Reggio Emilia: The City that Gave Me My Passport to the World
As I flew from New York to Italy in 2010, I thought, ‘My Sicilian great-grandparents must be spinning in their graves.’ I’d been to Italy before — two months here, two months there — but this time I was moving to Reggio Emilia by myself to apply for Italian citizenship so I could live and work in Europe.
I got the travel itch at 18 when I spent a summer in England’s Lake District. I worked as a waitress/chambermaid, scrubbing bathtubs and lugging vacuum cleaners up and down back stairwells. Despite this being the most humbling and backbreaking work I’ve ever done (and something I think all teenagers should have to do), I fell in love with England and knew I wanted to live abroad when I finished school. I also knew how difficult it is for Americans to do so.
Years went by. Finally at some point while living in New York City, I realized I was eligible for Italian citizenship due to my Sicilian ancestry. I started gathering all the documents I needed, getting them certified, translated into Italian, and ready for submission to New York’s Italian Consulate. The American woman translating my documents suggested another route: move to Italy and apply in Reggio Emilia, a progressive town known for its efficiency. Like me, she had the right to apply for dual citizenship thanks to jus sanguinis — the right of blood — and she received her Italian passport a month after applying there. So, on this advice of a stranger I met on the internet, I left New York, and relocated to Reggio Emilia, a town I immediately fell in love with.
Slightly shadowed by its neighbor, Parma, Reggio Emilia has its own thriving city center, with theatres, bookshops, cafes, and one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. Reggio is the birthplace of the educational philosophy the same name, of the Italian flag, and fashion house Max Mara. They protect their green space in parks and piazzas and the recycling system is more advanced than any other city in which I’ve lived.
But it’s not just the chestnuts roasting in Piazza Fontanesi or aperitivo at Dimmelotu that make Reggio Emilia my favorite Italian city, but also the eye-opening immigrant experience I had there.
While I’ve always admired the grit of my great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States, becoming an immigrant myself made me even more sympathetic to the plight of those starting over. In Reggio Emilia, I often identified more with the Africans, Brazilians, and Ukrainians than with the Italians.
As outsiders, we struggled to learn the language and navigate the sometimes baffling bureaucracy. We were the only ones who took the bus, who panicked at the thought of the cashier asking us a question we wouldn’t understand, who worried about immigration problems, who were often confused about what was going on around them, who had to figure out where to find basic necessities because nothing was where you thought it should be (read an expanded version of this experience on the farewell post I wrote the day I left Reggio).
Of course, I was not completely like my fellow foreigners. As an American, I had an advantage over people from the developing world. People who might be suspicious of a Tunisian were charmed to talk to the white American girl.
Strangely, very often I found myself defending Reggio to the natives, who’d cry, “You came from New York? Why are you here? It’s so boring!” For all their lamenting, they don’t leave.
With help from great friends and a truly efficient commune, I received my Italian passport within two months and remained in Reggio Emilia until April of the following year. While I go back periodically to visit friends, part of me never leaves this adopted hometown, which gifted me European citizenship and my passport to the world.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.