Archive | March, 2013

The Spoleto bubble

18 Mar

After 2 months here, I’ve gotten to know the ins and outs of Spoleto pretty well. While it has some of the features of a traditional small town like villas, beautiful mountains, historic buildings and protected sites, it also has a side to it that I wasn’t expecting at all. There’s a bit of a Desperate Housewives feel around here – there’s a lot of pressure on the women to stay young, have the latest clothes and accessories, have the cleanest nicest houses, stuff like that. There’s also a lot of gossip going around among both adults and teens, although I find it all pretty trivial because it reminds me of high school. Everyone here knows everyone, and knows everyone’s business, which makes Spoleto actually quite insular despite being so close to Rome.

Another aspect of Italian life which I find quite amusing is the standard Saturday night activities for young people (mostly younger than me though, generally 14-18). From around 5.30/6pm everyone goes to hang out in Piazza Garibaldi, apparently even if it’s really cold. Their version of hanging out isn’t quite like mine, which would involve drinks and catching up with friends, and probably finding somewhere to sit. Here, groups gather but never stay in one spot for more than a few minutes, and there is always sense of waiting for other people to arrive or that something is about to happen or we are about to go somewhere, although nothing actually happens until about 8.30 when everyone goes for dinner.

You end up with groups moving around the square, picking up new people and losing other ones in a constant state of ‘about to go do something’ without doing anything or settling anywhere to have a proper chat. This might sound like a very German way of thinking, but I think there are far more efficient ways of socialising than what the kids here call ‘hanging out’, but I call ‘loitering’. I no I just realised I’m turning into a grumpy old woman. Blame the impending birthday (1 week today!)

Some stuff I have been up to recently:

  • Hip hop dance classes

A lot of fun, although when I look up in the mirror and see myself dancing to Busta Rhymes all I see is the whitest white girl that ever there was. But at least I’m enjoying myself.

  • Teaching at the Catholic school in the centre

The nuns have hired me to teach an hour a week to the tiniest of tiny kids, ranging from 2 1/2 to 5 years old. They are adorable, but they also have non-existent attention spans. Even 5 minutes on one activity is too much for them, and they are pretty blunt about it when they don’t want to do something. Some classic statements from the children include “I don’t want to hear this song” and “No. Stop. Enough.” 1 hour with 3 year olds is 5 hours in real time.

  • Tutoring

I have been helping out a woman who lives near me with her English skills. Teaching an adult one-on-one is also a lot more difficult than teaching year 5, as you can’t hide the fact that you’re learning English behind games and colouring in, and you have to find something that is more stimulating than describing what all your favourite objects are. However it is quite fun to be able to have more in-depth conversations than with the children.

  • Adventuring

(But slightly less further afield this time.) On Saturday afternoon I went to Assisi for a couple of hours. Assisi is where St. Francis comes from, and is the guy who the new Pope based his name on. Speaking of the Pope, I seem to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time for major world events, which has led me to being in both China and the UK during the Olympics but seeing neither of them, and living less than 2 hours from Rome but not going to see the Pope. I’m not that bothered though, Popes are much of a muchness and have very little impact on my life.

Back to St. Francis, he liked giving his money away and helping animals, and even saved the town of Gubbio from a wolf who was terrorising the villagers back in the day. This all ties in nicely with the fact that I went to Gubbio yesterday with one of the teachers and her family, as it is her hometown. For those less interested in religion and more in science, Gubbio is also the town where there was first discovered a layer of clay separating 2 different layers of limestone which proved that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by a meteor (sorry if my facts aren’t bang on). So clearly it’s a town with something for everyone.

  • Avoiding my weird neighbour

In an apartment downstairs there’s this really weird guy who lives with his mum and his son. He doesn’t seem to have a job, so every time I enter the building he opens his front door a tiny bit and watches me go up the stairs, which is fucking creepy if you ask me. He’s also teaching his 4 year old to do it, I feel pretty sorry for the kid. What’s worse is that when I first moved in, I was told to pay money to this guy for the cleaning of the stairs and stuff. When I knocked on his door he happily took the money, I had no idea what he was saying as he doesn’t speak clearly, but I assumed it was all sorted.

A few days later a very official business-y looking women came to my door and said she was there to collect the communal cleaning money. When I told her I had already paid it the creepy guy, she said he has nothing to do with it and that he hadn’t given her any money and not to talk to him cos he’s strange. So that bastard has 6 whole euros of mine, and continues to watch me whenever I come in the building.


Don’t let the clear skies fool you, it was freeeeezing.



Pink marble

Pink marble

Assisi Assisi Assisi Assisi Assisi


Gubbio Gubbio

Used for the Festa dei Ceri

Used for the Festa dei Ceri

Gubbio Gubbio

Sights of the day:

Worst clothes shop name and also worst logo ever.


One of the year 5 classes had a creative show and tell last week and one student made this awesome Red Bull can aeroplane. Future Flugtag participant?

Gives you wings


A rough guide to teaching when you are completely unqualified

11 Mar

English language assistants are quite lucky in that we are all (for the most part) ‘experts’ in our subject, without even having to try. At least this works when you’re teaching young’uns like I am, where a basic knowledge of how to conjugate the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ is enough to create at least half an hour of work for a class of 9/10 year-olds. Any time you’re not doing grammar or laying down the basics of English, you can always talk about cultural differences between Italy and England as this always fascinates the children.

Last week I spent over an hour answering the kids’ questions about education in the UK. They were outraged that English children don’t have to go to school on a Saturday, and classes start slightly later (usually 9am instead of the Italian 8.15, 45 minutes makes a surprising amount of difference). Sometimes my knowledge doesn’t quite stretch as far as my students’ demands though eg. ‘Who was the architect of every different landmark in London?’ Italian children seem to be slightly more culturally curious that their British counterparts.

Sometimes they really surprise me, like a few weeks ago when I mentioned how the Italian elections were coming up and one young boy went off on a rant about politics and Mario Monti, which threw me slightly as most English children probably couldn’t tell you more about our politicians other than ‘Boris Johnson is a funny man with very blonde hair’.

Another subject students really enjoy is learning about British money. I brought in my English purse and let them have a proper look at all the coins and the only note I had with me which was a 20. Some of the great comments I heard include ‘Wow the Queen looks really manly’ and ‘But you don’t ACTUALLY use these as money do you?’. When I explained that no, this isn’t Monopoly money, it’s the real deal, the little girl rolled her eyes as if the UK is the spoilt brat in the playground who wants to have their own special toy to themselves instead of joining in with all their other European friends. Maybe we are to some extent, but the pound has worked pretty well for us so far.

The idea of the English/Scottish divide also came up when talking about money, as I explained that Scotland has it’s own currency which is still really the pound. I tried to use Michael McIntyre’s ‘legal tender’ joke to explain the slight tensions between the two countries, but British comedy doesn’t translate very well and went down like a lead balloon.

Here’s a quick tip for other assistants: if you have any £ notes, teach the kids the happy/sad queen trick. They absolutely love it. Another activity to fill in the time is to give them all an English version of their name. If you really can’t think of an equivalent, let them pick their own name.

One of the biggest problems I have for teaching English is pronunciation. Italian is a phonetic language, so the children read out words as they are written using Italian syllables. This can be a little frustrating as they don’t quite grasp the idea that English pronunciation makes absolutely no sense at all and there is usually little connection between spelling and pronunciation…just think how the following words are said: through, tough, though. You see?

Even when they have learnt to pronounce words really well from just hearing them, as soon as they find out how it’s is spelled they go back to trying to say it the ‘Italian way’ eg. favourite becomes ‘fah-vo-rit’, republic becomes ‘reh-poo-blic’. The most you can do here is get the class to repeat the correct pronunciation a few times to try and get it to stick. If they are a bit older, you can try writing a ‘suggested pronunciation’ using Italian syllables eg. write republic as ripablik, but only do this if they are old enough to understand this is just a pronunciation guide and not the actual way to spell it.

Another big problem is the letter h. In Italian, it isn’t pronounced at the beginning of a word, in English it (mostly) is. As it isn’t a naturally occurring sound in Italian you need to really over-emphasise the ‘aspirated’ sound of the h for words like his, her, house, hello, or you’ll hear a lot of ‘is’, ‘er’, ‘ouse’ and ‘ello’. Strangely, I also hear a lot of ‘h’s being added to the beginning of words where it doesn’t exist. A common example of this is the sentence ‘It is raining’ which becomes ‘Hit his raining.’ I don’t know if this is hypercorrection because they think you say h at the beginning of all words starting with a vowel, or they just can’t tell whether they’re saying h or not.

There is a similar issue with words that end in a consonant, especially -t, -d and  -s. In Italian most words end in a vowel so it is tricky for the children to finish with a consonant, which is why the stereotype exists that all Italians speak-a like-a this-a. The -s one is especially a problem because it can make or break whether a word is plural. I’m not sure how to deal with this one, so if anyone has any advice please let me know.

Sorry those last few paragraphs were pretty dry. On the lighter side, one thing I love about teaching is how cute the children can be. I’m quiet lucky as, being a short-term assistant and not a full-time teacher, I basically have diplomatic immunity. This means that I never have kids get angry or shout at me personally, and on the occasion when they’re being too rowdy or just don’t want to pay attention I know I can whip out the old ‘If you don’t want to listen then I don’t want to teach you, I’m just going to go now’ to which the reply is a chorus of ‘Nononono staaaay’. The cutest thing is turning up to teach the younger years and being dump-tackled by a gaggle of little girls who all want a hug. Adorable.

I like to think that no child is inherently evil, and if they’re acting out there’s usually an underlying reason, as opposed to them just wanting to ruin your morning. In the class I talked about a few weeks ago, where there was a girl who refused to do any work or even talk, I decided to try chatting to her at breaktime to see what was up. It turned out she was just sad that no one would play with her, so we gathered up some chalk and started a game of hangman on the board, and soon a few others noticed and wanted to join in. Result: sullen grumpy girl becomes talkative happy girl. Mission accomplished.

I realise this post has gone slightly off track from the title and is more anecdotal than helpful…however if I do think of any groundbreaking teaching tips I’ll write another post about it.

In the classroom

This is a very ‘me’ problem, but I’m sure you’ve all experienced when you repeat a word to yourself too many times and it loses any meaning? Well this happens to me all the time when I’m teaching, so I’ve had many many embarrassing moments where I’ve gone to write on the board how to spell something simple like ‘colour’ and gone ‘Shit…is that actually a word? That doesn’t look right’. Cue awkward googling to check I’m right. Some of the teachers must think I’m an idiot.

A weird phenomenon I noticed in a year 3 class at one school is that there are LOADS of twins. Way above what should be average. I was also told that two of the boys where actually part of triplets, but the girl one goes to a different school. There must have been something in the water back in 2005.

Another embarrassing fact is that all of the kids are way cooler than me. They are all really well dressed and have awesome high tops and haircuts, while I had a 20kg weight limit coming here so my rotation of school-appropriate clothing is small. One fashion-conscious 4 year old even told me that he didn’t appreciate how I was wearing a chequered shirt undone over another top, and was very concerned as to why I hadn’t used the buttons.

Sights of the day

I love all of the little trinkets and drawings I’ve been given by students. Here are a few bits and bobs:

A pen holder...which at the moment only contains a cocktail stirrer,

A pen holder…which at the moment only contains a cocktail stirrer,

A ladybug/'coccinella' paper weight. In Italy ladybugs are said to bring good luck,

A ladybug/’coccinella’ paper weight. In Italy ladybugs are said to bring good luck,

I had completely forgotten that scoubidous exist but they were all the rage when I was in year 7, and apparently they're still going strong here.

I had completely forgotten that scoubidous exist but they were all the rage when I was in year 7, and apparently they’re still going strong here.

DSC00252 DSC00248 DSC00251

Milan Darling

5 Mar

Another weekend, another 5.41am train. The things I do to save money. On the upside, during my nocturnal outings I have discovered that there are TWO 24 hour cafés on my road. This would be good if they were like English cafés with seats and wifi and the like, but here the done thing is to run in, grab a tiny coffee and a pastry, eat them standing up at the bar, and run out again. Apparently any meal under 3 courses doesn’t deserve a table, so most cafés here have very few, plus you get looked at funny if you stay for more than 10 minutes.

There are also 2 fruit sellers on the way to the station which are run out of small concrete rooms which don’t have doors and are more like sheds. At night as they can’t ‘shut up shop’ in the usual way, instead they just pile all the wooden fruit boxes up around the doorway and cover everything with a tarp. For extra security, they play loud angry recordings of what sounds like muslim prayers, or sometimes communist propaganda, which scared the absolute shit out of me the first time I walked past at 5am. I thought they were shelters set up by hobos. I’m guessing it’s pretty effective at keeping those pesky fruit-display-thieves away at night.

Anyway, back to me on a train on Friday. Thanks to a 15 minute delay (how can a train be delayed at that time in the morning?!) which turned into a 45 minute delay as the journey went on, it took about 7 hours to get to Milan. I know there are quicker ways, but this was a direct train so I just got on and slept pretty much the whole time. I met up with Charli and Luisa from Bristol, plus Luisa’s sister Ida who was also staying for the weekend, and we went off to have lunch and do various touristy things. They wouldn’t let us in to see the Duomo because of Luisa’s scandalously short skirt, so we put it off and instead went to Parco Sempione.



Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione

We were really lucky the entire weekend as apparently up until Friday it had been rainy and horrible, but for the few days I was there it was relatively warm and even pretty sunny! Spoleto on the other hand is always quite cold even on cloudless days, must be something to do with the humidity. Moving on from the weather chat (oh so English), after visiting the park we went our separate ways as I desperately needed a nap, Charli was doing a few hours of au pair work, and Luisa was organising moving house.

For reasons I can only blame myself for, there was a bit of a mix up with Charli as I couldn’t stay at hers because she lives with the family she au pairs for, which meant that the day before coming to Milan I had to find a last-minute hostel. I ended up staying at the Zebra Hostel which isn’t too far from the centre and is right by a direct tram to the Duomo. My advice to anyone planning on staying there is that it’s a great hostel for staying at with friends, being social and meeting foreign people as it has a cool communal area with a giant sofa thing and a bar, and it’s especially good if you want to go out in the evening as the reception is open 24 hours and there’s no curfew. However, if you have any intentions getting a full night’s sleep, this isn’t the place for you.

I booked a bed in a 12 person room and found that, weirdly, in the larger shared rooms the walls don’t actually go all the way up to the ceiling. I’m assuming this is something to do with fire safety due to having so many beds in one room, so not having full walls stops them from being officially ‘rooms’. The downside to this is that you can hear everything in the 2 adjacent big shared rooms, and you can also hear everything in the corridor (and the bathroom if its door is open). There are smaller rooms with proper walls though, so if you jump on the booking a little earlier than the day before, there shouldn’t be any problems.

Y u no have real walls??

Y u no have real walls??

Zebra Hostel

Zebra Hostel



That evening we all met up and went for predrinks before an Erasmus night. Our attempts to order Long Island Iced Teas ended up with us being given big glasses of gin with a little bit of lemonade in. Good value for money, not easy on the stomach though. Highlights of the evening include the sweaty older gentleman who started a Mr. Motivator-style aerobics class in the middle of the dance floor, finding that guy:girl ratio was waaaay on the sausagefest side, and being subjected to cage dancers who looked like Russian prostitutes. Whatever floats your boat Italy.

Getting back I was worried that in my less-than-sober state I would stack it trying to get back into my hostel room and infuriate a lot of European gap yah students, but when I eventually made it in at 5 there were only a few other people asleep there. Some Spanish girls turned up at about 5.30, and then VOLUNTARILY got up at 8.30, which woke everyone up both times. It’s not even like they decided to do anything with their early start as they were still in the hostel 3 hours later.

On Saturday Charli and I started with a visit to the inside of the Duomo, which I have no photos of because you have to pay for a wristband to use cameras inside. One thing Italy does very well is profiting from tourism, and unlike in Bordeaux where many sites and museums were free, in Italy you’re more likely to have to pay for entry, even if it’s a small fee. We then had some lunch followed by a trip to the Triennale to see an exhibition called ‘Sesso e Design’, purely so we could see The Great Wall of Vagina. Because we’re really highbrow and cultured yeh?

We left feeling very empowered and enlightened, etc. etc. and went to visit the stark contrast to this, the Last Supper. I expected a bit of a Mona Lisa thing where you turn up and go ‘is that it?’, but the Last Supper definitely lives up to expectations. No photos allowed, yet again, and anyway I spent most of the allotted 15 minutes viewing period looking for hidden patterns and symbols because it’s definitely all a conspiracy.

Very pleasing Da Vinci-related signs outside the Last Supper

Very pleasing Da Vinci-related signs outside the Last Supper

We squeezed in just a little bit of shopping, and I discovered my new favourite shop ever Brandy Melville. Despite the name it’s actually an Italian brand, although luckily for me they opened their first UK shop in November. I spent far too much money there feeding my drop armhole vest addiction which would be great if I lived somewhere where it’s remotely warm, or if they were in any way appropriate to wear for teaching, but unfortunately not so until summer, or I’m in England where I won’t get tsked at for showing too much skin.

On Saturday evening we went out for a relaxed aperitivo before having a relatively early night, since I hadn’t really slept for 2 days by that point. Sunday was mainly based on shopping and food, followed by a rushed goodbye before catching a train home at about 6. As I was in such a hurry before the train I grabbed a sandwich from the WHSmiths-type shop on the platform, although at the time I didn’t realise that it wasn’t salmon and cream cheese but actually salmon and mayonnaise, which is really unpleasant combo when you only open it 3 hours into your journey and it’s all warm. Also note to self to not book trains that get in at 12.10am again when it’s really really cold in Spoleto and you have to walk home and you have teaching the next day.

A few more pics of other things we got up to:

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Da Vinci himself I believe

Da Vinci himself I believe

La Scala

La Scala

Gelato every day

Gelato every day

Charli, Luisa and Ida

Charli, Luisa and Ida

Despite what many people say about Milan being too busy, too concretey, and too focused on consumerism, I really loved it! It’s really easy to get around as there are buses, trams, the metro and overground trains, although most of the touristy places are within walking distance of each other. I would really like to go back for a longer period of time, ideally when it warms up a bit more, although I’d probably say the same for most places I’ve visited here so far. Come on Spring, where are you??

Sights of the day

Near my hostel there was a little alcove with a few vending machines in, which sold snacks but also things like vegetable broth, ready meals, and cutlery. There was also a hot and cold drinks dispenser and a microwave, and what was even more surprising was that everything was really clean and in tidy even though it’s open to anyone to use! I think it was called something like ’24 hour self serve fast food’ which would be such a great idea in England if there wasn’t such a high chance that people would urinate in it.

Fast food


she's gone away again

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