21 October 2011

addio, milano

So maybe I didn't sleep so well. Actually, I'm pretty sure I was up by six, when the combination of cold air rushing in through the open window, the sound of the rain outside, and the light from my charging netbook woke me. I put on another layer, closed the window, and cuddled up in my bed with Role Models.

After a flirtation with disaster in the form of bleach which I had mistaken for laundry detergent, I decided to head out into the city. The rain was a little miserable, but I nevertheless dedicated the day to shopping and saying my goodbyes to Milan. I visited some of my favorite spots, like H&M, and another H&M, and a kebab shop, and Milano Centrale, and a pizza shop next to Milano Centrale where Dave and I once considered eating before deciding it was too expensive. That last one isn't really one of my favorites.

That night, I waited for Sarah at the train station with a bag of M&Ms and an extra Metro ticket so she wouldn't have the trouble getting to the flat that I had. We stayed up late that night, packing all our stuff up and reminiscing. The next morning, I snuck into a hotel down the street to call a cab to take me to the airport. Nearly bought my mother a Missoni scarf with all my tens and twenties, but didn't, because I honestly think they're a bit ugly; flew to Madrid, ate real tortilla with mayo and green peppers; watched a bunch of Mad Men episodes; flew to New York. Around this time I started to have Europe withdrawals. And Europe withdrawals felt strangely like the flu.
The plane was late to New York, but I made it to my hotel by ten or so. While it was probably the smallest hotel room I've ever set foot in, it had plenty of amenities, great climate control, many electrical outlets, and a massive bed. Plus a nice tv. It would have been nice to stay a second night, but $130 a night just seemed like too much after what I've become accustomed to.

I awoke to the dulcet tones of the hotel radio and headed down to the exercise room to try and sweat out my flu. (Hey, it worked when I was a college softball player.) Then I showered and stuffed myself full of hard-boiled egg whites, juice, and English muffins spread with cream cheese. I packed up and checked out.

The hotel's free shuttle took me to the Subway stop I needed. As we drove through Jamaica, I realized that everything everyone has ever said about NYC is true. It's beautiful, complicated, endless, and I absolutely have to devote some serious time to exploring it.

While waiting for my Amtrak train, I shopped a little around Herald Square. Being inside the world's largest Macy's reminded me of my grandmother, who would have loved to see it. I also checked H&M, but of course all their stuff had already debuted in Europe, so I left empty-handed. When I boarded my train to Chicago, the only new things I brought with me were a book from the Met store for my mother and a bunch of drinks, snacks, and magazines for the trip.

That's right, I took a train from New York to Chicago. And not a particularly high-speed train, either. Whole thing took 21 hours. 21 hours of Mad Men and 30 Rock episodes and trashy magazine articles and the cheesy goodness of Chex Mix.

The next few days were spent recovering in Chicago. I got to cook for myself and visit museums and just generally enjoy sleeping on a warm air mattress/couch. Shout out to Kyle for letting me stay in his 33rd-floor apartment with an incredible view.

And then, before I knew it, I was back in Kansas City via another Amtrak train, and back in my own bed that same night, after three and a half months away.

03 October 2011

last tutors standing: roccafranca

The next morning, I took a bus to Udine and a train to Venezia Mestre. And guess who I ran into there? None other than the phenomenal Kat Hall. We recapped our summers, took a couple of pics, and said goodbye until next year.

Then it was on to Roccafranca. I was anticipating an exceptionally awesome camp for several reasons:
  • It was literally the very last camp of 2011, with all other camps ending the week before
  • Tutors had to specially apply and be selected for the camp
  • The directors were actually ACLE office personnel, including our resident Beatles expert Jules
  • It was run during special hours, 8-12 Monday-Saturday, with special activity nights planned throughout the week
I got to Roccafranca and met the other tutors. Surprisingly, I didn't know any of them, although we had a few friends in common. After a bit of planning for the week, I went home with my new host family, the Brocchis.

This about sums it up: their house was a mansion which they shared with two other related families, they had a massive pool which changed colors at night, and their grandmother, who lived with them, was extremely opinionated. Oh, and they lived next door to a dairy farm whose drainage system was malfunctioning, so the stench of rotten milk wafted through the open windows both day and night. So that was cool.

Camp was set up a little differently than normal. We were working at a school that had already started classes, so we had two hours a day to spend with two classes each day. I mostly worked with first years and fourth years. First years are preschool/kindergardeners, and fourth years are. . . about three years older than that. Serious adorability going on up in those classes.

I had some trouble making my dietary restrictions understood by the grandmother. She kept trying to sneak meat into my food, and then she kept trying to feed me more than I wanted, and then she kept trying to give me coffee. Her daughters even told her, "Mom, she said she doesn't drink coffee!" to which she responded with something like, "Well, maybe if she drank coffee, she'd have a little more energy" or something else that was a little rude.

We had daily tutor lunches at a local cafe, and I ordered the same sensational customized sandwich each time. It was on toasted bread, with sauteed mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese. I could eat that sandwich every day for a long time to come and still not get sick of it.

On Wednesday, I got a very special treat. My friend Barney, a British musician I'd met in Cusco, just happened to be in Milan to do some studio work. To get to Milan from Roccafranca meant driving twenty minutes to the nearest train station and then taking the train for an hour. Thankfully, host grandmother agreed to pick me up early from lunch, and we even had a solid convo on the way to the train station:

HG: Do you drive at home?
Me: Yes I do.
HG: Doesn't it suck?
Me: I kind of enjoy it.
HG: Man, every time I get into the car, I'm absolutely terrorized. It's even worse now that I'm old. I can barely see the other cars or the signs.
Me: . . .
HG: When I was a young girl, this handsome young man asked me out on a date. I was so excited because I really liked him! Then he said, "You'll have to drive because I don't have a car." I said, "Never mind."

By some miracle, I made it to Milan in one piece, although my train was a bit late. Barney and I had a lovely afternoon. I do wish we lived closer to each other, because I think we'd go out for beers all the time, and I'd have him tell me tales of touring with Amy Winehouse and Rihanna, and it would be wonderful.

One of the nights I was in Roccafranca, I went for a jog with my host brother. He absolutely kicked my butt. I cooled off afterwards in the magnificent pool.

The end of the week came all too soon, and with it came the end of my third Italian summer. I was compensated for my efforts entirely in tens and twenties (incredibly inconvenient, when it's nearly a hundred tens and 58 twenties). Later, we tutors celebrated with organic wine at a farmhouse, which leads me to an important point: if you can see dead bugs floating in your wine, it is definitely too organic. I found that out the next afternoon, when it all came back up again. I maintain that it was the quality of the wine, rather than the quantity, that was to blame for that.

Despite my illness, it was time for me to leave Roccafranca. I said goodbye to the quiet father, outgoing mother, amusing children, and all-too-familiar grandmother and arrived at the train station in plenty of time to make my complicated journey to a company-owned flat in San Donato, a suburb of Milan. And for once in my life, I was actually too early.

If there was one word I learned this summer, it was sciopero, meaning "strike." As in, "Italian train workers are always on effing sciopero." For a time, I thought I'd have to sleep in that station, but I finally caught the ten'o'clock train to Milano Centrale.

From there, I rushed downstairs to the Metro station, where I got on a train bound for San Donato, which is the last stop on the yellow line. It took roughly an hour to get out there. From there, my directions told me to catch a bus, but I seriously doubted there were any buses running at that hour (it was past midnight). I hailed a cab instead.

Neither the cab driver nor I were entirely sure where the apartment building was. We circled around the same street for about ten minutes before deciding on a random building. I checked the buzzers and saw a familiar name, paid the cabbie, and took my stuff. My directions instructed me to ring the buzzer, but I'd been told there was no one else staying at the flat, so I went on to the next line: "If no one is there, hop the gate." I decided to try it first, and lo and behold, it was open.

I continued on to the building on the far left, per the directions (oh, I forgot to mention that I had about five buildings to choose from in the complex). Then it was a matter of choosing the right entrance. Once I found that, I continued to the company garage, which was open, and searched for the keys that were meant to be hanging in an obvious place.

They weren't there.

By now, it was half past midnight. My phone was dead, I had no one to let me in, and I worried that the police would be called if I woke the neighbors. It was also a fairly cool and rainy September night. It was looking like I'd be sleeping in a garage and calling the company in the morning. Oh wait, I couldn't do that, because there was nowhere to charge my phone. I checked every conceivable spot in that garage for those keys, even digging through boxes of shirts in case the company was trying to play games with me.

The only thing I could think to do was try the door into the building. Maybe I'd be able to buzz someone from there who would let me in. I dragged my suitcase to the doormat, second-guessed myself for several minutes, sniffled and lamented my miserable luck, and then pressed on the door.

Somehow, whoever had come through it last hadn't pushed it with enough force to latch it shut, as had been the case with the gate to the complex. I pulled my bags up the stairs breathlessly, trying not to wake anyone, and amazed by my luck. At least I wouldn't be sleeping in a garage for the night.

When I was at the door of the flat, I pressed my luck once more. Three unlocked doors in a row? It couldn't be. And it wasn't. I pulled out a bobby pin, tried to pick the lock, but that's not really something I'm good at. I turned away from the door, trying to figure out which flat to buzz next, when, on a whim, I turned back around and pressed the buzzer. No one was supposed to be there, but. . . there was a sound from within. And then the door opened. There was a lone tutor there, with an Italian friend of hers by her side, and they seemed just as shocked to see me as I was to see them.

To wrap things up, I got a full tour of the two-bedroom apartment before settling into my very own room, and slept like a baby that night, with the sweet relief that comes with staring adversity in the face and then sticking an icepick in its eye.

01 October 2011

the far east : gemona del friuli

I walked along the Adda river down to the railway station of Tirano with my host family the next morning. If you remember, I did a camp last year in a town called Cassano d'Adda. It's funny to think that if you dropped something into the river from my homestay in Tirano, it could eventually flow all the way downstream to somewhere else I've stayed. Anyway.

It was strange to be on a train without Jeremy. I could count on him to make me laugh, tie my shoe if I needed it, or put my bag up on the overhead racks (something I'm completely capable of doing by myself, but it would have been a shame to let those biceps of his go to waste). Fortunately though, I had Sarah to keep me company, and she's pretty great. Our transportation sitch wasn't bad either. After our lousy regional train down to Milan, we took a high-tech, international train to Venezia Mestre station. It had a little screen above each of the seats that said when the seat was reserved and when it wasn't. I was lucky enough to have a seatmate that never showed, but not lucky enough to have a working electrical outlet under my seat. After Venezia Mestre, we had to take two more trains before finally making it to our destination.

There we were in Gemona del Friuli. If you're in the northern part of Italy, rather than the peninsula, it's about as far east as you can go before you find yourself in Slovenia. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the name of the autonomous region (there are 20 regions in Italy, but only a handful are autonomous), and Udine is the name of the smaller province within that region. They have their own distinct dialect like other parts of Italy, but what's interesting about Friulian is how prevalent it is. Many of the young people speak it just as well as they speak Italian.

You can check the wikipedia page like I did, but basically Gemona is a town of about 11,000 people best known for a devastating earthquake which struck 35 years ago (which has its own wikipedia page here). Nearly a thousand people died, and you can sort of feel that hanging over the town even now.

We had a glass of water with our new director, an intimidating, angular woman with Lady Gaga-esque bone structure, and then went off to our new host families. Sarah and I would be living with families in the tiny village of Buia/Buja (yes, it's pronounced BOO-yah, like the SportsCenter catchphrase). I made the mistake of telling my host family that I wasn't that tired because I thought it would mean Sarah and I could hang out that night, but she was smart enough to tell her family that she was tired, so I ended up at a poolside party with a bunch of 14-year-olds who thought it was cool to smoke and brag about how much they drank. I had a drunken middle-aged man buying me and my host sister beers (don't worry, I took one for the team and drank hers) and teenage boys trying to impress me by telling me all the dirty words they knew in English. When host dad finally picked us up, host sis lied to him about smoking, drinking, and getting kicked out of the party for for underage drinking. We were off to a great start.

The next morning, I went into Gemona to meet with the director, assistants, helper, and other tutors. The city center is on the top of a mini-mountain, with other mountains surrounding it, and you have to take some winding roads to get there. We sat in a cafe on the main square across from the cathedral, which has an absolutely gorgeous peak rising up behind it, and we planned for the coming week.

We had a little extra time after our meeting, so we split up to explore the market that snaked along Gemona's main street. My little sister had told me she wanted something random, so I found her an beautiful little teapot, and I picked up an old copy of Julius Caesar in Italian (Giulio Cesare) for myself. Like you didn't already know I was a nerd.

That afternoon my family had a backyard dinner party and invited their neighbors. All of their neighbors had spent significant time in the US, so we had plenty to talk about. It didn't hurt that their neighbors' son was on the attractive side,

The company was good, the food was delicious, but here's what bothered me: once again, the meal took all afternoon. I don't mean to begrudge the family for being friendly, but after I'd spent all of Saturday on trains, Saturday night out late at a pool party, and gotten up early to meet with my coworkers, I was exhausted. Add to that the stress of planning for a high school campus (oh, did I not mention that? My bad), and I needed some alone time to rest and prepare. Thankfully, they encouraged me to go nap when they noticed me falling asleep at the table.

Aaaaaaand then they woke me up from that nap to go to a fundraising concert to oppose the building of a new highway. In the rain. There were some white guys freestyle rapping in Friulian and a Peter Jackson lookalike singing folk songs with a banshee for a backup singer. It was interesting, to say the least. At least the hot neighbor was there.

Next thing I knew, it was Monday and time for camp to start. My class was out of control. I had a full class of 14-18-year-olds, so the atmosphere in the room alternated between hilarious and terrifying. These kids had a passion for English. Combine that with the rebellious attitude that is a highlight of the teenage years as well as their extensive pop culture knowledge, and you've got to stay on your toes.

It started on Tuesday, when we noticed that Leonardo had a penchant for quoting Jersey Shore. "Yeah buddy!" or "I like it!" were his responses to almost everything. Then he added, "It's a good situation." He used these phrases sincerely, ironically, or dryly, depending on the occasion. When we asked him what other English phrases he knew, he came up with, "T-shirt time!" and, "Taxi's here!"

When we went on a mid-week field trip, he and his friends sat at the back of the bus and sang dirty songs in Italian and Friulian. We told Andrea, their ringleader, that they would be allowed to continue singing if they translated their songs into English. Andrea wouldn't hear of it, telling us, "Singing that song in English instead of Italian would be like going to a hooker and asking for a hug." He actually said that. In English.

That's probably the greatest pro of working at a high school campus. Having such advanced and dedicated students means that the lessons can be much more complex, which in turn makes everything more rewarding. We held mock trials in my classroom and it was so thrilling to see the kids get into it. I felt more like a mentor than a teacher that week.

Of course, working with such smart and stubborn kids meant I sometimes had to use different methods to motivate them. When we were rehearsing for the final show and my kids wouldn't take it seriously, I took them out of the auditorium and gently yelled at them, like, "Do you enjoy making me crazy? DO YOU?!" and then wrapped it up by telling them how much potential they had, and how I believed in them more than anyone, and this could go down in history as the greatest show of all time, if they would only focus. It was incredibly dramatic.

We actually had two field trips that week. The first was to a local sculptural garden, where we conducted interviews with the artist, who only spoke Friulian, so that was pretty cool. Probably the only time in my life I'll run a class where the kids have to write questions in English, then translate them into Italian, then into Friulian, then ask them to a wizened old man, then translate his responses all the way back into English.

The second field trip was two a coin museum in my hometown of Buja, which actually had some pretty interesting stuff, as well as an infestation of bees. After touring the museum, we also visited a very old church and did a scavenger hunt in a park. There were a few times that week when I butted heads with some of the older boys, if you can believe that. In those moments, I called on my fellow tutor Ricardo to help me out. I can't believe I haven't mentioned him yet. Ricardo's a rather large man, and he played college football at Lehigh, so the kids were instantly terrified of him. Which seemed silly to the rest of us, because he was actually a big teddy bear. He prepped our kids for the sculpture field trip by getting on the mic of our tour bus and telling them not to touch anything because, "you break it, you bought it." Then he signed off with, "This has been Audible Chocolate." Maybe a little over the kids' heads but we certainly got a kick out of it.

Our fourth tutor was Rachel. She was originally from West Virginia, but she'd spent time traveling the world and had taught English in Korea for the last year. She'd last worked with our company the year before I started, so we knew a few of the same people, which was cool. Her style was very cozy bohemian, so we bonded over a mutual love of legwarmers and wool.

Thursday night was fancy dinner night in town, at a place called Frank and Jo's. It had 'Pizza Mood' written on the windows so you knew it was going to be good. There were delicious risottos, tiny beers, and savory pastas to be enjoyed by all. We were right off the main square, so we had a great view to the fireworks spectacular the town put on to honor its soldiers. All in all, a very satisfactory night.

Then it was time for Friday night and another English Camp final show. I'm not going to hold you in suspense or be dramatic or whatever--it was the best final show any of my kids have ever put on. It was about a man who upsets his girlfriend by missing their anniversary. She kills him, he goes to Heaven, gets rejected, then goes to Hell, where he makes a deal with the devil: he must win a best-of-three series of competitions to return to life, or do Satan's bidding forever. The first competition was a singing competition, which he lost. The second competition was a local game kind of like Rock, Paper, Scissors (the crowd loved it). He won that one. The last competition was general knowledge, and he miraculously won and was allowed to return to life. I was basically in tears by the end because I was so happy with my kids.

We took some photos, Ricardo allowed the students to try and tackle him one more time, and then we were off to a bar/gelateria (I'm not sure why this concept hasn't caught on in America because it's brilliant). As always, I was torn between savoring the tastes of Italy and preserving my girlish figure, so I ordered a baby beer and shared a little of Sarah's gelato.

That last night in Gemona was much too short. We didn't want to say goodbye to our students, and we made them repeat our favorite phrases over and over again. Cecilia, our director, paid me a very great compliment when she told me she was inspired by how I handled my class, and what a great leader I was (one of the most beautiful things anyone's ever said to me). But while the other tutors were experiencing the bittersweetness of their last nights as tutors, I at least had one more week of camp to look forward to.

We talked vaguely about theoretical future reunions to take the edge off of the goodbyes, but before I knew it, I was back in my room at my host family's house, packing up my things. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow, and then it was time for me to make my way to the final English Camp of 2011.