Not all those who wander are lost.


What I learned at Summer Camp

How does a Wanderer end the school year and kick off the summer? She heads for Umbria to teach English at a Summer Camp for three weeks. Just me and five others against an army of 30 of Italy’s most darling little angels. In addition to losing my voice, teaching the importance of sportsmanship, and pulling out 8,000 splinters, I made several observations about the lifestyles and habits of Italian youth.

Things I learned at Summer Camp:

  • Italian mothers are master packers – daily outfits, including morning and evening attire, are put in separate plastic bags and labeled with the day of the week.
  • While Marco Polo was Italian, the swimming pool game named in his honor is not internationally recognized.
  • Six kids will overcome two grown men 100% of the time in tug-o-war.
  • All Italians fear death from the phenomenon known as “La Congestione” (no available English translation), caused by swimming too soon after eating. And most kids will tell you that they know someone who died from it.
  • If the Azzurri (Italian soccer team) are playing, you better be prepared to reorganize the week’s schedule so the kids can watch the game.
  • For every 30 kids, at least 1 will actually like the flavor of Marmite (same as Vegemite).
  • In a Bake-the-Cake competition, the real battle is a debate over who’s nonna – grandma – has the best secret recipe
  • Any means of retaliation (physical, verbal, or psychological) is fair game if someone has insulted your mamma.
  • As a counselor, your best weapon to prevent attempted room-escape is a deck of cards or a magic trick.
  • Any Italian can tell you that there are only 6 continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, Antarctica, and America. North, South, and Central are all one.
  • Mascaccia – means tomboy, and according to the kids, I am still one of them.
  • Everybody loves dodgeball.

Miss Katie vs. Italian 3rd Graders – Rounds 2-3

After the chaos that ensued in Week 1, I was dreading Week 2 with my class of third graders. The optimist in me said, “Yes, week 1 was hell, but surely it can only get better from here.” The pessimist in me said, “You have got to be out of your freaking mind to step back in that classroom.” The realist in me said, “It doesn’t matter how the lesson goes, it’s 50 euro for an hour of your time. You have to do it.”

I am not a quitter; I’m too stubborn and too competitive to admit defeat. After an appropriate amount of sulking, whining, and procrastination (approx. 5.5 days), I dragged myself to my desk to start planning the lesson for Week 2: Animals.

While the memory of that first day is a bit of a blur, I did make two mental notes that would assist with planning future lessons. First is that the kids had a ridiculous amount of energy. Therefore any activity which involved getting them out of their seats was teacher suicide; they’d be too wound up to sit back down. The second is that they LOVED anything that had to do with markers.

So I made worksheets, lots and lots of worksheets. Crossword puzzles, word searches, matching games, coloring activities. Anything to distract them and keep them in their seats. Better yet, they could take these worksheets home to Pappa and Mamma to show them how much they “learned” in English.

Also important was the fact that I adjusted my expectations of myself. One hour once a week is not enough time to really teach much of anything. The kids study english with their normal Italian teacher, so my job is simply to work on their pronunciation and get them accustomed to the American accent. So as long as I hear a few English words spoken throughout the hour, it’s a job well done.

So despite every self-preservation instinct telling me not to go back to that school, I walked into that classroom for Round 2 of Miss Katie vs. Italian 3rd Graders…

And I am proud to say I won. The kids were enthusiastic about learning new words, entertained by the silly animal flashcards, and excited to show their parents the drawings they made of their favorite animals. The hour flew by and I didn’t even need my Plan B!

As for Week 3, the topic was Halloween – which is known but not celebrated in Italy. But what 8-year old doesn’t like ghosts, witches, and vampires?!?!  I had the kids draw their own Haunted Houses and write a few spooky sentences to go with it. Again, they were on task and well-behaved.

After 3 weeks it’s Miss Katie: 2, Italian 3rd Graders: 1. I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful my winning trend continues throughout the year.

Miss Katie vs. Italian 3rd Graders – Round 1

I have absolutely no background or experience as a teacher. What I do have is a TEFL Certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and a desperate need to earn some money before I can continue my wandering. So when I arrived in Rome in August, I was determined to learn how to play the role of English Teacher. I’ve devoted the majority of my days (and nights) to studying English Grammar and watching YouTube videos of ESL teachers around the world; I picked up tips and techniques for classes of all sizes and students of all ages. Being the obsessive organizer that I am, I created my own library of lesson plans, vocabulary flashcards and worksheets on my computer, sorted by level (beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc).

Work was not difficult to find; the demand for “Mother Tongue” English teachers is ridiculous. I started three weeks ago as an English tutor, working 1 on 1 with kids (ages 6-18). The downside is that I spend an incredible amount of time on the bus getting to/from the lessons; but the pay is good enough that with only  11 lessons each week, I earn enough to pay my bills and survive in Rome. Though it should be noted that “surviving” in Rome is hardly what I was hoping to accomplish; but hey, it’s a start.

Anyway, when my company told me about the opportunity to earn 50 euro teaching a class of 3rd graders once a week for an hour this year, I couldn’t say no.

My first lesson was last Friday, October 14th. I did not know how many students were in the class, nor did I know their English level. I was advised to assume that the kids knew nothing and simply start at square one. My first lesson plan was to go over basic introductions. By the end of the class, I wanted them to say “Hello, my name is ____,” “I am _____ years old,” and “Nice to meet you.” Pretty standard for ESL Day 1. I also wanted to assess their knowledge of the ABC’s and numbers; I had prepared a number of activities, games, and songs to keep them engaged. I was armed with a backup plan in case they were more advanced than I assumed.

I walked into that classroom with my head high, determined not to make the same mistakes other ESL teachers make and confident in my ability to manage the classroom.

That all lasted for about 10 minutes.

What happened over the next 50 minutes is a bit of a blur. I distinctly remember looking at the clock and thinking, “dear god, I have gone through everything and I still have 25 minutes left. What on earth am I going to do?!?!?” It was a nightmare. There were paper airplanes and aluminum balls flying across the room. The girls were fighting over markers and the boys were erasing what I had written on the chalkboard. I was outnumbered 17 to 1; by the time I got the attention of one half of the class, the other half was wreaking havoc.

I had lost complete control of the classroom and I had NO idea how to go about getting it back. At that point I abandoned any hope of teaching anything. My goal was simply to make sure nobody got hurt; I am happy to say I could at least accomplish that much.

When the bell rang, I walked the kids out to the playground to meet their parents. I left the school in a state of shock. I was just eaten alive by 17 third graders and I had no idea where I went wrong.

Think back to Elementary School and think about how you treated a substitute teacher. It’s a “Play Day,” right? Now imagine it is Friday afternoon and you are tired from a long week. Your teacher has gone home for the weekend. Half your class has also left; but your parents signed you up for a “supplemental” lesson in a foreign language and you’re stuck for an extra hour. Under these conditions, no child would have the least bit of interest in listening to some American girl teach them how to say “My name is _____.” I was basically set up for failure from the get go.

I went home, not sure how to even start planning for Week 2. I cooked myself a steak and drowned my sorrows in a bottle of Italian red. This is going to be a ridiculously long year.

Third Graders: 1   Miss Katie: 0

Mi Mancava Qualcosa

I traveled through Italy in 1996 with my family and saw Cinque Terre before it was a “must see.” I experienced the energy in Siena just days before the Palio. I marveled at the massive interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. I lounged lake-side in Como and Bracciano. It wasn’t enough.

In the fall of 2003 I spent 90 days backpacking through Europe. It was the typical shoestring adventure, staying in hostels and eating salami & cheese sandwiches. Of my 16-week tour, 5 weeks were in Italy. I hiked from town-to-town in Tuscany. I watched a volcano erupt at night in Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. I read “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” a fictional biography of Michelangelo’s life, after being awestruck by the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t enough.

In the fall of 2006 I went to Rome armed with knowledge of Italian and determined to have a richer, deeper experience. I lived and studied in Rome for a semester. I walked to and from school nearly every day, passing St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo and Piazza Navona. I had lectures in the Roman Forum and debated Science vs. Religion in a course taught by a Catholic Priest. I was a member of a local Jazz Club and a regular at a bar in the historic center. I attended A.S. Roma matches at Stadio Olympico and cheered with the Tifosi in Curva Sud. It wasn’t enough.

Regardless of whether or not I throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to ensure my return, I always seem to find my way back to Italy. I have always had a notion of what I wanted to get out of my time here, and it was never quite right.

Mi mancava qualcosa – I was missing something – but I didn’t know what. I doubt that my thirst for Italy will ever be quenched, and I will likely continue to find my way back here. However, I can now say with 100% certainty that I finally found what it was I was looking for: my Italian family.

What makes this culture so rich is the undying devotion to your loved ones. Relationships with family and friends are absolutely sacred in this culture, nothing else takes priority…ever. It is in the name of these relationships that Italians enjoy long meals, create piazzas, and have siestas. Knowing this, I was desperate to integrate into this part of the culture, to feel this unconditional and unwavering love, to become part of an Italian family.

Last night was my final night with the Gelli family and little did I know that there would be a festa in my honor. Tonja invited her brothers and sisters, and their kids over for a “send off.” They wrote “La Canzone di Katie Wax” and sang it to me while one of the cousins played the guitar. Each of the girls wrote me a card with a picture and said “ti voglio bene” – I love you. Simone hand-crafted a bracelet for me out of bronze in his workshop, a gift so I can take the love of this family with me as I travel. Tonja and her sister Federica cried as I stumbled through a “Discorso” in Italian, thanking everyone for such an incredible experience. I finally felt it last night…this Italian love. It is rich, pure, and one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received.

Thank you to the Gelli Family, the Pierallini Family, and all the other friends & families who welcomed me into their homes and hearts this summer. This experience was more than I could have ever imagined, and I lack the words to express my gratitude. My home, wherever or whatever it may be, will always be open to you.

Grazie alla famiglia Gelli, ed alla Famiglia Pierallini, e tutti gli altri amici e famiglie che mi hanno invitato nelle loro case e nel loro cuore quest’estate. Questa esperienza è stata più di quanto potevo immaginare, e mi mancano le parole per esprimere la mia gratitudine. La mia casa sarà sempre aperta per voi.

Vi Presento Vera – La Piu Grande

Before I left the States back in March, Tonja emailed me a recent photo of the kids. My mother took a look at the photo,  pointed to Vera, and without hesitation said “You’re gonna have your hands full with that one.” I don’t know what it was that my mom saw, but she was right.

Vera is 9 years old and she is the best Italian instructor I have ever had, correcting not only my grammar but also my pronunciation regularly. She does a great job explaining to vocabulary to me, defining the new words out of old words I know. Vera is also the epitome of La Piu Grande – the oldest child. She seeks to be right, to please, and offers unsolicited advice on how to properly do just about anything. She is eager to help with any task, but doesn’t quite know how and more often than not, she just ends up contributing to more chaos. She is sly and clever as she effortlessly shifts the blame onto her younger sister for any wrongdoing.

When you are juggling 4 children under the age of 10, it is hard to remember that the oldest child is still a child. Vera is expected to be responsible, reliable, to know what is and isn’t okay, to keep an eye on her siblings at all times…it is a tough job, and I can relate. When you are always in charge of taking care of others, you forget to take care of yourself. Luckily, Vera discovered the importance of Alone Time at a much younger age than I did. I often see her wander off into her own world, a world where she can speak to animals, a world of song and dance. She has a creative spirit and an incredible sense of humor; I know that in the Gelli household, this will be encouraged to continue.

I have tried to show Vera that being the oldest is not a burden, in the end it is a blessing. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I hope she listened.

Vi Presento Anna – l’Infermiera

Without a doubt, being the middle child is difficult. Just try to imagine being the middle child in a loud, boisterous, large Italian family. Anna is seven years old and every day is a battle to be recognized and stand out among the crowd. Anna is not quite old enough to be a big help, like her older sister Vera. But she is also not young enough to be carried when her legs get tired, as we do with Lea and Folco. She is expected to behave, to clean up after herself, to set a good example, to know what to pack for a day at the pool, but she doesn’t yet have the ability to do this without guidance and supervision.

However, Anna has developed some incredible skills to avoid being lost in the shuffle. She is an acute observer and will immediately let you know if you have given her an unequal portion of nutella or a smaller piece of pizza than her sisters. She is also a chameleon, adapting her personality & creativity to fit the interests of whomever she is with. I have seen her flawlessly play the role of teacher, doctor, mother, and veterinarian when she is with her younger sister. But in the company of her older sister who has no interest in playing “pretend,” Anna is quick to jump on the Che Si Fa? – what are we going to do – bandwagon and seeks to be entertained.

I see a difficult adolescence for Anna as she will inevitably have trouble trying to figure out who she truly is and who she wants to be. But I hope at some point she realizes that she has an incredible maternal instinct. Yes, I understand that this is odd to note about a 7-year old, but it is true. More than her sisters, Anna seeks to be a second mother to Folco. She carries him around, feeds him, tries to explain the “rules” to him, and tries to help him learn and discover his world. Anna is an absolute sweet-heart and a nurturer. She will tend to any scratch, rolled ankle, or stubbed toe with an amazing bedside manner, seeing to it that you are comfortable and have everything you need. It is for this reason that I call her l’Infermiera – the nurse. Anna would make an incredible nurse one day, but for now I hope she just continues to play pretend.

Una Storia per Fare la Nana – A Bedtime Story

Written on July 1st, 2011:

Yesterday Tonja and Simone went into town with two of the kids for a concert, leaving me with Anna (7) and Lea (5) for the night. All in all, apart from a clogged bidet, the evening went smoothly. We watched a Tinkerbell movie dubbed in Italian (Tinkerbell is “Trilli”, in case you wanted to know), and we practiced English verbs in the piazza after dinner. “Anna – Run! Lea – Hop! Anna – Stop. Anna – Skip. Lea – Stop. Lea – Walk!” A bi-lingual version of “Simon Says.”

The bidet incident happened while I was cooking dinner. The girls were playing House upstairs. Lea’s current cast over her broken shin had inspired the girls to pretend that their “Baby” had broken limbs. To help the wounds heal, they had carefully fashioned a body cast (mummification with toilet paper). I applaud their creativity.

Regardless of mummification, a baby still requires periodic bathing…with copious amounts of shampoo…and apparently the bidet is the best option. O mio dio, what a mess. It will likely take at least a week for the plumbing system to recover.

But clogging aside, last night marked a first for me – flying solo during the bedtime routine. I am a pro at this; it is simply an art of distraction. Turn teeth brushing into a song or come up with a peek-a-boo game while you put on their pajamas and they forget that they are getting ready for bed. But to do this in Italian?!?!? They didn’t teach me that kind of vocabulary in my classes. My creative approach to getting them to bed was to say that they could lay down their parents’ bed and wait for Simone & Tonja to come home. Sneaky because I knew full well that they’d fall asleep before the expected arrival at 1am.

However, there was a downside – the girls were committed to staying awake when normally they crawl into bed and close their eyes. They proceeded to ask me to tell a bedtime story, in Italian. Again, my college classes failed me. But the next 15 minutes were absolutely magical. Anna and Lea were calm and quiet as they helped me stumble through the story, correcting verb conjugations and filling in missed articles. They were attentive and curious, but at the same time I could tell that they were slowly winding down from the day’s activities. I arrived at the end of the story, and without a further word, both girls closed their eyes and fell asleep. Beautiful.

The story I told was one that I remember my mother telling me and my sister when we were young. I want to take a second to compliment my mother on her story-telling skills. Twenty years later and I still recall the details and the lesson of the story: presents must be opened with care, and you must take a moment to appreciate the gift and thank whomever gave it to you. Beautiful job mamma mia. Thank you for the inspiration for my first Storia Per Fare La Nana (Italian bedtime story).