The End of Italian School

Ray's class presents a gift to one of the teachers

Ray’s class presents a gift to one of the teachers

The end of the school year is another cause for celebration.

Italian students and families commemorate with a big get-together centering (of course) around food.

Tuesday night was the sixth grade party.  We heard that it went so late that only two kids showed up for school on Wednesday.  However, we weren’t there; Tom didn’t want to go.  He said he would rather go to Rome for the day where he can buy glow-in-the-dark sling shot rockets from the unlicensed street vendors.  Since we all wanted to go to Rome, we took advantage of his request for a final visit.  Tom got his rockets but also got a talking-to by the police. He’s getting use to it.


Ray’s party was yesterday.  This group of families is especially close since many elementary schools in Italy assign teachers in first grade who stick with the same kids for five years.  Even though Ray joined the class in its last year, he fit in well.  In the end, he made good friends.


Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Marie Elena

Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Maria Elena

The festa was held at Il Pioppo, an agriturismo  outside Perugia where the ingredients are sourced right there on the farm.  And this was no light summer lunch.  Our plates were filled to capacity. We started with a black truffle pasta tossed with the chef’s homemade tagliatelle followed by a second pasta course with tomato and sausage. Then we had a plate of roast pork and sauted greens and finally jam crostatas. Pitchers of wine and sparkling water were abundant.  The kids’ menu was equally huge but styled to suit their tastes.  However, with a pool and grassy field, they chose not to linger at the table.


Ray's teacher playing some type of volleyball game with the kids.

Saying goodbye to Daniele.  After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Daniele. After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva

While the kids played, some of the parents told us about a new thing that schools are doing in Italy.  It’s called “American graduation” and it entails a celebration after eighth grade and another one after high school.  Previously, a graduation ceremony was held only after someone finished college, but several schools are importing our excuse to pomp and circumstance more often.  We told them that American kids even get to wear graduation caps when they finish preschool and fifth grade.  That made everyone laugh.

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.

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.

My Field Trip to Pompeii (written by Tom)

by guest blogger Tom


I just got back from an overnight trip with my class to southern Italy.  We left on a Tuesday morning.  I met my teacher and the other students at the bus stop at 7:00 am for a five-hour drive down to Pompeii to visit the ancient ruins.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

During the bus ride down, kids listened to music on their phones to pass the time.  I played Uno with my friend Luca.  Halfway through the trip, we stopped at an Autogrill to eat lunch and buy a snack.  I bought two big bags of marshmallows.

We stayed at the Hotel Vittoria near Naples.  We arrived around noon and checked in.  The hotel itself was good.  I shared a room with Matteo and Giovanni.  There were no teachers or chaperones in our room telling us when to go to bed so I stayed up until 1 am listening to music and watching a movie. Only one unfortunate thing happened while we were there.  I was playing with a toy that Matteo brought.  It was a squishy ball filled with powder that stretches into many different shapes.  When I was trying to twist it into a face, it suddenly exploded and sent white powder everywhere.   It was all over the beds, the chairs, the carpet and all over me.  It took forever to clean up.

Here's what the room looked like before the explosion.

Here’s what the room looked like before the explosion.

Unfortunately, the food wasn’t so great during the trip. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of our hotel.  Dinner was pasta with ragu, steak and potatoes and then gelato for dessert.  Lunch was gnocchi, potatoes, chicken and gelato.  For breakfast we were served a bagged croissant and a jar of pear juice.  (American breakfasts are so much better.) During the trip, we stopped for a gelato break three times.  Italian kids eat so much ice cream.

During our first afternoon, we went to look at the Pompeii ruins with a guide.  Pompeii is an ancient city that was buried by ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  It was interesting for a little bit, but after a while it got hot and I became tired.  At the end of the tour, we  visited the museum  which displays casts of humans who were buried by the ash.  We also saw the houses and stores where those people lived and worked.  We spent most of the day in Pompeii and got back to the hotel around 8pm



During the second day we visited Il Antro della Sibilla a Cuma which is a cluster of caves up in the hills.  These caves used to be the homes of fortune tellers during the time of the ancient Romans.  People could visit and ask the women (called sibyls) a question about their fate and the women would give them a vague answer.  We spent about three hours up there looking at the caves.  There were lots of plants and trees and geckos.  And there was a great view of the ocean too.

This is one of the caves we saw

This is one of the caves.

Before we got on the bus to go back to Perugia, we stopped at another gelateria.  I got a popsicle shaped as a watermelon with chocolate for the seeds. Then, we headed home.  During the bus ride, we played “monkey in the middle” with a bottle of water, but after a while, the teacher told us to stop so we sat quietly until we arrived in Perugia.  My parents and Ray were waiting for me.  I went to sleep as soon as I got home, but I still felt tired for the next few days.

Spring Break

Biking in Lucca

The boys completed another week of character building at their respective schools.  They finally made it to Easter Vacation, a ten day break.

Unfortunately, after school, I was called in for a conference with Tom’s math teacher.  I knew it was going to be a doozy, so I asked Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, to accompany me.  As a teacher herself, she is part of the inner circle of Italian educators.  Beyond that advantage, she is intelligent, fair, and understands Tom.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

By 1:15, we entered the meeting.  We got an earful, and with it, I gained a greater understanding of Italian culture, something I should be grateful for, I guess.  The good news is that Tom got the highest grade on his math test that any 6th grader earned all year.  But he still didn’t show his work, which she didn’t like.  And he complains about the uniform, which she also didn’t like . . . among other things.

Oh well, he still gets three more months to adapt.

That afternoon, we caught a train to Pisa and began our vacation.  As it turns out, it was New Years Day in Pisa.  (They celebrate once on January 1st and once on March 23rd.)  Completely by accident, we reserved a room on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the Arno where the grand firework display was held at 11pm.  We seriously had the best seats in town, especially considering the pouring down rain drenching everyone below.  It was a spectacular show with music and two barges (one on either side of our windows) blasting off fireworks for 25 minutes.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The next morning, we walked to one of Italy’s most famous monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We circled around, climbed to the top, and joined hundreds of others in assuming unoriginal poses in front of our camera.

Trying to straighten the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Pisa is big and festive and famous all smashed into one town.  I loved it, but after one day, I was ready to leave.  It’s like a party and hangover all in one.

Next we went to Lucca, a sweet, soft, small, walled Tuscan town.  Not only the name of the city reminds me of Luke but the streets too.  They were full of pink bikes.  One of my favorites was similar Luke’s first bike.

Another pink bike I liked was owned by a woman who gave us an impromptu tour of the outside of Puccini’s house-turned-museum the day we showed up after closing.

However, not all of Lucca is gentle.  We visited The Museum of Torture which I thought sounded entertaining, but turned out to be a huge bummer.  While it was a well-done exhibit, it left us all sick to our stomachs and hopeless.  It’s hard to believe that humans were (and still are) so capable of such psychopathic brutality.  It made my thumbs and tongue hurt, as well as my shoulders, bum and boobs.

A couple showcased devices from the first room

We tried to calm the disquietude by heading, yet again, to Trattoria Gigi, maybe the most charming little restaurant we’ve met.  In three days, we ate there three times.

This afternoon we left Lucca.  After stopping in Florence for a few hours to look at Michelangelo’s house, we caught a train to Rome and met my parents at the airport.  They are spending the second half of Spring Break with us as well as two additional weeks.  In preparation for Easter, we are planning on soaking up Catholic monuments including the Sistine Chaple and tons of churches.  This Sunday we will return to Perugia for a traditional Perugian Easter celebration which includes an unusual breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cake with rainbow sprinkles, and red wine.

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Sports, School and Ice Cream (written by Tom)

by guest blogger Tom


My favorite thing to write about is football, especially the Huskies.  This fall I wrote weekly reports on college football.  I watched every Husky game from our computer here, and I’m excited to go to all the home games next fall.

There aren’t many Italians who know what real football is.  Some think it’s soccer, and some think it’s rugby.  Most people think I’m a rugby player.   I wear a Husky football jersey to school every day under my uniform.  On Thursday when I have PE, I get to wear shorts.  P.E. is one of my favorite classes.  So is French.

I wear a Husky football jersey to school every day under my uniform.

These are all the boys in my class except one, who was absent today.

But I don’t really like school that much.  In Math, we have to be very organized.  We have to use a red pen for the title at the top of the page, a black pen for headings, a green pen for lines and line segments, a blue pen for showing our work and a pencil for drawling angles and pie charts.  And the big problem is, we are not allowed to use white-out or erasers, so if you mess up, you have to start over.  Yesterday I asked my teacher why we couldn’t always use pencils and erasers.  She said that people would take home their assignments after they were corrected, erase all the incorrect answers and replace them with the right ones.  However, students still find ways to cheat.  The other day, I caught three of my classmates using cheat sheets for a test, so I got up, grabbed the cheat sheets, and turned them into the teacher.  Luckily, the three boys weren’t mad at me and they agreed not to do it again.  Hopefully, this will put an end to cheating in my class.

We have a class called Antologia where we read stories.  The stories are confusing.  I understand the words in Italian, but the story itself doesn’t really make sense.  For instance, there was one called “The Wolf and the Sheep.”  This is how it goes:

One day, a wolf and a sheep arrived at a drinking river at the same time.  The wolf was mean and wanted an excuse to eat the sheep.  He said, “Why are you dirtying my water?”

The sheep replied, “How could I dirty your water? You’re farther up stream than me.”

Then the wolf said, “Six months ago you were saying bad things about me.”

“Six months ago I wasn’t born,” the sheep responded.

“Your dad was saying bad things about me,” said the wolf, and he grabbed the sheep and ate him.  THE END.

In art history, we are studying columns.  There are three types of ancient Greek columns: the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian.  On Sunday I found a Corinthian column in a town we visited.

In art history, we are studying columns. There are three types of ancient Greek columns: the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. On Sunday we found a Corinthian column in a town we visited.

One good thing about my school is that the teachers sometimes don’t show up.  This week, we have gone to school for 15 hours and for 10 of them the teachers were gone.  When this happens, we go into another classroom and write, draw, read or do whatever we want to.  Right before school got out today, we heard that all but one of our teachers for tomorrow are sick.  The principal gave all the kids the option to go to school or not.  You can probably guess what I chose.

One of the worst things about school is that we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, my one day off, my parents take us sight-seeing and we have to look at piazzas, churches and museums.  Last weekend we went to Montefalco and Bevagna, but at least I got to bring my football.

I played catch with my dad in the main piazza

I played catch with my dad in the main piazza.

While we were there, we went to a museum that was kind of boring, but at least it wasn’t very big.  My mom and I counted angels.  We found 96 in the main part of the museum.  Then as we were about to leave, we found a special angel-only exhibit downstairs.  The first one looked like a wide receiver who missed a catch.


And the second one looked like a disappointed coach



We have only 149 days left, and I’m glad.  I like Bellevue better.  I think everything is better back home like my friends, my school, my house, and even the food. At least here I can get gelato every day.  My favorite flavors are lemon, vanilla cream and chocolate chip, but I like Baskin-Robbins more because the ice cream is colder and the flavors are better.  I can’t wait to get home and eat pink bubblegum ice cream, cinnamon firehouse, and poprock swirl.

Me in Italy (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray


School has been going really well for me ever since Christmas break and the week I was sick.  I’ve been understanding a lot more in Italian.  I use to get easier work than the Italian kids in school, but now I do the same exercises and homework as them.  I think it’s fun.  Also, conversation is easier to understand.  I hardly ever have to say “Non capisco.”

My favorite class in school is Italian grammar because the teacher is really nice to me and it’s the easiest class.  Right now we are studying comparisons and superlatives.  For instance, if something is good, we say it is “buono.”  If something is better, we say “migliore.”  If something is the best, we say “ottimo.”  At first it was confusing, but my tutor Paola helped me understand.

In history we are learning about the Etruscans.  They lived before the Romans.  Where they came from is a mystery, but they lived in here Umbria and around the center of Italy.  They were the ones who invented the arch.  They were really good architects.  When they wrote, they wrote from right to left, and they did not have spaces between their words.  They wrote with a different alphabet than ours.

This is an Etruscan arch.  It's the most famous arch in Perugia.

This is an Etruscan arch. It’s the most famous arch in Perugia.

My least favorite class is science.  Right now we are studying the body.  We are learning about breathing, muscles, bones, intestines, nerves, veins and cells.  There are some funny pictures in my science book like a rotting orange, the Italian food pyramid, a little baby sitting on a potty, and an angry boy riding a bike.

This is a picture from my science book.

This is a picture from my science book.

We always have a break at 10:15.  That’s when we get to have a snack and talk.  My friends are Alberto, Andrea, Gaia, Anna, Alessandro and Teresa.  During break the boys sing Gangnam Style or play charades.  Actually, I don’t play charades because I have no idea what they are acting out.  Sometimes they do things and I don’t know what it is suppose to be.

This is me with my classmates.  I'm sitting between Andrea and Gaia.  In the background is poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year.  It says, "Welcome to our school."

This is me with my classmates. I’m sitting between Andrea and Gaia. In the background is a poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year. It says, “Welcome to our school.”

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

After school, I come home for lunch, check my emails, do my homework and get gelato.  I go across the street to Grom for gelato.  Right now my favorite flavors are cream, lemon, chocolate and stracciatella.  The most common flavor is hazelnut.  Vanilla is not very popular, and it’s hard to find.

Sabrina and Verenna and me.  Today I ordered three scoops and some whip cream.

Sabrina and Verena and me. Today I ordered three scoops of gelato and some whip cream.

We are half way through the year. It has been fun when people visit us, but I’m also excited to go home.  I miss our backyard and our house and our neighborhood and my friends.  But when I leave I will miss the gelato, the food, my Italian friends, all the traveling on Sundays and vacations.

Italian School: Wine and Shopping

Teachers and staff at Comitato Linguistico:

I enrolled in another week of language school at Comitato Linguistico. There aren’t a lot of international students in town during January, so the classes were small.  In the morning I met with three others to study grammar and conversation.  We focused on fashion and cinema terminology and a difficult verb called il congiuntivo.  I think I used it correctly just once this entire week.

Ismael, Luca, Boris, Laura and me.

Ismael from Palestine; Luca, our Italian teacher; Boris from the Netherlands; Laura from Germany and me.

After the difficult session with verbs, the cultural second half of the morning is always fun.  We listened to interviews with Georgio Armani as well as other Italian designers who are projecting the trends in menswear for 2013.  According to the experts, we can expect a mix of sporty and elegant with a lean towards a one-of-a-kind look, meaning a preference towards original and limited edition pieces (kind of like back in the 1800s when your mom made your clothes instead of H&M).

In the afternoon, I was the only one in Luca’s class, so I asked if we could turn the sessions into a series of little field trips.  He thought that was a great idea and had lots of places to show me since he’s kind of an expert on Perugia.  We started with an artisan shopping excursion.  Luca took me to several nearby stores where the owners work and create everything right there.   My favorite was Ozona where I met the incredible Sandro Gonnella who makes lenses and sunglasses.  Sandro earned a degree in design in Milan and then worked for a couple high-end companies before opening his own studio here in Perugia.  While he sells many ready-to-wear models, much of his work is in creating the perfect pair of glasses for individual clients.  He explained the process to me. When someone comes to him looking for frames, he begins by carefully studying the shape of the face.  He takes a picture and then creates a series of virtual glasses on the computer.  At the next appointment, the client and he will meet to discuss the best option before he begins work on a prototype.  Once that is complete, the client tries it on for size. If it works, colors are chosen and then construction on the actual pair of glasses begins. With an infinite variety of colors and shapes, each pair is different.  It can take a month before the glasses are ready.  Let me just say that it might be impossible to set foot in this inspiring studio without making an appointment for Sandro to begin creating your own pair of glasses.

Sandro with some of his raw materials

Sandro with several samples of acetate, the material used to make the frames.

Sandro models several styles

Sandro models several styles

Trying on a bold look

Later this week we went wine tasting.  I asked if I could bring a couple friends to which Luca agreed.  So the whole family came.  On Thursday, we filled his car and drove out to Lungarotti Vineyards in Torgiano.  When we arrived, Grazia, a guide, sommelier and olive oil expert, gave us a private tour.  She walked us through each step of the wine making process starting with the vineyard then moving through the stages of crushing, fermentation and bottling. We concluded the visit around a table with a glass of white and two reds then left with several bottles of our favorites.

Starting outside near the grape vines.

Starting outside near the grape vines.

Lungarotti Vineyards produce two and a half million bottles a year.

Lungarotti Vineyards produce two and a half million bottles a year.

Grazia offers an olive oil tasting.

Grazia offers an olive oil sampling.

Grazia taught Luca how to "open up" the flavor of the oil before tasting it.

Grazia taught us how to “open up” the flavor of the oil before tasting it.  We sandwiched the plastic cup between our hands then rotated our palms back and forth.

We didn’t get a chance to visit, but just down the road, Lungarotti has a wine spa called Bella Uve Spa where you can schedule therapeutic wine baths, grape scrubs, wine tasting massages and other types of vintherapy.  The website boasts the healing and relaxing powers of wine both in the body and on the body.  Hard to believe, but very tempting.

My language classes are over for the week; I have six hours next week, and Matt starts an intensive course on Monday.

The Lies Italian Men Tell (and other lessons)

A week of handouts from Comitato Linquistico language school

A week of handouts from Comitato Linguistico language school

This week I signed up for a one-week intensive Italian course.  I had been in a rut.  I was stuck between several verb tenses.  I keep hearing beautiful words, but didn’t know how to use them.

So I filled the last five days, mornings and afternoons, with Italian school.  The classes were small; there was only one other student in my morning lesson (a 17-year-old from Australia) and I was the only student in my afternoon class.

Sara (our teacher) Georgia, and me

Sara (our teacher) Georgia, and me

Our grammar and history teacher, Luca

Our grammar teacher, Luca

I LOVED it.  The teachers were outstanding.  The time flew by.

The first couple hours focused on grammar, but it usually meandered into a history lesson instead of a worksheet.  Luca has written four books on Perugia alone.  He has the dirt on all the famous Italians.  He knows which Popes had children and how many.  He can explain all the gory details of the medieval coups and assassinations.  We talked about the Borgia family, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines and, of course, the infamous Perugian Salt War.   As he explained, Italian history is all about blood and sex.

Then after a short break, we would meet Sara to read and talk about contemporary Italian culture.  She usually started the lesson with a magazine or newspaper story.  For instance, on Monday, we read an article about Italian men and the lies they tell.  Each of the many lies can be broken down into categories.  I learned a lot.

First of all, there are gallant lies such as, “I am married, but one look at you and I recognize my mistake.”

Then there are social lies: “It’s not that I don’t have a job, it’s just that knowing you has turned me into a poet.”

The generous lie: “You convince me that women just get better as they age.”

There is the light lie: “I misunderstood, I thought you were going to call me.”

And the heavy lie, “Of course I’m not seeing anyone else!”

The bedroom lie:  “You were really great last night”  (meant to flatter and encourage).

And finally, the liberty lie, “I need to work late tonight”  (meaning there’s something else I’d rather do).

We learned, however (according to the author of this article) that the best way to curb this deceitful behavior is for Italian women to take it all with a grain of salt.  Recognize the underlying message and call him out on it.  Watch out for the compliments, no matter how tempting.   If a man doles out praise, it might be only in his own self-interest.  And if an Italian claims to want you to come inside so he can show you his butterfly collection, he’s just trying to get you to watch the last half of the soccer game.


On Tuesday, we learned the words for 11 different kinds of Italian mental disorders including depressione, personalita multipla, paranoia, and bassa autostima (low self-esteem).  We then explored the relationship between Italians and psychology and why they find it so shameful to see a therapist.  I explained that it’s way different in the USA, and that many people I know (including the four of us) have seen a counselor or therapist at some point.  Sara said it sounds like it would be super fun to sit for an hour and just talk about yourself while someone listened, but that in Italy, you are considered a nut if you go to counseling.

On Wednesday we discussed superstitions.  Interestingly, “13” is considered good luck in Italy.  And “17” is the most unlucky number of all.  That reminded me of my recent experience at the bakery when, after taking a number and waiting for my turn, I was skipped because I had drawn a “17.”  Seriously, it went from 16 to 18.  I approached the counter and showed them my number.  They let me order this time but encouraged me to throw number 17 away if it happened again.


In class, I learned that it’s also bad luck to wish someone happy birthday before his or her actual birthday.

It is good luck in Italy, however, if you accidently step on dog poop with your left foot.

It’s also good luck to wear a little red pepper (called a cornetto) around your neck to ward off negative energy.

That's a cornetto around Matt's neck

That’s a cornetto around Matt’s neck

On Thursday we talked about contemporary Italian directors.  We discussed Roberto Begnini, the director and actor from the film Life is Beautiful.  This country is crazy for him.  I hear his name more than any other.  He is probably one of the most famous people over here.  Later we talked about music and listened to songs by Edoardo Bennato, the “Bob Dylan of Italy.”

We wrapped up the week with short film from the 1990s called No Mamma No, a story illustrating the relationship between Italian men, their mamas, and food.

During my week at this school, a member of the faculty asked if he could interview me for the school’s blog.  It basically consisted of my reasons for being here in Perugia as well as some questions about my feelings on Italy.  I got my revenge on Tom’s middle school teachers when they asked me what my least favorite thing about Italy was.  The article was posted later that evening.

One week might not seem like much, but I felt I learned a ton.  I’m committing to at least one more session before the end of winter.

Luca and a grammar lesson

Luca and a grammar lesson.  I still need practice with the “congiuntivo,” a verb tense that doesn’t even exist in English.

Fifth Grade in Italy (written by Ray)

written by guest blogger Ray

This is me in front of my school

Elementary school is way different from Bellevue.  It’s all in Italian, it’s six days a week and I get out earlier so I can eat lunch at home.  I’m in fifth grade here.   I go to a different school than Tom since he is in middle school.  I like my teachers and my classmates.  School starts at 8:10, which means I have to wake up a lot earlier than in Washington.  When I wake up by a “beep beep” of my alarm clock, I am tired.  My school is only five minutes from my apartment walking.  When I get to class, my classmates say, “Come va?” which means, “How are you?” So I say, “Bene.”

One time my entire class went to a classmate’s birthday party.  We saw ICE AGE 4 in a movie theater.  Today I got another invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, but I can’t go because I’ll be in Rome.

This is my Italian and History teacher. I call her “Maestra.”

I have five teachers but a lot of subjects.  Every week I have History, PE, Math, Italian, Science, Art, English, Geometry, Geography, Music, and Religion.  Math is my favorite subject.  I understand it because it’s all numbers basically.  Right now, I need help in about everything but Math and English.  Whenever I say, “Non capisco,” everyone tries to help me understand.  Sometimes I get different assignments than the Italian kids.  One time, I got a worksheet that asked me what I eat for breakfast.  There weren’t very many choices.  The options were like chocolate, cookies, cake, sugar, coffee, milk, and jam.  I told my class that I eat cereal, and so my teacher added it to the list.  She wrote “cereal and sugar.”  But I told her I don’t add sugar, so she added the word “no” in front of “sugar.”   That was hard for everyone to believe.  No one here has milk without adding sugar.  And another thing weird, no one ever eats eggs for breakfast.

This is my assignment

One time in my Italian class we were talking about fall celebrations.  We had to write about our favorite holiday, so I wrote about Halloween.  The Italians don’t have Halloween.  It would be hard to go trick-or-treating here because everyone in the city lives in apartment buildings instead of houses.  Instead of Halloween, Italians celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  Those are vacation days, so I don’t have school for four days next week!

Translation: “I am an American. I would like to describe a holiday in the United States. The 31st of October in America, we celebrate Halloween. The kids dress up like ghosts, vampires, witches, zombies, and skeletons. They walk around to houses, knock on the door and say, “trick or treat.” The people give candy to the kids. This is the most important holiday in fall for American kids.”

The teachers are a little more strict here.  Sometimes when my Italian or Geography teachers get mad, they bang the roll of duct tape that is on the desk.  It makes a really loud sound because the duct tape has a hard piece of cardboard in it to keep the roll of tape in a roll.  Today my teacher brought a whistle to class and blew it loudly when we talked.  If we are working in class, they don’t want us to make a single peep.  Another thing that happened today was my Italian teacher left the classroom for about a half an hour.  I don’t know where she went, but the kids went crazy.  Everyone got out of their desks and talked.  One of my friends went to the front of the class and pretended to be the teacher. She wrote names on the blackboard.  Some of the other kids were watching out for the teacher and told us when she was coming back to the room so we all got back into our seats.

School is out at 1:10.  When school is done, I walk home with my mom, dad, and Tom.  Two times a week I have tutoring.  My tutor’s name is Paola.  She helps me spell words, pronounce words and understand words.  I like her.  She has made me better in school.

me and Signora Paola

This is another assignment I did. I had to draw a picture and write about myself. I said, “I am 10-years-old,” “I live in Perugia in Umbria,” “I have five teachers,” “I am in fifth grade.”

Overwhelmed (written by Tom)

by Guest Blogger, Tom

37 notebooks and textbooks for sixth grade

Five and a half hours of school a day, six days a week plus two hours of homework each night.  I am so overwhelmed.

One thing I noticed about Italians is they love to yell.  During math class, unless your equations are written very neatly in black pen and the numbers are perfectly aligned, the teacher will pound on your desk yelling, “piu ordinate!” which means more organized.  In Technology, if you get up to sharpen your pencil or blow your nose, the teacher will scream “seduti!” (sit down).  French is impossible, because they are teaching me a foreign language while speaking a language I don’t fully understand.  They have different names for their music notes in Europe, which doubles the frustration in Music class.  Even English is hard, because my English teacher can’t pronounce simple words like “umbrella,” “poison,” “daughter,” or “hello.”  The kids are somewhat polite, but they don’t help each other out, so if I don’t understand the directions, it’s tough luck for me.

We have a dress code.  This is the first and only time that I have been forced to wear jeans.  And to make matters worse, I need to wear a button-up, white,  collared shirt.  Even on P.E. day I am not allowed to wear shorts.  I don’t think I will ever get used to the dress code.  I would run home after school and change into more comfortable clothes, but with the weight of my backpack, my top speed is only three miles per hour.

I am so wiped out when I get home I feel like taking a three-hour long nap, but I have to complete my homework first.  My assignments wouldn’t be that hard if they weren’t written in a foreign language.  Just converting the text to English takes forever, and by the time I am finished there is very little time before dinner.  My parents got a tutor to help me out, but she just makes it worse.  Even though my tutor can speak a little English, she refuses to.  She won’t even allow my mom to translate the directions for me.  In addition, Paola (my tutor) is strict and the sessions are supposed to be 30 minutes long, but they wind up lasting an hour.  Sunday, which is my only day off, is equally difficult.  My family goes on small vacations every Sunday, so a third of my day I spend packing, driving, and unpacking. The only good thing about Sunday is that I get to wake up early to watch the Husky game.

School has been ridiculously hard, but at least I have mid-winter break to look forward to… oh wait, I forgot they don’t do that in Italy.

Saturday School

Ray waving from the window of his classroom.

For Italian kids, and now ours, the weekend begins Saturday after school and lasts just one day.  So for the next nine months, we will walk our kids to school every day but Sunday.   Right now, this feels all right.  There are some benefits to the boys attending school six times a week (language emersion being one, plus they are home for lunch every afternoon.)  Even though we’ve only just begun, the boys had a really good first week.  By the third day, other students were waiting to greet them when we arrived.  And every day after school, Tom and Ray walked home bubbly and full of energy.  I know there will be some terrific difficulites  this year, but today, I feel relief and optimism.  And while supervision in the school is questionable (read on) Perugians agree that these two schools are some of the best in the city.

Ray with his new friend Lorenzo

Stefano and Tom (We hope Tom can soon master the cool, impassive look of Italian men.)

We’ve found that attending school on Saturday is just one difference from what we are used to back home.  Here are some more:

*  In Italy, Catholic education is free (!)

*  There’s a dress code.  (And we figured out why Tom was the only one in uniform this week: dress code doesn’t officially start until October 1st.  So for now, he’s back in basketball shorts, but by October, he needs to add a blue cardigan to his jeans and white polo.)  Ray wears a cute, little blue smock.

*  Changing classes.  Here in Italy, the teachers change classes, not the students.  Therefore, no need for lockers.

*   Several required classes are technical drawing, creative drawing and religion.  How . . . Italian.

*  Parents are not welcome inside the school.  Of course, on the first day, we all accompanied our kids to class and took a picture, but since then, I have never seen a parent in the halls.  Whenever I try to get inside at the beginning of the day to ask a question, the teachers and staff look at me funny and ask if I’m lost.  Over and over, that’s all I hear, “Are you lost?  Are you lost?  Are you lost?”  Needless to say, there are no opportunities to volunteer.  And I can’t figure out how to translate “PTA”.

*  Sometimes the teachers aren’t even at school.  Tom told us that yesterday his teacher didn’t show up for an hour and a half.  We asked what the class did.  He described it as complete craziness.  No adult checked in on them for the entire time.  He said the kids played a game in which anyone out of his/her desk was a target.  That meant that if someone stood up from his chair, the other students could throw anything at them including wads of paper, pencils, and books.  Oh my God!  We asked if anyone got hurt.  “No,” he said, “It was so fun to watch!”  Then today, they had no teacher for the last hour of class.  This time the secretary found them and brought them to the eighth grade music room.  Even then, there was no supervising teacher because he was out in the hall disciplining students the whole time.   I know this all sounds dangerous; however, Tom assures us that all the middle school kids are friendly and non-threatening.

*  School supplies:  there are no erasers on the ends of pencils.

Since there is very little communication between school and parents, I’m prepared to be surprised by more differences.

Shortly after school starts, the gates are locked, thereby prohibiting any eager parent from stopping by.  Here we are waiting for the dismissal bell.

Matt and I have made new friends too.  Today we attending a back-to-school meeting where we introduced ourselves to other parents.  Everyone was super helpful with our zillions of questions.  And we received several invitations (which may or may not actually happen.)

A few middle school parents: Vilma, Valeria, Luigi and me

First Day of School

Ray and Tom at the gates of their school

Today was the boys’ first day of school here in Italy.  We’ve been counting down the days since we arrived.  I’ve been so nervous and so excited for this morning, I had butterflies for a week.

We set our alarms for 7, reluctantly dressed in the required clothing,  and were out the door 45 minutes later.  Their schools are just 5 minutes away by foot.  They share the same building.  Tom’s middle school is on the third floor, and Ray’s elementary is on the second.  We arrived with the crowd of other families, and the anxiety went up.  We didn’t know where to go, didn’t know who to ask for help, and were beginning to feel pangs of guilt for enrolling our English speaking kids into a foreign public school.  At 7:55, the door opened and we scrunched our way inside, Italian style.  Then we started watching to see what others did.

Looking for some direction

We made it to the third floor in the hopes of finding Tom’s class but were roadblocked until the bell rang. In the confusion, Matt and Ray separated from us.

I finally found a confident looking lady and asked where the sixth graders meet.  She walked me to a small classroom and offered a desk to Tom.  There were just a few other kids sitting down.  I snapped a quick picture and stood in the back waiting for a teacher to arrive.  Soon a woman entered and told me to pick up Tom at 1 pm.  That was it.  Uh, I couldn’t believe I was just leaving him like this!

Courage, Tom. Courage.

Via text messaging, I found Matt and Ray down on the elementary floor with all the other kids in blue and white smocks.  When we found Ray’s teachers, they embraced him and kissed his cheeks.  A classmate was called over to show him around.  The student threw an arm around Ray and led him off to the coat room.

When they returned, Ray found a desk and waited for school to begin. There were only 14 other students in his room.  (Both kids have a small class; Tom only has 11 other students.)

Matt and I said our goodbyes and walked back to the apartment stopping for a coffee on the way.  It felt really weird to be without them.  The four of us have been within earshot almost constantly for the past eight weeks.  We talked about them constantly.  We wondered if the other kids would be helpful.  I worried that the confusion would be overwhelming.  I thought about their school supplies and snack.  I hoped they had everything they needed.  Then I had  a moment of big pride for them.  How cool that they were enrolled in Italian school.  How amazing it will be to watch them learn the language – to read and write in Italian.

At 12:45 we returned to the courtyard and waited for them to emerge.  The secondary school releases first.  We watched all the middle school kids spill out the door, then from a separate exit, we saw Tom.

Shortly after Tom, Ray arrived. That’s his teacher standing at the door.

Impatient for any news, we started grilling them about their day.  Tom said he started talking a little Italian to the first kid he met, but the boy understood nothing.  That was discouraging, but he later found out that the boy was from the Philippines and spoke English!  Tom then gave me a list of all the school supplies he was missing.  He said the day went fine; the kids spoke a little English and the teacher spoke none.  His jeans were uncomfortable and no other kids seemed to adhere to the jeans/white shirt dress code and could he please wear Husky basketball shorts tomorrow.  He described the lessons which consisted of copying phrases off the white board.  Snack was insufficient, especially since I forgot to pack a drink, and he didn’t know where to find water.  The kids were really nice but wild.  When the teacher left the room, chaos ensued.  And when the teacher asked a question, no one bothered to raise a hand; answers were blurted out.  Ray quickly agreed that it was similar for him.  The kids were friendly, loud, and enthusiastic, and the teachers were very tolerant of all the activity.  Ray had a drawing class and a math class.  And he only needed two more items to fulfill his supply list.

Looking back, I realize this was such a big, important day.  But the reality of it is hard to grasp.  I feel limited in my ability to comprehend the system.  But I promised the boys I’d check out the dress code policy and get them a better snack.  And I’ll memorize their teachers’ names and learn how to find their classrooms without getting lost. Tomorrow will be even better.

I can’t believe they are doing it all over again in the morning. This whole endeavor makes me feel brave and gives me great respect for the boys.