What I Learned When I Came Back To Italy

After a lifetime abroad, a recent Italian repatriate shares her account.

Woman in a red and white striped dress sitting by a marble statue, looking towards it on her left.
The author in Villa Borghese, Rome. Photo: Flavia Galeotti.

My father would always warn me, “you’d better start learning Italian and think about moving back, you don’t know what might happen that will have to make you leave here.” Living abroad was all I had known my whole life — I am the cliché story of a child of expatriates, a Third Culture Kid, who was born and raised outside of her country of origin. The tropical climes of Southeast Asia was my home for most of my life — “here” meant Malaysia, where I had lived for 20 years — and aside from returning for annual summer holidays, I never lived in Italy.

But like it was for most people in early 2020, my life as I knew it was upended because of Covid. I weathered out the first year of the pandemic together with my parents and brother in Malaysia, anxiously keeping our eyes on the daily case numbers and praying for the safety of the family who were caught in the midst of it in Italy. The other shoe would drop in May of 2021, after months of uncertainty following visa issues, I had to leave the country I had called home for more than half my life and try to make a life for myself in a country where I had the right to live, but ironically never had. My father was like the mythological Cassandra, and I never made the effort to learn the language.

After a brief stopover in Serbia, where I received my Covid vaccinations, I landed in Rome and straight into a 10 day at-home quarantine — my first brush with Italian bureaucracy, which was thankfully uneventful and very straightforward. I would emerge on the other side in the days leading up to the last matches of the Euro Cup 2020, watching live in my aunt’s living room the final between Italy and England and hearing the pent-up frustrations of a country beaten down by Covid roar back to life, with a cacophony of car horns and fireworks in my Tiburtina neighborhood until 3am. I’d never experienced anything like it.

Getting a local number and data plan meant two things to me: one, the freedom to move around and navigate Rome (and beyond) whenever I wanted; and two, I am officially here for the long term. Armed with this, I felt I was ready to attack Italy’s infamous bureaucracy and be recognized as a resident by the end of the summer. But like the saying goes, man plans and God (the Italian government?) laughs.

Any Italian or resident in Italy is assigned a unique codice fiscale (tax code), and all my issues stemmed from the fact that the code I received through the Italian embassy some 15 years before incorrectly recorded my name. Meaning all other official registrations — with the Azienda Sanitaria Locale (the National Health Unit), my cambio di residenza (change of residence) and carta d’identita (identity card), SPID, hell even a local bank account — was on pause until the name on my birth certificate and my codice fiscale matched.

Me (a confused repatriate with conversational Italian at best) and my aunt (an octogenarian willing to help but equally overwhelmed by the task at hand) reached out to our local centro di Assistenza Fiscale (tax assistance centre) for their help. I remember in our first meeting, my aunt saying to the assistant who met with us (and would then oversee all my applications) how happy she was to see a young Italian like me coming back to the country in a time when most others were leaving. Long story short — over the better part of a year, and after many emails, phone calls, and appointments — my name was finally corrected and codice was reissued, I received my Italian ID card (my aunt cried when my application was accepted), and I officially became a resident. But all of this is to say, having someone advocate for you and help you navigate through the labyrinth of government offices and SPID dropdown menus is invaluable. Despite the tears and frustration, it is easily only half as bad as it could have been had I navigated it on my own.

And patience. One thing I hear again and again from Italians and non-Italians alike is how Italy teaches you patience. Whether it’s in line at the post office, waiting for your doctor’s appointment through ASL, or even for your bus to show up, your patience will always be rewarded. It’s a virtue after all.

My last hurdle was difficult to do in the midst of a pandemic, but building a new social group was slow work. I did what I could online, talking to people in Italy with similar interests through social media and asking them for recommendations on places I might want to visit, checking online for free events, reading Italics, and having lived in Malaysia for so long I joined the Associazione Malesia in Italia for that feeling of home away from ‘home’. It’s not an easy thing restarting your life in your 30s, but I’m certainly not the first to go through something like it, and I definitely will not be the last. In the end, I do what I always do — I write through it.