On Dec. 4, Italian citizens will be waiting in their own seemingly endless lines to vote on a constitutional referendum, one that has been called the most important yes-or-no question asked in the country since the end of World War II. It’s a complicated choice, one that involves changing the structure of its Senate, slashing the number of senators and deciding whether Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sticks around or stomps off in a huff. Basically, the outcome could decide whether Italy will have to wear its own “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt, the one with an oversized arrow pointing toward the United Kingdom’s Brexit and (sigh) our own Donald Trump.
This vote could have drastic effects on Italy’s already struggling banks, on the future of the euro in the country and it could further empower the Five Star Movement (MS5), a political movement led by a wealthy comedian-turned-blogger who has a ridiculous hairstyle, little relevant experience and a few unflattering comparisons to World War II-era fascists. (Hey, that sounds familiar.) Prime Minister Renzi has threatened to resign if the no votes win and, since Italy’s next general election isn’t scheduled until 2018, its government could basically become the country’s Pinterest project as it tries to piece something together until then.
I’ve just unfolded my own copy of the ballot on my kitchen counter, a bright pink sheet of paper with a pair of giant si and no boxes printed on the bottom half. It looks less like I’m about to vote on the strength and powers of Italy’s senate and more like the prime minister has slipped me a note before gym class. (Sorry, Matteo. I will not go to the Snowball Dance with you.) I stared at it until the letters started to blur, wondering whether I should actually tick one of the boxes because, from 4,700 miles away, it doesn’t feel like I’m part of a democratic republic: It feels like a page from a Choose Your Own Adventure book, one that doesn’t affect me any more than War With the Mutant Spider Ants did.
I became an Italian citizen four years ago today, after spending a year-plus collecting birth, death and marriage certificates from my dad’s side of the family. Even though my dad — and my grandparents — were born in the United States, they could pass their own Italian citizenship to me through Italy’s “law of the soil” and “law of the blood,” which basically means that it’s my birthright to correct people’s pronunciation of bruschetta.
In November 2012, after months and months that were measured in notary stamps, apostilles and awkward sounding Google Translations, I went to the Consulate General in Philadelphia to present all my documents and get either a si or no on my citizenship application.
The official who opened the door and called my last name wasn’t what I’d imagined. First, she was wearing a pair of latex exam gloves, which made me wonder about the second half of the application process. She was also wearing red leather pants tucked into a pair of knee-high boots that were purchased at the kind of flagship store that has its own security guards at the entrance. She motioned with one gloved hand that I should follow her from the waiting area into a conference room. I took a seat across from her, beside a marble fireplace decorated with a black-and-white Consulate General sign that looked like someone had just pulled it out of the printer tray that morning.
“Your application is perfect,” she said after skimming the first few pages. “I know this translation is perfect, too.” She slipped it into a folder with my name Sharpied on it while I silently thanked everyone who’s ever worked on Google Translate. She asked a few standard questions and explained that I would now be registered as a citizen in the same small northern Italian town where my great-great grandfather built a church, in the town where my great-grandparents were married just hours before they boarded a boat to America.
And that was it.
I gave her an American handshake, she gave me a set of European air kisses and we took a picture together in front of a small Italian flag.
Despite the incredible amount of time I’d spent piecing everything together, I rode the elevator down to the lobby wishing that there had been more to it. I didn’t have to take a civics test or name an Italian prog band (Goblin!) or the then-president (Mr. Goblin?). I didn’t have to put my hand over my heart and repeat an oath of allegiance to the country and the soil that are in my blood. I don’t even speak the language, save for being able to excitedly point out a squirrel (Ecco! Uno scoiattolo!) or to ask for more strawberries.
Six months later, I went back to Philadelphia to apply for my Italian passport. I stood at a scratched and stained counter, watching a sad-eyed woman staple my Kinko’s issued photographs to the top of my application. She disappeared into the back of the office and, several minutes later, returned with my own maroon and gold booklet in her hand. “Do you speak Italian?” she asked in a soft voice. “I’m learning,” I said, lying to her.
“You look like an actress,” she said, but I didn’t know whether that made me feel better or worse.
I managed a polite grazie as she slid my passport across the counter, pushing it past a sketched heart with the named Dominic inked in the center. And that was it, again. I left with two passports in my pocket, like Jason Bourne if he shopped at Gap Kids. My American and Italian passports and I went to a cash-only restaurant in South Philadelphia to split a meatball sandwich and a giant bowl of spumoni. “Più fragole, prega,” I told the waitress. More strawberries, please.
I’m still staring at the ballot on my kitchen counter. Si or no. It’s a simple question that isn’t simple at all, not the way it looks from here.
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