HAVE VISA WILL TRAVEL

My love-hate relationship with Sandra started with a phone call.

We had a house in Italy … we were committed to living La Dolce Vita, at least part time. We spent every nanosecond of our vacation days, sick days, flex time and floating holidays here. My boss, Mark, was generous and David had accrued many hours on his union gig. We were making friends, sharing the bounty of local gardens, savoring wines that weren’t exported to the United States, exploring Tuscany … and as the possibility, the idea, the notion of retirement became more and more real, we decided it was time to consider moving out of Los Angeles, California, USA.

Our friend in Florence, Eric, suggested dual citizenship … automatic for those with Italian ancestors, he said. He and his mother had done it … and his mom happily gave us the name of the man at the Consulate office in Boston who helped them. That was an intriguing idea … a citizen of the world with two passports. But it didn’t take much research to realize David was not eligible because his grandfather was naturalized before his father was born (and grandmothers couldn’t pass along citizenship until 1948). So this was out. David could only get an Italian passport if he lived in Italy continuously for three years and then applied to the Italian government with an assortment of documents. So this was in.

At the Italian Consulate website, I started clicking all the options for visas, comparing and contrasting, and to stay the maximum, 365 days, required an elective residency visa. We could not work in Italy, so had to show we could support ourselves in a manner the Italian government determined we should be accustomed. And while the site for the Los Angeles office said all information was there, it was not. Ever the detective, I went to the Boston and Chicago and Miami Consulate pages, but they provided no additional information.

So I decided to call. It was an exciting moment …. the idea that we were moving to Italy more real. I selected English, then I selected Visas. The message said a representative was available from 10:00 to 12:00 every day, but there was no answer. After three attempts, a woman answered. On a yellow notepad, I was prepared to write down what she said, maybe adding an exclamation mark if she offered a word of encouragement. But she was abrupt and had a tone that was more annoyed than helpful. My hopes of establishing a relationship with someone at the office vanished. She told me that all the information was on their website … adding that their processing time was up to 60 days. Do you have an email address if I have questions? No, I prefer the faxes. You can use the general number on the website. And what is your name?, I asked in my sweetest voice. “Sandra.” Thank you, Sandra …

Mamma mia.

I decided to call the man at the Boston office … having his name and a referral might make it easier. He was very nice, but said that visas were not his area of expertise. And since we lived in California, he said couldn’t help us even if he wanted. I asked if he knew anyone in the Los Angeles office, hoping he’d have the name of someone other than Nurse Ratched, I mean Sandra. No.

It occurred to me that other offices might have employees with more pleasant phone personalities. So early one morning, I called the Chicago Consulate. She’d be happy to help us, and suggested we make an appointment to come in to discuss what visa was best for us. Oh thank you, we were just starting to gather information … she reminded me to use the correct application form, gave me another link for the paperwork required, and said to call with questions and when we were ready. And processing takes about 3 weeks.

I remember calling Sandra again once or twice. Every time, my hands shook as I dialed the number … with pre-written questions on the yellow note pad so my nervous mind wouldn’t forget the reason I was calling her. She who must be obeyed. Sandra.

As we moved forward, I continued looking for information about dual citizenship through residency. Nowhere was the documentation described … though detailed lists existed at multiple sites for automatic citizenship. Birth certificates and marriage licenses and naturalization papers for everyone who came before, whether Italian or not. All certified and apostilled and translated and approved. With photocopies. We presumed there would be some overlap on the requirements, and decided to gather documents to keep that option open … and even got some documents for me cuz that’s how we roll.

I was accumulating my folders … I’d have 15 when we moved … checklists on the front of each one, to X a step as completed. And a long horizontal calendar … for the six months prior to our move, each month on a 8–½ x 11 page where I could set reminders and dates and deadlines, folding and re-folding as the weeks passed.

The lingering question was sufficient income. That was the website’s word. And Nurse Ratched’s. I tried the nice lady in Chicago … she didn’t have a specific amount, but said the Ministro dell’ Intero website had an immigration portal. Finally, based on Italian pension amounts for individuals and families, I had an idea of what Italy considered sufficient.

We had our plane tickets and that was the date on the visa application, so the time to thread the needle was getting closer. We had to make our appointment within the Consulate’s double time frame … no more than 30 days before the desired appointment date plus the up to 60-day processing time … and still give ourselves time to tie up loose bits before we moved. Overseas. We had no Plan B.

Appointment day arrived. I had our separate application forms, each with original letters (all dated within 30 days) showing we had sufficient income, and a highly imaginative calculation, including photos and comps, of the value of our home in Tuscany … and the requisite personal letter why we wanted to live in Italy. All assembled with an easy-to-read, comprehensive chart on front (bold and italics, dashes and lines and double lines) and a numbered tab for each item indicated on the chart. Along with the mandatory two copies for each, plus a copy for our records. Our passports, where the precious visas would be affixed. The fee in cash. And recent photos.

We got to the Consulate early for our appointment. I wore a black pencil skirt and blouse, David in a dress shirt and slacks. I had imagined we would sit in a room, across a desk from a person who would ask us about our passion for Italy. We sat, nervous and excited, in the waiting area … a room surrounded on two sides of bank-style plexiglass windows with shallow ledges, and rows of chairs in the middle. At one window, a man was being read the riot act by a female employee … even from behind the glass, we heard her tell him to come back when he was prepared. David whispered, He just got put through the wood chipper.

A woman called our names … it was that same window. And when we got there, we saw her name. Sandra. My heart pounded. I passed our documents, stack by stack, through the slot. Nurse Ratched was expressionless, flipping through the pages but barely pausing to look at anything.

I turned to look at David … sweat was dripping down his face. In that moment, he created a universal hand gesture for “wood chipper”.

Sandra slipped 2 pieces of paper back toward us … our receipts we’d need to pick up our passports/visas. I then made my bold move. I showed her the plate of homemade Italian cookies I brought her! Needless to say, she was surprised … and went around to another door to collect her pre-thank you gift and shake my hand.

Then we waited. And waited. Sandra said she would call when the visas were ready, and we checked David’s cell phone every few hours. Unfortunately, it had stopped being a phone and the number was merely serving as an answering machine, but there were no messages. The processing time was over and our departure date approaching. We could wait no longer. On an impulse one afternoon, David suggested we just go to the Consulate. I had a second plate of cookies ready.

Lo and behold, our visas were approved and ready! Didn’t you get my phone call?, Sandra, now smiling, asked. Well, no, there were no messages. Oh I didn’t leave a message … I thought you’d see a missed call. Mamma mia.

And then she said, It was a pleasure working with you!

MIRELLA’S APPLE TORT

Mirella is our neighbor and a wonderful baker (rarer in Italy than one may realize). My favorite part of her handwritten recipe is “un po di latte” … When she makes this, the eggs are from her chickens and the apples from her tree. Feel free to use any fresh fruit if it’s not apple season.

¾ cup sugar
2 oz. butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
Lemon peel, grated, from 1 lemon
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3 Tbl. milk
1–2 apples, peeled and sliced

  • Preheat oven to 350° F (170° C). Grease and flour a 9 inch round pan.
    - In large bowl, cream butter and sugar until well blended, then stir eggs and lemon peel.
    - Combine flour and baking powder, then alternating with the milk, add into the egg mixture.
    - Pour batter into the prepared pan.
    - Place apple slices in concentric circles on cake.
    - Bake for 20–25 minutes, until done.
    - Serve warm or at room temperature.
    Enjoy!

MIRELLA’S FLORENTINE TORT

Light and classic and versatile, if you want to get jiggy, you can add a teaspoon of cinnamon or 2 tablespoons of chopped rosemary.

1 cup sugar
3 eggs
¾ cup olive oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1–½ cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
5 oz. milk

- Preheat oven to 350° F (170° C) . Grease a 9 inch round pan.
- In large bowl, whip sugar and eggs until they are thick and pale.
- Stir in the oil and vanilla.
- Combine flour and baking powder, then alternating with the milk, fold into the egg mixture.
- Pour batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake for 20–25 minutes, until done.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
Enjoy!