It was the middle of the night, and I should have been trying to sleep on the overnight flight to Italy, but my mind was racing. I couldn’t stop rehearsing what I’d been working so hard to learn, mumbling my planned introduction quietly to myself while David slept. “Signora Maria? Sono Michele e questo e’ il mio compagno David. Piacere di conocserti.” I’d been dreaming about this journey for years and it felt surreal to finally be on my way.
I had no reason to learn Italian when I started studying the language twenty years ago. After accepting a job that came with a two-hour daily commute, I purchased a set of Italian lessons simply to pass the time. I practiced each day on the drive, and before long I knew that il cane meant the dog, il treno meant the train, and la donna meant the woman. I was learning so much! Or at least I thought I was.
When I traveled to Rome later that year, I tentatively tried speaking a few words in Italian, but quickly became frustrated and reverted to English. I would say something very simple like buonasera to a waiter and instead of just returning the greeting, he would respond with several follow up questions in rapid-fire Italian. I understood nearly nothing of what was said, found it impossible to remember which words to use, and completely lost my confidence.
When I returned home, I began searching for new ways to study the language. The director of the local Berlitz school told me my problem was simple–I only knew random words, not any sentence structure. So I began weekly tutoring sessions with Rita, a middle-aged woman from the Abruzzo region of Italy, and our hour together flew by each Saturday. A few lessons in she asked why I was studying Italian, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and then smiled. “È nel tuo sangue,” she said. “It’s in your blood.” It wasn’t until ten years later that I really understood how true that was, when my nephew’s mother-in-law, who had been doing genealogy research, tracked down my mother’s cousin in Arizona.
I knew my mom’s biological father, Arthur Giannecchini, was a first-generation Italian American, and that he and my grandmother had divorced when my mom was very young. She never knew her father and had never known the Italian side of her family. She had recently passed away, and without knowing anything about these relatives, it had been nearly impossible to trace my ancestry.
Luckily, the cousin in Arizona had spent twenty-five years charting the Giannecchini family history back to our Italian roots in the hills of northern Toscana, and he generously shared his work with me: family trees, pictures, and vital records. As I read through the many pages of documentation I finally understood. Italian was in my blood. Maybe this was why I had been so drawn to Italy ever since my first visit and why I was so determined to learn Italian.
Despite the more intense tutoring, I still wasn’t making progress, so I enrolled in the beginner level of Italian at the local university, where I found a structured curriculum that used all my senses. I steadily worked my way through Italian Beginner I, II and III, which was enough to learn the basics: everything from greetings, expressions, numbers, and dates to articles, pronouns, verb conjugations, tenses, and sentence structure. Each chapter was centered on a theme, like travel or mealtime, and included a long list of words to memorize which I dutifully practiced with flash cards.
By this point in my life, I had started coming to Italy frequently, leading small groups on a food- and wine adventure in southern Italy every fall. I often repeated the classes a couple of months before my trips to gain confidence. Still, every time I arrived in Italy, I struggled to converse in Italian. I knew that living in Italy, immersing myself in the language, was the only way I would truly learn to speak Italian.
I also knew that was impossible because of my life in Denver. I was working as a cooking teacher and food writer and was very heavily involved in several local nonprofits. My husband Greg was working full throttle as the CEO of a local real estate company and serving on several boards. Our children were just barely launched and still needed our help. Our life was simply too full to even consider living abroad for an extended time.
In the fall of 2016, my husband and I left for Madrid to meet college friends for a vacation in Spain and Portugal. Right after we landed, he collapsed in the baggage claim area of the airport from what would be diagnosed as a massive, ruptured brain aneurysm. He spent two months in the ICU in Madrid before we could fly home on an air ambulance to transfer him to a neuro ICU in Denver. While he fought valiantly to recover, the damage to his brain was just too great and he passed away six months later in April of 2017.
Two years after losing him, a travel article about people applying for dual citizenship in Italy caught my eye. The article explained that some people intended to live in Italy part time, some wanted to move back to where they or their families had been born, and some just seemed to want an exit plan if the US imploded politically.
Although I rarely voiced it out loud, preferring to tell everyone I was fine, after my husband’s death I was bored and lonely. I had put all my work and volunteer activities on hold to care for him and caring for him had been all-consuming. Now I was itching for something new to focus on, something that would keep me busy and distract me from my grief. Although I didn’t intend to move to Italy even part-time, getting my Italian citizenship felt like a project, something to fill the gaps in my long and lonely days. I was rapidly approaching my sixtieth birthday, my three kids were now married with their own families and, and I was already semi-retired. The uncertainty about what I would do with this final chapter in my life weighed heavily on me.
Feeling motivated by the prospect of having a new project, I contacted the consultant mentioned in the article and began the process of searching for the required vital records. For many reasons—difficulty finding some records, tedious work on ancestry websites, and a general slowdown in all the vital records offices due to the pandemic that struck just six months later—it took over two years to gather the nineteen certified documents I needed to apply for dual citizenship.
Once I had everything, I logged on to the website as instructed to make my appointment to apply for my citizenship at the Italian consulate in Chicago. But every day, within seconds, the appointments were fully booked for the next two years. I was told that applications for dual citizenship had skyrocketed after Trump had taken office, and I learned it could take years to even get an appointment, and up to a decade to complete the citizenship process. Having lost a spouse suddenly at a young age—Greg was only 59 when he died—I fully understood how fragile life was, and how quickly it could be taken away. I didn’t want to waste another day waiting, worried I might never get the chance to pursue my goal.
Understanding my frustration, my consultant suggested a faster path: travel to Italy with the purpose of applying for Italian citizenship by descent. Because my mother’s grandfather had never naturalized, his son Arthur and my mother were therefore considered Italian citizens. To apply this way required that I establish residency in Italy, then live in Italy for a couple of months to complete the necessary steps in the process with a local town hall instead of through the consulate in the US. Although I had always said there was no way I could live abroad for an extended period, my life was different now.
Finding myself single in midlife was terrifying, but in some ways also liberating. My future was largely a blank slate. I could decide what I wanted to do without considering Greg, whether that was what show to watch on TV, how to spend my money, what to make for dinner, or where to go on vacation. Suddenly, living in Italy for an extended time seemed like not just a possibility, but an incredible opportunity.
There was only one catch: I was no longer single when I learned all of this.
Two years after losing my husband, I had walked the Camino in Spain with a friend, and as that journey does for many people, it changed me. Up to that point I had assured my friends and family that I had no interest in dating again, that I was fine living alone, and that I was happy spending time with friends. But the walk into Santiago woke up something in me. Although I would be turning sixty in a few months, I fully expected to live well into my nineties like my grandmother. That felt like too long to be alone, and I had come to understand that I missed sharing my life with a partner.
David and I met a few weeks after I dipped my toe into online dating, just shortly after I had begun investigating the dual-citizenship process. We had come from completely different worlds—his parents were both from large families in Puerto Rico, where he still had many relatives. He had grown up in a modest home in east LA with his four siblings and had opted for work over college. I came from an upper middle-class family, grew up on the east coast, and went to a private college. I found our very different backgrounds intriguing, but also liked that we didn’t travel in the same social circles in Denver, which to me felt safer than dating someone who knew my late husband.
From our very first texts we both knew there was a spark, and from our first date the chemistry was obvious. We fell in love quickly and I asked him to move in with me. Then, just six months later, the pandemic shut the world down. While that could have been disastrous for our new relationship, it bonded us. We spent those months in lockdown really getting to know each other. We babysat my two-year-old grandson while his daycare was closed, worked on house projects together, mastered a recipe for old fashioneds, bought a condo in the Fraser Valley of Colorado, learned how to mountain bike, and played a lot of dominoes.
With most of my volunteer commitments on hold and David working only part time, the pandemic had given us both the push we needed to fully retire. While theoretically we could travel to Italy for two months, the time the consultant had explained was necessary to complete the process, I didn’t know if this was something David would enjoy. This was my journey and dream, after all, not his. Italy was my happy place, not somewhere he’d even visited before meeting me.
I knew I didn’t want to do this alone, so I prepared my sales pitch and laid out what the trip would be like, hoping it would make David love the idea as much as I did. I knew from our first short trips together that he enjoyed traveling and exploring as much as I did, but this would be a completely different level of exploring. I began explaining the opportunity to him, but quickly saw that he didn’t need to be sold. He agreed it would be a grand adventure, and I began to plan for what I had always said I could never do: live in Italy for an extended period.
But before we could travel to Italy, I needed to be sure my request would be approved in the town where we would reside. I sent copies of all my vital records to the clerk at the townhall in Rionero to review. She confirmed that although I qualified for citizenship by descent, I needed to modify several vital records before I could come and apply in person. I needed to correct some minor things like name misspellings and date discrepancies on various records as well as more serious things like documenting my grandfather’s name change from Giannecchini to Landers when he became a professional golfer, and my mother’s name change from Giannecchini to Sivak when her mother remarried.
While these sounded like simple requests, they weren’t, and I made very little progress with the vital records departments in various states. The town hall in Italy said they would accept a court order from a judge in the US that simply decreed these things in lieu of actually modifying the vital records, but that wasn’t simple either. It took months to find a lawyer in California, where the vital records had originated, who was willing to take a small case like mine. After I struck out several times, David contacted an old business colleague from LA who convinced his personal lawyer to assist me. But his lawyer had no experience with this type of case and needed help from another lawyer out of state to write multiple briefs that supported my case so the judge would understand what was being requested. After the petition was filed with the court, the judge still wanted a better explanation of why I thought he had the jurisdiction to issue the court order—he’d never see a request like mine—so I wrote a convincing brief for him using case examples my lawyers had provided for similar requests that were approved. He finally agreed my case had merit, but my court date was deferred several times because of the huge backlog of cases, most far more important than mine, caused by the pandemic. His docket was overloaded, and he eventually bounced my case to another judge to handle.
Three and a half years after I had started the process for dual citizenship, I finally had a court appearance by Zoom with the judge who I hoped would approve the court order the town hall in Italy had requested. This would in effect correct all the errors in several vital records in one ruling. I laid out notes across my entire kitchen island supporting my petition, thinking I would need detailed background information to convince the judge. David sat across from me looking as nervous as I felt, but the judge approved my request before I said anything, and quickly closed our call by saying, “Arrivederci—enjoy Italy!”
Months earlier, as soon as I learned there was even a possibility I might be living in Italy, I had signed up for weekly Italian lessons with a private tutor. Not only did I desperately want to improve my language skills, but studying Italian helped me feel like I was making progress while I waited for the court order. My teacher, Annagiulia, was born in Rome but had been living in Colorado since marrying thirty years ago, and we began weekly lessons on Zoom.
She pushed me to read, write, and speak Italian in a way no other teacher had. She recommended I watch Italian TV, starting with the old Italian classic series Don Matteo. I’d watch an episode, write about what I saw, then speak with her about the episode during my lesson. I began reading articles about Italy and listening to Italian podcasts and we’d discuss what I had learned during my next lesson. It was slow going at first, my lack of confidence evident, but she kept pushing me, and over time I improved.
I have a T-shirt that says “il momento when you start a pensare in due lingue at the same tempo”, the moment when you start to think in two languages at the same time. It took many years to reach that point, but as I prepared to depart for Italy, I knew I was ready.
Throughout this journey, friends and family asked why I wanted dual citizenship, and I jokingly told them, “For no reason whatsoever.” They asked what would change in my life once I got it and I told them, “Nothing.” Only later, after living in Italy, would I learn why I was doing this, what it would mean to me, and how the experience would forever change me.
This is the story of that journey.
Over 62 days, we rode one train and drove three rental cars a total of 3900 km through 11 regions of Italy. We visited 42 towns—a couple large cities but mostly tiny villages—and drove through or past dozens more. We slept in 11 different beds and fumbled with 11 small Italian showers. We joined the evening passeggiata with the locals whenever possible, eventually slowing our pace to match theirs, walking arm in arm as they did.
We wandered through 23 ancient fortresses and ruins including 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites and three ancient Greek temples. We explored the insides of five crypts and 25 churches, plus visited many more from the outside.
We toured and tasted at five wineries, two farms, and one salt flat, and joined in the fun with Italian families for La Festa Degli Innamorati in Monte Sant Angelo, Carnevale in Bologna, and La Festa di San Giuseppe in Rionero.
We walked a lot, including 10 serious hikes of about eight miles each, which helped ease our guilt about eating at least 70 plates of pasta, 30 panini di mortadella, 14 pizze, nine balls of burrata, pounds and pounds of mozzarella di bufala, and too many pasticciotti and sofgliatelle pastries to count.
We learned that every little hill town has a Via Roma (all roads do lead to Rome), a street or piazza named for Vittorio Emanuele, one for Garibaldi, many churches, and a crumbling fortress—but most have very few people living in them, and everything, in every town, closes from noon until five.
We learned that the Google Lady will often try to steer you down tiny alleys too small even for a tiny Fiat 500, and when in doubt, it’s good to surrender the keys to the Italian man on the corner who will easily point the car in the right direction.
I found that speaking Italian elevated our experience and that simply asking for help and being humble goes a long way. We shopped, cooked, ate, did laundry, and drank coffee like the locals. I answered the question “Why are you here?” at least once a day and made many friends along the way.
I’ve written this story mostly in English, but I’m proud to share that the conversations I relay to you in the coming chapters were spoken almost entirely in Italian.
As the plane touched down in Napoli, I was giddy with excitement. After we deplaned and passed through Passport Control, I sent a quick text to my kids and my Italian teacher to let them know we had made it to Italy. “Siamo arrivati!” We gathered our luggage, and just a few minutes later exited the airport to look for a woman holding a sign with my name on it. I saw Maria immediately and approached her.
“Buongiorno, Maria. Sono Michele e questo e’ il mio compagno David. Piacere di conocserti.”