Last week, I rode my commuter bike to a chain outdoor store in search of fuel. I don’t yet have gas for my apartment, so I’m living like a starving artist, cooking off of a single burner camp stove. The first time I stocked up on fuel, I had asked one of the employees how long a canister might last.
“If you’re cooking pasta, it should last about three to four hours,” she said without hesitation. Where else on earth would the burn time on a camp stove be measured in such a delightfully specific way?
But Italians — apart from their methodical approach to food and cooking — are generally a disorderly bunch. A couple of minutes watching Italian traffic will provide ample examples of the baffling disarray I’m speaking of:
And Romagnoli — those roosting in the Romagna half of the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna — are even more unsystematic, or so I’ve heard. Like the older gentleman we’ll call Aldo, the director of a nearby centro sociale (community center) offering varied lessons from Chinese to a traditional Romagnolo folk dance called liscio. And of course, English.
It was around five o’clock in the evening last Tuesday when Aldo rang me up; he wanted me to come to an open house around eight o’clock. This last minute thing is second nature to Italians like going south in the winter is for birds. So, after living here for a year and a half, the unexpected is kind of… well, expected.
“It would be great if you were there. You don’t have to stay the whole time, just…” Aldo said. He trailed off as he tended to do, forcing everyone (including my Italian co-worker) to guess at the ends of his sentences.
Even over the phone and through the mumbling, his voice was unmistakably honest. So of course — even though I already had plenty to do that evening — I grudgingly obliged. Especially when he mentioned last year’s teacher (Lina, now expecting a baby) would be there.
I showed up after eight and found Aldo downstairs in an old school office plastered with flyers and trimmed in bright blue, chipped paint.
He looked exactly as I’d imagined: slightly disheveled, with kind eyes and one of those grandpa potbellies that tests the limits of almost every button-down shirt.
When the other teacher arrived, we followed Aldo slowly up the creaky stairs. Her name was Eva and we’d met months before because her friend had showed up at one of my other English classes. And then it was Kevin-Bacon-six-degrees-of-separation, Italian style because Faenza is tiny and everyone knows everyone.
Behind us a steady stream of prospective and returning students trickled into the building like tired salmon heading back to the sea. Upstairs, everyone settled on vintage chairs upholstered in the 80s judging from the turquoise material generously splashed with purple and gray.
Eva and I stood at the front of the room and Aldo was seated at a messy table to our right. Thirty-some pairs of eyes gazed at the three of us. But mostly at Eva and I, because Aldo was looking at us in quite the same expectant way.
Then, he turned to us and asked, “Dove cominciamo?” Where do we start?
Of course, Eva and I were completely new at the Center; I’d only met Aldo at the bottom of the stairs and he hadn’t remembered my name when we got to the top of them. So she and I just stared at each other, unsure whether to laugh or cry. It quickly became clear that things were going to go completely backwards, like usual…
As we were trying to figure our next move, the famous Lina showed up.
“Thank goodness,” I said to Eva under my breath. She nodded.
Meanwhile, half of the room had descended on brunette, glowing Lina whose baby bump was receiving more attention than a surprise visit from Beyonce. And then, just as soon as she arrived, she was leaving, smiling and waving all the way out the door.
Thirty-some pairs of eyes moved from the closing door back towards the three of us. There was a pregnant pause (pun intended) before Eva said, “So, raise your hand if you’re a beginner…”
Hands began to raise slowly like old women from their prayer pews — although some were going back down, puzzlingly. An scowling older man in a pinstripe sweater asked, “What do you mean by ‘beginner?'”
“You studied in school a long time ago, you know some tenses… but talking may be difficult,” I said, in Italian, fishing around, improvising. Eva and I exchanged a glance in which the following thoughts were mirrored:
- Although Italy is notoriously unorganized, this was a next level sh*t.
- If we would’ve known that Aldo didn’t have the standard Harry-Potter-Sorting-Hat kind of test commonly used at these open house English things, one of us could’ve brought one.
- What on earth did they do last year to organize everyone? Or the year before that?*
*This may be a trick question because when it comes to logic:
Eventually, we squeezed everyone’s supposed levels into one beginner class and two intermediates. Then came the scheduling part which really was like herding feral felines through a cat door.
“We’d prefer Wednesday nights after six because we’re coming from Brisighella,” one older couple to our left said.
“Six is too early,” another man said, his thick brown hair undulating with each shake of his head. “I have to pick up my niece and feed her…”
“Eight o’clock in the evening is good,” said a younger woman in a gold sequined shirt.
The older couple sighed open-mouthed as if they were simultaneously trying to blow out birthday candles. “That’s way too late for us…”
“Any way we could do Friday instead?” Asked a man with salt-and-peppered hair and a sheepish grin.
Meanwhile, Aldo was scribbling names and numbers while we attempted to organize something we didn’t quite understand and answer questions we didn’t know answers to.
Awhile later, as we transferred Aldo’s notes onto organized sheets that appeared out of nowhere, the students said goodbye. Soon after, Eva and I started collecting our things to go home. It was well past eleven o’clock and we were feeling that sweet moment when you realize you just survived some kind of a war.
Aldo heaved a tired sigh; his years were showing in the red of his eyes as he pulled out yet another notebook. “Now we need to figure out if there are any rooms available at these times and…”
Eva and I exchanged wide-eyed stares as Aldo shook his head, muttering, “No, no… mamma mia… not that one either…”
Of course, it all came together despite being totally and needlessly backwards. Even though we’d still need to call all thirty-some people to confirm classes would start the next week. Because of course when they left, we hadn’t even been sure there would be rooms in which to have any classes…
Although us foreigners have a good, regular laugh about it over a pizza, this is just another giorno (or day) in Italy. Italians are quite blasé about by showing up to events (especially educational ones) and finding them a disaster. In public schools, kids often arrive at the start of the year to find they haven’t even been assigned teachers yet.
“It’s a hard job,” the Italians say, crossing their legs and sitting back in their chairs. “But they’ll sort it out eventually.”
My Italian friend Pier summed it all up rather nicely — we were talking about getting paid in Italy (which truly merits its own blog post). But really, we were talking about the same thing. Substitute the word “money” for “English lessons” or any other subject and it will still ring true.
“Italians aren’t very precise when they talk about money,” he said. “Because the rules and the taxes are constantly changing. So even the people that do taxes for a living don’t really know what’s going on.”
I thought I was the teacher here but that evening I realized Italy — and its 61 million resilient Italians — is actually schooling me on change, uncertainty, patience and flexibility. And the true value of a good, strong spritz con Campari.