A week before we departed for Rionero, my consultant Stefano sent me an itinerary with all the steps that I would need to take to apply for my citizenship. Each step in the process was scheduled on a specific day with a specific outcome defined.

  • February 1, 11:00 am – Register residency at Ufficio Anagrafe (the residency office) in Rionero in Vulture.
  • February 2 – Apply for Permesso di Soggiorno (residency permit) at Post Office. The clerk will confirm our appointment at Questura (the police department).
  • February 3 – Obtain Codice Fiscale (like a social security number) at the Agenzia delle Entrate (the tax agency), sign the Rental Agreement, then register the Rental Agreement at the Agenzia delle Entrate
  • Wait for police officer’s residence visit (typically, 7-8 days after the registration of residence at Ufficio Anagrafe)

It sounded well planned and efficient, but as is often the case in Italy, this is not how things went at all. The actual process was an education in patience and flexibility—definitely not my strongest traits—and required the ability to have a little blind faith that things would happen as Stefano had laid out.

9:40 in the morning on February 1, Maria banged loudly on our apartment door. “Mee-shell! Dobbiamo andare al Ufficio Anagrafe per il tuo appuntamento.” We weren’t expecting her for a full hour, since I had been told the appointment would be at 11:00, but fortunately David and I were both dressed and had had some coffee, so we quickly pulled on our coats and followed Maria. The office was not far from our apartment, just up the hill behind us, and I struggled to keep up with Maria.

I marveled that she could walk so quickly over the cobblestones in two-inch platform boots. I had never envisioned Stefano’s mamma would look or dress like Maria. I had pictured a frumpy, short, stocky Italian woman wearing sensible shoes, probably with gray hair or with that shocking reddish hair older women in Italy sometimes favor. But she looked young, even though she was close to my age, had smooth unlined skin, and dressed more like women my kids ages than an aging mamma.

We went inside the Ufficio Anagrafe, the place where I would fill out the paperwork and register with the town to confirm I was residing here. I stood behind Maria watching while she and the clerk chatted for a while before finally getting to the paperwork. It was the same everywhere, not just with Maria, but with Italians in general. There was always a period of catching up before any real work could be done.

“Come sta tuo papa?” she asked the clerk. The clerk said his father was slowly recovering then continued to talk about how difficult it had been after his father’s recent fall. I didn’t know this man and didn’t need to know about his father’s condition. I wondered why I couldn’t just fill out a form online with what seemed like very basic information—my name and the address where I was residing while I applied for my citizenship. Only later did I understand how important these daily interactions with friends around town were, both to Maria and to her friends.

I stood outside the office after the clerk had my information, thinking we were finished, and David snapped a picture of me in front of the sign. Step one done, I thought, but when Maria finally came out, she led me to a second office where we stood in line again until it was our turn. Maria gave him the residency paperwork we had filled out at the first office, along with some money. He pulled out an ink pad and a stamp and proceeded to stamp each page of the document. Ah, la stampa! I had forgotten the jokes about everything needing a stamp and I smiled thinking of my friend mimicking the stamping of everything on her own documents when she had been living abroad.

I was sure it was official now with the stamp, but Maria led us next to the post office. “Abbiamo bisogno di tuo permesso di soggiorno,” she said, while standing in line and impatiently waiting to be called to the window. Italians are notoriously poor at queuing up and waiting their turn. I’ve had to elbow my way through a crowd many times in a gelato shop to get served. The line was always irrelevant and by every indication, the guys behind the counter usually served the cute young girls first regardless of their position in line. Maria clearly didn’t like the system of drawing a number and being forced to a position in line, so she kept trying to outsmart the system by pulling a different number thinking that would move us to the front. It didn’t.

I hadn’t thought I was getting my residency permit on this outing—I had been told that would happen the next day—but was happy to see things moving along so quickly. The permesso di soggiorno is what would give me the right to stay in Italy for more than the ninety days permitted with my passport and is also what would show I was still a resident even though I’d be returning to Denver in a couple of months. I needed to be considered a resident up until my dual citizenship was approved since I was applying through residency. But I didn’t really understand any of this until I was about to leave Italy two months later.

After a few minutes Maria’s impatience got the best of her. She abandoned her position in the line, told the people in front of her that she just needed to pick up a packet, and then pushed her way through to get what she needed. Once we had the paperwork, I assumed we would be completing it and filing it, but when we left the post office, she herded us down to the piazza for a tour of each shop and to meet all the shop owners. So maybe that will come later, I thought, still not clear on the order of the steps in the process.

I’d been big on organization and planning my entire adult life, and this felt a little haphazard to me. So when we got home, I revisited the notes from Stefano, to see what should be happening next. The schedule said the clerk at the post office would confirm our appointment at the police station. But he had also told me the police would be visiting me in our apartment to verify my residency. When I texted Stefano for clarification, he said simply that everything was on track. It was hard for me not to be in control, but I accepted him at his word, pushed my concerns away, and made a mortadella sandwich for lunch.

Later that day Stefano sent a text asking if I could go to his mother’s apartment at 7:00 to complete the permesso di sorgiorno. He would join from his home near Rome to guide her through the application. Only later did I learn that I was the first client she had “handled” since Stefano had moved north. Her daughter was living in Chicago, working for the same citizenship consulting firm, which meant his move to Rome left her without any of her kids nearby.

David and I rang Maria’s doorbell at 7:00 sharp and she ushered us into her living room for the meeting and then called Stefano from her cellphone. During the call, Stefano reviewed every single question of the multi-page form, advising Maria what should be entered on each line, and every single time she chastised him. She seemed annoyed he was telling her what to do—she was the parent, and he was the child—and he seemed frustrated, worried she would complete the application incorrectly. I watched the spectacle for thirty minutes, a little worried that the form was being completed with mistakes. Meanwhile, David was getting a big kick out of their interaction, and he joked with Stefano about his controlling mother. “She’s always going to be your mom!” he said.

Maria was speaking so rapidly it made my head hurt. From the minute I had arrived in Napoli, she had been convinced I understood everything. “Il tuo italiano è fantastico!” she would say almost daily, and I’d remind her to please speak a little more slowly. “Più lentamente per me, per favore.” I couldn’t help thinking if she had just handed me the application that I could have completed it in five minutes, but I was trying to respect the process, and trying to respect the fact that her son had left her in charge.

When we had finished the paperwork, she gave us the grand tour of her apartment. It was enormous, with an entire upper level above our apartment housing the kids’ bedrooms that I hadn’t realized was there. It was filled with antiques which she proudly showed off, explaining the history of each piece, and while antiques were not my thing, I could see that she and Michele had some money. I asked her if she owned the entire building, which included two other apartments below ours and a storefront under that. “È di Michele,” she answered. For my residency application, she had shown Michele’s passport, not hers, as the landlord of the property we were renting, but I still thought it was odd she didn’t say she and her husband both owned our building, just “it’s Michele’s”.

Before we left her apartment, Maria reminded us that we’d be going to Melfi the next day to get my codice fiscale, like a social security number in the US. Stefano had explained I would need this number to conduct business transactions in Italy, and it would be required eventually for the completion of my dual citizenship. I knew the drive to Melfi was only 15 minutes, and with a 15-minute appointment, and a 15-minute drive home, we should be back in under an hour. I was anxious to start exploring with David, but I could tell by how Maria was describing off how beautiful Melfi was that we’d probably end up being there all day visiting her friends, sightseeing, and having coffee or lunch.

Before we left Maria told me she noticed how I had cut the conversation short the day before when she gave me a pot for the basil plant she had suggested I purchase at the supermercato. She went on to say she could see that I was very focused on my work. I felt terrible when she shared these feelings. For the past couple of days I had been saying I had work to do for my son’s business as an excuse to get out of spending more time with her. I wasn’t comfortable enough yet speaking Italian and found it exhausting to try to keep up with her, so preferred to just explore on my own. When we were back in our apartment I told David, “This is a test for me. I’m being made to slow down, to enjoy the journey, to be patient.” I have a tattoo that says poco a poco, and it was time for me to start following my own advice.

Maria’s friend Pepino arrived first thing the next morning in a small, dusty, very old car to drive us to Melfi and Maria spent the first five minutes chastising him while we waited outside the car, unsure if we should get in or not. Later she apologized because he was supposed to have brought his “good car”, but he hadn’t realized he would be driving her clients. “No, va bene,” I told her. We didn’t care about the car. We were just grateful he was driving to my appointment. I learned later that Maria didn’t drive—never had—and that she and Michele didn’t own a car. It was mind-boggling to me to imagine living in a remote part of Italy like this and be “stuck” in the town.

Pepino drove nothing like Umberto who had shuttled us from the airport in Napoli at breakneck speeds. Pepino, in contrast, inched along a good ten miles under the speed limit with cars whipping around us in frustration. He held the stump of an unlit cigar in his mouth, and he spoke very little to Maria or us during the drive. He dropped us at the Agienza della Entrata (the tax agency) and left to park the car and wait.

Maria had already set up an appointment, so we were called to the desk immediately after checking in. The woman I assumed was a clerk—only at the end did I understand she had her doctorate degree—took the paperwork from Maria to complete the form. It took only a couple of minutes, surprisingly, and only required one stamp! When we had finished, the dottoressa asked me how old I was-again, I wasn’t sure why. When I said 63, she responded, “Complimenti!” I was still getting used to having let my hair revert to its natural silver color, so appreciated her kindness.

After our appointment, Pepino drove us to the centro storico area in Melfi, stopping first at the impressive Melfi Castle, considered one of the most important medieval castles in Southern Italy. It was built in the late 11th century by the Normans, and its location was strategic because it connected Campania and Puglia. We didn’t have time to go inside but would return the day before leaving the area to fully absorb the history. Pepino drove us on a short tour of the town, which seemed a bit livelier than Rionero, and stopped briefly for us to peek inside the main church. Now that we were seeing some things, I relaxed a little and tried to stop worrying about the time or the tasks at hand.

We were supposed to stop for coffee after our trip to Melfi, but as soon as we were back in the car, Maria got a call that her husband was sick. She was rattled, and I could tell she was near tears when she asked Pepino to take us home immediately. As soon as we reached the piazza in Rionero, she jumped out to get medicine at the farmacia. We learned later that Michele just had a stomach bug and was doing fine. But the reality was that Michele was more than twenty years older than Maria—he’d soon be turning 85. He had some medical problems and needed oxygen and a cane to move around. I couldn’t help thinking that she was going to be widowed young like I’d been. I’d had no idea it was coming—my husband was only 59 when he died from a ruptured brain aneurysm—but in her case, how could you not think about what might happen soon? To what extent did the fear of losing him weigh on her? Thinking about her future softened me and I vowed to be more patient and spend a little more time with her.

I was told to expect a surprise visit from the police in the next few days, for the purpose of verifying that I indeed was residing in Rionero. But ten days later, after waiting around and wondering when they’d arrive, they still hadn’t come. We were leaving the next morning for a driving trip north that I had planned before leaving Denver, expecting that the police check-in would be completed before for our departure. Stefano assured me it didn’t really matter and that they’d arrange it for after my return. I’d been led to believe this was a critical early step towards my citizenship but now it seemed it wasn’t really time sensitive after all. I hoped I was understanding that correctly and not making a mistake by leaving town.

Two weeks when later when we returned to Rionero, Stefano told me I’d be meeting the police at the police department the next morning instead of them making a surprise visit to my apartment. Stefano would join by phone to walk us through everything. The night before, I was so preoccupied with visit to the police that I dreamt all night in Italian.

Just 15 minutes before we were going to the police, Stefano texted me and advised that David should not go with me so they wouldn’t think he was living here too, as that would mean he would also need to file for residency. I knew David wanted to be part of everything, and I felt bad he would be left out, but we all agreed it would be best if I went without him. Since Stefano would be on the call for support, I wasn’t worried about being alone.

David walked me to the station, just fifty feet from our apartment, and then I entered the station by myself, just a couple of minutes before my scheduled 9:30 appointment. When I pushed through the front door of the police station, the front room was empty, but just a minute later one of the policemen came out. “Buongiorno, sono Michele Morris, Stefano ha fatto un appuntamento per me,” I said.

“Ma, perché non hai detto ‘buongiorno’ quando sei entrato?” he asked. I didn’t understand why he was asking me why I hadn’t said hello when I had just said buongiorno to him. “Non sapevo che fossi qui ad aspettare!” Now I understood. He felt bad for making me wait. He didn’t understand that I had just walked in and that I hadn’t been waiting at all.

I was caught off guard and couldn’t remember how to say “sono appena arrivata”, I just arrived, so I mumbled “buongiorno” again. I didn’t think I would feel this way, but I was nervous to be meeting with the police. He politely invited me to take a seat in the interior office, pushing over the better chair for me and taking the metal folding chair for himself, and I relaxed a bit. I pulled out the paperwork Maria had given me and handed it to him. He was fumbling through a large stack of papers, unable to find mine, it seemed, and I wondered if that many people were applying for citizenship in Rionero, or these were other police cases of some sort. While he searched, we chatted.

“When did you arrive in Rionero?”

“Il 31 gennaio.”

“Is anyone living with you?”

“No, ma il mio compagno è qui per una visita.” I was worried I wasn’t being truthful saying that David was only here for a visit, but Stefano had me concerned. And just because David was with me for two months did that mean he was residing here or just visiting? I didn’t understand the rules and I was worried I was breaking them and then also lying about it.

“How did you learn to speak Italian so well?”

“Grazie, ma non parlo molto bene!” I told him, as I did everyone who complimented my Italian. Then I explained that I had an Italian teacher in Denver and that I had been studying Italian with her once a week for an hour for the past year to prepare for my trip.

When he asked me if I was Italian, I said no, “I’m from Colorado in the US but my great grandfather was from Lucca.”

“Dove?” He didn’t seem to know the town of Lucca, so I followed that up with “Nord Toscana.”

“Ah!” He went on to tell me that he loves Tuscana and that his wife (“mia moglie means wife, no?”) was from Firenze. I told him that we had driven up the Adriatic coast, to Monte Sant Angelo, Gubbio, Bologna, and Montalcino last week, and that I agreed Tuscana is lovely. “Ma ho mangiato troppo! La bistecca è troppo grande!” We both got a good laugh out of comparing portion sizes of the classic steak dish from Florence, and he said he always eats too much when he’s in Northern Italy. I smiled and nodded in agreement.

He stopped mid-sentence, realizing that I had mentioned the town of Gubbio. He was clearly surprised, I knew, because Gubbio is decidedly not a tourist destination. He started to ask if I knew about a TV show filmed there, and I quickly jumped in. “Si, Don Matteo!” I could tell he was shocked that I knew the old TV series, a sort of Matlock style who-dun-it that stars a priest in Gubbio as its main protagonist. When he asked me why I knew about the old show, I explained that my Italian teacher had me watch it to learn conversational Italian and it looked so pretty we had decided to visit.

“Il tuo italiano è molto buono,” he said again, then continued by telling me my Italian likely improved because I looked at films in Italian. I responded by explaining that in English we say watch a film, not look at it. I never expected to share a conversation about learning a foreign language with the police while I was here, but this was fun.

He stopped working on my paperwork for a minute to pull out a folder with his homework—he was learning English, along with all the police there he explained—and he showed me a verb work sheet for gerunds. “I verbi in italiano sono molto difficile per me!” I said.

He agreed that the verb conjugations in Italian were difficult and showed me on his worksheet how easy English verbs are. “Play/playing. Stand/standing. They are all the same, and yes, easier than in Italian.”

He asked me the final question for the paperwork—did I own a car in Rionero—and I told him, “No, solo autonoleggio,” and shared my car rental story from the week before in Bari.

“Un piacere,” he said at the end, standing to shake my hand.

“It was also a pleasure for me,” I responded in Italian.

As I got ready to leave his office, I realized Stefano had never called in for the meeting and I had done the whole thing by myself—almost entirely in Italian. I left the police station beaming.
With the police visit complete, I wasn’t sure what would happen next. But more importantly, by this point I had come to realize I cared less about the process and result of getting my citizenship and much more about the experience I was having living in Italy and learning what it felt like to be Italian. I might or I might not actually get dual citizenship, but one thing was certain. David and I were having an experience that was far exceeding our expectations, one that I knew would be hard to put into words for friends once we returned home. Instead of worrying between the police visit and the final step required to apply for my citizenship, I was determined to simply enjoy my time in Italy and try to soak up as much as I could.

I didn’t complete the final step in the application process until ten days before we were scheduled to fly back to Colorado. I left with Maria at 4:15 with my completed permesso di soggiorno—the document we had filled out at her apartment weeks before—so we could file it at the post office as was required. We stopped first at the emporium in the piazza to have copies of my passport pages made, which took a while primarily because Maria and Roberto couldn’t agree whether he had missed a page or not. We were ready to leave but then Maria asked to buy some light bulbs, which Roberto told her were seven euros each. “Ci sono molto caro,” I said, thinking that was expensive for one light bulb. With that, Roberto launched into an explanation about how long LED lightbulbs last which is why they cost a lot. I didn’t need his explanation—I already understood the costs of LED technology. I was just trying to participate in the conversation in Italian since I hadn’t said a word to him the first time we had met.

We were again ready to leave when Maria said she needed some cough drops. I turned to leave, thinking surely this was it, but Maria turned back to Roberto to give him the bag back saying she didn’t need it and could put the cough drops in her purse. Having a few copies made had taken twenty minutes, but instead of fidgeting, I had enjoyed watching the show.

We stopped next at the tabaccheria to buy the marca da bolla, the stamp we would need at the post office for filing. When we were ready to leave Maria saw a watch in the window and asked the shop keeper how much it cost and when it had arrived. She must keep track of what’s on display in the window I thought. “Bella,” she said, and we were again ready to leave when she told him she’d like to see it out of the case. While she was looking at it, I decided to purchase a new pair of reading glasses. Maria was holding the watch against her arm to decide how it looked, and eventually bought it. Ten minutes after purchasing the stamp, we left the tabaccheria.

Inside the post office Maria pulled a number to wait our turn, then pulled a number from a different category just in case it would be faster. She was antsy waiting and was tapping her foot while fanning herself with an insurance brochure. “Molto caldo,” she said. I couldn’t understand why Italians always wore puffy coats when the temperature seemed too warm for that extra layer, but I knew better than to suggest she take off her coat, or the faux fur vest she had layered over it as a fashion statement. While she stood and tapped her foot, David whispered to me, “She’s like the mayor of Rionero and is probably used to telling people what to do. Standing in line and waiting like everyone else seems excruciating for her.” We didn’t have anywhere we needed to be—unlike much of my overly scheduled life in Denver—so I was happy to sit and people watch while waiting to be called to the window.

When it was finally our turn, we stepped up to the counter and I completed all the parts of the application. I made the final payments, and then the clerk affixed the marca da bolla stamp to the top of the document. “Ferma qui,” he said, then showed me that my signature needed to lap over the stamp to prove it was signed after he had affixed the stamp. I was so used to electronic signatures in the US that this entire process seemed antiquated and unnecessary, but I did as I was told and passed the completed permesso di soggiorno back to him. It needed to be mailed to the authorities, he explained, but before dumping it into the outgoing mail bin, he meticulously sealed the edges of the flap all the way around two times with a glue stick.

This was the last step I needed to complete while residing in Rionero. Sometime in the coming months the clerk would begin reviewing my case, but I had successfully finished my work here. Outside the post office, Maria asked if we’d like to have a coffee. I felt bad that we had so often declined her invitations, so offered an explanation.

“Non posso avere caffeine a questa ora,” I said, but she assured me it wasn’t a problem, and we could each get decaffeinato. I relented, knowing she probably just needed something to fill her time, and more likely someone to talk to. While we drank our coffee, she asked if I was ready to go home to Colorado the next week. I frowned and I knew she understood. I had loved everything about our time here and was not at all ready to return to the US. No, I told her, I was most certainly not ready to go home. As I said it, I was thinking about how much Rionero now felt like my home and how much I’d miss this home once we had returned to our home in Denver.

We talked a bit about our upcoming trip to the Amalfi Coast, and Maria warned me repeatedly to be very careful and drive slowly on the narrow roads in Italy—“piano, piano Mee-shell!” I thought her warning was a little late since I’d already driven thousands of miles through ten of Italy’s twenty regions. After she paid for our coffee, I thought we were finally ready to go home, but when we passed by the newspaper shop Maria said she was going inside to buy the paper. Again, we waited, wondering who buys a paper anymore. But as I watched her, I saw it was just another opportunity for her to talk to someone, if only for a few moments.

A process that should have taken only fifteen minutes had taken over two hours, but I was at peace and calm. I wasn’t antsy or impatient throughout the process because I now understood, this was just how Italy operated.


Two weeks before we left Italy, another American arrived in Rionero to establish residency so she could apply for her dual citizenship. After she had her first whirlwind day with Maria, we invited her for a drink at Bibendum, the wine bar in front of our apartment. We talked for hours over drinks, sharing our experiences of working towards our citizenship, why we were doing this, and what we intended to do with our dual citizenship if approved.

She was younger than us and her husband was still working, so she had sold her flower business recently and had come to Italy on her own. I didn’t know what she was going to do with herself for two months alone in the sleepy town of Rionero. I would have gone crazy had I not had David with me to share the experience and a car that gave us the chance to visit lots of other places in southern Italy. During my time here we had explored everything we could, helping me learn what it really meant to be Italian.

I realized during that conversation that we had very different reasons for getting our Italian citizenship. She and her husband were young with no children, so they had devised a master plan—they wanted to live in the EU and had figured out an Italian passport was their ticket out of the US. She seemed more focused on completing the task of getting her citizenship than on what she would do during these two months in Italy. After she got citizenship, her husband would get his dual citizenship by marriage, and their plan was to live in Portugal where the cost of living was low, and it was easy to swap a US driver’s license for a Portuguese one. An Italian passport was simply a vehicle for her. She hadn’t learned much Italian before arriving in Rionero, which made me wonder if that would make her time here difficult. I wondered if the little nuances that I found charming would end up annoying her. But everyone, I knew from when I first read about people getting dual citizenship in Italy, had their own reasons for doing so.

Ever since I had started on this journey four years before, people had asked me why I was doing this. They asked if I was moving to Italy or if I intended to live elsewhere in Europe. I’d never had an answer before, but I did after living in Italy for two months. I was on this journey so I could learn what it’s really like to live like an Italian in a small town in a region without tourists and experience the life my Italian ancestors might have. That journey not only educated me, but provided an adventure far richer than anything I could have anticipated.