And are you managing to teach them out there?

Several people have asked me how I am managing to home educate while glamping out in our tiny casetta which, for the first three days we were here, still had no water. My replies initially were largely mumbled self justifications as to why we do not strictly need to be ‘doing’ anything; that they are allowed a holiday, that this is effectively their summer holiday; that actually it’s language immersion in any case; that when you start to home educate, a period of ‘de-schooling’ is generally recommended.

But then I am jolted out of these mumblings by a comment from one of the children and I reassert the faith this journey demands.

On our first day here, while Tom and I put our casetta rustica to rights (one wouldn’t think much time was needed to organise such a tiny space, but I am proved wrong), the children pulled out the newly acquired paints. I could wax lyrical about the self organisation involved here, about the peer to peer learning between age groups, about H. guiding la principessa and about the three year old principessa so wise beyond her years, learning so much from being around her two older siblings, but I won’t. Paints and sketch books pulled out, the children set to work on their art. P.’s picture was vibrantly bright, broad strokes interpreting the vista before him, ‘I’m trying to do it like David Hockney’, he said. (There is doubtless a national curriculum level for this, probably something along the lines of emulating the style of … being able to articulate interpretations of…. In fact, some of them are probably national curriculum targets pertaining to GCSE level. Many a time did I laugh over ‘the ability to make connections between texts’ while marking GCSE papers, thinking that my then three year old was actually doing that, albeit that her connections were between the texts of Beatrix Potter rather than Charles Dickens; such are the potential shortfalls of a prescriptive mark scheme.)

H. meanwhile continued to work in fine pencil drawings, commenting that she really liked those drawings in the Hockney exhibition we had seen at the Tate Britain, ‘and really I love doing pencil drawings at the moment.’

Hockney resurfaced again when we were enjoying the delights of a beautiful pool as guests of some acquaintances staying nearby. One of the party dived into the pool, then someone else jumped in, ‘That could be The Splash!’ exclaimed H. ‘You know, David Hockney’s splash?’ she elucidated helpfully for anyone not also considering the parallels between our fun and games and one of the UK’s most prolific modern artists.

Still on the theme of art, the children were a few days later excited by the prospect that we will shortly be collecting last year’s vendemmia (the wine made from the last grape harvest). Casa Doust will soon need a label and maybe a more catchy name. The first labels were beautiful, but the wrong shape for a wine bottle. Ah, an understanding of branding, design and different products. These pictures could be used for accompanying leaflets, but not for the wine itself. I predict us fulfilling at least some basic criteria for GCSE design over the next few olive and wine harvests.

Then there are the questions – and answers – for which children are, or should be, renowned. La principessa of course is at the glorious age at which there’s a question for everything, from whether mermaids wear flip flops to whether Peter Rabbit lives in that field over there? At least, three to four years is widely considered the age at which questions peak, but there’s a school of thought which questions this very statement. Should we not be asking the question: why does questioning peak at four and tail off once children start school? A certain allowance could be made for knowing the answers to more basic questions, those focusing largely on the naming of things. But this cannot account for the sudden drop once children are put into institutions which place primacy over correct answers rather than interesting questions.

Among the highlights of my week was la Principessa randomly wondering, as we drove along yesterday afternoon, ‘But HOW are bodies made?’ This in itself gives a glorious insight into the mind of a three year old – from whence cometh this thought? My immediate response was that this was an early lesson in the birds and the bees, but la Principessa started to answer it for herself. ‘There are bones and then there is skin.’ P. and H. took it up at this point. Broadly speaking the response went thus: ‘The bones hold the body together and upright – because otherwise we would be all flippy-floppy! We wouldn’t be able to stand up! Then there are muscles and veins that carry your blood round your body then the skin covers it all and holds it all together.’ H. then piped up: ‘Actually you are made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. And molecules are made of matter.’ Right, that sorts that one then. I do find the car useful for such discussions. I left the three of them to it and was interested that the conversation became more philosophical, focussing on the nature of growing up, everyone starting as a baby (‘in fact, as cells,’ H. chipped in again, ‘in fact as a tiny, tiny, tiny cell’), and growing into adulthood.

Perhaps this development drew on our chats about evolution after reading David Almond’s ‘Skellig’. Perhaps it came from the Philosophy for Children session we attended locally a month ago. Perhaps it was linked to H.’s question at bedtime the preceeding night, ‘But how did we get all these things? How are there cupboards to put things in, and boxes, and all these things we have? How are there books?’ Oh my – this is a Question with a capital Q, perhaps not one for 10 pm, but with any luck it will resurface next time at more sociable hour, when we might be able to delve a little deeper into human development from the Stone Age to the present day.

Wondering about matter, stuff and the notion of being followed us on a visit to the Bosco della Ragnaia nearby. Ah – to be liberated from the freedom of The System means we have choice, and back in Italy we have dipped back into the ‘scuolina’ I co-founded while here* and were able to accompany our friends on this trip to the park of Sheppard Craige which explores the notion of spirituality through sculptures and installations which in turn interrogate and involve visitors. At the centre of one area was a metal frame forming an enormous cube, the cube of ‘niente’. The cube of nothingness, which in its nothingness demands that we question that very notion. As we left, P. picked this out as his favourite part of the bosco, ‘because it’s funny that it’s the cube of nothingness, when even though it’s supposed to be empty, there are actually things in it. Because there’s air and you can see through it and there are things growing in it. How can there be nothing?’

Was it the discussion on nothing that led us to talk about time? H. wondered how many hours there are in a year. It always happens when we are driving, but 24 x 365 gave us an opportunity for not insubstantial mental maths on one journey. It’s not been the only opportunity for numbers. Making cherry jam and cherry studded biscuits from our harvest without the aid of kitchen scales gave us plenty of opportunity for weight estimation. The biscuits were devoured (and by non family members) and the jam is delicious, so they can’t have been far off. And when there are twenty four ice cream flavours on offer at Elba’s best ice cream shop and five people each having three flavours and we visit twice… well, then there are plenty of chances for fractions and mental tally charts.

And then there are those milestones and moments that form one’s learning and development in the widest sense: the independence, confidence and self responsibility which should naturally evolve for children as they grow and which some children are able to develop through their upbringing and some through clubs, but which are also often sorely lacking in the over-programmed timetables of children’s lives. Thus for H. and P. to decide to go on the ‘campeggio’ being organised at the school was a defining moment of independence for them. A moment in which they not only spent a night away from home and parents, but did it in a foreign land and in a foreign language. Great was their delight and sparkly were their eyes the next day when, recounting not only escapades and excitement of the night before (star gazing with an astronomer, seeing black holes – that actually you can’t really see, Mummy, because they are black spaces – cooking sausages on the fire, reading ghost stories in English then translating them into Italian for those not bilingual), they proudly handed me their sleeping mats, blankets, clothes and towels. All neatly packed up. All present and correct. ‘The maestra didn’t help us at all. We did it all ourselves.’

So am I managing to teach them while we are here, in the stifling heat of a June the like of which have not been seen before? No. Not at all. I haven’t set out to teach them a single thing. There hasn’t been a moment in which I have defined a learning objective, set a target and predicted What I’m Looking For (the WILF I so abhorred when teaching). But have these weeks been educationally rich, culturally interesting and full of the wonders of conversing daily in a foreign tongue. Teaching and learning: they are two different things. The time is beyond propitious that we redefine what it is to educate and to be educated.

*The scuolina is essentially an affiliation of families all of whom seek to educate their children otherwise, a ‘non-school school’ which allows children broadly to direct their own learning.

Era una casa, molto carina

I wake with the children’s rhyme resounding in the voices of innocence, the simplicity of intonation and of the ditty’s sentiment seem so perfectly attuned at this moment to the earthiness of being here.

There’s a dear little house, standing in the corner of two vineyards and an olive grove. It’s not quite without a roof and has a charmingly basic kitchen. We have yet to work out the issue of bodily functions. But it is our sanctuary, standing, small but perfectly formed, solidly at the foot of the Monte Amiata. Incomplete though it is, it already feels like a bolthole. My sliver of sunshine, actual and metaphorical. My still point in the turning world.

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I have escaped there for solitude. Time to think and to be.

The leaves on the fig tree curl in acidic yellow edged with brown, sharp against the gentle grey of the branches. The vines are almost bare, knotted and woody arms edged with gnarled nodes from which shoot russet brown sticks. Here, bleak winter is modulated by memories of the year’s seasons: delicate ever silver green leaves of the olive tree soften the barren season. Late autumn sunshine seeps through the peace of hearing a single fig leaf fall crisply to its counterparts on the ground. These indeed are:

‘Visions flitted Guido

Titian – never told –

Domenichino dropped his pencil –

Paralyzed, with Gold –’*

Paralyzed with Gold. I am in this still point and I am paralyzed by the gold of being here. Paralyzed by endless skies, crisp colbalt blue in the sun and the precision lines these draw in nature. Even with clouds the extraordinary effect of the expanse of sky bestows a light which is inexpressibly arresting. A light which sharpens the landscape into an awe-inspiring intensity. 

I am standing rooted in my still point and the apparently infinite wealth of nature is a panorama before me. 

But the world is turning and turning…. life seems both so inexhaustible and so precariously finite. I am in this still point. 

I can turn from the world’s pain, at this moment so acute and widespread; this is an extraordinary and humbling privilege, felt more profoundly as we move into our last weeks here.

Our little house will stand firmly here, embraced by the mountain, joyously open to the valley. A disparate reality. I stand, absorb and dance with this beauty only to turn to the grey pages of other realities. The streaked faces of the children of Syria juxtapose excruciatingly and pitifully with the children’s song in my head.

I take this moment to fathom my fortune and feel gratitude. I take this moment to fathom my fortune and make small promises to myself, promises to remember these disparate realities, the bella and the brutta of the world, to remember these realities and my good fortune in relation to each, now more than ever in the crushing reality of the world stage as we move into the last days of 2016. 
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*Emily Dickinson

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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A Film and a Festa

I’ve written before about Italian bureaucracy, but it really is as bad as everyone says. And worse. Barely a day passes here without someone saying to me, at some point, ‘Ah…. questa Italia…. Beh, siamo in Italia…..’ , usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug which reads to me as a cross between resignation to absurdity and badge of honour.

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ready to bake – biscotti salati

It affects every walk of life, from procuring a loyalty card at the supermarket to taking food into school on birthdays. Indeed, at birthdays, children are only allowed to take into school a cake bought at a shop, accompanied by a receipt, to celebrate with friends. Despite the fact that Italians are so proud of the cooking of ‘nonna’ or ‘mamma’, so protective of family recipes and the correct ways of making dishes and eating food, the law (I have yet to find out whether this local, regional or national) would rather decree that children eat shop bought food, no doubt loaded with excess sugar or glucose fructose syrup, than a home cooked treat. The irony is that at gatherings outside school hours, such as the merenda we shared yesterday after the children’s end of year performance, the table is heaped with a sumptuous array of homemade crostata, biscotti salati, pane, et cetera et cetera. At such events, everyone enthusiastically contributes something and everyone enthusiastically tastes everything.

 

 

We came across the same problem recently when we made our film for a competition run by Social Business World, which asked schools to contribute, through film, stories from every day life about living together in an ethical, sustainable and ecological way. I wrote the short film script, (we were restricted to five minutes) and a friend translated it into Italian. A dynamic Italian mother here found someone to film it, and we were ready to shoot.

Ready, that is, aside from the Italian hoops we had to jump through.

Of course, the school had to seek permission even to be involved in the project from the Dirigente (the director of schools in the area, a sort of head of education for the area).

The Dirigente decreed yes.

The Dirigente then cut a whole section of the script which involved inviting the materna school and families in to eat together. In doing so, she cut one element of the film, the intention of which had been to show community building and collaboration.

The Dirigente allowed parents to come in and prepare with the children food made with ceci (chickpeas, the small village is known for its cultivation of chickpeas, particularly its specialty, black chickpeas).

But she forbade the children from tasting the food once it was made.

Obviously the fact that it was not pre-prepared, shop bought food, accompanied by a receipt, meant it was a potential danger. This despite the fact that the teachers were there, watching the parents prepare it. The children would be allowed to eat it off site, and out of school hours, however. I have yet to understand quite whether or how these two things join up: if a child is going to become sick from eating something, this will happen whether they eat it in the school grounds before 16.30 or outside the school grounds at 16.31, and surely in each instance there would be the same possibility of litigation. Surely, I said, if it is a matter of parental consent (at 16.31, parents are present to consent to their children eating the food), we simply have to ask them to sign a form before we prepare it and taste it?

Apparently not. Given that Italians love signing pieces of paper and disclaimers in all their forms, I was surprised by this.

Nevertheless, we parents had something to sign simply to allow our chidren to partake in the film.

So, with a heavily edited script, we went ahead anyway. The children enjoyed making the film celebrating as they did so something of their community, the local livelihood and the international make up of the small school. You can watch our little film here.

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Cherries – eaten and enjoyed…. after school hours

 

The competition was small, albeit nationwide, but we were pleased to win and be invited to a three day festa in northern Italy.

And then came the process of organizing the trip. I lost track of the number of missives flying between parents and teachers regarding travel arrangements. We seemed to waste several of the four to five weeks we had to organise it discussing whether to go by train or coach, with very little resolution. But finally, with two weeks to go, the Dirigente decreed that it would be impossible, in such a short space of time, to pull together the paper work to procure permission for the trip. (From whom? From where? This I don’t understand – surely as the Dirigente, she can procure and sign the relevant papers…. ).

As with (virtually) all things I have experienced here, there is a block. Then there is a ‘gira’. I honestly think Italians revel in the blocks in order that they can come up with the circuitous way round it. The way round it is for it to be a trip organised by parents, this is naturally a neat absolution of responsibility on the part of the school or the Dirigente. And thus we continue to organise it in exactly the same way as we were organizing it before, but this time, without the need for the mysterious additional paperwork the Dirigente felt unable to deal with. We still had to sign a form, however, saying that we as parents take responsibility for our children on the trip that we are organizing for them, as parents.

Apparently the coach is booked and we leave in a week’s time, for the village of Montello, Treviso, for the Festa of Ritmi e Danza dal Mondo. As with many idealistic celebrations of peace and diversity, there will, I am sure be much talk, all of which will be fabulous, stimulating and aspirational. But if the talk is to turn into action, there will, of course, be a series of bureaucratic hurdles and caveats as well as several reams of paper…

Aspirationally, however, we are excited. Aspiration and small steps are important… After all, the raging fires of revolution start with small flames.

 

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A Key with a View

We are the proud owners of this key.

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The hand over of the key, in exchange for a cheque, was a ceremonial process at the end of a five hour meeting, involving a mere twelve people who each signed their names some 22 times between the hours of 11 am and 4.15 pm.

We can only be in Italy.

Yes, this is how one purchases property and land in this country which relishes bureaucracy with the same attention to detail as it does a simple bowl of pasta. The translator (one of the twelve people involved in the meeting), seemed intent on making sure I was absolutely clear about this, when she phoned me three days after The Purchase Meeting, apparently to make sure that ‘now [you understand] what we mean by things taking time and having to be done properly in Italy’.

I cut the conversation short, (she would happily have spent an hour talking me through the various idiosyncrasies of existing here), assuring her that I was quite aware that we are in bureaucracy heaven. Where else would you pay for land and property with a cheque book? Yes, at the end of The Purchase Meeting, the notaio (notary) started tapping numbers into the archaic receipt printer on his desk and a ream of receipt paper curled its way towards the floor. After about two metres of receipts were printed out, he announced the final figures and we wrote out cheques for land, property, translator’s fees, notary fees and taxes. One has to celebrate the fact that there’s a great deal of trust involved on the side of recipients that cheques will hold good. Apparently CHAPS payments do exist here. But how much more fun it is to sit through a five hour meeting than simply to wait for an impersonal phone call to assure one that payment has gone through and the key can now be collected from the agent’s office?

Strictly speaking, actually, we had not quite reached the end of the meeting: the translator was painstakingly editing the translated contract, typing with two fingers, to include the few extra words and phrases the notaio had altered during the reading of the contracts. Having laboriously hand written the changes after the notaio had read the contract for the first time, in Italian, we spent the next hour listening to the translator re-read the document, in English, a responsibility which afforded her the stage she so obviously craved, revelling in the utmost precision, pausing frequently for rhetorical effect. Given that Tom and I had been reading the English document as the notaio read the Italian only two hours before, we didn’t feel this second reading in our language was strictly necessary. Even the notaio was spotted dozing off in his leather chair at the head of the table.

It was as the vendor went for another cigarette and we reached the 30 minute mark waiting for the translator to finish on the computer, that we heard that she’d had a personal crisis: her mother had had her bag stolen, so she was fielding calls on this. Given she was typing with said two fingers, I didn’t think we stood much chance of her multi-tasking phone calls to mamma with completing the electronic document, so I suggested to the notaio we move on to signatures or cheque writing. Or something to move us towards being home before sundown. Our dear friend and witness to proceedings (in Italy, one needs someone to witness the notaio witnessing the translator translating into English, witnessing us understanding the English, a convoluted multi-check process which exemplifies an inbuilt reluctance by anyone to take responsibility for anything), was whispering to her four year old daughter that it would be better to eat merenda (afternoon snack) with Daddy, than wait for mamma to come home for it.

Signing the documentation, was of course, not straightforward. There were five copies of the contract in Italian, (to be accompanied later by five copies of the contract in English), together with five additional sheets. Tom and I had already had our knuckles rapped at 11 am, when we had signed the privacy and identity documentation (at least three times apiece) using only our first and last names, and in my case – illegibly. I wasn’t aware that it was a requirement of signatures to be legible? Thus we were primed to write our full names – middle included (I have two, this was a source of some consternation, but fortunately I am capable of writing four words in a row) – and in a clear style. Anyone who has tried to read a card written by me, will know that a requirement of legibility demanded a change to my writing, but it was Tom who was pulled up this time: he had to repeat his first five afternoon signatures. Apparently they looked too like print, and he needed to write them in ‘corsivo’. This slowed the process down only a little, however; far more time consuming was the way in which the notaio asked the first signatory to sign all 15 sheets before re-stacking them into their original order to move them all onto the second signatory. Fortunately the vendor’s three adult children were as keen as Tom and I were to speed the process up, and lined themselves up, pen in hand, ready to sign, move sheet on, sign, move sheet on. Of course, there was a strict order in which signatories were to sign, which was no doubt connected to some unspoken hierarchy: naturally, the notaio signed last in a  ceremonial process conducted in the final minutes. Incidentally, his signature, large and sprawling, was entirely illegible. It was, however, in corsivo.

Thus ended The Purchase Meeting. We left with the key, five cheques fewer in our cheque book. And not a single piece of paper. Apparently we will be summoned at a later date to collect documentation once it has been made official.

 

And the key with a view? It’s the key to this piccolo fabbricato rustico, standing amongst cherry and fig trees and looking over our vines and our olive trees. A key with a view, holding our dreams.

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casa view

 

 

 

 

La Burocrazia Italiana

Ah, La Burocrazia Italiana, I come to understand it in different ways, each day.

I have decided of late that Italians wear this bureaucracy as something of a badge of pride. “Ah, questa Italia….’, ‘Ah, questa la burocrazia Italiana’… ‘Ah, benvenuta in Italia….’

Incredibly, manifestations of Italian bureaucracy find their ways into every part of Italian life… it almost seems to influence la lingua. Now, I like language and I love grammar. There, I’ve said it: I actually really love knowing how words fit together into sentences, I enjoying debating the use of the predicate of ‘to be’ in written and spoken form. But I digress. Even as a grammar-loving would-be linguist, I find Italian grammar archaic and faintly baffling. Italian verbs exist in 14 forms: seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses. In reality, Italians probably use only a handful of them on a regular basis in speech. Nevertheless, they exist and children are taught them rigorously in school, alongside a variety of verbal moods and intentions. While to get along happily speaking Italian on a daily basis is no different from learning any language by immersion, even I am tempted to set Italian grammar aside for a very rainy day. Or make that month. Teaching the correct use of the possessive apostrophe in English seems chicken feed by comparison.

This labyrinthine obfuscation is manifested beautifully in Italian law. I’ve been told that whenever new laws are passed in Italy, rather than replacing or revoking existing laws they are simply melded on, the effect of which is that for every law in Italy, there appears to exist its opposite or a contradiction. (Very possibly this is not actually that dissimilar to English Tort, but – to the outsider at least, it seems that Italians wear this obscurity with some pride.) To this end, it’s impossible to get a straight response to anything. The answer depends not only on whom you ask, but when you ask him or her and I have found, whether you ask again… and again… and again.

By way of illustration:

I went to procure Tom’s codice fiscale. Now, when I went to get the children’s and mine a while back, I was asked whether my husband needed one. No, he didn’t at the time so I didn’t get it (an oversight on my part, but I do seem to specialize here in creating extra work for myself in these situations). Thus it was, a month or so ago, that I returned to said office – and, by chance, to exactly the same officer who had served me last summer – to procure Best Beloved’s codice fiscale. This, by the way, is a computer generated reference without which it is impossible to do anything here – even, as I found out – buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM card. Seated in front of said officer I pulled out all our documents – and I mean all of them, I had gone prepared, with every certificate, passport, driving licence, proof of address we had between us. ‘Ah, non e possibile’ because he’s not present. I stalled him – hang on a minute – this had been perfectly possible just six months ago when you asked me if I wanted to generate his codice fiscale at the same time as those of the rest of the family, when he had also not been present. Apparently, on this next visit, it was absolutely not possible. The stand off began. It continued thus: me explaining that he recalled the last visit (I stand out somewhat here in this un-touristy region of Italy, being English, with three children, two of whom are very bionde, all three of whom are pretty noisy; people tend to recall us); me pointing to the three children before me (all of whom were conveniently getting hungry), reminding him that I have travelled an hour to get here… me wondering if it really was impossible to generate this code now? It’s amazing what happens when you ask the same question several times over… miraculously, I could sign Best Beloved’s name for him and procure the coveted codice fiscale. There’s something to be said for this bureaucracy then. It’s a sort of ‘computer says no, but actually I could try to find a way if I feel sympathy for you’.

There’s actually a reason for this, it seems and it’s rooted in the Robin Hood-esque behaviour of underclasses rebelling against the feudal system which strangled Italy for so many years. Herein lies the reason that to call someone ‘furbo’ – slightly cunning, is said with a slight hint of admiration. And it’s something we might need to learn, as we are about to embark on a whole new step in our Italian adventure…

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Mission Outdoors. Part 2

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Mission Get The Children Outside continued at the end of winter with Strand B: Bring the Outside into the School Day. Naively, I thought that this might be relatively straightforward in a senza zaino school. Instead, I have stood face-to-face with what it is to be culturally at odds with the place in which I am living. I have felt keenly the British-ness of my blood even as the same blood fires up in the passionate emotion I attribute more readily to a different heritage.

One of the foundations of a senza zaino school is the involvement of parents and the community. Thus it was that I mooted, en passant, with the maestre, the possibility of spending more time outside, particularly given that there was, thus far, no provision for ‘ginnastica’ in the school week. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate misunderstanding, control over the school day or lack of experience of teaching within this type of system, but the suggestion was pretty much rejected. Even under the ‘banco del tempo’, apparently we parents cannot simply come in to play ball games with the children in the field. I rather wondered to myself why not, but for now, left it at that, even while the teacher continued to exspostolate as to how cold it was outside, apparently further fuel to their belief that the children’s health is protected by being inside.

Thus it was that the group of like-minded and, it has to be said, mainly international parents rallied together to consider how we might address this situation, all of us aware of the detrimental effect of limited time outside on our children’s behaviour.

One of the very lovely banco del tempo projects of last school year was the orto or vegetable garden, developed using traditional permaculture and organic methods. Embraced by parents and teachers last year, everyone seems keen to maintain it this year. Thus it was that we decided to try to extend the project and begin it sooner, in order to get the children outside from now, ahead of our schedule to dig the ground over and think about earth, water and planting from early Spring.

So we planned to begin with the children and the community: a core value of the senza zaino school is to harmonise links between school and community and the majority of local children are from farming and agricultural backgrounds. I ran this idea past the teacher…. and was disappointed to be met with, what I considered a fairly luke-warm response*, mainly concerning the number of projects running in the school and the potentially compromising effect this could have on learning… argh, my Italian lets me down again: surely such a comment rather misses the point of senza zaino, where learning should be happening through diversity of projects and a range of non-traditional teaching methods. I showed the teacher the orto plan and suggested ways in which we could bring the curriculum in, there being opportunities for maths and science a-plenty, to say nothing of related writing activities. No, it is ‘piu commodo’ apparently, to teach inside in the classroom… The case for outdoors just grew stronger: such a comment is fuel for my fire. I re-organise my strategy:

  1. get the children outside for the orto project;
  2. try to build some maths into the orto project;
  3. demonstrate through this that it is possible for children to learn through experience, outside;
  4. use the senza zaino philosophy and vision slowly to try to encourage the maestra to have the courage to teach differently.

I start with a) and b); c) and d) are longer term aims. I think I will have to move piano piano, with the support of as many other parents as possible, if we are to make progress.

But it feels like a golden opportunity. This senza zaino school is young, only in its second or third year of being. We need to harness this novelty and surely we should aspire to it being practically and truly a senza zaino school, moving it away from paying lip service to the theory and only implementing those elements such as classroom arrangement which are easy to enforce. The real value of this kind of education lies in how children take responsibility for their own learning; how a school engenders in children a true love of learning by engaging them in their education; how a small school setting can offer an education which is less restricted by formalities and therefore more open to diversity of teaching ideas and methods. So, now it’s time to try to negotiate labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy in a bid to affect small changes…

*More on this next time… suffice to say, for now, that it’s interesting trying to interpret and understand properly nuance and intended meanings cross-culture and language.

Loving Language

 

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I was delighted to read in a (relatively recent) paper of the beneficial effects on the brain of learning a second language.

A tangential segue here into newspapers: I miss them. I have tried reading them on line, but I’m afraid it doesn’t cut the mustard. Newspapers, like books, need to be held. Newspapers enjoy being rustled and flicked out peremptorily, if necessary. Headlines like to be scanned in a way which just isn’t satisfied by scrolls and clicks. Suffice to say, therefore, that I am always delighted when a copy of one of the big UK dailies makes its way over to me, albeit days or weeks in arrears.

This particular article cited ‘good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life’ with Professor Antonella Sorace of Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University saying that, ‘bilingualism opens the mind in a very fundamental way’, improving mental ability and warding off possible mental decline in later life. Nowadays of course ‘studies into…’ are sometimes so ubiquitous that if one looks hard enough, it’s possible to find statistical support for even the most absurd life choices. However, as a fully signed up language aficionado, I naturally revel in this kind of study, particularly when said professor is reported recommending that children ‘learn languages from the age of five until they reach university.’

H. and P. are perhaps a little too young to appreciate the significance of the potential long term effects of being here, but with mental health issues so prevalent in the news, and having recently watched Still Alice (yes, yes, I know that, as usual, I’m at least a year late with anything vaguely pertaining to popular culture… ), it’s good to know that we are oiling the right cogs to improve cognitive function in later life.

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And it has indeed been fascinating watching and listening to all three children learn through this non-optional immersion, and particularly interesting to observe how each child’s age, previous learning experience and emotional response to the enormous change of moving here, has affected their responses to la lingua Italiana.

 

It would be fair to say that, until recently, P. superficially, at least, has been stubbornly refusing to admit to the young brain’s natural malleability and aptitude for language acquisition. However even his dogged determination* is belied by ‘off guard’ moments, such as that a while ago, when, overtired and overwrought, he went to bed worrying about school the next day, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow, Mummy, I’ve got to talk in Italian all day and I don’t even know how to say “I don’t know”!’

I can help with that, I countered: ‘Non so.’

So automatic was Peter’s reply that he forgot to impose his self-regulated check: ‘“Non LO so” Mummy!’ he corrected me, nonchalantly inserting the article I am all too apt to forget.

It was one of those moments. He’d inadvertently given the game away and I tried not to let me my smile show. His accent was spot on: my ‘so’ sounded a bit like the English ‘so’, P.’s ‘o’ was short, clipped and Italian. What a gift: a mind malleable enough to absorb the accent so effortlessly and so accurately.

This moment, coming also at a time at which Tom and I have worked hard to try to assuage P.’s fears and help him respond to the change he has found so hard, marked something of a turning point for him and with some small differences at school and efforts at home, he is gradually letting down the language-resistant guard he had put up. Last week he happily told the teacher that, ‘il babbo viene prendermi prima pranzo oggi perché ce l’ho la tossa’. That’s quite a few words for a boy who has hitherto insisted he doesn’t speak the language. It’s amazing what one can communicate when one wants to…I have a feeling that he’ll be able to chat too, when he has a few snowboarding lessons on the mountain…

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From day one, H. embraced Italian, picking up bits and pieces over our summer of fun and building on this more formally from September in school. H’s situation has undoubtedly been made easier by age and circumstance: placed in the second school year in Italy and already a competent reader and writer in English, she has been able to slip into learning here, picking up the language through the curriculum without having to overcome the hurdles of learning to read and write and growing both linguistically and emotionally. Just last night, as I muttered to myself: ‘Dov’é i miei guanti?’, H’s automatic response was spot on: unconcerned by the whereabouts of the gloves themselves, she nevertheless quickly corrected me, ‘dove sono i miei guanti’. Of course, I’d used the singular instead of the plural of the verb. I stood corrected and very happy. Elsewhere, H has grown in confidence out of the home, thoroughly revelling in taking responsibility for ordering coffees, cakes and hot chocolates in Italian when out and about, booking restaurant tables over the phone and happily taking responsibility for bringing Daddy up to speed on various linguistic necessities.

Hwriting2The cursive script H. has learned at school here is a beautiful visual testimony to the working of a young mind ready to absorb learning. We came down from playing in the snow on the mountains yesterday to spot the first violets and crocuses of spring. Face turned to the first warmth of spring sunshine, H remarked: ‘I know why it’s primavera in Italian, Mummy – it means first truth which is right with all the life coming.’ Such moments are affirmations for me: this journey has been tricky at times, but how glorious to experience the connections being made in children’s minds and the learning that happens when they are given the space to absorb, move and respond at their own pace. The beauty of language and the beauty of life fused together in a passing comment which meant so much.

 

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*A symptom largely of his difficulty settling into the materna school and the confusion of being too young here in Italy to start Primaria before September this year.

 

 

The Great Outdoors

It goes without saying that immersing oneself in another culture serves to accentuate one’s own sense of identity, both personal and national. Immersing oneself with children amplifies this, particularly when said children attend school in another place.

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The kind of winter we’ve been having…

I am reminded of how strange I appeared to locals when living and studying in the Middle East. I would walk apparently unfathomable distances, setting off to tuts and mutterings that it’s ‘ba’ed’ – far away – and impossible to undertake such a journey without a car. Likewise, I craved light and the sun and would emerge from shuttered houses onto balconies long before locals set foot outside.

Similarly, here in Italy, my attitude to the outside sometimes seems diametrically opposed to that of the locals and nowhere do I struggle with this more than with the children’s school. The first few times the children told me they’d been inside all day, I shrugged it off and changed the subject. However, as the autumn days drew in and winter months arrived, I quizzed them a little more, to be met with their insistence that they were inside all day. This was puzzling because, while we have been coasting through the darker months – December, January and now February – winter itself has yet to make an appearance. Save a week in late January in which we were greeted with stunning displays of frost such as that below, I have been struggling to find a use for my woolly hat and thick boot socks. Even on colder days, there has been little rain to speak of, certainly none of the weather that might actually stop teachers in the UK from throwing the doors open and the children outside.

 

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And there’s another point: in the UK said children will often be outside in shorts and or skirts and socks, running around the playground, scraping knees and throwing coats off even while their breath marks the air before them. Indeed it is with a heavy sigh on days of torrential rain that teachers tend to resign themselves to the boisterous behaviour which usually accompanies days on which children have been cooped up.

Not so here: in Italy I have been scolded on mild and sunny October days for my children being outdoors without hats. One is left wondering if there is some bureaucratic legislation decreeing a date in the autumn from which hats must be worn and play must be taken inside and a date in the spring from which we can revert to lighter clothes and outdoor play.

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View from the children’s school 

I broached The Great Outdoors with the teachers one morning, asking if, given it was a lovely sunny day, P. could play outside. The school has a lovely field overlooking the glorious valley. It’s a travesty not to use it. My query was met with exasperated looks and the same explanation I have heard innumerable times since: ‘if the children go outside, they will get colds and coughs; we have some children who had bronchitis last year, how can they go outside in the winter?’ This is where I find my Italian lets me down, frustrating my ability to articulate clearly the many arguments for playing outside. I try to moot whether children dressed appropriately in warm clothes might not benefit from the fresh air. I attempt to point out that keeping thirty children cooped up in a few rooms for eight hours is more likely to propagate the spreading of germs, to say nothing of the effect it will have on their behaviour. I mention the health benefits to children of daily exercise and movement.

My comments are met with blank stares: ‘fa freddo fuori, come si fa?’ – it’s cold outside, what are we to do?

I leave, vexed both by my language and by this closed mindset, yet at the same time conscious that I am the outsider who has chosen to live here. And that means choosing to take the rough with the smooth. I try to focus on the smooth, in this case the smooth that I can do with regard to school: I can take the children out of school early when I feel they need a break. I can offer my help as a parent through the banco del tempo of this Senza Zaino school movement which embraces parental engagement.

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A place to play

So, to start with, I park the car 15 minutes’ walk away from school. I collect the children early most days, to give ourselves time to play outside We walk to the car, run about in the olive trees and play in the beautiful stone ruins, shouting to the skies and the birds, looking up to the mountain, which seems to approve of our outdoor abandonment. The wind catches our breath and reddens our cheeks; our fingers tingle with the cold. La Principessa races forward with her hands behind her, flying to keep up with her siblings. I realise that this is probably good for me too.

We climb into the car to go home and I start to plan how I can take the outdoors into the children’s school day….

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