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New York City
July 2002

My Experiences In Italy
By Molly Wallace

Suor 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.#

Molly Wallace is a student at Barnard College and an intern at Education Update.


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All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.