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 move to England to study there. 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 that any 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 from what I was used to, so rural. It was not difficult to adjust at first, it was an adventure. It was only later that the problems began to surface. Relocating wasn’t easy. Before we left England I contacted various schools trying to find work but no-one replied. It was before the internet. The same happened with estate agents and accommodation – no-one replied. That probably wouldn’t happen now because of the internet but even so on the whole things move slowly in Italy. Replies take a long time and work is scarce in this part of Italy.
Our daughter Viola was born in 2005 in Arezzo, Tuscany. Viola has always been bilingual. Because we live in Italy 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 to her because the local culture would have been English. That’s one way of ensuring your children are bilingual. Viola went to a play group when she was 9 months old and to nursery school from the age of 3. School is obligatory from the age of 6 onwards and free of charge from nursery onwards.
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 her 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 very traditional and academic but there is a back bone to it. The feedback I get from foreign friends is that young children in the UK spend quite a lot of time playing for example, but here children have to get their 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 so it very much depends on the individuals who run the school and teach in that particular 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 exactly for the very bright but more for the well off. The educational environment is quite challenging. Teachers may mean well but there is little money within the state system. In general schools don’t have science labs and sports facilities. Sport activities take place after school and are generally privatised. 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 students can study certain subject more in depth. However there is a common structure and common subjects such as Italian language and literature, history, geography, mathematics, science, IT and one or more foreign languages, while other subjects are specific to that type of liceo. Ancient Greek and Latin would be taught at the Liceo classico for example. This results in a high volume of work.
In Elementay School the school day is from Monday to Friday until 4pm. However for the 3 years of Middle School and 5 years of High School, children usually attend from Monday to Saturday from 8 am until 1 pm. As you can see this schedule 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 if I had to go to an office to work it would be much harder. I would say 9 out of 10 Italians have the support of the grandparents. Babysitters and nannies are not common at all.
I am well travelled: around Umbria and throughout the rest of Italy. We go to England regularly as we have family and friends there. We travel to other countries too so often I come back to Italy and a part of me can’t help noticing the million things that don’t work in this country (the run-down toilets at Rome’s International airport – out of order, faulty locks, no paper, dirty – the endless wait for the shuttle attendant who turns up 30 minutes late after having told you he’ll be there to in 2 minutes, the state of the roads, the careless driving…. sad and infuriating!) Then we arrive at our house and the other side of me kicks in. 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 what it is – full of corruption, incompetence and useless bureaucracy – and I don’t see it ever being put right, but culturally Italians are a very nice race. Disorganised, fiery and Latin but very welcoming, and I like that.