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How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship

Family research for a book required author Paolina Milana to explore her Italian heritage in greater depth. Eventually, it led her to reconnect with her family’s past and her Sicilian identity.

How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship
Paolina's journey to engage with her family history took her to Sicily. Photo: Getty Images

When writer Paolina Milana’s father, Antonino, was a child in Custonaci, Sicily, he dreamed of hopping on a cloud that would take him all the way to America. As fate would have it, it was the beginning of a great story of migration and survival. It is also a story of citizenship granted by descent, through the hard work of Italian Citizenship Assistance.

It starts almost a century ago. Fleeing both the rise of fascism in the late thirties and organised crime problems closer to home, Antonino boarded a boat to America, making fast friends onboard with a gentleman named Salvatore. 

As Paolina told The Local: “Salvatore showed my dad a picture of his unmarried sister, Maria who happened to be dressed as a mandolin player for Carnivale. My mother was beautiful and at that moment, my dad – who love to play the mandolin – decided he wanted to marry her.” 

After settling in Chicago, Antonino married Maria, who came from the Sicilian city of Nicosia. Together they had four children. Antonino owned his own barbershop while Maria had a professional seamstress business. When Paolina left Chicago for Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being a writer, Maria shared some of her experiences of moving to America.  

“She told me, when I called her feeling alone, that this is part of moving forward and soon I would love having embarked on such a journey, just as she did leaving Sicily for the United States.”

Paolina’s father, Antonino, and mother, Maria, in the late 1940s. Photo: Supplied

Paolina has fond memories of her upbringing with two Sicilian parents. 

“Growing up, my parents would need to make their own recipes when they cooked something because they came from two very different places. Not that we were forced to choose but it was pretty funny because of the rivalry. 

“Being raised Italian is something that I wish everyone could experience. Because it is truly about family and it’s truly about love.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Milanas, however. Throughout Paolina’s childhood and adolescence, her mother struggled with severe mental illness and was hospitalised several times. Combined with the challenges of migrating to a new country, these experiences formed the basis of Paolina’s books Committed: A memoir of madness in the family and The S Word.

La vita è bella: Paolina Milana now has her Italian citizenship. Photo: Supplied

“My mother was very sick. She had a mental illness. Also, we did not have a lot of money at all and there were times when my father had to sell personal belongings to pay bills. Yet we never, ever felt – with all the troubles we had – that we weren’t loved or cared for.”

As a consequence, Paolina has spent much of her life exploring her upbringing and in particular, the Sicilian culture in which she was raised. It was while researching Committed, that she decided she wanted to reclaim her Italian heritage by becoming an Italian citizen. 

“I was incorporating a lot of journal entries from my mother, letters from my father. I was reliving their journey from Sicily to the US and experiencing their hopes and dreams of having a family from their words. It was so powerful that I thought to myself: I love being Italian. I loved growing up Italian.

“It sparked me into reclaiming my Italian citizenship.  

Do you have Italian parents or grandparents? You may be able to obtain Italian citizenship and reclaim an important piece of your heritage 

“It’s me honouring them, but it’s also me recognising the importance of my roots, of different kinds of cultures, and what it means to really live this life.”

It was at this point that Paolina approached Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA) for help with her citizenship by descent application.

“It took me almost two years with ICA at my side, doing all the work. I don’t know where I’d be if I had to do it myself. They found all of the documents for me and they did all the translations. They took care of everything.”

ICA’s researchers even visited several towns across Sicily to obtain the necessary documentation regarding Paolina’s parents and secured the required apostilles to confirm their authenticity. 

“I’ve heard some people have to actually go to Italy or go to the consulate and plead their case. I didn’t have to lift a finger. ICA even sent me an incredible binder that had all of the documents – all I had to do was send it in.

“Now I have my Italian passport and it took 21 months. Yet it was so worth it.”

Maria’s family collecting silkworms in the late 1920s. Photo: Supplied

With an Italian passport in hand, Paolina feels a new-found connection to her heritage, as well as optimism about the opportunities that the future provides. 

“This Italian passport gives me the freedom to unite my past with my present and my future. My husband and I are actually thinking now that maybe we will just end our days by getting a place in Sicily.

“Next year we are planning to visit my extended family across the island. My husband has never been to Sicily. And we are also going back to check out places we may want to settle.

“We’re also going to hit the international couscous festival. My father loved the various flavours that came to Sicily from different areas and he taught us all how to cook couscous – a dish that came to Sicily from Morocco.

“This trip is going to be very different because I will arrive not as a US citizen, not as the daughter of Italians, but as an actual Italian citizen myself. That’s going to mean a lot.”

You could say that the story of Paolina and the Milana family has a happy ending – one that was enabled by the work done by Italian Citizenship Assistance. 

“To have ICA moving things forward and obtaining all the documents required from some very small towns was amazing, just amazing – and I didn’t have to do anything! They even traced my father’s journey, via the ports he transited through, to ensure that he didn’t have any additional citizenship documents. It was so serendipitous that I found ICA to help me secure my Italian citizenship. I can only say it was meant to be.”

Over 80 years since Antonino and Maria made the move of a lifetime to America, their daughter Paolina has returned, passport in hand, to experience the land in which her parents grew up. Perhaps her visit will provide the inspiration for another book.

Begin the next chapter of your family’s tale. Ask ICA about how you can obtain your Italian passport

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FOOTBALL

Sweden vs Italy: A cultural head-to-head

The Swedish and Italian football teams will meet on Monday in a playoff for a place in the 2018 World Cup – but how do the countries measure up in a cultural head-to-head?

Sweden vs Italy: A cultural head-to-head
Whose fans will have the most to shout about? Photo: Kenzo Tribou Icccarsi/ Vincenzo Pito/AFP

At first glance, the two countries might seem like opposites: Latin vs Nordic, hot vs cold, extroverted Italians vs reserved Swedes. 

When it comes to football, Italy have won the World Cup four times and have qualified for each tournament for the last 60 years, while Sweden's international footballing achievements are somewhat more modest.

But what about their achievements off the pitch? In a very unscientific comparison, The Local's journalists see how Italy and Sweden measure up in cultural areas from food to nudists.

Food and Drink

Italy

Italian food is famous the world over, and rightly so. The country is full to the brim of of great pizza and pasta dishes, but that's just scratching the surface of Italian cuisine. Italian dishes revolve around simple, fresh ingredients and are incredibly varied, delicious and healthy, and Italy is second only to France for the number of Michelin-starred restaurants.

On the drink front, Prosecco now out-sells champagne and Chianti and Pinot Grigio are among the most quaffed wines worldwide. The only thing letting Italy down is its lack of decent beer, but it more than makes up for that with its coffee, its delicious espresso easier on the stomach than the vats of strong 'bryggkaffe' that the Swedes knock back. 

And next week, a huge foodie theme park is set to open in the northern city of Bologna, a fifth of which will be set outdoors, to teach visitors about Italian food and even how to make it themselves.

Score: 10/10

Sweden

Sweden’s food doesn’t carry the same prestige as Italy’s, but there’s plenty to love about the country’s cuisine – and a 2014 report by Oxfam ranked it fourth of 125 countries, ahead of Italy, when it came to food.

If you’re a seafood fan, the west coast in particular is a delight, with lobster, oysters and mussels plentiful, while the variety of pickled herring eaten at pretty much every major celebration can be surprisingly good. And the tradition of 'fika', or a break for cake and coffee enjoyed at least once a day in Swedish workplaces has been celebrated around the world.

Wine isn’t Sweden’s strong point, but when it comes to the harder stuff, the northerners know a thing or two about drinking. Snaps, the powerful alcoholic drink consumed at festivities, comes in hundreds of different varieties and quite often comes accompanied with a song, and what’s not to love about that?

However, Swedish cuisine often horrifies Italian foodies with its 'original take' on Mediterranean dishes, from kebab pizza to ketchup with pasta to banana chicken curry pizza.

Score: 6/10

How to spot good quality gelato in Italy - and how to suss out the fakes
Photo: Alexandra E Rust/Flickr

Ice Hotels

Italy

Due to average summer temperatures above 20C, and a particularly strong heatwave this year, ice hotels haven't really caught on, which is a shame. Perhaps there are parts of the Italian Alps which get cold enough to build an ice hotel during the winter, but given the extremely low tolerance to cold most Italians seem to share it might be a hard sell.

In central Rome, there is a bar made from sculpted ice, which offers sweet refuge from the infernal temperatures reached in the city during the summer, but that's about it.

Score: 3/10

Sweden

Sorry Italy, but unsurprisingly given that Sweden has a lot of, well, ice, it also has a pretty impressive Ice hotel – probably the most impressive of them all. First made in 1989, each year the structure is redesigned and rebuilt in Jukkasjärvi, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, and includes an ice church, ice bar, and ice sculpting studio. On top of that there are two heated restaurants for the faint hearted, as well as two wilderness camps for the more resilient guests.

As for Rome’s ice bar, Stockholm has one of those too, but that’s really small fry when you can stay in an entire building sculpted out of frozen water now isn’t it?

Score: 8/10


Sweden's Ice Hotel. Photo: Hans-Olof Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

Fashion

Italy

Italy has been leading the way in fashion design for centuries and 'Made in Italy' has become a byword for quality and style. The country boasts some of the biggest names in the industry and Milan's two annual fashion weeks are among the most important dates on the annual fashion calendar.

That said, the Italian dominance of mainstream fashion tends to stop alternative styles like punk or grunge from emerging, which then tend to arrive five years too late.

Score 9/10

Sweden

Swedish fashion is sleek, refined, and carries none of the snobbery of its Italian counterparts. Whether it’s affordable high-street brands like H&M or designer marks like Acne and Filippa K, the country more than punches above its weight when it comes to clothing.

“Less is more” is the key for Swedes, and with their products generally discreet looking but also effortlessly cool, there’s something for everyone. Scandi style is in at the moment, and Sweden is a huge part of that.

Score: 6/10


File photo: freestocks.org/Pexels

Industry

Italy

Italy is not considered 'an industrial powerhouse' in the same way that many northern European countries routinely are, however it is the fourth largest economy in Europe, in no small part thanks to its impressive industrial output. Five percent of Italian industry is based around the production of cars and car parts.

From icons like the Fiat 500 to Ferrari and Vespa, Italian cars might not be as reliable as a Volvo, but they are so much cooler. There's more than just cars too – Italy's Olivetti even designed the world's first personal computer, the P101.

Both countries are famous for their elaborate glassware, but the glassmaker's art spread from the Venetian island of Murano, which for centuries has produced some of the finest glass in the world.

Score: 7/10

Sweden

With a population around a sixth of the size of Italy’s, Sweden doesn’t command anything like the same scale of workforce as the Mediterranean nation, but what it loses in size it more than makes up for in creativity.

Startups and technology are key, with household names like Spotify, Skype, and Candy Crush producers King all coming from Swedish roots. If you have a young child, meanwhile, the chances are he or she will have played Minecraft, the hit game from Swedish developer Mojang.

On a per capita basis, Stockholm is the second most prolific tech hub in the world, helping Sweden to become the most competitive economy in the EU in 2016. Sweden has its own car giant too in the form of Volvo, but why focus too much on the present when you can look to the future?

Score: 8/10


Photo: Erik Stattin/Wikimedia Commons

Nudists

Italy

Italy is not really associated with public nudity and until 2006 nudist sites were officially illegal. Although Italians tend to embarrass easily, there is a growing number of socially liberal Italians who love getting naked together.

Statistics from one Italian nudist association suggest that more than 600,000 people frequent the country's now legal nudist sites – and who can blame them? Italy's 7,600km of coastline includes plenty of nudist beaches, whose azure waters and yellow sands make them the perfect places to spend the day in the buff.

Score: 6/10

Sweden

Nudity isn’t a big deal for Swedes, who have some of the most liberal attitudes in the world to the subject. A 2014 survey by Expedia showed that more than a quarter of Swedish women have sunbathed topless, while there are a whole host of nudist beaches dotted across the country.

The Swedes love a sauna meanwhile, and if you’re thinking of indulging in a steam session, it’s worth keeping in mind that clothes off is the standard rule. It’s hard not to feel like these northerners are more forward-thinking than most of us when it comes to the human body, in fact, they probably have to drop a few points simply because they care so little.

Score: 7/10


Photo: JoeJoe/Flickr

Verdict

Italy: 34/50 Sweden 34/50

A dead heat! 

There's plenty to love about both Italy and Sweden, but it looks like bragging rights will be decided by the outcome of the match…

A version of this article first published in June 2016 and updated in November 2017.