Written by Sandy Brown, photos by Thomas England
After hours spent standing in line together outside government offices, I thought I knew a few interesting things about Tony Sardi. Then over tea I learned Tony Sardi would be living in a palace today if his grandfather hadn’t gambled away the family fortune.
On Tuesday I had the joy of sitting down for an hour with Tony Sardi, or “Tony the Navigator,” or “Tony the Fixer” as he’s called by some. Expats who wash up on Italian shores and land in the lovely lanes of Lucca to live their Italian dreams either sooner (hopefully) or later (unluckily) come to know Tony as the one who holds their hand through the arcane corridors of Italian bureaucracy. Like countless wannabe residents before me, I met Tony at the height of anxiety and frustration. His English language skills, his confidence, and his oh-so-calm demeanor became a comforting presence whenever it was time to clear another governmental hurdle. Since August, Tony has seen Theresa and me through the Permesso di Soggiorno appointments, application for residency, the Tessera Sanitaria, and presently the Carta d’Identità. Where at one time a visit to an Italian governmental office meant breaking out into a cold sweat, now we have our own Tom Booker from the famous 1990 Robert Redford movie. Tony is Lucca’s much-revered bureaucracy whisperer.
If you’ve wandered off Via San Paolina onto Via Burlamacchi in Lucca’s Centro Storico you’ve passed Palazzo Sardi, ancestral home of the Sardi family. Tony’s grandfather was a gambler, and whether in cards, on a roulette wheel, at the track, or in real estate investments, grandfather Sardi lost the palazzo and everything in it. Sadly for Tony’s grandmother at that moment, she was in it. After some negotiation, she was allowed to leave, but with the stipulation that she was not to remove anything at all except herself and the clothes on her back.
Tony was born in Lucca in 1962, lived his first years here, and as a teenager became a faithful member of his mother’s Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Ultimately his father would join there as well, and Tony paid a dear price for being Jehovah’s Witness in a Catholic country. The beatings by youth gangs were only the first payments in a much heavier toll.
For practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, military service is forbidden. So with the Italian draft in 1982 Tony faced a choice — his faith or imprisonment. He chose jail and remembers it as a surprisingly warm time since Jehovah’s Witnesses made up the bulk of people jailed as conscientious objectors (read Amnesty International’s 1991 pdf report about Italy’s imprisonment of an average of 500 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors each year through 1989). After thirteen months behind bars Tony was released and was finally able to begin his adult life as a free man. Still, the mark on his record would permanently exclude Tony from certain Italian jobs, including service as an official translator in Italian judicial proceedings.
Over the next years Tony would move more than thirty times. Though he had studied English in school, he became proficient in English as he led tour groups to the U.S. from 1996-2001. Finally tired of travel, when a friend began a business relocating people in Italy, Tony signed on. As a relocation specialist for inbound transplants, he moved with the new business first to Milan, then Venice, then Rome, and finally, Tuscany. Today, corporate clients relocating to Italy are his primary professional focus.
As we sat with Tom England over tea at Caffe Santa Zita on Piazza San Frediano, Tony reflected on the meaning of the drink.
“Tea is a caress of the soul,” he said. “To have tea you have to sit down. My first wife was dying of cancer. I was having a hard time in life. I met a girl and told her my problems. She came back with tea. It was a simple, kind action.”
Tony and his first wife had known each other since high school. Their marriage was close, and long — twenty-nine years before her untimely death.
When Tony arrived back in Lucca in 2016 he began working freelance with expat arrivals and now has helped countless. “I’m satisfied to make people happy. If someone has a problem, I can’t sleep at night. I’m anxious to satisfy their need and I’ll think about it until I figure out the next step.”
What advice would Tony give to new expats arriving in Lucca?
“First, Lucca is a welcoming place. It is not a problem here to fit in. People are jovial. It’s no problem to settle in and feel welcomed.
“Also, people need to understand that the words ‘common sense’ and ‘logic’ don’t belong to the Immigration procedures. Sometimes Americans and Brits come with a sense — I call it ‘Anglo-Saxon Centric’ — that ‘we do it like this at home and any other way is wrong.’ People need to understand that Italian immigration laws are sometimes not clearly written, so there are degrees of interpretation. Different consulates interpret things in different ways, and different local offices, and sometimes different staff members. Immigration is like a chess game, and the most important rule is to never make enemies.”
The conversation strayed into specifics about health insurance requirements, the importance of keeping all paperwork (especially post office payment receipts), about how there is still time for Brits to participate in an accelerated and simplified residency procedure post-Brexit, and about the advantages, challenges, and stumbling blocks faced by people who come to live here as a result of Italian family ties. We also talked about Ilaria, his wife since 2011, named after Ilaria del Carretto whose tomb is at Lucca’s Duomo.
Tony helps people through all residency steps, including Permesso, residency, identification, and health insurance. He also serves as interpreter for transactions including purchasing an automobile, real estate, and getting an Italian bank account. Contact Tony by email here.
As our tea time together wound down, I started to think about ways that Tony had helped me. I had laboriously and painstakingly filled out our Permesso di Soggiorno applications by myself back in August. We had figured out how to pay the application fees and then had submitted it, all on our own. After discovering Tony, instead of us going by ourselves, this time we walked with him to the Questura for our questioning and fingerprinting appointment. The difference between going there on our own and going there with Tony was night and day. Sometimes it takes more than bravery and luck to take a big step in life. Sometimes it takes a little help.
The time came to go, and Tony took the last sips of his Earl Grey. He looked at me and said, “It is my pleasure to see people happy. There is so much stress as they come to this country, so much difficulty because of the language barrier. I’m just happy to be useful.”