The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


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Why I Love Italians

This weekend, I paid extra attention to what makes the Italian people around me so special. Sometimes cultural stereotypes are nonsense: the French are no ruder than any other population and not all British people need extensive dental work. It seems to me though that the common perception of Italian people is not so far off the mark. Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule but my stay here so far has shown me that…

1)    The Italians DO have amazing food

What I love about Molfetta is that things grind to halt around 1pm so that families can have lunch together. This weekend, I was chatting to my friends about what we had for lunch, and every one of us had eaten pasta or rice. Of course every day there is a different sauce or a different accompaniment but this primo (‘first course’) invariably keeps you going all afternoon. It’s a shame that the concept of ‘Italian food’ is sometimes reduced to spaghetti and pizza. The Italian diet is so much more varied and uses loads of fresh vegetables. On Friday, I made myself a frittata con zucchine and although I spent the best part of the evening cleaning the tin, I was very happy with my efforts. Other culinary highlights include fresh fish and little pieces of knotted mozzarella that actually tastes of something. Oh, and the deliciously thick hot chocolate, best shared on a rainy afternoon, with biscuits and apricot jam.

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2)    The Italians DO love fashion

On Sunday morning, we went to look around the big shiny shopping centre in Molfetta called La Mongolfiera (which translates as hot air balloon – an interesting name for a supermarket). It was packed with shoppers and excitable children in Disney costumes. We browsed Zara and then looked at the range of six inch heels in Primadonna shoe shop. One of my favourite shops there is Oysho, a ‘loungewear’ shop that could satisfy the wishes of any pyjama seeker. It seems that the Italians are even stylish lying in front of the TV eating Nutella with a spoon. They are ready to dazzle unexpected visitors with their cashmere cardigans and lace-sleeved pyjamas.  I could spend a great deal of time and money in that shop: I almost went for some slippers that would perfectly match my giraffe onesie, which alas I have left in Leeds. All to say that Italians love fashion and usually dress well (apart from the teenagers at school who go around in track pants and trainers 24/7). Both women and men appear to have an extensive collection of shoes, and don’t even get me started on coats and handbags. Meanwhile, I sometimes dress like this:

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CUTE

 

3)    Italians ARE extremely expressive

There is a running joke that if you handcuffed an Italian, they would be unable to speak. Hand gestures are used ALL THE TIME. Some of them have specific meanings like ‘what?’ or ‘look at that asshole’ and some are just to give emphasis to their already emphatic speech. I now think that British people are creepily calm. They stay still when they speak and keep a regular tone in their voice even when they get angry. Italians are very quick to shout and throw their arms up in the air. Interjections make up a whole lexicon that I am slowly growing to understand.

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I went to see a volleyball match for the first time on Sunday evening. Molfetta was playing Trento and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing. There was a squadron of people in red playing drums and chanting to support our home team. There was a man exuberantly sounding a horn that I could have done without, but in general I enjoyed watching the crowd just as much as the match. At one point, Trento challenged a point that clearly belonged to Molfetta. There was a Mexican wave of Italians up in arms, yelling ‘VERGOGNA’ (or ‘SHAAAAAME’) and making an offensive gesture demonstrating the sign of the horns, which literally means ‘cuckold’ (you’ve been cheated on, man). It was rowdy and lively, and even though Molfetta lost, they put up a good fight and we went for ice cream from my favourite gelateria afterwards. I had cappuccino and lemon nougat flavour (che buono!)

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4)    The Italians ARE very friendly

Okay, so maybe this isn’t just an Italian thing. I’ve met friendly people from all over the world. But generally, Italians are just more outgoing and publicly affectionate than their British counterparts. They talk to strangers on public transport. They stand remarkably close to you in conversation and squeeze your arm for no particular reason. The boys at school are constantly slapping each other on the back and engaging in massive bear hugs between classes, something that I imagine never happens in a British school. On Saturday evening, I went out with friends to a pub in Bisceglie. Four of us squeezed into the back seat of the car, and then in the bar itself, all fifteen of us had to squash up into an impossibly small booth, taking up all the space the benches would offer. The process of sitting down was 20 minutes of chaos and noisy confusion. We were sat practically on top of each other and cut up our pizza with our elbows tucked in. On the way home, we compared an Italian night out with the typical British outing on any given Friday or Saturday. My friends were surprised/shocked to hear of student partying, of us going to the ‘discoteca’ every weekend (sometimes more than once) and told me that everyone knew the British have a reputation for getting horribly drunk. To be sure, pre-drinks and smoky nightclubs are very different from late night pizza, a single beer and then if we’re feeling indulgent a coffee and croissant. Both nights have their very separate merits but I have to say that doing the latter has a lower risk of being sick in a plant pot on your way home.

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(Apologies – due to lack of own pictures, one of these is from a  website called ‘titillate’ and the other from a toothpaste advert with a scary looking man in it)

With my family situation becoming more complicated now that both Mum and Dad are living in Italy, it seems that this country is slowly turning into my ‘permanent’ home, if such a place should exist. I am happy because I feel increasingly that I belong among these wonderful Italians, making eye contact in the post office, raising my voice and catching the smell of freshly baked focaccia drifting from open doorways.

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Twenty Italian Boys vs. 1 English girl

Today is the 1st of October, the day signalling the end of my four-month long summer holiday and the beginning of my duties as a proper paid language assistant. I can happily announce that I have survived my first encounter with a roomful of Italian teenagers and that I have found my inner shouting voice. Who knew I had one.

Last weekend, it was training time in Turin. Although it was great to meet my fellow language assistants from all over Europe, it was pretty exhausting. It entailed hours and hours of theory on how to teach English as a foreign language. Some of the ideas I will take away and use, such as cookery programmes and comic strips. Some of the more bizarre activities I will definitely not use: these included a teacher trying to make us guess her phobia of hens with a series of rather unrelated pictures and another taking us on a trippy experience of learning with our senses. We didn’t get much time to walk around and explore the city, so what I will take away from the weekend is the memory of the horrendous difficulties of travelling on Turin’s public transport. One bus driver shut the door on me and I eventually had to be led to my destination by a tiny little old lady who was as bus-savvy as they come.

Today I finally put all the theory into practice. All the trawling through language assistant handbooks and taking notes from power points finally culminated in one long awaited moment, when I was asked to lead a class for the first time. After feeling a bit nervous and almost dropping the chalk (not cool), I discovered that they actually had quite a good level. They seemed to enjoy looking at pictures of Leeds and one boy even asked to keep the Leeds University Union brochure I brought. Tough luck for the other classes, who will never find about clubs and societies.

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The second class was another experience. The teacher was absent so a supply had stepped in. Apparently, this results in total chaos in Italian school. This particular professor was as useless as a chocolate teapot. I may as well have been in the class alone, as he had very little authority and seemingly barely any English skills. All twenty students were boys, with an overriding interest in football and Playstation games. Among reasonable questions, I was asked what I thought of Berlusconi, if I smoked weed and if I had a boyfriend. One of the boys was quite unimpressed by the UK, proclaiming that people were unfriendly and that they ate potatoes every day. I tried to dispel these negative stereotypes and was unable to give a meteorological explanation when he asked me why it rained all the time.  In any case, they certainly weren’t shy and seemed fairly keen to ask me questions despite their overwhelming noise and their tendency to walk about the classroom whenever they felt like it. To be fair, when I politely yelled ‘CAN YOU SIT DOWN, PLEASE’, they complied.

So far I have only met two out of the twelve classes I am teaching this term and only heard 40 names out of the 160 I will have to learn. After this wild time of free conversation, hopefully things will settle down into more organised activities and more obedient classes. If things continue like this, I estimate that I will have lost my voice in about six days time.

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Swotting up on Phrasal-prepositional verbs