Experiences In Italy
Paola was a nun, a sports commentator and a teacher. It was the
day of my tenth birthday when I started as a student in her fifth
grade class. It was my third year in Italy, so my Italian had
progressed beyond its starting point of, “Io sono Americana, non
parlo Italiano.” (I’m American, I don’t speak Italian) My next-door
neighbor and close friend was half Swiss, half Italian and went
to French school. She spoke passable German, and fluent French
and Italian. Even though I spoke none of these languages, with
her intuitive grasp for communication I learned from her quickly.
Fifth grade was going to be a different matter altogether.
The difficulties of writing and reading comprehension were not
the only ones I would have to face. The notation they used for
math was different: decimal points were represented by commas
and commas by points. Long division was done not on the same scheme
I had been taught. When we studied America in geography/history
the textbook stated that people of color were not allowed on the
same buses as white people. This was in 1994. When I argued, the
teacher seconded the textbook’s claim. Another time a boy was
teasing me, so I popped my umbrella near his face. With a smile
on her face Suor Paola decided that for punishment I should have
to kiss him. The whole class, including the teacher began chanting,
“Bacio! Bacio! Bacio!” (Kiss!). They stopped when I started crying.
In America this could easily have been turned into a sexual harassment
case. I realize in retrospect that in a country where a kiss on
the cheek is equivalent to a handshake, this would have been nothing
but a symbol of reconciliation.
Though my peers were for the most part helpful and supportive,
there were times when they were less than understanding. English
lessons were part of the curriculum and generally involved learning
how to conjugate the present tense of the verb “to be”. For someone
who had run out of Roald Dahl books to read, this was frustrating.
So I got permission from the English teacher to go to another
room and read. Throughout the English lessons, the other students
would ask to go to the bathroom. Instead they would come to the
room where I was reading to tell me that they had to study Italian
in school, so I should have to study English. Responding that
they were not studying Italian at the same level they were studying
English was to no avail. I ended up preferring the English lessons
to the lectures I got from my classmates. Another area in which
I didn’t get much support from my classmates was on the soccer
field. Italy is soccer crazed – boys play and girls watch, which
made me the only girl on the soccer team. When I complained to
a boy that he never passed me the ball he told me, “Torna a quel
paese!” This expression was Roman slang, and I was not familiar
with it. Literally it means, “go back to that country,” so that’s
what I took it to mean. When the coach forced him to apologize
he explained that it did not have anything to do with me being
American, it was just a generic insult.
Soccer was one place where Suor Paola came in handy. When the
school was starting out she wrote off to the Rome soccer team
and asked them to donate uniforms. She got no reply so she wrote
to the Lazio soccer team, Rome’s rival. They sent her everything
she requested. From then on she was an avid fan and went to the
stadium on Wednesdays and Sundays to watch her team play. It is
illegal to transmit full games on TV in Italy so TV spectators
have to settle for shows with commentators, various distractions
and the clips of live highlights. One such show came across Suor
Paola in the stadium one weekend, listened to her cheer, and hired
her. She became somewhat of a national celebrity. Compared with
a nun sports commentator, a girl on the soccer team was not that
weird. Thankfully she came to our games and this contrast was
apparent to the other teams as well.
When fifth grade was over I took the national exams to pass elementary
school, and did fine. I looked at some Italian middle schools,
but could not find anything that would match the intimacy that
a small school like the one I went to provided. I ended up going
to an international school where the Italians spoke to me in Italian,
the English speakers in English, and everyone else in whatever
language was most convenient. Now I am at college in New York
where one of my two majors is Italian. Studying the language and
culture in a classroom is a different experience, and while I
am learning new specifics about Italy’s history and culture, it
all rings true to my experience there.#
Wallace is a student at Barnard College and an intern at Education
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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