Why I Fell in Love with Italy
| Teaching House Nomads Blog
You know when there’s someone you’re not too sure about at first, romantically? In fact, at first you kind of detest them? They’re miserable and they’re hard work and you just don’t understand anything they do or say. You’re so different from them it’s painful.
Then, because your paths keep crossing and because it would be rude not to talk to each other, you spend some time with them. And you both start to relax a little and you begin to think that maybe they’re not so bad after all. I mean, they’re still a pain in the bum and completely incomprehensible, but at times it’s sort of endearing. You stop rolling your eyes at everything they say and do and you begin to think about why they’re saying and doing those things. And, more than that, you begin to understand them a little.
Mutual friends give you knowing looks and say things like, “When are you two going to sort it out, eh?!” You laugh it off. “Us? Together? Like as a couple? Are you inSANE?!” And then one day, without knowing quite how it happened, you wake up and realize that you’re head over heels in love with this person and can’t imagine how you ever thought otherwise.
I hadn’t meant to come here. At all. Italy wasn’t on my list of places to see before I die or anything. Not even close. Maybe it’s because it’s in Europe and I’m English, but Italy just seemed a bit…tame. Not far enough away from the UK. I was going to go to Argentina. A girlfriend and I hatched the plan over the photocopier at the place where I was working as a temp secretary between getting my TEFL certification in April and starting my first teaching job at a residential ESL summer school in July. Every day, we made up ever more ridiculous stories about how I would ride over the Pampas plains with gorgeous gauchos, one of whom would fall desperately in love with me and carry me off into the sunset to live on a ranch and breed polo ponies for the rest of my days, while subsisting on a diet of steak and dulce de leche.
The delicious dream aside, the reality of going to Argentina proved tricky. Jobs there are hard to find from a base in the UK. You need to up sticks and go, and do the job-hunting once you get there. And the thought of uprooting my entire life to head to the other side of the world without a shred of work security was more than my previously untraveled and sheltered self could cope with. The Argentina plan was shelved, and I started work at the ESL summer school not knowing where I was going to go when it finished.
At summer school, I spent four blissful weeks in the English countryside running around after naughty Spanish teenagers and trying my best to avoid catching them smoking. There were other nationalities, including Italians, but the Spaniards were the cheeky ones; the ones I loved best. The Italians were mostly fashion-obsessed, insisting that the whole group make a detour to Abercrombie & Fitch on days out to London so that they could buy overpriced tops. The thought of falling for Italy’s charms at that point in time would have seemed laughable, had I even considered it.
Then I had my first official lesson observation. It so happened that it was in the week that I had a class that contained the naughtiest 15- to 17-year-old Spanish students we had in the school. I recycled a lesson plan from my TEFL training, which involved use of the theme music from Ghostbusters, a spooky story and a dissection of the present perfect tense, and hoped for the best.
My Director of Studies, after giving his lesson feedback, explained that he’d just finished a four-year stint at a school in Salento, in southern Italy. “My ex-boss has been hassling me for weeks asking if I know anyone to fill the staff there,” he said. “And after seeing you teach, I think you’d be great for the job. It’s a good life. You don’t start work until three, so you’ve got mornings free to do what you want, and the countryside’s beautiful. Shall I call him and let him know you’re interested?”
Three months later, I landed at Brindisi airport. My hand luggage weighed the same as most people’s checked bags, and my hold luggage damn near caused me a hernia just by looking at it. I had no idea what my new boss looked or sounded like — all the negotiation had been done by my ex-school director — and I was exhausted and on the verge of tears, wondering if I’d just bitten off way more than I could chew. The romantic thing to say would be that I landed on Italian soil and — as if by magic! — all my troubles vanished in a puff of smoke.
The truth was somewhat different.
Winter in the south is hard. Here’s something to make you think: there’s a statistic which says that if you’re talking total inches of rainfall in a year, Sicily gets more than the UK. It’s just that in the UK it’s little and often, so it seems never ending. Sicily and southern Italy, on the other hand, get it in cloud-bursting torrents, concentrated over a short period of time. It’s the type of rain that turns roads into rivers; even washes them away in some cases.
My memories of the early days in Salento are of wet feet and soggy clothes. I hadn’t taken a winter coat with me, since it had seemed more important to use precious packing weight for the blessed Swan grammar book when I left England. Of course, when I arrived at the school, Swan was already there. No decent English fiction, though. Those first few months — before I got a Kindle and when I spoke not a lick of Italian – were like living in a cultural desert. I was nowhere near in love at that point.
At Christmas, when I went back to the UK for the holidays, people oohed and aahed over what they saw as my wonderful life. “You must be loving it! All that sunshine!” I nodded and plastered on a fake smile. “Yes, fantastic!”
Seeing my life through other people’s eyes gave me a different outlook, and I returned to Italy with a job lot of brand-new M&S knickers and a sense of grim determination that I wasn’t going to let myself be beaten. My resolution was tested from the moment I landed at Brindisi and discovered that Alitalia had lost my luggage. Thanking heaven that I’d packed all those knickers in my hand luggage, I brought out my best English calm, reported the loss, and waited for something to be done. When the bag turned up at school a week later, intact despite all the horror stories on the internet of luggage either never being seen again or arriving having being ransacked, I felt a warm glow of – something. No, I was still not in love, but the spark was beginning to burn.
Mid-year reports went out in February, and my boss called me into his office to tell me that my adult PET (Preliminary English Test) class weren’t doing as well as he would have hoped at this stage. I braced myself for a bawling-out, but instead he suggested a lesson observation and feedback from a more experienced teacher, and for him to spend some time going through exam technique with the students in Italian. The spark burned brighter.
The sun came out. After three months of rain and constant damp, the sun at last came out, and my world became seven times larger and more vivid. My teenage KET (Key English Test) class invited me out for pizza with them — the first of many such occasions — and the mobile fruit and veg guy learned my likes and dislikes and started to greet me like an old friend when I rushed outside to ask endless questions about what the latest unknown piece of greenery was, before buying the same as I always did. The spark turned into a tiny flame.
My daily routine became comfortable. I no longer felt the need to spend every spare minute at school planning, as I had in the beginning, and I therefore had more time to explore the town and the area around it. With exploration and meeting new people came confidence. I started to learn more Italian phrases than just the ones I heard every day in the classroom, and to feel that I could – maybe! – string a basic sentence together. The tiny flame grew bigger still, crackling and catching on the dried-up edges of my heart.
I started teaching outside classes in two different state schools. The classes were bigger than any I’d taught before, but the students were better behaved than many of the entitled rich kids that I taught every day in my private language school. One of the Italian support teachers terrified me, with her velvet-gloved iron-fist style of control, but I learned more from her about classroom management in 40 hours than I had in my first six months of teaching full-time. I taught a class one day in which the kids and I went through basic vocabulary for ordering food in a cafe, and then I set them up to do simple waiter/customer role-plays. They fluffed up multiple times, and I could feel her eyes boring into the back of my head as the kids and I fell about giggling at silly mistakes, but we carried on. At the end of the class, she took me aside and said simply, “I like the way you teach.” I drove home grinning on a little pillow of sunshine that day, and the crackling flame started to roar.
That flame might have been roaring in my heart, but the grey matter upstairs hadn’t yet caught on,so the first real inkling I had that I was in love was when my parents came to visit in May. We wandered around Maglie and I caught myself referring to it as “my city.” I took them to Otranto and Gallipoli and I played tour guide, pointing out all the things I’d discovered in the previous months that tourists wouldn’t ever see. I ordered for us all in restaurants and was greeted with surprised delight that I spoke any Italian at all, let alone enough to conduct a conversation. I took them to a fancy new gelateria that I hadn’t tried before, and kicked myself because the quality was so much lower than the one round the corner, which looked like nothing, but had generations of expertise behind it.
My parents went home and I went back to school, where my students were their usual goofy, infuriating, madcap, adorable selves. They asked me with excitement about how my weekend with my parents had been. “Did they like it here?” And as I told them “yes” and they boasted about how wonderful their wild, unknown little peninsula at the very tip of the heel of Italy was, and how no one could ever fail to love it, I realized that they were right.
And from that moment, Italy has had my heart.