1. What it feels like to be homesick.
I have never been really, properly and truly homesick. But after spending a week with my lovely host family in Mondavio, it was time to up sticks and move to a new family home in nearby San Lorenzo, and weirdly this is the first time in my life that I have ever properly emotionally missed a home. Admittedly having had approximately three hours sleep and a ridiculous quantity of alcohol the night before meeting my new family can only have exacerbated my emotional state, but it was a pretty terrible feeling nonetheless.
The goodbye itself wasn’t sad- but as we drove away from the meeting point in the back of the new family’s car and off into the mountains I realised that I was actually full on 100% DEVASTATED to be leaving so soon. I shoved a pair of sunglasses on and kept them on my face for pretty much the rest of the entire day, to cover up my pitiful shedding of tears whilst attempting to be friendly/polite/not sick.
I missed Mondavio, my first family, little two-year old Dante who was my true best Italian pal, my first bedroom…it was pathetic I tell you! Eventually I realised I was reaching unprecedented levels of tearfulness and that I needed to pick myself up and start appreciating my new family (who were bloody lovely, I tell you), more before it was too late and I was leaving them too.
2. I love naughty kids as much as the good ones.
I never thought I’d say this but I missed my old class, full of naughty crazy rowdy twelve year olds who threw things at each other and who tried every tactic possible to resist sitting down for two minutes. I’d even had to send one of them out of the classroom to think about his actions whilst the rest of the class sat in horrified silence and I silently hoped and prayed (not letting my facial expression betray this, of course), that when I opened the door to let him back in he wouldn’t have done a runner. I’d broken up fights, I’d spent over the course of the last week probably around five hours waiting for them to get in line, quiet down, stop throwing things at each other. I’d seen one of them KILL A LIZARD IN FRONT OF MY VERY EYES, for goodness sake.
But what was great about those guys was that by the end of the week I’d built up a bit of a rapport with them- they genuinely cracked me up- and actually it was an incredibly rewarding feeling every time I realised that something I’d taught them had sunk in and that they were actually enjoying themselves as well.
Then I got to San Lorenzo. My class of 14 year olds were the quietest bunch I’ve ever met, and Fergus was no longer exiting his classrooms shaking and drenched in sweat but leaving instead with a baffled, mildly concerned smile on his face. We’d gone from having nightmare classes to rooms full of silent angels. The whole thing was incredibly confusing. It’ll sound crazy but at first having a class full of amazingly well-behaved pupils made me genuinely uncomfortable- none of them were even talking, let alone misbehaving- but after a while I got used to it and realised that it was obviously a good thing.
There were a few kids in my class who fully loved performing and once I realised that I could change my teaching style a bit to get even more out of them, it was awesome. I wrote a more challenging script for them, and they got more into their production of Snow White than I’d ever have imagined at the beginning of the week. I was so proud of those guys, and got fully emotional (again) when at the end of the week the English teacher from the school pulled us teachers up on stage to thank us all. I actually felt like we’d done good, you know.
Compared to the first week’s host family, where there was always someone around who spoke the same language as me, in my new family- consisting of Sabrina, Marco, and 13 year old daughter Sara- they were a far quieter bunch and their English was limited. I’d tried to learn as many Italian words and phrases as I could since arriving in the country, and my basic knowledge of Spanish helped me understand things a little, but having a conversation was at first a troublesome activity.
That’s until we collectively utilised the powers of both Google Translate, and MIME! TRUE FACT. Marco discovered that the best way to explain the word ‘milk’ to me with no phone around to translate for him was to simply make a mooing sound with his hands raised above his head like ears/horns, a sight and sound I will never forget. Another teacher, Casey, got so into the art of mime that a conversation with him started to resemble something not too dissimilar from a one-man mime show. Even when speaking to English people. 😂
5. How to deal with a crisis where you don’t speak the language.
Day four of teaching at the school in San Lorenzo, and we were in for a shock when one of Fergus’s angelic kids sat on a radiator in a classroom and broke it. The pipe connecting it to the wall had bent, sending water spurting out across the floor, which if left could at least flood the room, if not the entire building. The kids went on break and whilst inspecting the damage it dawned on us that we, yet again, were the only adults in sole charge of a school that we did not know. Even the caretaker had disappeared at lunchtime, and the phone number of the school’s English teacher was not working.
We began to fear for our jobs. (This isn’t even an exaggeration. The company we were working for had a habit of sending teachers home with no pay and I for one was terrified that we’d be next.) We let the children have a longer and longer break whilst we mulled the problem over in the beating down sun.
Then I remembered that in a mobile kitchen next to the school there were sometimes a few people hanging about. I got Sara and her friend Giada, took them to the pipe and then took them to the mobile kitchen, telling them I needed them to explain the problem and see if they could help of us. The answer came back quickly- ‘they said they can’t help, and they don’t know who to contact either.’ CLASSIC. I could have cried. Until it turned out that by coincidence some plumbers were on the premises to do some work in the kitchen. Say whaaaat!? I did cry, and none of us even got sent home, double whammy.
6. Fresh figs straight from the tree in Italy taste way better than any English supermarket fig you will ever lay your hands on.
Trust me on this one.
7. Expectation rarely matches reality.
I kind of already knew this, but it was reiterated to me on the evening I thought that my teacher pal Casey and I were going for a quiet meal with a few of Sara’s friends from church. I’m not a churchgoing kind of a lass myself, but I’m quite open minded about these of things…I mean as long as you’re a good person, I don’t think it really matters what you believe in, you know? Casey on the other hand was convinced they would make us convert to Catholicism or at the very least say a few Hail Marys for a laugh.
It was dark by the time we pulled up outside the hall where the meal was taking place (clue number one, not a restaurant, or a house, but a hall), and we were led up the side of the building feeling mildly concerned for our wellbeing into a grassy floodlit area. Standing in the middle was a young guy with a loudhailer, surrounded by a circle of approximately 200 Italian teenagers. I’m not gonna lie, at this point and bearing in mind I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on I genuinely began to suspect it was a 100% real-life cult. But don’t worry, pals, it was in actual fact a reunion dinner for Christian Summer Camp. Panic over.
There were several kids from both of our classes there who beckoned us over to stand with them in the circle, explaining that everyone had to introduce themselves to the group one by one. Obviously, this included us. I was overwhelmingly TERRIFIED. Casey appeared to be having palpitations and began to hiss loudly in my ear ‘I DO NOT want to do this.’ There was genuine fear in that guys eyes, probably in mine too, and I was secretly incredibly relieved that he would have to go first. Tee hee.
Casey’s turn came. He took a deep breath, stepped forward and declared-
‘MY NAME IS CASEY LLOYD, AND I AM FROM LONDON!!!!’
THE CROWD WENT WILD. It was like something out of Braveheart.
We all went inside to eat at long trestle tables on benches, summer camp style. My kids wanted me to sing to them, sit with them, to explain to me everything that was happening… The atmosphere was rowdy, happy, chaotic, heartwarming. It was not what I was expecting, but it was beaut.
8. It’s good to put your trust in strangers.
This whole experience has been one of the most bizarre that I have ever had. When I first came out to Italy I had no idea who I would be staying with, what part of Italy I would be located in, or who I would be working with or teaching. Whilst there I found myself regularly stepping into a car with no idea where I was going, what the plan was, or more crucially whether I shouldve used the loo before leaving. I basically just had to trust that it would all be ok, and go with the flow. Sometimes this meant smiling and nodding and looking like a bit of a clueless fool, but it became like a daily magical mystery tour and I quite enjoyed not having a plan.
The people I met were amazing, and fully welcomed a stranger into their own homes which I think is a pretty bold and brave move really! Good one, those guys.
I once read on a sign in a pub that ‘strangers are just friends that haven’t yet met.’ And I reckon that sign was speaking the truth, for goodness sake.