I wait with them, under the first pink streaks of sunrise. The mass of bodies, huddled close together against the cold, standing in line to achieve permission. The permission we seek is that of living legally in Italy.
Officially our permit is called a Permesso di Soggiorno. Sometimes referred to by expats as the holy grail, I think of it more as a golden ticket from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
We are united in our morning haziness, as it's not yet 7:00 a.m. in Florence, Italy.
Together we wait outside the red brick building to secure our place in line. A line that will ultimately move forward and give us a number, which will then direct us to a window, where someone behind that window will determine whether or not we have sufficiently met all the requirements. We have already secured a Visa from our home country, but now we ask our new country for its permission.
To me, the entire process feels more like "stand up, sit down, jump here, turn around, now sit down again." But what do I know?
The line begins to move, thankfully, as it's warmer inside the corridor. We are each given a number, and directed to two different lines. The men that work here speak only Italian, and I try to process what I'm told.
"Here's your number, and after 8:00," is about all I comprehend from the officer's rapid Italian.
Unsure as to where to go, I turn back to ask. But I'm too late, someone else is already in front of the window. Apparently there is no time for questions.
I see another long line, and dutifully take my place in it. An officer comes by, taps me on the shoulder, and says something. Seriously, does he think I've had enough coffee or Italian to understand that?
The wheels start to turn in my brain... slowly, I process. Got it! I'm in the wrong line, I'm supposed to go inside instead and find a seat.
I walk inside a cold and sterile cement room with benches. I have worked so hard to be here. Each person I see has probably done the same. Each one of us arriving on our appointed day, ticket in hand, with a personal story of desire. The desire we have is to make our life in a country in which we were not born.
A woman approaches the seat next to me and begins to vigorously wipe it down with sanitizer. Apparently she knows something I do not. I just plopped myself right down.
A beautiful woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, sits down across from me with her two young daughters. I wonder how early they awakened today to all be here before 7:00. The baby calls out from her stroller, and immediately the mother looks up.
Mothers. The world over, we instinctively respond to our baby's voice.
My thoughts drift to my own ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Denmark. They had embraced a new religion, and wanted to join with other members in the West.
My great-great grandmother would make the arduous trip across the ocean, and then across the plains of the United States, but she would never embrace her new church's doctrine of no coffee. Coffee and her morning paper were a constant no matter where she lived, or which religion she joined.
"One can only make so many sacrifices," she would say in her defense.
I'm thinking I could use another cup of coffee about now... and make that an espresso.
"You are from a long line of strong women, Lisa," my grandmother, would often tell me when I was young. I hadn't given it much thought until the last decade. Now I depend on it.
Nearing 8:00, the waiting area fills. I listen to the conversation of two men from Africa behind me. The sounds and clicking noises are exotic and so foreign to my ears. How is it those sounds make up a language? How small is my circle of knowledge?
The mother across from me now discretely breastfeeds her baby. A tiny hand reaches up out of a pink sweater to hold her mother's. Such a sweet moment, and instantly, I remember.
My mind drifts to my babies, now 32- and 29-years-old. Are they sound asleep, half the world away? I wish I could peek at their faces. What lessons will they take from me and pass down to their children? Will the family's stories recall crazy Grandma Lisa who took off for Italy and never came back?
I look in the eyes of people of every color. We all have a story which has brought us to a point this morning where our lives intersect, just for a minute. Everyone looks a little hesitant, a little worried. There is a lot on the line.
I am a little nervous. I have heard the horror stories. Did I think of absolutely every document they may ask to see?
My number is announced and I feel my heart pounding as I approach the appropriate window. After brief greetings, and the exchange of my passport, a woman starts having me sign papers. I don't question. I sign. She hands me a sheet of paper and explains that I need to attend culture classes and will be notified when my card is ready to be picked up.
It's all in Italian. Am I missing something?
"Si," I reply.
We stare at each other. I'm trying to determine what is happening.
"Ho finito?" I ask.
"Si," she answers.
"Veremente?" I ask.
"Si," and she smiles a little.
Hey, who am I to argue? I gather the thick file of documents I have brought with me and head towards the door.
I have been granted a Permesso di Soggiorno! Just as my ancestors before me, I have crossed my equivalent of Ellis Island!
Once outside, I can't contain myself any longer, and I start to skip!