Let’s Talk Conversion or When an Expat Leans In


The Husband’s grandmother was an extremely cultivated and passionate woman. I only met her two years before her death but we made the most of that time and spent hours chatting on her sofa about the world. Her favorite subject was religion. Born at the beginning of last century in a part of the world where religion shapes your identity even more accurately than mere nationality, she was obsessed with conversion. Or, more precisely, the possibility of conversion. Everytime I pointed out to her things that I found pretty cool about religions other than Roman Catholicism she would narrow her eyes and take a suspicious tone: “You aren’t thinking about conversion, are you?”. “No, I am not. Why would I?”. I find difficult enough to cope with one’s own upbringing, let alone going back to school to absorb another religion, another world, another way of conceiving life and its purpose. Once I stated without doubts that mines were simple speculations and that they did not conceal any actual interest to embrace a different spirituality, she would make more tea.

Those moments spent together looking at different beliefs came back to my mind the other day when a friend announced me she applied for Swiss citizenship. She’s been living there for a long time, works there, had children there, built a life there. Getting a passport is just the following, natural, step. Still, I was somehow touched. As an expat-at-heart, embracing a country you were not born in resembles conversion to another belief. It means actual involvement, participation. Leaning In.

I toyed with the idea of applying for Belgian citizenship for some time. When I couldn’t (because I had not lived in the country long enough and I hadn’t been married long enough) it looked very exotic and interesting. Once they told me I could get a Passport, I hesitated. As a EU citizen, my rights are already pretty similar to those of a Belgian citizen. I can’t vote at political elections but since the political architecture of the country is extremely complicated, I don’t regret it. When there are not practical issues at stake (as getting a permit to work or a permanent residence permit), applying for citizenship becomes a mere intellectual question. I realized I am not ready. Living in Belgium has certainly shaped my life in the past decade and influenced my point of view. I have a Belgian husband and Belgian children. I am just not ready to join them in their Belgitude. Partly because I don’t know yet if Belgium will be my last stop in expatriation.

Have you “converted” to another citizenship? What prompted you to do so? How was the day you became something else than your birth nationality? I’d love to hear your stories about this crucial step in an expat’s life.


  1. I took on Swiss citizenship after being married to my Swiss husband for over 7 years. Due to the influence of living for an extended period of time away from my birth country during my adult life, this bureauocratic addition felt in alignment with the new layer of my identity.

  2. I toyed with the idea of becoming a British citizen ten years ago, but decided not to, in the end, for pretty much the same reasons as you – not enough of an advantage is gained if you’re already an EU citizen. Plus, at that particular point in time when I was pondering the question, you weren’t allowed to have been out of the country for more than three months in the year of making your application, and, I’d just spent three months in the US and Israel.
    Now the option is closed to me, because I’ve moved to Spain, and I won’t be applying for Spanish citizenship any time soon. Or ever 😉

  3. I have thought about obtaining Italian citizenship, but the thought of trying to sort out the paperwork and trying to cut through the miles of Italian red tape gives me the shivers. I applied for an Italian driving licence in Feb 2013 and Mr Cretino at the Italian office is still scratching his head and shrugging his shoulders.

    Can you imagine how long it would take for citizenship…

    1. Maybe not that long. When I went to the Italian consulate here with my marriage papers they said with a smile: “Tell your husband he can come get his Italian passport whenever he wants”. “He doesn’t want one”. “What? How comes he isn’t interested?” and a puzzled look followed. How anyone in the world could snub Italianness? 🙂

  4. I could write a treatise on how I felt over the years about this. Let’s see if I can condense. I was eligible for US citizenship (the so coveted blue passport) for the longest time, and not even through marriage. The application languished on my desk for years, shuffled at the bottom of the pile now and then. Mostly, for the same reasons you mention. I didn’t feel like I fully belonged. For the longest time I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, yet I called Italy home but my physical home was in California. Whenever I went to Italy, yes, I was Italian, I fit in but some things, like politics and tv for instance, felt foreign. Here, I didn’t have the cultural references of my youth. I was uneasy and asking to become American felt like a betrayal of my origins. Until I realized I belong to both: I am grateful to the States for the opportunities it granted me, for shaping me into the opinionated and fearless person I wouldn’t have become in Italy. But I love my European roots and the sensitivity they lend to my worldview. So, I went for it. Within a few months, I swore allegiance to a flag that, yes, is also mine. The truth is I am Italian-American. And both feel right.
    And to Pecora Nera – I went to the Consulate to get the application for Italian citizenship for my husband. That was about 10 years ago. The application is still around here somewhere: the list of documents they required was mind-boggling. It took two years for my marriage registration to find its way to the Comune di Milano. But good luck!

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