultural patrimony!" Huh. Never mind that I was hired to safeguard that same patrimony and promote its appreciation to masses of visitors.
In some ways, even though Italy needs and thrives on tourism, and is technically open to legal immigrants and a resonable amount of globalization, I get the feeling that it would rather turn its back on the whole mess and just have everybody stay where they belong, and mind their own business while they're at it, mannaggia! Years ago, my then-future father-in-law (surely one of the most ignorant men on God's green earth) said to me and Paolo (recently become engaged) at the dinner table, an idiotic grin on his face, "donne e buoi dai paesi tuoi!" Which means "women and oxen should be from one's home town." i.e., Stick to your own! [Aside: my father-in-law can always be counted on for an ass-backward axiom, a peasant platitude, a choice piece of hillbilly wisdom]
For many Italians, anyone Asian is simply cinese (chinese). Anyone with a darker skin tone (including southern Italians) is often described as di colore (colored). Now, officially, folks here are anti-racist and all that, blah blah blah. But there is a definite disparity between how people would like to think they believe and how they actually behave. The party line vs. the reality.
Even though my Italian is pretty good, many people unabashedly give me what I call "The Squint." They wrinkle their foreheads and squint their eyes as if it requires great effort to comprehend what I am saying, to see through the murk of my accent. I have to fight the urge to smack these people, to shout at them, "Haven't you ever heard someone speak with an accent before?! Don't get around much, do you?!"
Many Italians just seem puzzled by foreigners, afraid, and--something I find rather shocking--not in the least bit curious about us. Italy is a land of provincials struggling to appear sophisticated and modern.
Luckily, we have a number of international friends, other mixed couples like us with whom we can socialize and commiserate--and we do know a few enlightened Italians, ones who have travelled, or at least read books and watch educational television. It helps me feel like less of a freak.
So... I know I will never feel truly Italian--Italy does not embrace me in the way, I think, America collectively embraces immigrants (with lapses, of course), allowing me to blend in, allowing the simple fact that I partake of the economy and lifestyle to suffice, allowing for my difference. I don't want to seem ungrateful to the Italian government for granting me citizenship, I just wish that, now that I am indeed a citizen, I wasn't made to feel like a second-class one so often.