Monday, June 21, 2004

I recently read something an aquataince had written about having two previous Italian girlfriends: he said they were lovely but, secretly, he couldn’t forgive them for not being Spanish. I nodded in recognition; I think too that I, secretly, can’t forgive Italy for not being Spain.

We English perceive the two countries in a similar light, and certainly I expected Italy – of which I had far less experience before I came here – to be a variation on a familiar Medditerranian theme. Yet the two countries are as different as England and Germany, and perhaps more so. Italy has more in common with France – a confused national identity and a weighty food culture being the most obvious similarities – than Spain. And so it is that I, secretly, have never forgiven Italy for not being the playful, passionate hotbed I expected it to be.

Of course, I’ve lived in a particularly conservative town; gorgeous, peaceful and crime free but also quiet, introverted and more closed than most to outsiders. It was never meant to be thus, and indeed, it was not with Verona in mind that I travelled to Italy. Bologna, a town I was so excited and optimistic about a year ago, now bears the scars of rejection and manipulation, a harsh introduction to the rotten industry that is TEFL.

Like most good teachers, I love the teaching and try as much as I can to be professional. But the industry is in an appauling state, plagued by unmotivated, unprofessional travellers and lazy, manipulative and often bitter schools. The farce I was led through in Bologna – here’s a job, oh actually, no there isn’t, and sorry you turned down that other job and that it may be too late to find anything else (but could we keep your details in case we need more teachers in February) – is sadly indicative. (As you can probably tell, I still feel some bitterness about the experience.) Perhaps my looking to Spain and wondering if I may have had more simple, exhuberant fun there is in fact an expression of frustration. So soon after coming here I was forced to compromise; instead of going to youthful, left-wing, vibrant Bologna I was quickly panicking and heading to the nearest sizable town I could find (where, to their credit, the language schools gave me a much warmer reception).

I like Verona – its a very likeable town – but it is the wrong town for me. However when I look around I see perhaps only three Italian towns that may be right: Bologna, Padova and Napoli. One of those I tried, and the other two I have my doubts about; more doubts than I would have about Valencia, Seville or Santander, to pick just three. Perhaps, in fact, I am indeed in the wrong country.

But regrets are not there to be embraced, and neither are they wholly unavoidable in life. Indeed, I’m down-playing what Verona has given me: a new language, some beautiful photos and, best of all, regular skiing. (Some new friends too, obviously, but it’s always hard to know who will, once we seperate, stay in touch.) Moreover, I've done what I came here to do: use the time and space to think and give my life some direction.

Furthermore, I can’t - and nor do I want to - say that I don’t like Verona or that I haven’t enjoyed it. I have. But neither has it been a seminal time in my life. I am, of course, old enough to know that it’s impossible to force those times into existence. Like lovers, they pop up when you least expect them, and I’m sure Verona has delivered them to more than just Romeo and Juliet; it is, ultimately, a lovely town.

And what of Italy? It is, true to stereotype, a confusing mix. I’ve written lots on these pages about my observations, so instead let me here, briefly, try to explain the construct I’ve built in my head to try and understand and survive the place.

If countries are like people then Italy - only united in the 19th century and only recently speaking one language - is a confused teenager: obsessed with its appearance (to an, ironically, unattractive and detrimental degree), unsure and insecure of its place in the wider world, only discovering itself now and yet to explore further afield. It may disrespect you, let you down and appear not to care, but equally it may charm and satiate you, and always promise more. To take the analogy further (possibly to breaking point), it could be seen as an young aristocratic heir, abundant with wealth, opportunity and good fortune, but burdened with history and unsure how its unique gifts fit into the modern world.

What does that mean for day-to-day life? It means that individuals will cancel lessons or social engagement at (very) short notice, without airs and graces, but equally they may invite you home, cook you a feast and indulge you more than even your own mother would. Speaking of mothers, Italians may often choose to retreat into the shells of their family home rather than face novelty – it’s that insecure confused teenager again – but why not when the food is so good? Attitudes to modern, contemporary issues – gender politics or national identity, say – are sometimes unsophisticated and archaic, often taken wholesale from a generation (or two, or three) above. But get them onto to something that they feel matters, and the passion shines.

At the top I said that perhaps I haven’t forgiven Italy for not being Spain. But re-reading that last paragraph I wonder if it couldn’t also be written by an English teacher in Spain. Living somewhere is always different to visiting, and many parts of Spain are as reserved as here. And maybe there lies the crux of the matter, at least for this lively, gregarious, energetic 28-year-old: Italy is a country to visit, to relax in, to indulge oneself in and a place to soak up beauty and charm before moving on. For that it is perfect. The contrast is the towns I have more easily called home – Brighton and Barcelona, London and La Paz – that share a vibrancy and spirit that demands exploration and involvement, an uncovering of layers. Such towns are rare, and I wonder if Italy has one. However if it does then, for all its charm, and despite the soft spot it now holds in my heart, Verona is not it.

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