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.

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