Expatting Again

Well, while we’re on the subject of announcing major life changes, I should probably let you in on where we’ll be moving next. Hint: our destination is neither U.S. nor subtropical. Because let’s face it–we have now lived in Florida for 2 1/2 years, which in Familia time is about two decades. By the time we leave, we will have lived in Florida for over three times as long as we’ve ever lived anywhere else. Oh, the ironies of life. The weird thing is, I think my internal clock is set according to moves rather than time in any specific location. So I don’t feel like more time has passed while we were living in Florida than Tunisia (8 months) or Ireland (3 months). I’m not sure what that says about my existential state.

But anyway, here’s the announcement: next year we will be moving to Greece!

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To be more specific, our destination is an island in the Cyclades group called Kea. Bonus points if you can find it on this map:

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Did you find it? If not, you’re not alone. It took me quite some time to find a map that actually named Kea. With so many islands, I guess it’s hard to keep track. So let me give you some help. The Cyclades are the darker pink islands southeast of the mainland, and Kea is the Cyclades island closest to Attica, the part of mainland Greece where you’ll find Athens. With it being so close to Athens, you’d think it would be heavily touristed, but it’s not on the main ferry line, so it’s escaped the hordes of foreigners, and mostly serves as a weekend getaway for Athenians, many of whom have second homes on the island. Here’s a google maps screenshot of Kea:

Kea

Isn’t it so cute? I am in love. As you can see, there are not a lot of major urban centers on Kea. The population is around 2500, with most of those centered around Korissia, the port, and Ioulis, the capitol.

It’s mostly an island renowned for its natural beauty, both on land and under the sea, where some of Greece’s best scuba diving can be had, including the dramatic wreck of the HRHS Brittanica, sister ship to the similarly unlucky Titanic.  The reason we’re moving there is that our friend Stathis, whom we met while we were living in Florence, is from Greece. His family owns several hundred acres on Kea, and he’s working on developing it for eco-tourism.

That sounded good to us, so I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked my boss if he would be OK with me working remotely from Greece. And he said yes! So sometime early next year we will be packing it all up and moving to a picturesque little Greek island. I still can’t quite believe it myself.

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Now we can turn our minds to the details, small and large. Tony and the children have Italian citizenship, which greatly simplifies our setting up residency in any European country, including Greece. I can come in on his coattails, so in the six years since Tony became an Italian citizen, I have not gotten around to applying for Italian citizenship by marriage, even though I always mean to do it. Fired up by our decision to move to Greece, Tony called up the Italian Consulate in Miami to find out when I could submit my documentation and have my interview.

You know an organization is truly dedicated to customer service when you have to call a 900 number just to set up an appointment with them. Three dollars and fifty cents later, Tony had been informed that the next available appointment to apply for citizenship is not for two years! So much for that idea. I guess my next chance to apply will be from the Italian embassy in Athens. Italian efficiency + Greek efficiency. I can only imagine.

We also need to jump into the Russian roulette of buying plane tickets. Will they be cheaper now? Or in a month? Or in six months? And speaking of Russian, by far the cheapest flights from Orlando to Athens connect in Moscow, and are on Aeroflot, an airline owned by the Russian government. It will still be safe and sane to stop over in Russia next year–right? I mean, yesterday when President Obama coordinated expanded sanctions against Russia with the E.U. and accused the Russian government of “setting back decades in genuine progress,” how many decades did he mean exactly? I’m sure it will be fine, but Russia is kind of wigging me out lately. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter how we get there, just as long as we end up here:

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Map credit

Travel Update #1: I TOLD You So!

If only the world would listen to me. As he mentioned in the comments this morning, Tony did call Tunisair to confirm our flight. They said everything was fine. And when we arrived at the airport, our flight was listed as on-time. In fact, they didn’t get around to changing the flight status until it was already past our 16:35 departure time, and there was no sign of the plane even landing, let alone anyone boarding.

Our first clue about the trouble should have been that while we were standing in line to check in, the Tunisair staff told the front of the line something that caused a massive stampede over to another check-in desk on the other side of the room. Fortunately, Tony and I are old hands at making the most of a Tunisian line (because if you don’t make the most of it, you’ll stay at the back no matter how long you are in line, as everyone else somehow worms or pushes past you). As we normally do in these types of situations, we split up with one child each. He and Axa strategically maneuvered toward a good place in the now amorphous original line, while Dominique and I joined the stampede.

Tony did better than I did. Stampedes are a little intimidating for me, especially when I and every other stampeder is pushing a fully-loaded luggage cart. Fortunately, Tony’s line turned out to be the right line. The stampede line was the people whose flight was supposed to go to Rome this morning. Surprise, surprise for them (and Tunisair too, apparently); there is a general strike in Italy today, and their flight was cancelled. So it looks like our plane will be pretty full. Due to Tony’s maneuvers, we were only three people from the front of the line now. Despite the lady at the desk poring over each passport as if they were written in Chinese, taking multiple breaks to chat with co-workers, and being limited to two-finger typing, it only took us about an hour to finally get checked in.

We made our fastest time ever through airport security, mostly due to not packing as many weird things as normal, and not taking out our laptop, removing our shoes, or having our clandestine yoghurt, water, and toothpaste-in-container-too-large confiscated. Score! Our bags were not even searched. I don’t remember the last time that’s happened. Is this a Tunisian thing, or have regulations just become more lax since I last flew, seven months ago?

We had one tense moment when Dominique had to make an emergency bathroom stop as we were rushing to our gate for our (so we thought) imminently departing flight. We screeched up to the gate with a bare half-hour left before takeoff. I was sure the plane must be at least half-boarded already. So much for the fact that business class tickets had been the cheapest we could find. We weren’t going to get to board early anyway. However, when we screeched up to the gate, we just saw a bunch of bored Tunisians sitting around talking. There was no sign of the plane, or even anyone sitting at the desk, so we sat down and had the snacks we had been promising the children. Then I did another bathroom break, this time with Axa.

After a half hour or so waiting (by this time it was fifteen minutes past the scheduled departure time), people started congregating around the desk. We were sitting right next to it, so we had the luxury of eavesdropping on a half-dozen identical conversations about when the plane was leaving (the woman who was by now sitting at the desk seemed quite annoyed to have the same question of her asked over and over, but it didn’t occur to her to make a loudspeaker announcement about the now-obvious fact that the plane was late). The first people were told it would be an hour late, but this quickly mushroomed to four. It was pretty obvious to me that what had happened was that the plane we were supposed to take couldn’t leave Italy until after the strike was over, and would not be showing up here for two hours after that. Why Tunisair hadn’t foreseen this, especially after the morning flight was cancelled, I don’t know, and will refrain from speculating.

The room was so full of conversations between animated travelers that I couldn’t hear myself think. The children were getting increasingly rambunctious. The next four hours stretched before me like an endless wasteland. Just as I was about to utterly give up hope, the woman at the desk glanced at our tickets, saw they were business class, and told us we could go wait in the “privileged” lounge. Hallelujah! (As you can see, we’re not very experienced posh travelers, or we would have certainly had this idea on our own.)

Plush leather couches, big flat-screen T.V.’s (playing cartoons!), snacks, and free WIFI internet. It was like walking into paradise. Looks like the next few hours might be bearable after all. And somebody in Heaven must be watching over me.


Mosaic Hunt at the Bardo Museum

Yesterday we went to the Tunis airport to rescue a package from the catacombs of customs. Eventually we lost count of how many times we went from office to office, collecting and relinquishing slips of white, pink, and yellow paper. When the long-awaited moment for recovering the package finally arrived, we were in suspense about how much duty they would charge us. With each trip to a new office, we pictured the duty going up, until by the end we were fully expecting to pay hundreds of dollars for our package. So when the customs official bestowed a final stamp and signature on our pile of papers and announced, “nine dinar,” (about $7.00),  Tony almost laughed in relief. “Deal!” he answered enthusiastically, causing chuckles from the whole office, both because the joke was actually funny, and because they could understand it. I don’t know how nine dinar could possibly even cover the administrative costs of our epic journey through Tunisian postal bureaucracy, but we’re not complaining.

Our package ransomed, we were free to continue on to the fun part of our visit to Tunis. For the past two months or so, we have been studying the Roman mosaics of Tunisia. Our gigantic coffee-table book contains examples from all over the country spanning centuries of mosaic artistry. At tea-time we open it to a new mosaic every day and talk about what we notice and like about it. We’ve covered mosaic subject matter ranging from hunting and fishing scenes to still-lifes to Bacchanalian revels. A few days ago I was thrilled to find a mosaic with a seated Virgil, attended by the muses of history and tragedy. We’re fascinated by the Aeneid at our house, even though our Lonely Planet dismisses it as “Roman propaganda.” And we’ve become quite enamored of Tunisian mosaic art. So we’ve been looking forward to a visit to the Bardo Museum almost ever since we arrived in Tunisia. And the mosaics were ten times better in real life than in our book.

In fact, ta-da-da-DUM! I’m going to break with all established tradition on Casteluzzo and treat you to some photos. Because I’m a writer, not a photographer, the images are from Creative Commons on flikr, and you’ll find links to the photographers’ photostreams at the bottom of the post. Let me know if you liked having photos, because otherwise I’ll decide it was too much work, and go back to text only.

The first floor of the museum (which is a 13th century Hafsid palace, currently undergoing extreme renovation) is almost entirely devoted to the later Christian mosaics. Yes, Tunisia had a flourishing Byzantine Christian culture in the 4th and 5th centuries. In fact, St. Augustine lived and studied here. The Christians built on the mosaic tradition of their Roman forefathers, and the mosaics are similar, although the women are usually wearing more clothes, and Bacchus has disappeared. We were especially impressed with a beautiful immersion baptismal font, completely done in colorful mosiac.

Upstairs we found several impressive marble statues, most of Roman emperors. And sure enough, the very first and largest (for some reason he was twice as large as everyone else) was Marcus Aurelius, whose story just happened to have been the children’s bedtime story the night before. And then it was on to the glorious pagan Roman mosaics. The range of subject matter in the mosaics was diverting, and Axa and Dominique kept running in to the next room, dying to know what they would find. Tony’s favorite mosaic was a small one of Artemis shooting a bewitching little deer. I think mine was the famous Triumph of Neptune, in which a bronzed sea-king driving his iconic seahorse-pulled chariot is flanked by two attendants with the oddest facial expressions I’ve seen in a mosaic.

Neptune was probably the most commonly portrayed deity at the museum, followed closely by Bacchus. From which I suppose you can infer (correctly) that Tunisia under the Romans was a land devoted to fishing and viticulture.

We all loved a kind of funky retro mosaic that Axa correctly identified as portraying Theseus slaying the Minotaur. Most of the mosaic was composed of the black and white labyrinth, with a section off to the side devoted to the combat. The border was a cleverly designed depiction of the Minoan palace above the labyrinth. My grasp on the delicate nuances of mosaic subject matter turned out to be somewhat less refined than Axa’s. I was impressed by a huge mosaic of Paul about to be shipwrecked, surrounded by Roman soldiers. What mystified me was what the three furies were doing off to the side.

My chagrin was great when I realized that pious Paul was actually the wily Ulysses, bound to the mast so he could hear the sirens sing. Oh, well.

All in all, if you are ever in the neighborhood, I heartily recommend a visit to the Bardo. In fact, I’m already planning my next trip, after the renovations are finished next year and Virgil is back on display.

Photo credits:

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Grouchin’ in a Winter Wonderland

In case you’re wondering, this is what I did not post yesterday:

I am done with winter, I am done with cold feet, and I am done with sick people trying to kiss me and my kids! I think I will spend the rest of the winter hibernating in my house. Wake me up when it is half-past May.

Yesterday at Church I hope I didn’t offend half the branch, because I just could not do the kissing thing. I resorted to the friendly wave from across the room, and acting really busy between meetings picking up all the food and pencils my children obligingly scatter around. I was only backed into a corner and basically forced to kiss two or three people. Am I the only one who thinks that everyone kissing each other’s faces during the cold and flu season is a really bad idea? Shaking hands is bad enough, but I can’t rub hand sanitizer on my children’s faces all the time! And I kept my son out of nursery not just because he was sick (which he was), but because all the rest of the children in nursery were sicker. (Am I a hypochondriac? well yes, I admit to certain tendencies.)

It’s not just the sickness, though. I need some more personal space. As in, approximately a foot of empty space around my immediate person that belongs just to me and will not be constantly intruded upon. Yesterday I was actually homesick for the United States, where people don’t put their face four inches from yours to say something, or come up and try to forcibly grab your children from you, or fall on your neck with joy every week as if they hadn’t seen you in decades.

Usually, I like the warmth that Italians exhibit in personal relationships. It’s hard to feel unloved in a place where acquaintances greet each other with more effusive enthusiasm than even close family members in the United States. And yes, when we were back in the United States, I missed how Italians share the love. But now I don’t want any more love. I just want space.

I would have gone on longer in this vein. However, I decided to spare myself and you. But today is better. We put up our Christmas tree last night, mostly with ornaments we had made, since all our Christmas stuff is still in storage in California. Axa did some paper chains, which she colored, cut out, and glued herself. She also made cardboard star, house, heart, and candy cane templates for our cookies. I made cookie dough and helped her and Dominique cut out the shapes. Since I told them they could eat any cookies that broke, we had quite a few “accidentally” broken cookies as we decorated the tree. But a few made it to the hanging stage. Dominique generously promised to also eat any that got broken in the night too, so I was surprised to find that they were all still hanging on the tree this morning.

Even better, today I had a euphoric visit to the Ufficio delle Entrate. The nice lady at the Comune had said that they were the ones to ask to change my name on my codice fiscale (the Italian equivalent of a social security number). So I went in with my documents today. Near the door is a receptionist desk with a ticket dispenser beside it. The receptionist looked over my documents, frowning over the fact that there was a discrepancy in the names. She was not mollified when I explained again that I was there in her office to fix that very name discrepancy. She did not seem to believe me that my last name was Familia, and she was irked that my middle name, Elisabeth, had just dropped off and disappeared. Finally, she asked to see my Italian residence permit, evidently feeling that these fishy things might be cleared up if she could just look at something from Italy with the correct name. Ever prepared, I whipped it out of my purse (I’ve learned through long and tortuous experience to have everything on hand but never present a document until it is requested). To my horror, I realized that I was holding my expired tourist permit, and not my family residence permit at all. Not batting an eye (maybe I would make a good spy after all), I pointed to my correctly annotated name, and she didn’t look at the rest of the paper. Just like always seems to happen in government offices, she gathered up my documents and went off to chat with a superior.

Surprisingly, she came back smiling, and gushed for a while about how beautiful my passport was. (I’ve found that the new biometric American passports with the quotes and patriotic pictures work wonders as an icebreaker at Italian government offices. When it comes to instant and undeserved brownie points, they’re the visual equivalent of saying you’re from California.) She then proceeded to explain to me what needed to be done, which coincidentally happened to be precisely what I had been trying to convince her to do before she left.

Then she went to the ticket machine, pressed a button, and handed me the ticket. I accepted it graciously, although Tony had already covertly helped himself to an earlier ticket while she was consulting her superior. We had fortunately arrived around 12:00, which is a half hour before lunch, and therefore exactly the time when government offices suddenly go into speed mode. Even if they have only called a dozen numbers during the entire preceding morning, they will all come back from their prolonged coffee break and zip through twice that many in a tenth of the time. After all, it would never do to be late for lunch.

After our number was called, everything went equally smoothly. There was one tense moment when the man behind the desk asked if my passport was my only identification. I really did not want to show him the expired tourist permit, because if he examined it closely, it could easily cause the whole process to grind to a halt, and cost us another visit to the Ufficio delle Entrate. I paused and asked coolly, “do you need something else?” He didn’t answer, and continued to methodically type away with one finger. I guess it was just a last-ditch attempt to avoid actually giving me what I had asked for. Or perhaps asking for more documentation is an instinct that government employees naturally develop, functioning as a sort of combination fight-and-flight reflex. In any case, after a few more minutes of silence, he printed out a paper, took it away to get the all-important stamp, and then returned, handing it to me. He informed me that my new card would be coming in the mail in about a month.

And that was it! We were done. Once again, through a combination of skill, ingenuity, cool-headedness, and just plain good luck, I had effortlessly sliced through the red tape of Italy. Interestingly, since the number is generated by a specific algorithm that draws on one’s personal information, they couldn’t just change the name. They had to change the number too. Maybe that’s the reason it is not normally legal to change your name in Italy. Hopefully, this doesn’t cause any problems with our bank or other places that already have my old number. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

What’s in a Name?

I have been married for nearly seven years, and have never been able to decide exactly what to do about my name. Every new bride in the United States must decide whether to keep her maiden name or take her husband’s. In effect, society views it as a choice between showing your support for family values or asserting your identity as an individual equal to your husband. The debate is fraught with cultural significance, and you’d better believe that you will be judged by everyone (including yourself) on which choice you make.

What happens to those of us who would rather not choose between the two? Well, that’s an interesting question. If you want to really complicate things, there are some other clever options to throw into the mix, like hyphenating the two last names, or the husband taking the wife’s name. I’ve even heard of both spouses picking out a new last name together. Romantic? Perhaps. Practical? No way. Yes, it’s sad that practicality would intrude on such an intimately personal topic as one’s own name. But it has happened to me. Just today, in fact, I came face to face with the eye-rolling consequences of my own inability to choose a name.

When Tony and I got married, I went down to the Social Security office and changed my name from Sarah Elisabeth Bringhurst to Sarah Bringhurst Familia. I thought it was the perfect solution to the conundrum. My maiden name would not be lost, but I’d have the same last name as my husband (yes, I was a fairly giddy new bride). And we wouldn’t have to do anything weird to our children’s last names. Actually, I didn’t really think about it much at all. I was living in Utah, and all my friends were changing their names. And it was also the exact same way my mother had done it.

Later, I was seized by a fit of feminism (this may or may not have occurred in the heat of an argument with my husband) and decided to change it back. But I never managed to make it back to the Social Security office to do it. In fact, I’m hopelessly behind on Social Security paperwork. Three years ago they made a mistake and inscribed my son’s middle name as Dominigue rather than Dominique. I guess they just could not fathom the idea of the letter “Q” appearing in someone’s name. I did go in once to change it, but even though they had originally gotten it off his misspelled birth certificate, and I had amended that already, they said they could not accept the birth certificate as documentation, and I would have to wait until we got him a passport. By the time we did, we were moving, and things were crazy, and I just didn’t feel like going back to the Social Security office for any reason. So out of laziness and my allergy to government offices, my last name remained Familia. But I was comforted by the fact that my passport still had my maiden name on it, except on some esoteric amendment page that nobody ever looked at and I always annoyingly had to point out to passport control when they said my passport didn’t match the name on my plane tickets.

Until this summer that is, when it was time to renew my passport. I went back and forth and back and forth over whether I should have my new passport done in my original name or my married name. I do almost always use my married name in normal life in the United States. But in Italy nobody changes their last name when they get married. So I was sick of explaining our bizarre American custom, or alternatively not explaining and just letting people think we we had some kind of Pharaonic fraternal marriage. But on the other hand, my maiden name is unpronounceable in Italy (just like in Chile, Syria, and a large proportion of the rest of the world), and it really makes me stick out as a foreigner. Whereas “Familia” is pretty much the best case scenario. People are always asking if I know what my last name means in the _______ language (read: Spanish, Italian, Swahili, etc.). We happened to be in Florence, Italy at the time I was renewing my passport, so that was pretty much a vote on the side of going back to my maiden name. But we were planning an imminent move to Ireland, which has the same conjugal naming convention as the United States, so it might make sense to go with the married name. I walked in to the American Consulate still not having decided which name to use. The man behind the counter noticed the empty spot where my last name was supposed to go, and made me fill it in. In the confusion of the moment, I decided that I would put my married name. I can’t even remember why. I think it was something to do with the fact that I didn’t have a spouse visa for Ireland, and even though EU regulations are not supposed to require one, some countries still do, and due to numerous bizarre scrapes and countless hours spent jumping through hoops in government offices, I have psychological scarring and nightmares about any red tape having to do with immigration. I wanted to have every convincing shred of evidence that I actually belonged to my EU national spouse. Besides, my children all have Tony’s last name, so I kind of don’t like being the odd one out. Anyway, whatever they were, they were all lame reasons, and now I wish I hadn’t done it. And passports are valid for ten whole years!

Now we’re back in Italy, where I guess I must seem like some stone age woman clinging to her husband to have taken the extreme step of changing my name to be the same as his. And today, we went into the Anagrafe to do the paperwork so that I could finally officially become a resident of Italy. It’s hard to do anything in Italy (like, say, getting health car, buying a car, opening a bank account . . . little things like that) unless you’re registered at your local town hall as an official resident. We were supposed to wait until I actually had my Permesso di Soggiorno (residency permit) in hand. But the handy dandy Questura website still lists it as “in process,” which may mean anything from they haven’t started working on it yet to it actually being in process, or even that it’s sitting on their shelf completed, waiting for me to pick it up. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which without a personal visit to the Questura, which means an entire morning standing outside the door, fighting and begging for a number so I can stand and wait again until the number is called and then finally ask my two-minute yes or no question. And because they now have the website, they no longer entertain phone calls. This is called Technology and Progress.

So I decided to just take in my receipt for Permesso to the Anagrafe, because it looks pretty official all by itself. It has a real signature, a real photo, and a real blue stamp. The only thing that makes it look a little less official is that it only has a photocopy of the marca da bollo (official tax seal). Well, that and the fact that it also does say at the bottom (but in tiny print!) that it’s not valid as a real Permesso. I hoped they wouldn’t notice. Anyway, it was worth a try, since it’s already been over three months and I’ve heard of cases where people don’t actually receive the real Permesso until it’s already expired a year later.

And in fact, the lady at the Anagrafe was very nice, and took everything away to photocopy it, and said we just had to wait twenty minutes, and it would be all done. I was silently congratulating myself on the happy accident of having come in the afternoon when she didn’t have a superior to ask why my document didn’t look quite official enough. And then she came back and pointed out that my passport has a different name from my codice fiscale (Italian Social Security card). Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! I shook my head at myself and knew nothing was going to end up getting done today. The name on my codice fiscale, which I obtained two years ago, came off my old passport. And now I have my new passport with my married name, which is also the name on my Permesso. And so here I am stuck in Italy with two names. Unfortunately, it’s illegal in Italy to change your name unless you can prove that it’s such a bad name it causes you embarrassment. Well, the situation is certainly embarrassing, but I don’t which government agency (if any) will be willing to change my name in their database. The nice lady at the Anagrafe is going to email us tomorrow to tell me what can be done. If all goes well, I’m hoping to convince her to just fling it all to the wind and permanently change my name to Napoleon Bonaparte. Then all my problems would be solved.

And now you know . . . the rest of the story.

I hope you enjoyed our little jaunt to the Philippines yesterday. Now back to Italy. We had decided to move to Italy by October 2007, which at the time was one year away. Now all we needed to do was to collect birth, death, and marriage certificates for Tony and all his ancestors in a direct line back to Domenico. It came to a grand total of 32 certificates, plus the Naturalization papers for Domenico. The documents had to be requested from the vital records offices of five different states and two different towns in Italy, and then most of them had to be sent to the Governor’s office of the various states for an Apostille. The basic function of an Apostille is to make an official-looking certified document look twice as official and certified. The way the Apostille looks varies from state to state, but the most important ingredient is usually a gigantic gold seal.


Because Domenico and Henriette were born so long ago, civil record-keeping had not yet begun in Italy (yes, it came in with our old friend Napoleon). So I mustered my almost nonexistent Italian to write letters to the churches in the two little towns where they were born, asking for copies of their birth certificates. Amusingly enough, Domenico’s birth certificate came back in Latin because it was from the Catholic Church. And Henriette’s came back in French, because it was from the Waldensian Church. But they were really both Italian, I promise.

The Naturalization document posed a bit more of a problem. Because the naturalization process had not yet been standardized in Domenico’s time, there were six possible State, Federal, and District courts in which he could have naturalized. I duly sent off letters and emails to several different sets of archives. In the end, we never did find a naturalization record for Domenico. Everyone told me over the phone or email that no record existed. Luckily, a certificate of non-existence of records is also acceptable to the Italian government. Only the Utah Federal Court archives actually replied formally, but the letter was sent by a very precise and conscientious clerk who put it on nice, official-looking letterhead (complete with a shiny gold seal) and even bolded the fact that no record had been found. I could have kissed him. I needed something official-looking to present to the Italian government.

However, the worst problems were the marriage record of Domenico and Henriette and the birth certificates of their son Louis and his wife Elva, which were apparently all lost somewhere (or never written down?) before Utah became a state. I decided if the churches in Italy could stand in for civil registers, there was no reason my church in Utah couldn’t. So I asked the L.D.S. Church Archives for certified copies of Domenico and Harriet’s sealing (eternal marriage) in the Temple, and the blessing certificates of Louis and Elva. No dice. They don’t certify anything, they told me. They did consent to send me regular letters, but I knew there was no way the Italian government was going to go for something with no seal. (And not even a purple stamp or embossed letterhead either!) This called for a personal visit, and some creative maneuvering. You can read about it here.

And what do you know, as soon as I had gathered all the documents, the opportunity suddenly arose to make the big move some seven months before we had planned. We jumped at the chance, and by the end of March, we had touched down in Italy. We had our first adventure right at the airport, where our car caught fire, and things didn’t really slow down for . . . oh, I don’t know. They haven’t really ever slowed down since then.

In Italy, we explored the Waldensian Valleys and finally met our long lost relatives, the Bodreros, in Domenico’s hometown. Then we settled down to the serious business of convincing the Italian government to make Tony a citizen. The rest of that story is already told in rollicking and excruciating detail on this blog, but I advise you to have some gelato or at least some chocolate on hand for when things get dicey. We sure did. To read it, click here and scroll down to “Fun at the Comune.” Then just be sure to read from the bottom up, or you’ll get the story backwards. If you make it through all that, the story continues here (again, scroll to the bottom and read the last post first).

For those of you who are still dying of suspense, we did finally attain Italian citizenship. After seven months of visiting the comune (as well as begging, pleading, baking cookies, and calling in various reinforcements), we had to go back to the United States indefinitely because our business was about to fall apart in the 2008 economic downturn. The week after we left Italy, we received an email from the comune informing Tony that his application had been approved, and the paperwork was ready to sign. We came back to Italy for a couple of weeks in April 2009, for Tony to become officially Italian. It was another long, long year before we made it back here to live. But all’s well that ends well, and here we are, safe and sound in Italy. Maybe I’ll write a book some day. Promise you’ll all read it?

Friends don’t let friends invade Russia with winter approaching

Last night, I dreamed that I saved Vittorio Emmanuele from assassination. That’s right, the first King of Italy. And then I was so happy that he was safe, I kissed his hand. I realized when I woke up that in my dream I’d had that feeling. The feeling Tolstoy gave Andre when he was sent as a messenger to the Tsar. The feeling Ann had in Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major when she met King George in the street by happenstance. It’s a sort of intense overall sensation of patriotism wrapped up into the adoration of a certain royal person. It resembles a combination of religious fervor, filial piety, and romantic ardor, all rolled into one.

As a monarch-less American, I’ve read about this feeling many times, and I admit, it fascinates me. It’s an emotion carefully cultivated by the authors of the numerous 19th century British books I like to read my children. It’s something I’ve often puzzled over as I open my Church hymnbook (printed for both Britain and America) and see God Save the King right next to The Star-Spangled Banner. How incongruously different the anthems are. And how novel to feel those emotions over a person rather than over a flag and an expanse of earth and a set of abstract ideals.

Vittorio Emmanuele is not too much of a household name in the United States. In fact, I wonder how many people there know (or care, I suppose; we’re just not that overwhelmed by royalty) that during the entire time (including two World Wars) that Mussolini was in power, Italy still had a king, also named Vittorio Emmanuele. Shortly after the end of World War II, a disillusioned Italian populace abolished the monarchy altogether. Male members of the royal line were banished forever from Italy (cruel fate! Even in Ancient Greece, ostracism only lasted ten years). The ban was finally lifted just a few years ago in exchange for renunciation of all claims to the (now nonexistent) throne. But when the Savoy royal family actually tried to sue the Italian government for damages for their years in exile, the Prime Minister threatened to counter-sue them for their collusion with Mussolini, and the matter was dropped.

So, yes. Royalist fervor in Italy these days is fairly weak. But there is still someone whom our Italian friends of today truly admire. Not even an Italian, but definitely a monarch. One of Tony’s favorite compliments to people is to tell them, “you’re a genius.” And his most oft-heard response from Italians is: “If I’m a genius, then you’re Napoleon.” There you have it! The despot who conquered them over 200 years ago and is responsible for 95% of the Red Tape of Italy is the archetypical genius. Welcome to Italy.

Homeschooling with the Romans

Once again, with moving and other things, my grand ideas for homeschooling have fallen a little by the wayside. Luckily, Axa spends lots of time every day practicing writing, and they both roam the yard studying the plants and animals in it with as much detail as little scientists. Charlotte would be happy that I’m not put together enough to do all the academics I would like to do with my two little under-sixes.

They’re also beginning to use quite a few Italian words. I don’t even know where they’ve heard some of these words. One of their favorite activities in the car is to quiz each other about Italian vocabulary. Between the two of them, they can go on for quite a while. And they hardly ever get a word wrong. “Orkin” these days contains quite a bit more Italian than it used to. And I hear them repeating little Italian conversations to themselves when they’re alone. Not always the most useful words, but I guess it’s what they find useful. The other day Axa was in the bathroom repeating the Italian pronunciation of “O.K.” to herself over and over.

And they talk to other people too. We made a rule a few weeks ago that they must answer a certain set of questions when asked (e.g. how old are you, what’s your name, how are you, etc.). But yesterday at Church I heard them both having spontaneous conversations with people. It really helps that in Italy adults love talking to children. I think that’s why Italians seem to have such good self-esteem. From the time they are children, everyone they see likes them and is interested in them.

To me it is just magical to listen to my children speaking Italian. It is like hearing them learn to talk for the first time. But it is more, because it means our life is really shifting its center to Italy. I guess I harp on that subject a lot. I’ve been thinking about it as I plan curriculum for next term. Axa will be officially beginning the Ambleside Online curriculum in January. I’ve already been tweaking plenty, because Ambleside is pretty light on Classical history (they have issues with polytheistic religions). My children can identify all the Greek gods at the Uffici Museum, and they haven’t started a Diana cult yet, so I’m not too worried. And now that we live in Italy, I’m ready to start Roman history with a vengeance. I know Axa will adore it because it’s full of battles and conquests. I wonder if I could find a children’s version of Caesar’s Gallic Wars . . .

Ambleside’s history for Year 1 does include a few stories from Roman history, but their main history text is Our Island Story, a history of Great Britain. I have been pre-reading it lately, and it’s good. I like it. The only thing I don’t like is that it is a bit myopic. Well, more than a bit. I know all histories have a bias, and there are some things I like about the 19th century British bias. The main thing that bothers me is that this book basically equates virtue with British patriotism. The only mention that, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine gets is that she “was not a good woman.” I suppose this is why Charlotte Mason always had her students read French history (from a French textbook) along with their English history.

In any case, the bias is not a deal-breaker for me. It’s par for the course in when it comes to national history. But I need to add in some Italian stuff. I think we’ll read Alfred Church’s The Aeneid for Boys and Girls. Axa loved The Iliad for Boys and Girls, and Troy is her number one place she wants to visit. She’ll be thrilled to know she’s descended from the Trojans. We’ll probably add in a few biographies like Hannibal and Julius Caesar, to go with George Washington and Squanto. Julius Caesar, Hadrian, and a couple of other Roman emperors also make cameo appearances on the shores of Britain in Our Island Story, so it will be good to hear both sides of the story there.

We picked up a book of fairytales in Italian for Tony to read to the children at night. And I will probably find a children’s book about the Unification of Italy so that we can be ready to party all next year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy. I’ll post more details on the rest of my curriculum for the term in a few weeks when I get everything worked out.

The other thing I need to do (once we know in exactly which little town around here we’ll be living long-term) is to notify the local school that we intend to homeschool and ask for permission. Of course, in Italy I expect this to involve multiple trips to various offices, being told what I want to do is impossible, and piles of paper, probably covered in official stamps. Luckily, this helpful blog explains in detail the whole process to follow. And you thought we were done with the red tape of Italy!

Questura Tales – Part 4

Well, one can’t expect to have a good experience at the Questura more often than once in a lifetime. Things were bad again yesterday. I arrived at 8:00 as usual, but it didn’t open until nearly 9:00. There seemed to be more people than usual. I had an appointment, but there was only a date, not an hour. They only had two windows open, and things went very slowly. The man who calls numbers seemed to be in a particularly bad mood. He kept opening the door a crack and telling everyone to stand back from the door. Unfortunately, he was always ignored, because nobody believed him that he was going to call them in. People were constantly elbowing up to the front to ask him questions and receive vague, noncommittal responses. The best moment was when a nice young woman from Moldavia finally asked in exasperation, “But could you please just at least explain to us how the system works?” The door closed as she finished her question, and a grizzled old Albanian replied, “I’ll tell you in two words how it works: ‘very badly’.” By eleven-thirty so few people had entered that all of us waiting outside were convinced that none of us were ever going to get in the door.


Just at the moment of extreme despair, the Questura man opened the door again and said that now things would go very quickly. In fact, he even promised that all of us would get in for our appointments. This was bizarre. There was no obvious reason that everything should suddenly change. None of us believed him at all. But for some reason, all of a sudden, things did go faster. At a quarter to twelve (supposedly they close at noon) I was finally ushered in. The rest of it took only twenty minutes, and I was done! I need to go pick up the completed Permesso in a month or two. But I can now legally live with my husband in Italy. Whew! Now I can get down to the business of actually living in Italy.

Questura Tales – Part 3

I think we broke some kind of record today. We went to three different Italian government offices and actually accomplished our purpose at each one! Stop number one was the Questura. You’ll recall that last time I went I was afraid of violence, so I did have a few feelings about going (for the fourth time). We had everything all planned out, as usual. We had a slight hiccup when Tony’s alarm went off at 1:40 in the morning. Why, you may ask, would someone set his cell phone alarm to go off at such a time? (Believe me, I asked too). It turns out he had set his alarm because he needs to start thinking about going back to work after lunch at 1:40 in the afternoon. Well, 1:40 in the afternoon does not exist in Italy. It’s called 13:40. The only 1:40 is the one in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, he turned off the alarm and rolled back over to sleep without telling me. I spent the next half hour in a dazed stupor, assuming that Tony had decided to just sleep through our Questura visit after all.


We did finally get back to sleep, and then got the children up at 7:00. Tony dropped me off at the Questura at 8:00, and then took Axa to asilo. I waited at the door a little nervously. A couple of young Albanian men came up. I remembered the last time I’d been there, when I had been completely snubbed by a whole group of Albanians. But I gamely pressed forward and said, “buongiorno.” They were a little standoffish at first, but we were soon conversing as quickly as my Italian could manage. After a few minutes, another Albanian friend of theirs (or maybe not a friend. Maybe they just felt a comradeship of nationality) came up. He was much more talkative, and we spent the next half hour pleasantly conversing about the places in the world we would like to visit, and all his relations in vague places in the United States.


He taught me how to say hello and thank you in Albanian (which I repeated to his delight and then promptly forgot). He tried out all his English words on me too, and his accent was, I’m sure, better than my Albanian one. We conversed about the differences and similarities between Spanish, Italian, Albanian and Russian. I mentioned that I had studied Arabic, and he started quizzing me on Arabic vocabulary. Just at that moment (and much to my mortification), a man from Morocco joined our little group. He seemed to forgive my Arabic accent, though, and was just as nice as the Albanian. A few minutes later, the door opened, and the man who had been working inside for the past thirty minutes began handing out numbers. He gave me the first one, even though I wasn’t at the front of the line, because he said he’d seen me there waiting first (I’m sure he probably also recognized me as a regular visitor). So that was encouraging. Then the other Questura employee, who was so cross the day of the mini Questura riot, came up and smiled at me in response to my smile and greeting. So I felt totally different from the time before. Everyone seemed to like me today.


The man at the window remembered me too, and I had no problems completing my little business (which granted consisted only in asking for a list of documents I needed to complete my Permesso di Soggiorno application and setting an appointment). I was done in five minutes, and walked out of the Questura floating on air. That was good, because while I was popping into a little store to pick up oatmeal (still our breakfast staple), Tony was told by a policeman that he wasn’t allowed to park on Via Roma. So he just circled around until I came out. Unfortunately, shortly after I got back into the car, we were pulled over by another policeman who told us we weren’t even allowed to drive on the street without a permit, which are given only to people who live there. Apparently there was a sign posted on the street, which we completely missed. Oops. This policeman gave him a ticket, but told him to appeal it within sixty days. Actually, since the car is owned by Tony’s company, he said to have the company appeal it. He asked for Tony’s signature, and then solicited excuses and extenuating circumstances, contributed some of his own, and duly noted them all on a special section of the form reserved for them.


Tony said he may have also gotten another ticket earlier that morning. On the way back from dropping Axa off at asilo, he had completely failed to notice a cleverly placed new temporary stop sign, probably set up just to catch people on camera and give them tickets (do I sound cynical? Of course not). Poor thing, he behaved admirably, though, and we continued on to the Ufficio delle Entrate. Here we were supposed to get codice fiscale (the Italian equivalent of Social Security numbers) for the children, who need them for asilo.


We were supposed to have gotten them quite some time ago, but when we went to get them, shortly after we arrived in Italy, we didn’t have any documentation for them other than American passports, which the employees shook their heads over. This time we came prepared with their Italian birth certificates, and it worked. The worst thing is, when we signed them up for asilo, we did provide the asilo with codici fiscale–of a sort. Italian codice fiscale are generated according to a completely predictable algorithm based on one’s name, birthdate, and birth place. A long time ago, a cell phone salesman in Torino (what can I say? Anything for a sale) taught us how to generate your codice fiscale online (you need it to do just about any type of financial transaction in Italy, including buying a SIM card). The only thing is, even though the online program always generates the correct number, it doesn’t actually count as a real codice fiscale until it’s been officially bestowed upon you by the Italian government. We found this out from our landlord in Saluzzo, who was appalled. When he asked to make a photocopy of the official green plastic card with the number on it, we looked at him blankly. It took a while before we understood what he was asking for, and even longer before we were able to convey to him the whole sordid story, cell phone salesman and all. He took us down that instant himself to get us proper codici fiscale (which we now realized would have been impossible for us to do alone, because of various catch 22’s of Italian bureaucracy. Our whole family is now supplied with official codici fiscale, and we promise we will never generate them online again.


After the Ufficio delle Entrate, we made it to the Anagrafe in plenty of time to ask for an updated marriage certificate for my Permesso di Soggiorno application. No, nothing has changed about our marriage. Official documents just tend to expire after six months in Italy. Having done all this (and also bought various items at three different stores in between), we pulled up to Axa’s asilo in time to pick her up at noon.