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).

Un Bacino

My love affair with Italy has been an on-again-off-again “thing” for 15 years. There is so much about this country that I adore: the language, the culture, the food (duh), the architecture, the history, and the people. I can’t get enough, and I keep coming back for more. It was only a matter of time before I fell for an Italiano.

However, I never imagined it would be a 2 year old Italian boy that would make my heart melt. I kid you not, last night we walked along the beach at sunset, holding hands and laughing as we tried to run from the waves.

All joking aside, Folco is just about the cutest child I have ever seen. This summer I have watched him grow just about every day, and he is developing an adorable personality. He is starting to understand the concept of pain, and that something he does can hurt someone else. Whenever he hears the Italian equivalent of “ouch!”, he rushes to the site of the incident and offers un bacino (a little kiss) to make it better. It is so stinking cute that I have to refrain from faking injury. Tonja captured the moment on film last night and I had to share.

Credit for my second Tuscan makeover goes to “Ridere per Vivere” (Laugh to Live), an organization of performers who dress up as clowns to perform for sick children in hospitals all throughout Italy. Their site is in Italian, but if you are curious:

Vi Presento Lea – La Leona

Oh Lea. Her mother calls her Leona because she has the spirit of a lion. Strong willed and intense, she is the most stubborn child I have ever known. Any battle will be lost if she digs in her heels, so you best avoid battles at all cost.

One day, in an effort to get her out the door against her will, we tried to play the “Bye Lea, see you later” game…the one where you pretend to leave and after a few seconds the child comes running to you in fear of being left behind. Our whole family left the house, said “Ciao Lea, a dopo” and climbed into the car. We made a big production out of starting the car and even drove down the street a little way. Most 5-year olds at this point would be in hysteria. Not Lea. We had to turn the car around, drive back up the hill, and when we arrived back at the house, she was right where we left her. Sitting on a stair, calm and strong. I must admit that I am relieved I will not living here when she enters adolescence, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Lea had a nasty broken shin and was in week 5 of the 3-month recovery when I arrived. But you better believe that cast doesn’t slow her down. She still hops, skips, runs, and jumps with her sisters. She climbs to the top of any jungle gym at a park.

She runs through sprinklers, frolics in the sea, and swims in her cousin’s swimming pool, with her cast carefully wrapped in a garbage bag and tape to prevent the moisture from entering. We have no other option – once the other kids have their swimsuits on, Lea is going in too…regardless of the doctor’s orders. I see a lot of my sister, Madeleine, in her. Weird, they are both third in a 4-child family. Note to family planners: beware of the spirit of the third child.

The thing that is most incredible about this little one is that when she is not in some form of battle, she is the softest, sweetest, most gentle little girl. Lea loves to cuddle, always shares her gelato and makes me feel like the most beautiful woman on earth any time I wear something she hasn’t seen before. “Wow Mamma, guarda Kadreen. E’ bellissima.” (wow mommy, look at Katherine, she is so beautiful)…simply because today I put on earrings or a new skirt. Seriously, the innocent compliment of a child can boost self-confidence ten fold.

I know I am not supposed to have favorites, but Lea is mine.

Vi Presento Folco – Il Prossimo Che

Regarding an unborn child, parents usually say something to the effect of: “No preference on boy or girl, we just want the baby to be healthy.” Somehow I doubt this was the case for Simone and his 4th child.

With three healthy, happy, strong, independent, stubborn daughters, I can only imagine how much Simone longed for a son. Just one more Being to bring a slight balance to the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio. As my father can attest, the 5 female-to-1 male family ratio is just plain cruel. (In the words of Phil Wax, “Four daughters is my punishment for being sexist.”)

Two years later, I can see the pride in Simone’s eyes when he looks at his son, Folco. The name is unique in Italy, but it is an Italian version of the word “folk,” meaning “of the people.” And Simone has communicated to me, on numerous occasions, that little Folco is “il prossimo Che” – the next Che (yes, as in Che Guevara) – fighting for the people against capitalism and economic inequality. How’s that for high parental expectations?

Folco is entering the Terrible Two’s, and it has been incredible watching him explore his world and test its limits. His personality is truly starting to shine, especially in his facial expressions. He is learning new words at an alarming rate and now, with my help, he’s also picking up the English equivalent. He is the only one in the family who says “Katherine” instead of “Kadreen,” but his favorite Italian words are:

“VIVA!!!” said when he is thoroughly enjoying something new.

“Sta zitto!” – a command meaning “Be Quiet” – usually said when he hears the dog, Toast, barking.

“Ciccia” – a word for kids meaning “meat.” This child is a carnivore.

Folco is a master artist and proudly decorates any surface or wall. He adores his “bee-chee” (tricycle) and has no fear going down the hill by himself at a gut-wrenching speed. He will always let you know he is finished eating by helpfully clearing his plate, aka throwing whatever is left on the floor.

He is truly a charming toddler, this Prossimo Che, and bacini (little kisses) from him simply melt your heart.

Come Sempre – As Always

Last night after dinner, I went upstairs to help the older girls with their summer workbooks. Vera was working on Math (multiplication & division) and Anna was working on Italian Grammar. Sidenote: if you ever feel up for a challenge, try to assist with homework in a foreign language. I gave myself a pat on the back just for simply understanding the instructions.

Anyway, around 10pm I heard Simone (father) yell from downstairs:

Simone: Katherine, lo vuoi il caffe’?

Me: Si!

Simone: Sei sicura?

Me: Come Sempre!

Simone: Sei sicura come sempre? O lo vuoi il caffe come sempre?

Me: Tutte le due!

Simone (muttering): Madonna, che faccio con questa ragazza?!?







Simone: Katherine, do you want an espresso?

Me: Yes!

Simone: Are you sure?

Me: As always!

Simone: You are always sure? Or you always want espresso?

Me: Both!

Simone: Holy Mary, what am I supposed to do with this girl?!?

There are many stages in language learning, and I am by no means fluent. But if I am able to be a smart-ass and if parts of my personality are starting to shine through, then clearly my Italian is improving. One month down, one more to go!

Qui e Qui e Qui e Qui

Do you remember eating Eggos as a child and how it was of the utmost importance that each tiny square received syrup? I remember being quite certain that the world would end if even the triangular parts around the edge were left out. My sisters were the same – they would tip poor Mrs. Buttersworth upside down and sway her back & forth for what seemed like an eternity, all in the name of total sugar saturation. The fact that the syrup ran onto the plate once the waffle was cut didn’t ever enter into the logic.

Today, during lunch, I found the equivalent for Italian children: grated parmesan on pasta.

Let me interject with a brief statement that up until now, I have feared cooking for these kids. Vera (9) has already lectured me on the proper way to make espresso (so as not to give it a burnt flavor), as well as the appropriate order to eat your courses (pasta always before salad and/or meat). Italian kids are raised in Italian kitchens on food cooked by Italian mammas and nonnas (grandmas). Combine that with the pickiness of children in general and o mio dio, you have one tough crowd. My first attempt was something simple: Rotini pasta in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic, and zucchini.

I observed the Italian equivalent of the Eggo-Syrup phenomenon when we all sat at the table. I started grating fresh parmesan for Anna (7), but I made the mistake of grating the cheese just over the center of the plate. She quickly informed me that I missed a spot and she would not eat a bite until there was cheese “Qui e Qui e Qui e Qui” – here and here and here and here. Every noodle had to have a morsel of cheese on it before it was ready for consumption. And just as I added the last bit of cheese to the last noodle, what did Anna do? Mix it all together, of course. So apparently the illogical obsession with the meticulous placement of a topping is a worldwide trend. Who knew?

I do have to brag a little bit. All parties were very satisfied with the pasta. Apparently I can cook for Italian children. Phew!

Off to Tuscany!

Castelvecchio di Compito

I boarded the Lucca-bound train at Roma Trastevere station, unsure of what to expect upon my arrival in Tuscany. The 4-hour train ride was unreal, worth every euro cent in and of itself. I marveled at Michelangelo’s dome topping St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa somehow still managing to defy gravity. I passed countless lavender and sunflower fields, streams of purple and yellow for miles on end. The Mediterranean Sea, just as brilliant as I had left it in Turkey, though now more blue rather than Turquoise in color. The Italian sun, even this early in summer, so strong and so so hot. “Do not open windows…air conditioned cabin,” the sign read. False. The stuffiness was suffocating and the only way to combat it was to close my eyes and dream of gelato.

I was on my way to Tuscany to meet the family I will be living with for the next 2 months. A family of six, all four children under the age of 10, and a mother who wants them to learn English. Am I insane? Probably.

Tonja (host mom) and I had been corresponding via email since mid-March. She contacted me after reading my profile on Work Away. The website puts people in contact for volunteer work-exchange opportunities around the world. The expectation is 20-25 hours of work per week in exchange for full room and board.

While Tonja didn’t present any set schedule or hours for working, she seemed completely reasonable in her expectations. For me, it was too good to pass up. The town is Castelvecchio di Compito, and it sits on top of a hill 20 minutes outside Lucca. Shockingly gorgeous, incredibly small, and very off-the-beaten-path for tourists.Over the next 2 months, I will eat, sleep and breathe Italy. I will learn Italian recipes inside an Italian kitchen. I will partake in headed debates in Italian over simple topics such as what constitutes a “typical” Tuscan work week. I will sing Italian lullabies. This is exactly the type of immersion I have dreamed of for so long.

I knew the risks – I could end up working much more than 25 hours/week, or the family could be a disaster, etc. But if La Merda truly hit the fan, I have my life in a backpack – I am extremely mobile & flexible – I could just leave.

But upon my arrival at the Lucca train station, I was greeted by the biggest hugs and warmest smiles of Tonja, her mother-in-law, and the kids. My heart melted instantly, and I knew this was absolutely what I was looking for. Here I am, finally under my Tuscan sun.

Time Off

I have grown accustomed to the question “do you get any days off?” The short answer is “No”. Actually, the long answer is “No” as well.  I work 8 hours every day, no days off.

This does not bother me for several reasons. First, Tyler and I have the flexibilty to change our shift schedule to fit our plans for the day. The flexibility means that work does not interfere with my ability to explore and experience Olympos.

Second, the rest of the staff all work from sunrise to well after sunset, every day. The only time they take off is for family obligations. I’m amazed by the Turkish work ethic, especially in the tourist industry.

Third, the work is anything but demanding. I read, chat, think, and occasionally restock the shelves with beer. My skin could use a break from the sun anyway (thank you Irish roots), so I’m happy to have a reason to stay in the shade.

You see, we are approaching high season; there are always new guests checking in and checking out, needing help with their air conditioning or wanting to know where to hike. This is the hospitality industry, there is no time to be taken off. Or so I thought…

Daniel, Adam, and Heinz have been staying here for what seems like an eternity. They’re like the brothers I never had (photos to come). They keep me company during my shifts and help me with my inability to create a good playlist. On my time off, I join them on bike rides or hit the beach in search of Hussein selling stuffed mussels. Today they decided it was time to leave Olympos and continue their travels. Tomorrow, they will depart on a 4-day/3-night Gulet Cruise up the Turquoise Coast to Fethiye.

I have been dying to do this cruise, but I was hesitant because I’d be going alone…and on this type of excursion, your company makes or breaks the trip. But with the three stooges going, I found myself with great cruise company. Drama-free and full of sarcasm, laughter, and great music.

I asked the manager if I could have a few days off to join them. After thinking about it for a minute, he asked if that would enable me to stay a few extra days in June, when it’s much much busier. Without hesitation, I said absolutely.

And that’s how you get time off in Turkey. Negotiate around your “temporary” work schedule – I am much more valuable during high season than low season. So for a very very discounted price (another benefit of being “Staff”), I’ll be sailing on a wooden yacht for the next 4 days. The itinerary is a dream come true: exploring St. Nicholas Island, kayaking over Sunken ruins, possibly Paragliding off the cliffs above Oludeniz, and marveling at the gorgeous coast. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

The Unexpected – Part 2

Time for an update:

After working for a week at the hostel in Istanbul, a few things became very clear. 1) I wouldn’t have much in the way of personal or down time, which I need to maintain sanity. 2) In order to earn any money, I would need to “sell” the guests on cheesy tours, cruises, hamams, etc – so NOT my style. 3) I had little opportunity to get out and explore Istanbul – the opposite of why I wanted to stay in the city.

The staff at the hostel was incredibly warm and welcoming. I had an opportunity to learn some Turkish (which I’m still working on), eat some non-restaurant Turkish food (AH-mazing!), and learn some interesting things about the culture. I had my fortune told in the coffee grinds of my first Turkish coffee, and I learned that there is a such thing as a Turkish Shakira. For that, I am very grateful to have spent a week working in Istanbul…but it was time to go.

So on April 17th, Tyler and I took an overnight bus and headed South to Olympos. Waiting for us was a Treehouse Hostel in a gorgeous valley 11km off the main road, and 45 minutes from civilization. I’m now 500 meters from the Mediterranean, in rock-climber/kayaker/hiker/mountain biker heaven…and having been here for 10 days, I can safely say that I’m going to kick up my heels and plant here for a bit.

Check out photos of Istanbul on my Photos Page

The Unexpected

Wandering Rule #1: Expect the Unexpected (a.k.a. STOP trying to make a “plan”). When you just let things happen and keep an open mind, the most incredible opportunities appear.

To be honest, so much has occurred in the last 8 hours that I’m not quite sure how to go about writing it. I’ll summarize by saying that while my work opportunity in this hostel is still an option, after recent developments it is no longer appealing (yes, I am very safe). I woke up prepared to settle with Plan B which meant spending some money to check out a work opportunity on the coast…knowing full well I’m not ready to leave Istanbul.

Insert one stop at a travel office, a manager named Mustafa, and an Irish ex-patriot name Kathy.

Thirty minutes and a cup of apple tea later, I have in my pocket directions to a nearby hostel. The manager is expecting me. He is a friend of Kathy’s and he’s looking for some extra help from a native English speaker.

One hour and another cup of apple tea later, I have an offer for free accommodation, all meals, and a possible “salary” in return for some help with guests and reservations. The hostel is an incredible upgrade – clean, fresh, warm, and welcoming.

And to think…if I had stuck with this morning’s “Plan,” I would have missed an opportunity to live in Istanbul for a month for free.