It was Mentana to be…

There’s nothing like immersion to help with language learning. Along with “seeing everything I’d missed last time” and “escaping the rut I had found myself in”, one of the main reasons behind moving to Italy was to put myself in an environment where I could become a lot more proficient in the language than I already was (admittedly not a high bar!). Practicing with mobile apps and podcasts could only go so far, given that my only opportunities to speak my second language in Wellington were ordering pizza or buying wine.

So here I am, living in Italy, eager to improve the language skills I rated as 4/10 on my job application (by dividing my Duolingo score by 10). I get off the train to meet my new boss, and decide to introduce myself as the locals would.

“Piacere. Il mio nome e Roberto, ma mi chiamo Robb”

Great, I think that all came out correct…

“Ah! You need to speak English. No Italian please.”

…okay, that’s a new one to me. But alas, she had a point. You see, I’d flown halfway across the world to be in an Italian-immersion environment, only to accept a job in an English-immersion environment. On the surface, it may not have seemed like my brightest idea in my quest to become bilingual. But considering my primary goal in my university days was to qualify as a teacher, accepting a job teaching English and Drama across the country was a pretty good situation to find myself in. Financial security during the term? Check. Travelling all over Italy as part of the job? Check. Getting to meet real Italians through a billet system? Check. Getting to teach in a classroom? Check and check. And all because I sat in front of the right person on a Ukranian minibus.

Yes, I’d have to be careful with the level of Italian I spoke. My boss for the week rightly pointed out that if the kids knew how much I did speak, they wouldn’t try to speak to me in English. I’d have to be on my guard.

“[kid swears at another in Italian]”
“Hey! No swearing!”
“Sir, if you don’t speak Italian how did you know what I said?”
“[thinking quickly] I’ve been to enough Serie A games to understand THAT word!”

My first deployment was a week in Mentana in Lazio. A quick Google Maps search showed this place to be on the outskirts of Rome, and immediately I feared that I was being sent to a nondescript communter suburb. This is one of those occasions where I was glad to be proven wrong! I fell in love with Mentana on the drive from the railway station to the home of our boss for the next week. This wasn’t a mere suburb – it was a collection of small towns perched on hills in rural Lazio. Yes, it was relatively modern, but the place reminded me far more of Tarquinia than Roma. I became even more besotted with the surrounding area as Mena, my host mother, drove me to their house deeper into the countryside. The car tires kicked up dust as we followed a narrow lane, the road seperated from the fields by loose wire fences and rows of olive trees.

New Zealand-style traffic… in Italy!

We got back to the house where I dropped off my gear and meet the rest of the family – father Mirko who spoke almost no English, daughter Giulia, son Matteo who was attending our camp (but not in my class), and youngest son Valerio who according to Mena was so shy that last year, he didn’t speak a single world to the tutor they hosted. 

I had just enough time to drop off my bags and have a quick shower before heading to a community barbecue for Matteo’s basketball team. I’m shy enough back in New Zealand, but here I was going to a party where not only could I not speak much of the language, I technically wasn’t allowed to! Kids at this party would be at my camp, and I was under strict orders to not my “secret” be known. But in true Italian fashion, my host parents made sure to involve me. Too shy to talk to people? Mena would introduce me then translate as needed. Too nervous to grab food or drink having come from a “bring your own or go without” culture? Mirko would bring me plates or lead me to the tables as needed. I spent a lot of the night chatting with Mirko in Italian, switching to English whenever any kids were nearby.

We got home late, and I started unpacking my things I heard on a knock on the door. It was Valerio, the youngest child who hadn’t spoken a word to me all day, holding his mother’s hand. “Good night!” he said in English, with a nervous smile, that become a beaming grin after I reciprocated. I hadn’t even set foot in my classroom yet, but I could  already tell the hardest part of this job would be saying goodbye to my new family in Mentana.


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