Tiny footsteps. Tiny, tentative footsteps…

So the day has arrived. Today was my first day of teacher training!

In an ideal world, with infinite time, I’d like to blog daily during what is a very exciting time, but with the sheer volume of work I’m expecting, I just don’t think that will be practicable. So, in no change from the usual regularity with which I post anything, I’ll be operating an “as and when” schedule.

I figure that after the first day I’ll have the lightest workload of the course, so here’s something. What a day! I’ve been dumped in with what seem like a very nice bunch of trainees, and the confidence boost I’ve already received from somebody starting a sentence aimed at me with “well you seem to know a lot about…” cannot be understated.

I’m already having to plan a lesson, albeit of only thirty minutes. The one-hour goliaths will be towards the end of this and, for me, the beginning of next week. There is such a diverse range of backgrounds, from former civil service, to one woman who already teaches in Laos, and you can really feel the wealth of experience each person brings to the mix. Even me and my ‘dangerous hobby’ of motorsport watching.

I’ll write again when I can.

Jack out.

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The last post of the expedition – the tell-all fit for the tabloids

In the last two months I have gone from staying in Italy until June, to staying unless I screw up again, and now to being back in England by the end of the week. Strangely enough, or not, I’m not too unhappy. Why? Normally I’m not one to bitch or whine in a public forum but I think now I can safely, and freely, say that the only two things about this au pairing experience over the last were the friend that I made, the teaching experience that I gained, and the extra money I (briefly) earned that allowed me to see so much of this spectacular country.

I had a hunch back in the autumn that I wouldn’t see out my scheduled time here, that it was just a case of who got tired of whom first. I remember back in September, when I asked about the possibility of taking a Friday off to spend a three day weekend with a new friend in Rome, and how it seemed like such a big deal, only to be told later down the line that if I wanted to travel Friday afternoons and Monday mornings to get a full two days in wherever I was going, I could. This was only one element of the laughable hypocracy that has peppered the last three months out here.

Let me enlighten you on some of the episodes I’ve witnessed in the intermitting period. A few months in my host mum was seeming like one of the more pushy people I’d yet met. At first I thought it was just helpfulness, but no. It was actually just being pushy. Sometimes blindly so.

I had tried to get in contact with a handful of au pairs that would be living locally to me, before I came out, to help with socialising and seeing the sights. I did find a couple, including a particularly reliable one who I went on three weekend trips with. When I was telling my host of these planned trips before I came out, she used her network of au pair host families to find an au pair doing the same trip I was, on the same weekend. It was the au pair I had discovered.

A few weeks in, she was still using this network to find other au pairs who lived locally, or that might have been interested in visiting my host town. This was great as I’d not found any. Not that I needed to, having been busy with the one I mentioned previously.

One evening, she suggested yet another au pair I contact, although this one had contacted me hours earlier.

The next afternoon, as we were driving home from running a couple of errands, she told me she thought I needed to get out and meet locals, and that it wasn’t good only meeting up with English speaking people, and how girls, as in the au pairs she’d been putting me in touch with, were unreliable.

Which is all well and good, until you remember she had put me in touch with a number of these ‘unreliable’ girls, and that the nearest central bar is a ten, maybe fifteen, minute drive away.

One Saturday evening she had prepared what appeared to be a ragu sauce for pasta, en masse, in a pressure cooker. The next morning it was still sitting on the stove so, presumably in an attempt to avoid the inevitable ‘why has nobody put this into jars?’ interrogation from her later in the day, her boyfriend dutifully puts half an hour aside to do just that.

If he thought he had avoided the wrath, he was sorely mistaken. She comes downstairs and into the kitchen, and the first thing she says is something along the lines of, “Where is the pan with the sauce in it?”

“I put it in jars” he replies.

“Did I ask you to?” she retorts. I didn’t catch the rest of the rant that followed as I was too busy trying to resist laughing. This is a woman who routinely complained about things that have not been done, and here she was complaining about something that had.

I only recount these specifically as I wrote them up for a previously anonymous blog I started up to vent when such ridiculous events occurred. If my memory was better I would have dozens of stories to tell.

And maybe that is the reason I’m not particularly down, dejected or otherwise deflated that this experience has been so unilaterally bad. I repeatedly remind myself that in a few months and years down the line, they will just be hilariously cringeworthy episodes in an otherwise enjoyable au pairing experience. It’s all about the ‘long-game’ mindset I’ve had since I started to falter in university, helping me nudge myself ever more closer to the perfect course through life.

Jack out.

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.

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

The twenty-first post of the expedition – the transition from composer to producer

About a week and a half ago, it struck me that I only had three weeks left of this spell in Italy, and I resolved to not sit around and waste another day doing nothing until I left. Saturday, admittedly, I sat around doing nothing, save for eating lunch and dinner. However I think I have most certainly earned it.

I’ve just been reading back through the first few posts of the expedition, specifically when I discovered there was a summer camp in need of teachers, and talking about it with such hope and expectation. Hopes and expectations that it easily exceeded.

In all it was two weeks of camp, of which I helped with the latter due to other commitments. I was called the weekend before with the final details, and invited to sit in for a couple of hours during the first week to get a feel for the whole operation. I turn up on the Thursday morning, get introduced to the other teachers – two Irish girls that are over for the fortnight, and sit in on the warm-up activities. Before I know it, I’m fielding a question-and-answer session with about thirty Italian children. They seem to take to me quite well, and I sit in on one of the groups having an English lesson with one of the girls.

Lunchtime rolls around, but before I can escape to get something from a nearby supermarket, I’m accosted by one of the camp organisers. “You’re a natural,” she says. “How would you like to stay for the five full days until 4 next week, instead of the four days of 2pm finishes?” In an instant, the week ahead transformed from an almost unknown entity into something I may have a reasonable chance in being good at. It took me a moment to process this new information before I could answer the question being asked of me, but I was more than happy to oblige.

For the next day and a half before the weekend, I proceeded to study the girls teaching methods, having not taught more than one person simultaneously before in my life. The weekend rolls around and, almost at the end of my first stay in Italy, I’m invited on a night out in Milan, from which we don’t get home before sunrise the next morning. Then I’m up a few hours later to go to the lake with them and the camp organiser that thinks so highly of my abilities.. It’s only Sunday evening that I manage to get a proper night of rest, and even then I’m up at before seven the next morning for the crucial first day of the next week.

Each day in the week that followed was a mixture of triumph, chaos, struggle and relief as each day came to a close, none more so than on Wednesday when a trip to a local park by train almost had a catastrophic ending when we missed what we thought was the last train home. It wasn’t, and it was just another little adventure as far as the children were concerned, but for the teachers, kittens were almost had.

Friday was another long day, with the weeks work culminating in a show put on by the children, followed up with aperitivo at a trendy bar for the teachers and assorted helpers, after which the youngsters of the group, of which I was the oldest, reconvened in the centre of town, crawling around bars until the small hours, thus completing with some sort of symmetry what for me was an amazingly rewarding and inspiring week, and a great way to (almost) finish my stay in this small Italian town.

Jack out.

The twentieth post of the expedition – the new album after months of anticipation

I usually say that those that live in the past live lives full of regret, that those that live in the future live lives full of worry, and only by living in the present can one be truly content with the one’s life. However it seems I have, momentarily at least, been able to achieve somewhat of a planetary alignment with regards to my future, in that I am ‘looking forward’ to tomorrow, the next week, the next month and the next year with equal amounts of excitement, anticipation, mystery, and amazement at what will they will contain.

I am on day two of five of my first ‘proper’ venture into English teaching in somewhat of a structured and coordinated capacity. I am putting every ounce of Italian I have learnt in the preceding months to very good use in controlling a group of approaching forty young Italians, and, along with two Irish girls who are making what could have been an otherwise nerve wracking week go by all the more enjoyably, taking this proverbial bull by the horns for a week of sports, study, and amateur dramatics.

In two weeks I will be about to spend my last night in Italy for about two months. What has been normal for the past six months will soon be but a fond memory. I will be in the grip of the old familiar, save for one crucial factor – me. There will be the essence of the person, bright eyed and bushy tailed, who left into the unknown many months ago, but the core flavour, the roots and the tips of the personality will have undergone a fundamental change. Almost exclusively for the better.

In a month, my sister will return from her holiday in Sweden, and this is easily one of the things I’m most looking forward to before I return to Italy. A year of university under her belt, along with a year of relationship, I will almost struggle to recognise the young woman that will step off the plane. Almost, but not quite.

And then in a year, I will have all but finished my second venture into this fledgling au pairing career, have a little more experience of teaching my bastard-child language under my belt, and will be seeking out pastures new for a second time in as many years. Of all, this is probably the scariest period of the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that it is the furthest I can forsee. I have no doubt that, given time, the fog-of-war will be gradually lifted, but that will be then, and this is now which, as I said, is when I should be living.

Jack out.

The seventeenth post of the expedition – the one with the punny title

Yesterday I made a joke which, for once, I wasn’t the only person to hear. A friend and I were sitting in a local park which just so happened to have a flag similar to the St. George’s cross flying on a nearby pole. ‘St. George’s cross,’ I said, motioning towards it. ‘I have no idea what upset him, but there you go’. Now this particular friend, while she doesn’t have English as her first language, speaks it well enough, and usually laughs at the appropriate time when I try my own special blend of humour. However this one took a little explaining of the ambiguity of the apostrophe-‘s’, but, nevertheless, she subsequently gave a reassuring laugh.

Along this train of thought, it’s a recent realisation that perhaps this fondness for wordplay, extended metaphor, poetry and double meaning that I’ve displayed numerously online were the early manifestations of an interest in language, which seems to have culminated in where I am going in the next few months. In theory, I’m still participating in an English language summer school in the town I’m living in at the end of next month, followed by a couple of months in England to rest and reset. And then it gets interesting, as simultaneously to staying with a new family in Tuscany for the duration of the next academic year, I’ll be continuing my fledgling career as an English tutor, with two colleagues of the mother of the family I’ll be staying with. And there’s nothing quite like a challenge for a man as doing more than one thing concurrently.

Jack out.

The thirteenth post of the expedition – the one with meaningful lyrics throughout

Today was probably one of the nicest all round days I’ve had since I’ve been with the family. You may recall that three or four posts into the expedition I commented how I thought the boys saw me as a hybrid of tutor and – the older one especally – older brother, but today has really confirmed and cemented that for me. I also have a new bargaining tool in my arsenal, which is amazingly handy with the stubbornness I’m encountering.

The oldest had some geometry homework. He worked through the question but came out with the wrong answer, and as I started trying to explain it to him I could tell he was going into his usual, defeatist spiral. So, reading that dyslexic children often work better spatially, I improvised and brought the problem into the real world using paper, scissors, and some ad-lib origami. However by the time I’d finished this art attack it was then time for me to pick up his younger brother. Just at that moment his grandma came up the stairs and asked if I’d like her to get him, which I duly accepted and returned to helping the boy. I was greeted by hugs and proclamations of ‘brother Jack, brother Jack!’

My ‘Jurassic Park’ themed work didn’t go exactly to plan. He did it eventually, guessing most of the (multiple choice) questions and waiting for me to acknowledge whether it was correct. He didn’t like it when I didn’t. This said, he did find the film interesting, as did his younger brother, so we’re now watching them through, albeit in Italian. And it’s something he actively wants to do, so now I have some leverage when it comes to getting him to do homework. So while I’m still trying to find English tasks he doesn’t freak out at, I’ve introduced him to a new franchise which is undeniably in English.

While you’re here, I’m still trying to drum up support for the new website I’m writing for. It’s not live at the moment, but head there anyway and sign up to be informed when it is, and give its Facebook page a like for me. Thanks very much.

Jack out.