Thursday, May 10, 2012

Naomi’s crowded train ride to citizenship

Our daughter had her first trip to Rome the other day, and it was filled with the kind of highs and lows that Audrey Hepburn must have felt as she careened around on the back of Gregory Peck’s scooter, only to find out that her handsome suitor was really just a reporter trying to get a scoop.

This was so, so not us in Rome.
Well, okay. It wasn't quite that exciting, but it was an eventful day. 

We took Naomi to Rome to register her birth with the US Embassy. Doing so establishes her US citizenship, and eventually will provide her with easy entry and residency in the States should she eventually decide to study or live there.

Since we would be on foot once we arrived in Rome (with her stroller, but no car seat, for her, we wouldn’t be taking any taxi rides), we decided to take an early train so we’d have plenty of time to walk from Stazione Termini up to Via Veneto and the sprawling embassy compound.

But when we arrived at the train station in Orvieto, we learned that the night before, two trains had collided at Terni. The accident was minor, but the after-effects were not. For reasons not quite clear to me (since Orvieto and Terni are not on the same line), the early train was cancelled, and we had to wait nearly an hour for a night train from Vienna. 

Picture a trainload of musky 15 year old Aryan boys, all crowded a little too closely into their sleeper cars, waking, rubbing their eyes and scratching their crotches, and asking, every time the porter passed, just exactly when they’d get their a breakfast of schnitzel, brown bread, and yogurt, anyway.

Picture that since the earlier train did not depart from Florence, all the people in Florence and Chiusi that should have caught the earlier train were packed onto the Viennese train, with all those Austrians plus everyone else who thought they’d take the later train. Now picture that train arriving at Orvieto, to a platform filled with more waiting passengers than there were empty seats on the train.

Now picture a couple, venturing forth with their 5-month-old baby for her first really big outing. They haven’t opened and collapsed her stroller enough yet to do it with ease, and especially to do it quickly, when juggling train tickets and diaper bags and purses and pacifiers.

So we fumbled and stumbled and cursed, and finally found a place to stand on the sardine-packed train. At least Naomi got to lie in her stroller and take a nap.
The stately US Embassy, on Via Veneto.
No inside photos permitted!

Things improved considerably when we got to Rome. We busted a move up to the embassy – for we were now in danger of being late for our appointment – and were welcomed through security with what I have to admit was a refreshing dose of American friendliness and efficiency. The security guards might be Italian, but I think they got their customer service training from a US HR person. Even the embassy bathroom, though Spartan, was nicer than a typical Italian one. It had a toilet seat and toilet paper. Obviously, we were on US soil.

Our next stop was the photo booth on the ground floor of the embassy, as Naomi needed a passport photo. (I was 23 before I got my first passport, and this kid gets one at 5 months? Times they are a changing’…) I thought holding Naomi in my lap for the photo was sufficient, but when we showed her photo to the representative at the service window, we were promptly sent back downstairs. I’d either have to hold her in my lap with a blanket over my head or crouch down, out of sight and hold Naomi up in front of the camera. I opted for the latter. A few more false starts, with her closing her eyes or turning her head away, or yawning, and we finally got a photo of her looking right into the camera.

After our paperwork was checked and submitted, along with Naomi’s mug shot, we were told to wait for “the consulate” to call us. The title alone – the consulate – suggest a certain gravitas, no? So we waited until the Wizard – I mean, the consulate – called us up to the last window. It turns out the consulate is a guy in his late 20s or early 30s, who actually seemed a little too young for such an important-sounding title. But at any rate, with very little pomp and circumstance, he took a look at Naomi and proclaimed her a US citizen. He gave her a lapel pin to commemorate the moment – an Italian and a US flag with poles crossed. The pin, he noted, was made in China, which perhaps speaks volumes about the state of both the Italian and US economies.
She's official! Italian-American
made-in-China flag pin and all.

I felt an unexpected rush of emotion at the moment the boy-consulate proclaimed Naomi a US citizen. I just didn’t think it would be such a big deal – merely a formality to give her more options in the future and make travel a little easier for all of us. Instead, I felt a surge of pride and happiness – I even clapped my hands, for Pete’s sake, and people who know me know I’m not the ebullient type – that she was somehow officially a part of the country I thought I’d left behind more or less for good.

I've been back to visit the US three times since moving to Italy three years ago. It’s at once a strange and familiar land to me now. Where I do feel the refreshing familiarity of being back in my native culture, with all its conveniences and friendliness (and customer service!), I always feel a little bit like I’m standing on its border, looking in. The smiles, the ease of communication, the nuanced vocabulary that I know I’ll never master in Italian – all of those things feel very much like home when I am in the US. But the traffic, the assault of advertising, the giant stores with giant shopping carts and giant fountain drinks (obviously we are on US soil), that’s an America I can’t help but look on with disdain. But more than that, it’s an America that no longer feels like home.

So, I wonder what America our Naomi will find when she starts to be aware of her second homeland. Will it be enticing, or repulsive to her? Will she feel somehow different from her Italian schoolmates because she is half-American, or will her dual citizenship and dual ancestry simply be a subject of curiosity for her, something she accepts with a shrug of the shoulders but not much more. She’ll be bilingual, that much we know. But then, what will be her “mother tongue,” as the Italians like to put it? In which world will this child of both worlds find her home?
All trains lead to Termini, just not always
nearly enough of them. 

I’d love to say that I pondered all those questions on our quiet, reflective train ride back to Orvieto. But instead, we found ourselves once again on a too-crowded train, this one maybe three times as overcrowded as the morning train. The Roman afternoon heat had kicked in, and by the time we got on board, Naomi, Paolo and I were both bathed in sweat, our hair and clothes completely sticking to us. The air conditioner on the train was not working (this is Italy, after all), and there was no way to cool off or calm down Naomi, who was by this point screaming her head off.

A kind passenger (“I have a baby too,” she told me) found a single available seat and led me to it. The rest of the equally sweaty passengers looked at us, a disheveled mom and a screaming baby – wait, how did I become that mom? – with a mix of pity and contempt. It was a scene carved right from travel nightmares.

Naomi finally fell asleep, drenched, in my arms. Paolo came and found us and stood in the aisle. I tried my best Zen breathing to tolerate the heat. He and I looked at each other, with our little dual citizen dozing in my soggy lap, and smiled weakly in a kind of “what can ya do?” way. This is Italy, after all. This is our home.


  1. I loved your blog today. My own kids are Spaniard-Argentine and they both had their european passport at the age of ...three weeks!! (Yes photo and everything). I have that feeling too of not belonging to Argentina or Spain anymore, but somewhere in the middle. I guess we are citizens of Immigranland, and our kiddos are world citizens.:))

    1. Thank you Veronique! The "not belonging" feeling is definitely real...I of course still love the US and I love Italy, but there are things that frustrate and make me sad about both places. It will be interesting to see how Naomi feels as she grows up. I suppose if we raise her in Italy, she'll always feel more Italian than American. :)

    2. I guess she will... yes. My boys feel they are Argentine. Being Spaniards is something they know about but don't FEEL.

  2. Congratulations on the birth of your child...Beautiful to see you are happy and enjoying life and the journey. My best to you and your family and I am happy that your dream did come true for a family in place that means so much to you. You and your family are in my prayers and I am off on my own journey very soon.