Thirteen is a lucky number for Italians.
Recently, on November 13th, to be exact, my son, who was born in Italy and recently immigrated to Canada, became a dual citizen. It only took three generations, but at last, someone with my blood, if not my surname, has the full right to exist on opposite sides of the Atlantic. It feels like a right that was hard-earned, not least because of all the paperwork we had to complete and the months we spent waiting for it to be granted, for him to be recognized as the hybrid creature he is.
It was hard work completed by we, his parents, as that is our job, and work we gladly did in order that he may never have to. That, too, is our job. What it meant for me was putting my career and professional aspirations on hold for the duration of my pregnancy and the fifteen months to follow. It meant refusing promotions, rejecting job advancement, saying no to the people who could only make a difference then, in that critical moment of my life and who now have disappeared from it. It meant spending the three previous years in Italy, away from my Canadian surroundings, existing outside the realm of my comfort – though considerably large -, hovering in a place that was not quite home, but not quite anything else and feeling, until the very end, like an imposter within it. It meant arguing frequently with voices speaking words that were different from my own in tones my upbringing had taught me were sgarbati – rude, cold, at best. They say that bureaucracy is the same everywhere. They have never been to Italy, it seems.
What it meant for my husband was leaving the only place and the only people he’d come to associate with the feeling of family most in our condition are fortunate to have. It meant uprooting his existence for an uncertain future — will he ever learn French well? Will he ever be able to advance professionally the way he wants to? It meant living now as I had until now – as a strange creature not one thing but not entirely the other, either. I was an Italo-Canadian with roots in Molise living in Florence: a strange enough beast. He is an Italian now living in a country that seldom appreciates his “Italianness” or holds it to be as authentic as the version of Italy they have come to adulate. He finds himself in an Italian-Canadian community the foundation of which looks nothing like the Italy he has experienced first-hand. Would you believe that my husband has never been to Naples? NAPLES! He has never seen the Amalfi coast. He plays the mandolin, but only because I purchased one for him. He did not grow up singing “O sole mio,” “L’italiano,” or “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” (though his great-aunt is fond of all three). His uncle makes large batches of tomato sauce (though not in his garage and not only in early September), but his mother does not. He doesn’t eat fish on Christmas Eve (or ever, for that matter). He has never made Fettuccine Alfredo, because Alfredo sauce is an American recipe, not an Italian one. He eats lardo, but not capocollo and pronounces “bruschetta” correctly. He is a fish out of water, indeed.
We made these sacrifices, like my immigrant parents and grandparents before us, for our child’s future, to afford him opportunities in life we have not been given or that have not come easily to us. The only thing keeping our son from moving to Italy in the future is the distance from here to there. But even with a moment’s notice, should he choose to, he could change the direction of his life without further thought – pack a bag, take his dreams with him, and go with the certainty that he’d have access to everything any other citizen would, that he could easily land on his feet. His dual citizenship gives him the right to vote, the right to work not only in Italy, but easily within other member-states of the EU or abiding by the Schengen agreement. It gives him the right to health care, fair pay, unemployment insurance, sick leave. On both sides of the globe. It gives his father and I the right to rest more easily knowing he has these things and will not need to fight for them, as we did.
It also gives him basic civil responsibilities neither of us has, to both nations of his belonging.
I wish his Italian birth certificate and certificate of Canadian citizenship were enough to prepare him for the particular nature of the identity he will have growing up. I know something of it: as a girl, to my non-Italian classmates,my ethnicity was my defining feature, but to my fellow Italian-Canadians, I often appeared as an anomaly — a reading, writing, self-hating Italian with aspirations beyond the limited bubble of Caffè Epoca goers, Fruiterie Milano shoppers, or students studying business administration as so many of their parents had urged. Still, my experience pales in comparison to what his will surely be; he will grow up reflecting neither traditional dyed-in-the-wool Canadian values nor the characteristics that have come to be associated with Italians in North America. I wish understanding two societies and becoming a productive member of two states were as easy as signing and filing a document. I wish that laying the groundwork for our son to be functional and confident in two worlds and three languages were as easy as getting him a set of passports and matching social and medical insurance numbers. The truth of it, as his father and I both know, is far more complicated. What will it mean for him to grow up in a household where English and Italian are both spoken when the language that most frequently greets him outside the door is French? What will it mean for him to make friendships throughout the school year that then dissolve in the summer months he will be spending with his grandparents across the globe? What will it mean for him to have traditions that neither his Italian friends and family nor his Italian-Canadian friends and family share? What will it mean for him to have to adapt the values his Italian family instils in him to his Canadian setting, and vice versa? How will he know how to do so effectively? Will he be able to navigate these frightening waters in our absence, between the time the school bus picks him up and drops him off at our front door? Will he find others like himself? Does it truly matter if he never does?
Giving life inevitably also means giving the life you’ve created a fair share of pain, confusion, and discomfort. It is perhaps the number one reason why couples who choose to remain childless do so: my toddler gives me so much joy and narcissistic fulfilment, but what do I give him in return? A name that is difficult to pronounce where he lives. A future spent straddling competing and seldom complicit nationalities. A conflicted sense of self. But through my business, I also give him – and others like him – a space to celebrate the individual differences among their Italian roots, a forum to exchange and give voice to their lived stories, a room that allows them to grow on both sides of the ocean. I am often asked why I founded this company, what motivating factors I had beyond my formal preparation in the field of Italian studies. My son, my family is my answer. I founded this company to honour them and the different versions of Italy — all valid, all authentic — they collectively represent. I founded this company to keep alive the language and the culture that have motivated my every decision from a young age, for better or for worse, in a world now forgetting them. I founded this company to offer an alternative to the Italian communities around me that do not always comfortably house me or present me with a version of Italy that is familiar to me. I founded it to breathe life into the heart of a community whose beat has slowed since I was my son’s age, whose vibrancy has become limited to the colours and perfumes of its food, to the blueness of its waters as they appear in photographs.
And I am not alone. There are others like me, and together, but only together, we might succeed in our mission.
My husband and I celebrated our wedding, for the second time, on October 17th, 2015. Our son was born in 2017. Seventeen is to Italians what thirteen is to the rest of the world. But every day that I wake up beside him, our son babbling softly in the room across the hall, I am reminded of the journey – physical, mental, spiritual – that got me back to Montreal after a ten-year absence and that so profoundly impacted the person I am and the professional goals I have today. And every day, I wake up feeling grateful and truly fortunate that my family and I are allowed to exist as “uno, nessuno e centomila” – one, no one, and one hundred thousand – a strange combination of different personal lived experiences, national identities, and formal education that birthed a small business with a very big heart.