Soon it will be my birthday. My 31st Birthday. I am now well and truly into my ‘30’s.
Hi. It’s mid-January. If I were in Australia in this moment, I would be experiencing the hot summer, (or lack thereof… possibly it is overcast and raining right now…) and it would be the summer holidays. As a teacher off school I would be spending time with other teachers or students who share the same holidays, as everyone would have returned to work shortly after New Year’s Day unless they had scheduled time off. We would be heading to the beach or enjoying the cool summer breeze out at a beer garden, or even kicking back in the backyard – the garden… here in Italy if you have a house with a large garden, you are most probably rich and your house and property are referred to as a ‘villa’.
I live in an apartment on the first floor. I have a balcony. It’s winter now. The snow has ceased, there wasn’t much of it this year, it has stayed up in the mountains and only fell near and around home on a few days. Now there is a lot of ‘nebbia’ (fog) – a lot. Some ice and still settling at 0 degrees Celsius or a little more on most days.
I’m looking forward to spring. I miss the bike rides through Valle, the nature park near our house. The track has twists and turns and forks into little passageways beneath green leafy canopies. I want to hang plant pots all along our balcony railings and have green leafy creeping plants cascade down the bars and wrap around them. Maybe some flowers; but I do prefer lots of green.
This post, if I dare discuss it mid-creation, is about living in Italy – truly. I am feeling less and less like a traveler, an outsider or a migrant – a ‘stranieri’. Apart from not having any proper and competent skill with the language – I feel like I have achieved a nice level of comfort here. I have created another comfort zone for myself. And it is here in Bovolone, province of Verona, and the city of Verona itself, especially now that I work there every week day. I’ve made friends through work, who have all been a great support and I feel, after the post- newborn phase of a seemingly disappearing social life due to both the huge and wonderful responsibilities of being a new parent and also people assuming that you can’t socialize at all if you have a baby; now I feel I that have regained and rebuilt ‘Michelle’ and enjoy socializing with like-minded and very likeable people. I enjoy my job and don’t recall ever settling in quite so well into new employment as I have at my present post. It’s been four months now, but I do believe I was feeling near to 100% comfortable within my first month. The people I work with make all the difference.
Ho imparato piu’ Italiano, e ho capito meglio. Gramatica, e parlare – non ‘e molto bene… ahah anch’e scrivere. Spero, imparare meglio. ‘E difficile’, perhce’ ho lavora a scoula internatzionale, e parla Inglese tutto giorno. Ma imparato un po’ Italiano perche’ parla Italino ogni giorno con la altra maestra di mia classe, (lei e una maestra di Italiano per miei studenti) e anche’ ho provato parlare con i miei studenti in Italiano qualche volte, perche’ qualche di loro non capiscono Inglese bene. Gli altri studenti conoscono Inglese e Italiano bene, auitanno me con mia grammatica – insegnanno me!
So, I’m not doing too badly. I know what I just wrote is not fantastic, but it’s a huge improvement from when I first arrived in Italy.
I think that one of the hardest obstacles when relocating is accepting the culture. This is an obstacle that, as an Italian (born and raised in Australia in an Italian family, with the language, food and culture) I did not expect to be facing any culture shocks.
Oh how I was mistaken.
Granted, we all love to watch movies and read books about Italy – to be swept away by the romance, the architecture, the history, the energy, the loud, verbose, melodic Italians preparing spaghetti as a family with fifty cousins running around and the grandmothers and mothers chopping tomatoes and basil, drinking red wine, the men drinking grappa and all of the family eating and laughing and dancing and singing together. Shall we take it even further? Driving vespas, FIAT 500s and Ferraris, drinking espressos and smoking long white cigarettes, debating passionately or quietly playing cards.
There is a scene in an Australian movie about an Italian family living in Sydney, where they have the annual ‘tomato day’ – when the family gets together and makes a year supply of tomato based pasta sauce, bottle it and distribute it to each house in the extended family. It rings true. My family always had ‘tomato day’. Though we didn’t play Italian 45” records and dance with joy like the scene in this movie… I don’t remember being present at a tomato day but I’m sure it involved my grandfather being annoyed for one reason or another and criticizing another family member’s technique of something or other. But I’m straying from the point.
Yes, Italy has been shown through rose-coloured, romantic, charming specs through film and literature. It is truly mesmerizing… when you’re on vacation here. Living, as it is anywhere, is just that… living. And, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the stereotypes… for example, the cute old men sitting on rickety old chairs on the sidewalk in front of the bakery playing cards and arguing and the people singing old Italian folk songs at the bar are indeed in existence but they exist either in the past or in the south of Italy.
I’m certainly not living in any Sofia Loren movie. It is sort of quiet here. I went to a bar with work friends and we were ‘shh-d’. In a bar. On a Friday night. The quiet Veronese patrons looked up from their library-quiet tables and glared at us for being a tad loud and the bartender apparently told us to be quiet. I was too tipsy and therefore unaware but I blinked in disbelief when I was informed later.
I don’t mean to disappoint you and it’s opinion really, but that’s just my take on the general atmosphere here. There are still stereotypes and expectations in existence. Coffee. You can get a good coffee anywhere – even the train station has a Lavazza machine. Pizza. Oh my, what splendid, mouth-watering pizza. Thin, fluffy lighter-than-air bases so you can eat a whole pizza and not feel like you would sink to the bottom of the ocean. Simple, no fuss toppings. FRESH ham, not that horrid processed little stick-like strings of what is referred to as ‘ham’ in some places. Fresh ingredients in most places, especially when you eat at restaurants and more so, Trattoria’s outside of Verona and in the towns, as each town is surrounded by farmland and therefore, more than likely the ingredients of whatever you are eating was still growing or living no more than a day before.
The general standard of food in Italy is very high, as the expectations of Italy and it’s relationship with food reigns on with force. Even in the schools, the children eat a three course meal (the third course being fruit and once a week, a piece of cake,) beginning with a pasta dish followed by a nice balance of meat and vegetables. There is always bread on the table and natural water. The children can sometimes have seconds and other times thirds and eating well is always encouraged. I don’t see any weight problems – the children look fit and healthy. Yes they sit down and eat for forty minutes straight, but most of them play a sport and in addition to that… eating a balanced meal encourages less snacking and considerably less junk food. The local shops sell bread rolls with salami, at worst. There might be the odd ‘patatine fritte’ (hot chips) stand, kind of akin to the kebab vans parked around Melbourne. The difference is, instead of being able to buy a giant kebab that has greater mass than your stomach itself, the patatine are small, thin and served in a little container no wider or longer than your hand and no higher than your thumb. Small servings… and most of the food available is nutritious and wholesome enough to be satisfying in small amounts. Chalk it up to a history of excellent and quality cuisine.
School here is blackboards, chalk and dictatorial style teaching, lines of desks and writing, copying and writing some more. I learnt early on that I can’t change the way it is, nor dare I try to completely change the atmosphere of my own classroom. It’s not so much a matter of resigning to it – but merely because if I have the children grow accustomed to a 21st century learning space, then they will suffer greatly when faced with new classrooms in elementary, depending on the teaching style and especially when they reach high school. So, I’ve achieved a nice comfortable balance of both worlds. I have three boxes of hands-on activities (some brought and some made) consisting of one English box, one maths box and one games box. When each lesson is finished and the required amount of writing is completed in their books, then they are free to choose from a subject appropriate box.
The wonderful thing is, they willingly take out a packet of alphabet letters or counters and spell words or count. I see them work independently, in pairs or as a group and form new strategies and games without any input from me. They take on new learning opportunities such as these even in their playtime, when it is too wet or cold to play outdoors.
They thoroughly enjoy our classroom and I feel that together we have achieved a ‘learning is fun’ atmosphere. Every week day I wake at 6am, shower, dress, scull a large caffe latte, take five minutes to put on my coat, scarf, hat and gloves and one minute to walk to Bovolone train station to catch the train that heads for Verona. Two stops and I arrive at Verona Porta Nuova train station and then it’s a twenty minute walk to school. I like walking through the station every morning, past platforms that have trains bound for Bologna, Venezia and Milano, that I can be in and around cities that I used to only experience through photos and movies.
I walk amongst a crowd of teenagers along a street with much too narrow paths and a narrow space between the line of trees and brick wall that turns an almost two-way path into barely a one-way on a rainy day as you run the risk of locking umbrellas like stag antlers. I have moments of feeling like a part of the crowd, as if, I dare say and please don’t cringe too much… sometimes I feel as if I’ve always been here. Me in my scarf, beanie and winter coat, listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘One Hot Minute’ an album from my sixteenth year… I am whisked away to my teenage years and then it occurs to me: ‘I AM youthful’.
Seriously. I feel young and I don’t think that’s going to change. I have absolutely no fear of turning 31 or 32 or 52. It’s all good. I feel happy, at peace and there is nowhere else I’d rather be right now. Of course, I miss my family and friends in Melbourne very, very much. But missing won’t keep in me Melbourne right now. Melbourne is comfortable, easy and secure. I know the streets and love it all. Here, yes I have found some comfort… but it’s not easy. There are still moments of apprehension, doubt and uncertainty. For sure, I had all these feelings at times in Melbourne, it’s not Pleasantville or some kind of Utopian paradise. It’s still as any mode of life. But living in Italy is something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m doing it. Teaching in another country is something I’ve always wanted to do and despite all the odd contrasts and eccentricities, it has been a great experience adapting and getting to know a completely different system.
I could sit here and list all of the negatives but I’m not going to. It will just make me feel tired.
Instead, I’m going to sit and ponder now, without boring you by putting it in print, of all the things that I have learnt that I will take back to Melbourne, whenever that may be…
Vediamo – we’ll see.
It’s not downhill after 30 as I guess is the age old notion that I feel my generation is breaking out of and 30 is the new 20, is it not? It’s a road that keeps going and the way it goes all depends on how you drive and which turns you make.
And choose to remain calm most of the time, if not all.
Ciao for now!