American Lessons


I started tutoring last February.  Once a week, I give English lessons and teach American culture to a 17-year-old who is preparing for his senior year in the United States.  I met him after visiting with a ceramic artist in Perugia who mentioned that her son was planning a year abroad as a foreign exchange student and needed someone to help him improve his language skills.  It sounded fun, so I volunteered.

This student, Giovanni, is another one of those people I am so glad to have met.  I love Tuesday afternoons.  Our weekly sessions turn out to be just as culturally insighful to me as we contrast the differences of growing up in two different countries.  Tom and Ray also look forward to these days because Giovanni can relate with their homework rants and complaints about mean teachers.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

When we first met, we started with the basics. I tried to give Giovanni an overview of American culture by suggesting that he watch Forrest Gump, Crash and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as some Vietnam movies. Then we converted the metric system into American units.  That way, if someone asks Giovanni how tall his is, he can say 5’11 instead of 180 centimeters.  We also looked into Fahrenheit so he knows to bring a jacket if it’s under 60 degrees or to bring a swimming suit if it’s in the 80s.

Since he likes to cook and is a little worried about adjusting to American cusine, we spend time in the kitchen.  One of the first questions he asked was how to make coffee in the USA.  He’s never heard of drip or a French press so I showed him some pictures on the internet and explained the process while naturally making coffee for ourseves with the traditional Italian moka machine.

The lesson begins with coffee.

The lesson begins with coffee.

In preparation for dinning out, we pulled up some menus from typical American restaurants and sorted through the various dishes and discriptions.  Among the most confusing aspects of a meal was the amount of choices in salad dressings.  Italians use only oil and vinegar.  This led me to pull up a photo of a grocery store with an entire aisle dedicated to salad dressings.  I tried describing the flavors of 1000 island, ranch, French and Russian.  I also cautioned him about seeking out “Italian” restaurants.  After looking at a few menus, it became evident that we all have different interpretations of true Italian cooking.  Giovanni has never heard of fettuccini alfredo and he sternly insists that carbonara sauce never has shrimp or chicken in it.  Besides salad dressing and Americanized pasta, I explained some other novelties such as the bagel, the club sandwich and several possible answers to “How would you like your eggs?”  Later we looked at recipes and translated the following abbreviations:  pkg, tsp, tbl, and gal.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over.  Pretty funny.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over. Pretty funny.

One of my favorite days was when we read emails from some high school students. I enlisted the help of relatives and former babysitters from home who then wrote Giovanni letters describing school in America.  Beyond the classes, sports and social functions, they naturally used common phrases that were unfamiliar (but necessary to learn) such as “hang out, “a bummer” and “pretty cool.”  Giovanni even started a pen pal relationship with one of these high schoolers from Portland.

Finally, this week, Giovanni received the news he’d been waiting for all year – his American destination.  I was really happy to hear that out of all the towns in the United States, it turns out he is going to live with a family in a small, seaside town in Oregon just five hours from our home near Seattle.  This means we will easily be able to visit him next year.

Looking at Chamber of Commerce videos of Giovanni's new home town.

Looking at the Chamber of Commerce videos of Giovanni’s new home town.


5 thoughts on “American Lessons

  1. What fun! Do you help him much with his basic english or was it fairly good to begin with? You know what I miss from the states? Caesar salad dressing. Often there is a Caesar salad offered at restaurants here, but it never tastes right.

  2. How awesome is this? Love that you are tutoring! Your story-telling is so fun to follow. So cool to exchange cultural nuance. And exciting he’ll be in close driving distance when he’s stateside. Will he have a phone? Wait ’til he sees all the high-schoolers texting at lightening speed! Insert acronyms and emoticons here. 🙂 LOL OMG WTH CYA ILY

    Since Giovanni will be beachside, you might let him know about rollerblades and fanny packs. He deserves a warning.

    Love to your lovely family.


  3. If Giovanni misses Italian cuisine be sure to tell him about Top Raman! He couldn’t have a better tutor. You’re both lucky. We remember him and look forward to seeing him in Newport…..or getting him here on the farm for some USA hazelnuts. Another wonderful, insightful, blog Jill. Love, Mom

  4. What a great experience for you both! You kind of forget all of those little things that would add up to major confusion in a move like that!!

  5. How fun! Nothing makes you more aware of your own cultural weirdities than trying to explain them to an outsider. I remember saying that I worked my butt off to someone in Albania and then laughing hysterically when I realized there’s really no explaining that one. So great that you’ll get to see him next year.

    Still no baby…

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