Paola Wright talks about her frustrations with the Italian system
I grew up in Torino. I met my husband in Italy and moved to England with him when I was nineteen. I dropped out of university in Italy and decided to study in England. I became proficient in the English language and started teaching Italian as a foreign language. I returned to live in Italy 22 years ago. We didn’t go back to Torino but chose to live in Umbria.
When you move to any country you always have to bear in mind the country is made of lots of different parts. Moving to a city will not be the same as moving to a small town. When we moved to Umbria I hadn’t realised it would be so different – so rural. It was not difficult to adjust at first – it was an adventure but later the problems begin to surface. It wasn’t really easy to relocate. Before we left England I contacted various schools trying to find work but no-one replied. It was before the internet. The same with estate agents and accomodation – no-one replied. That proabaly wouldn’t happen now because of the internet but even so on the whole Italy is a very slow country. Replies take days and work is very slow in this part of Italy.
Our daughter Viola was born in 2005 in Arezzo in Tuscany. Our daughter has always been bilingual. We live in Italy so I made a conscious choice to speak English at home. Even though my husband speaks Italian well English has always been our family language. If we had been in England I would have made a conscious decision to speak Italian because the local culture would have been English. That’s how you ensure your children are bilingual. She went to a child minder when she was 9 months old and to a nursery school from the age of 3. School is obligarory from the age of 6.
Viola absolutely prefers speaking, reading and expressing herself in English. We have many expat friends here, many of whom are mixed families so we know many bilingual children and I often see that children have a preference for one language over another. Viola doesn’t want me to speak Italian at all. Certainly not in front of her friends. I find this a bit odd! I know some children are embarrassed when their mothers speak Italian as they make mistakes but Italian is my mother tongue! Viola is a fluent reader in English but does not read as well in Italian. We have had quite a few problems within the school system. Even though she is totally bilingual within the school system she struggles a little with the Italian which has made it harder for us as a family. We have had to insist she watches dvds in Italian or read in Italian when she doesn’t want to. The school system here is old fashioned and very academic but there is a back bone to it. The feed back I get from foreign friends is that young children spend quite a lot of time playing in the UK for example, but here children have to get there heads down from a young age.
There is an Italian saying ‘tutto il mondo è paese’ (the British would say ‘in every country dogs bite‘) – meaning that there are certain things that happen everywhere, no matter which country you are in. Wherever you are you will find similarities and it very much depends on the individuals who run the school and teach in the school. One of the biggest problems is that Italy is not a meritocracy. Your average teacher will have to work very hard to get into the system and will get in at the age of 30 plus. In the state system your job is then for life. There are a few private schools in Italy – these are not for the very bright but are for the very rich. The educational environment then is very challenging. The teachers may mean well but there is very little money within the state system. In general schools so not have science labs and sports facilities. Sport activities are done outside of school and outside of school time in the afternoon. The education system in Italy is very academic. Unlike the UK where students choose 2, 3 or 4 A-level subjects in Italian High Schools students continue to study a range of 10 subjects right up until they finish at the age of 19. There are different types of High School – Liceo classico, Liceo scientifico and Liceo linguistico for example where there is some specialisation but there is a common structure and common subjects such as Italian language and literature, history, geography, philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, one or more foreign languages. While other subjects would be specific to that school. Ancient Greek and Latin would be taught at the Liceo classico for example. All of this is a lot of hard work.
In Elementay School the school day is from Monday to Friday until 4pm. But for the 3 years of Middle School and 5 years of High School children attend from Monday to Saturday from 8am until 1pm. As you can see this schedule is different and difficult. It makes it difficult for both parents to work as one parent needs to be there to collect the children from school and take them to after school activities. Grandparents play a big role in picking up and dropping off which allows both parents to work but most expats do not have that kind of family support. I work from home – teaching Italian to foreigners and English to Italians – so it is fairly easy to combine family and work. But I wouldn’t be able to work if I had to go to an office. I would say 9 out of 10 Italians have the support of the grandparents. Babysitters and nannies are not common at all.
I am very well travelled: around Umbria and throughout the rest of Italy. We go to England regularly as we have family and friends there. And we travel to other countries, but everytime we come back here there is one side of me that says, “I can’t believe we’re in an international airport in Rome and the lock doesn’t work in the loo or it doesn’t flush. The parking guy doesn’t answer the phone and when he does and says he will be there in 2 minutes he comes 30 minutes later. Then there’s another traffic jam…...” and then we arrive at our house and the other me kicks in and I remember why I love it here – it is absolutely stunning. The countryside is beautiful. People are genuine. Weather wise it’s so much better than England. The government is a completely different story – corruption – and I don’t see it ever being put right. But genetically the Italians are a very nice race, disorganised, fiery and Latin but very welcoming and I like that.