All’s well that ends well

Wow, what a week this has been. First off, Early Saturday morning, I got some pretty sad news from back home. It was only ever a question of when, not if, but the suddenness with which it happened was still a shock. I’m counting my blessings that I’m away from home, and that my somewhat fatalistic nature kicked in which helped me handle it well.

Saturday itself, I had been invited to go to Pisa with some friends, and decided to go ahead with that, hoping it would take my mind off things. It was very much the right thing to do. Travelling has always been about more to me than the new places you find. I’m also after the people that deceive you in how long you’ve known them for – weeks and months that seem like years or even lifetimes. The moments you realise you’ve found another one of these people, that seem to instinctively know what to do in your times of greatest need, but can also share your most ridiculous laughs in your times of greatest goofiness, are the defining moments of life. Saturday was one of those moments.

On Sunday morning, still buzzing from this day out, followed by an evening in a natural hotspring with the same group of friends, I awoke to find an email waiting for me. In contrast to the news I received but twenty-four hours earlier, this was a message that I had wondered if, not when, it would arrive. I’m never one to go into detail unnecessarily, but it was the message a part of me always hoped to receive and, being of the opinion that life is too short to hold grudges, I accepted the apology within.

Sunday, again, I hung out with the life-changing friend from the previous day, and by the late afternoon I was both emotionally and now physically spent. I haven’t really been able to catch back up on my sleep up until this point, but I’m just ploughing through the days until I can relax for my birthday trip to Bologna this weekend.

Jack out.

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New Year [Poem]

The worst, the best, you passed its test. Wind down and raise a glass.
And to those that fell, from those that rose;
Here’s to the next, with best wishes from the last.

Growth

It was boxing day yesterday, although it isn’t called that in Italy, it’s Saint Stefan’s day. I’m guessing he was the patron saint of boxes. The highlight of the preceding day was my host mother asking to clarify Cockney rhyming slang in relation to the ‘Barry White’ entry in the book of English slang and idioms that was my gift to her. For those interested, it means shite. The low-light was that I spilt the cognac filling from one of the chocolates in the gift from my old host family. I spilt it on my tablet’s keyboard.

However, that was yesterday, and today is today, and the new year is less than a week away. Now, normally at this time of year my mind turns to the mythical new year’s resolutions. What objective should I set myself for the year ahead? I then realise I never make them, can’t follow through on a promise to myself to save my life, and resolve to bring in the year with an early night.

In fact, glancing back to my posts of this time last year, I was too wrapped up in the mysterious adventure that lay ahead to write about any aims or ambitions I may have had. Quite rightly so, and in hindsight, I would have been severely limiting myself had I set any targets.

So should I do the same this year? ‘Why break the habit of a lifetime’ is my instinctive response. But then if I hadn’t broken the habit of a lifetime, in being content with the status quo, even if it wasn’t particularly beneficial to me, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now, either literally or figuratively.

The obvious answer is therefore no. This year I will make them, and I will base them on what they would have been had everything this year been the result of ones I made a year ago.

1. Make the most of every negative situation that is thrown your way. Your girlfriend entices you out of your comfort zone, out of the country, and then, fairly promptly, leaves you. Don’t get me wrong, there are no hard feelings; it’s easily the best thing that happened to me this year. Partially as I made the best of what could have otherwise been a lame-ass situation. It was the real kick in the butt I needed to properly immerse myself in the country I was now in, and I was also now free to move around as I desired, which I hope to fully take advantage of in the next couple of years when I become some sort of nomadic teacher.

2. Do something you wouldn’t have done a year ago. Tomorrow I’m travelling half a day across the country, to somewhere I’ve never been before, to meet somebody I’ve never met. No way would I have done that last year. I was far too content with the here-and-now. You wouldn’t have been able to have convinced me of the point of it.

3. Do something you couldn’t have done a year ago. I found out today that there is a gym nearby offering kick-boxing lessons. For as long as I can remember I’ve been thinking it would be interesting to start some sort of combat sport or martial art, but never got round to actually researching it. Again it’s all part of the being part of the status quo that I’m continually trying to shake off. This discovery is perfectly timed for me to start a new hobby in the new year. I haven’t got the first clue about kickboxing now, but by this time next year? Watch this space.

4. See somewhere new. This one is a little easy, as I’ve practically organised it already – going to Finland when I visit home over Easter. All I need is my Finnish friend to confirm her hospitality and it’s a done deal. But I think that would be a good thing to continue yearly – hopefully this nomadic teacher thing will make it achievable by default.

Jack out.

The ‘Interrogative Point’ of Teaching English

There are very few things I don’t like about living in Italy; tripe, but then that’s available from any good butcher’s the world over; the lack of interest from women, but again that’s something I can get, or rather not get, anywhere in the world; and the quality of teaching of English in its schools.

The first two, I can do nothing about. However the latter has been and, presumably, will continue to be a constant concern of mine for the foreseeable future. At the moment, it’s who makes the better English teacher – a native English speaker; a fluent, but non-native speaker; or somebody with a good theoretical knowledge of the language.

From what I’ve heard from products of the Italian school system, both those currently in the mix and those that have served their time, while English language is a compulsory part of the sentence in Italy, its quality is dubious; a teacher that is not native is a rarity. I’ve experienced several instances in both of my stints au pairing of evidence of poor quality teaching.

Case in point – one of my children returned from school triumphantly clutching an English test with a perfect 10/10. I glanced over his work and spotted at least three errors that hadn’t been annotated or seemingly noticed. Another case in point – just last week I spotted a pluralising ‘s’ needlessly added to an adjective. I questioned it and the response was, “but [the teacher] said!” I wasn’t surprised. Third case in point – one of my children was explaining something funny he’d seen online, the punchline of which was a question mark. He mimed it in the air and called it an ‘interrogative point’. I corrected him, as usual, and he replied with the expectable “but my teacher says it exists in English!” I explained that while the individual words he used did in fact exist, and yes, I had understood, through knowing the Italian name for what he had just gesticulated, what he meant, that it was called something completely different in English. This also supported my next thought quite nicely.

This is primarily why I think having somebody knowledgeable in English, but ultimately sharing the mothertongue of the students, is on balance a bad idea – mistakes like this won’t necessarily be picked up upon. I wouldn’t dream of trying to teach Italian at a primary or secondary school level, no matter how good I became. I would never be able to pick up on nuances and I wouldn’t have the instinctive ear for something sounding convoluted or wrong that I do with English.

However, having taught to two groups of Italians, there is a definite advantage to having some knowledge of the students’ mothertongue. How much of a knowledge, on the other hand, is another matter. Too much and you allow students to become lazy and talk to you in their own language, knowing you’ll understand. I see this happening in my lessons all the time. Conversely not enough and you can’t teach effectively; in the rare instance a bridge cannot be built somehow, you have to rely on other students to plug the gaps. My Italian teachers know just enough English to help the struggling students along, but not enough to hold a conversation. Or at least they’re not letting on that they do.

Jack out.

If people aren’t laughing at your dreams, your dreams aren’t big enough.

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci

I went through school not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had five years of secondary school. That was loads of time to decide, and even if that time ran out, I had two years of college. And even if that time ran out, I had three years of university. I think that may be why I stuck university out. I knew I was getting progressively more out of my depth; that was obvious. But I reasoned that if I could just stick it out another six months, year, two years, until I graduated, I would miraculously know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I could set off in a purposeful direction.

Of course, I graduated without so much as a toot on a kazoo. In fact I think a majority of my coursework never left the University’s collection office. It took over a year of two low level jobs and a persistent girlfriend wanting me to throw it all ‘away’ and leave the country. Then, and only then, did I even begin to realise what I wanted to do, starting to formulate a plot for the rest of my existence.

Returning to the UK long-term has all but disappeared as an option. I remember when my catalyst of an ex-girlfriend had the same realisation, that what is ‘out here’ is so much more rewarding than anything that was ‘back there’. In hindsight it marked the beginning of the end, but I was so caught up in my own existence, busying myself waiting for her return, I couldn’t fully appreciate what I take so for granted now; the view conveyed by Da Vinci above.

So what’s new? I’m here for another eight months, which is realistically nothing. I’m already halfway through the difference between this and my last stay, and that flew by. After that, I fully intend to return to northern Italy and repeat my excellent experience teaching English to the Italian youth. And then…

That was where it stopped. I had the best part of a year ahead mapped out, and it was enough. Until I started to dream a little. What prompted this dream was simple. I was asked what my plans were after I was finished here. I had no concrete idea so it was, more or less, spontaneous; what I would do if I had no constraints, but then all the best dreams are, aren’t they? By the time I’d finished the conversation, they started sounding less like fantastical dreams and more like solid, realistic, doable plans.

I return to the UK, albeit only long enough to pass the tests to allow me to ride a motorbike. I buy a motorbike with the money I’ve earned working, tutoring, doing whatever, while passing these tests. I pick a country in need of an English teacher for the next six months to a year, preferably one that prefers experience over qualifications, as that’s what I’ll have. I jump on my motorbike and head in that direction, sightseeing along the way. I teach in the aforementioned country for approximately a year, or until the summer. I spend the summer months travelling, experiencing the locality and further afield. I find another country in need of an English teacher. I repeat the cycle.

And there it was, the next few years of my life planned out in almost an instant. Funny old life, isn’t it?

Jack out.

Ninja-English and other stories…

I took German at GCSE (secondary school) level, by which I mean I studied it for three years alongside French, and then ‘specialised’ in it for my final two years. I use that term loosely, as the reality was that I had to choose one or the other, and I preferred my German teachers to my French. One was a true German with a passion for ice hockey, and the other was a middle-aged, slightly eccentric Englishwoman who had a reputation for getting overly stressed by her overly infuriating classes. I think the prevalent rumour was that she once got locked in a cupboard by a particularly ruthless class. In hindsight she was in some ways like the late Mrs Krabappel from the Simpsons. But I digress.

I took German, and got an A grade in it in fact, and thought I had a fair understanding of at least the basics. Approximately six months into my ‘specialisation’ an exchange trip was organised, as every year, between us and a German class taking English. It was not long after I stepped off the coach in a generic German town that I realised, despite my prowess in the classroom, there are only so many times you can tell someone your name, age, and where you are from before you start coming across as crazy.

When I finished my studies in school was the last time I considered learning a foreign language before coming abroad became a realistic possibility. However that experience had ignited my curiosity of a second language, which working on the campus of an extremely multicultural university only stoked; coming into contact with people from all over the world who had English under their belt as a second or even third language can be quite a catalyst for not sitting on your ass as a speaker of the most widely spoken language.

As I mentioned last time, I have been with this second host family almost exactly two months, making a total of eight overall. In this time I have mastered as little as I can get away knowing and have come to realise something, as have my new host family over recent weeks; that it is not the language taught in school, adult colleges, or textbooks that is what you need to know but, as they term it, the ‘ninja-language’, what you pick up from hearing people in conversation, things that make little or no sense through literal translation, and things that nobody would ever think to teach to a class of students.

We were having a conversation at dinner the other day about how confusing ‘text’ language was in Italian, how the number six can have a face value of ‘the number six’ and it is pronounced in the same way as ‘you are’ it can mean this too. A quick Google on my part brought up a list of ninety-two similar abbreviations or initialisms in English text messaging, some of which my host mum found hilarious, confusing, and non-sensical almost simultaneously.

Apparently, ‘ninja-Italian’ also exists, though I almost don’t dare enquire further about it. I suppose I will have to eventually, but I tell myself it can wait until I’ve mastered all the verb tenses. All seventeen of them.

Jack out.

A change of direction…

As you may, or may not know, I am just approaching the two month mark in my second stint as an au pair. Still in Italy, but this time a little further south in the beautiful region of Tuscany. My ‘radio silence’, for want of a better phrase, hasn’t been through lack of writing material, the opposite in fact. I’ve been infinitely busier here than I ever was last time round. Not only am I doing the ‘standard’ au pairing, which on one hand feels a lot more like what I expected au pairing to feel like, but on the other is rarely standard in any sense of the word, but also attending four to six hours of Italian lessons a week, and now leading four hours (on average) of English lessons every week. I have a grand total of two mornings during the week, in addition to weekends, left to my own devices. However I’m not complaining, as I’ve all but doubled my salary, which has allowed me to make good use of trains, buses, and my old but surprisingly good-quality camera

I’ve had a few busy weekends already; if you cast your mind, or browser, back to a recent post you’ll find I mentioned a highly driven travelling buddy. As it transpired they were also a highly whimsical travelling buddy, and through reasons that aren’t worth regurgitating, cut all contact a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped my seemingly rampant exploration of the area I find myself in, and the country in the whole, and I’m currently gearing up for an in-depth exploration of Florence, while attending a weekend-long tattoo convention there.

However, despite the busyness on the home front, had I been posting with the same frequency as previously, I would have been repeating myself on numerous occasions; same shit, different day as the saying goes. Which left me with a dilemma; I have two more prominent aspects of my experience this time round, namely the travelling and exploration, and the teaching. There are a million and one people writing about their experiences travelling. Heck, I started following one on Twitter just this week. So that leaves teaching, which is the direction I hope I will be, and see myself, going in in the not too distant future. All in all it makes sense and, as Italy is seemingly notorious for poor levels of English and teaching on the subject, I may even fill a niché, and this blog may get the audience it… ahem… needs.

Jack out

Ninja edit: As if to prove my point that every man and his dog is writing about travelling, a friend of mine has just started her own blog. Check it out, she knows what she’s talking about

Whatever They Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Throughout college and university I was a horrible procrastinator. Xbox, TV, going outside, you name it, I’d rather do it than an essay or assignment. If you go back far enough into the depths of my archives, every other post was written to delay something academic. Sure, it bit me in the ass like a police-trained attack squirrel, but I developed my writing style at the same time, and I know which I’m finding most useful now. As it transpires I’m finding English much more interesting than computers, and that seems much more suited to where I’m going in life.

Which brings me to the subject of tonight’s post – it seems I’m still using writing to procrastinate. In a little over thirty-six hours I’ll be on a plane to Italy for the second time in nine months, and I’ve spent the best part of the evening trying my hand at fiction writing. I’m in a real dilemma as to whether I’m almost finished with packing or not. On the return leg in July, I barely managed to keep my hold bag below twenty kilos, and my carry-on was so fat it had to spend the trip down below too. Now, being a little conservative with my clothes, my worldly possessions more or less now fit in the one bag. I can’t help feeling I’m missing some obvious, massive thing. Maybe I’m being a little too conservative with what I take.

However this is all slightly beside the point, in that my concern is more what I’m doing to procrastinate, rather than the task I’m avoiding. The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed I said I’m trying my hand at fiction. When you consider I’ve spent the best part of the last eight months writing (somewhat) factually about my experiences living abroad, you’ll understand why I’m as perplexed as you may be. The venture, currently, is under the encouragement of a new lurker on these pages, a fan of my writings, possibly even the first self-diagnosed case. At the moment I’m in two minds about posting anything on any form of publicly accessible forum (i.e. here). If I do, I fear things may get even more bipolar than they already are. Watch this space.

Jack out.

The Italian job, part two.

In just over a fortnight I’ll be in Siena. In just under three weeks I’ll be on a long weekend in Rome. In four weeks I’ll be spending the night in Venice. Three weekends, three of the more beautiful cities in Italy, and a highly driven travelling buddy thrown in the mix* will be sure to make the first month of my return to the great land of pasta infinitely more intense than the first time round.

Not that it wasn’t intense the first time round of course, as any regular readers will know. Only this time it will be less about becoming accustomed to a new career and country, and I’ll be able to dive into the deep end of culture and fellow travellers.

This is the off-season, of sorts, although I haven’t switched off entirely. For the past week I have been 300 miles away up north seeing a couple of friends I met back in Italy. A couple of weeks before that I was the other side of London seeing one that I left here when I went away, and I guess that’s what living hundreds of miles away and having to make friends that aren’t necessarily on your doorstep does to you. It really shrinks your world. The highly driven travelling buddy I mentioned earlier? She’s based a good two hour drive from me, but when you can get half way down the country in mere hours on the super-fast train network, distance suddenly becomes insignificant.

Jack out.

*Top tip for getting a highly driven travelling buddy: find someone that is already extraordinarily motivated, and then dangle them out of their comfort zone for an extremely restricted period. They’ll want to do everything all at once.

The twenty-third post of the expedition – the final salute to the lifelong fans

As an epic mid-summer storm descends over this small Italian town, limiting my ability to go outside, it seems like the perfect time to write the last post of this expedition, before I go back to the UK in a couple of days.

Not that I was planning to go out anyway – if my au pair friends haven’t gone home or moved on to a different place, then it’s a normal working Monday for them. I’m only at a loose end as my boys have gone on their annual getaway to the coast. We said our goodbyes on Friday, and I’ve used the weekend to its fullest.

I think that’s the main difference between now and three months ago, when I was making the choice of whether to stay or leave. As I said at the time, I chose to stay on as I felt that I hadn’t squeezed everything out of this small pocket of Italy, and I was absolutely proven right. Now feels like a much more natural and organic time to go.

I have discovered some incredible friendships in the last three months, perhaps more so than the first three, that have really moulded my time here and turned an average experience into one I’ll cherish for a long time to come.

But alas, those friends are going or have gone, and a new breed are just starting to arrive and find their feet where others have gone before. In the last few days I’ve started to feel like a wise old owl, giving out advice and being generally omniscient about au pairing.

As for missing it, yes and no. I’ll miss all the fun and adventure with the various people I’ve met over the months, but like I said, if they haven’t left already they’re doing so soon, so even if I could, I wouldn’t want to stay here any longer.

After touching base in England for two months, I’ll be itching to be the newbie in Siena, exploring and learning, full of wonder, about a new area and a new routine.

Between then and now, though, it seems this rain will keep me indoors. Maybe this storm is nature’s way of helping me acclimatize to the British weather again. See you in England.

Jack out.