Matt Done shares his experience in 'Bella Italia'.
A few years ago, I happened to come across one of those ‘teach yourself Italian’ audio tapes on the internet. In all honesty, I’d never really had any particular longing to learn the language prior to this. In fact, the extent of my Italian was essentially ‘si’, ‘no’ and ‘calcio d’angolo’. Yet with little else to amuse myself with at the time, I thought ‘why not?’ I transferred the tracks onto my ipod, and took my first pioneering steps into the daunting world of the Italian language.
I was instantly captivated. With intense fixation, I followed the adventures of a young, carefree traveller in Italy, learning all about the sights, sounds and smells that ‘bella Italia’ had to offer. I listened with delight as she frolicked down charming alleyways of cobbled stone, into picturesque vineyards, quaint pizzerias, and through crowded piazzas, where language learning opportunities would invariably present themselves. Each unit ended with the most charming of tunes – the type you’d imagine emanating into the Italian summer sky. I was well and truly smitten, and I knew I had to sample it for myself.
Armed with my CELTA certificate, a thousand or so euro, and very little else, I set off for Rome with a friend. The intention couldn’t have been more straightforward: find an English teaching job, a room to sleep in, and then dive head first into ‘la vita bella’.
As we ambled out of Termini station and into the heart of Rome, I had to pinch myself to realise I was now the ‘carefree traveller’ myself. Would I, like the woman on the tape, experience Italy to its fullest? As the moonlight lit up Piazza Della Republikka to majestic effect, I could feel myself getting carried away with the romance of it all... And then, like a timely reminder that life isn’t in fact a soppy film, a homeless man decided to entertain us with a bit of impromptu singing and dancing. Suffice to say, I was brought back down to earth! As the feeling of giddiness subsided, we were able to focus on our objectives for the first week. Get a job. Find a flat. Get orientated.
Task one could barely have been any less taxing. Within three days, we had been offered two teaching positions, and had the luxury of picking the one we preferred. In the end, our staunch refusal to miss Manchester United matches meant that the school requiring us to work on Saturday afternoons lost the battle.
Locating a home base was also remarkably plain sailing. After a week, we moved into a pokey but cosy apartment in the shadows of Termini station. Perhaps not the most prestigious of areas to call your own, but a convenient one without question. This travelling thing was an absolute doddle! As life settled into some sort of routine, a few things became startlingly clear to me. Number one? When in Rome, do NOT do as the Romans do if the matter at hand is driving. I’ll never forget my first attempt at one of Italy’s most perilous activities – crossing the road. I’m fairly sure that my time in Rome enabled me to hone my reactions to the level of a Formula One driver.
Secondly, the Roman weather didn’t seem all it was cranked up to be. It was a solid ten days before the clouds parted enough for the rains to cease, and a smidgen of reassuring blue to reveal itself. At one point I wondered whether we had accidentally boarded a plane to Wales.
But don’t allow my cynicism to fool you. Rome was beyond beautiful – it was simply breathtaking. Every time I saw the Fontana di Trevi, with its sculpturesque brilliance and its timeless beauty, my heart would flutter like a teenager staring at Justin Timberlake. The Colloseum, with its towering majesty, never failed to humble me. Even the notorious ‘Vittoriano’ monument compelled me with its pure white colour and its powerful grandeur. I loved nothing more than going for walks in the late night hours to take in the sights. Most often I’d walk to Piazza Navonna, or the Colloseum. Occasionally, I’d go a little further, and say hello to the Vatican in all its glory. The splendour of the city won me over with ease.
As far as teaching went, the system was very much in contrast to that of Malta. While here we are used to foreigners coming over for short spells, in Rome, we taught locals, mainly professionals and the odd high school student. Many of these required lessons at their own workplace, which resulted in some rather interesting trips. I’d have two lessons a week at the Ministero Dell’Interno, where on day one I was made to navigate through about 28 security stops. Apparently, teaching English is very suspicious business. At the ministero, I had weekly one to one lessons with a considerably important man. Lessons without some kind of ‘emergency’ interruption were unheard of, but his typical Italian nature made it impossible for me to be annoyed. On one instance, his mobile phone rang mid lesson. After a few minutes of natter, he hung up, and turned to me to apologize. ‘I’m a-very -sorry.’ He said. ‘This is-a-my friend. Maybe you know, Francesco Totti?’
Another company I visited regularly was a 30 minute bus ride away, as it was on the outskirts of the city. I taught in the most luxurious of boardrooms, with endlessly long mahogany tables, an interactive whiteboard, stunning city views, and leather seats fit for royalty. The company’s reception desk was manned by the most delightful and boisterous man, who never missed the opportunity to sneak a cheeky glimpse at naughty women on his computer when he thought nobody was looking.
I’d do group lessons at the main school building in the evenings, too. I taught some absolutely unforgettable people – the kind you dream of having in your EFL class. They would discuss, often passionately, about any topic you happened to bring into the classroom. They attacked every activity with fervour, and made that modest schoolroom a wonderful place to be. If there was just one drawback about those evening bunches, it was their punctuality. Lessons start at five? Ha! That’s twenty five past here in Rome!
All in all, life was generous in the Italian capital. The early rainfall became a distant memory, and most days were dazzlingly beautiful. Sauntering through the marvellous Villa Borghese became the default Sunday afternoon pastime. Also, life never ceased in the evening. Everywhere you looked, regardless of the time of day, the hum of activity prevailed. People chatted in cafes well into the morning, tourists strolled through the old centre at all hours, and inebriated people hurled bottles and other handy items at each other... (well, we did live right next to the train station, remember?) We spent around four months in Rome, and loved practically all of it. If you’ve got an EFL qualification, and are using it overseas, I cannot encourage you more forcefully to just go for it. We’re privileged beings, you and I, in that something we take for granted is something that so many people need. Our English! So use it - go and pick a city and vanish for a while. You won’t regret it. I certainly don’t.
This article originally featured in the MATEFL 2013 Newsletter