“Mi chiama Juliette, and, uh, I’m from the United States,” I stuttered to a classroom full of eyes, all turned around in their seats. They were looking straight through me.

“Vengo dalgi Stati Uniti,” a young teacher with dark, textured curls and big hoop earrings said, correcting my English to Italian. I looked at the thin blue line stretching across the page in my college-ruled composition book, where I slowly wrote down the translation. I still felt the eyes.

Monday evening, my host father mentioned his Australian friend attended a free language course at Termini, a train station near the apartment. I’ve been searching for inexpensive courses since arriving, and this was the hottest lead I’d gotten. He provided me with an address, and a picture of a schedule that had been hand-drawn with permeant marker. It had Chinese characters neatly printed beneath it. (Do you print characters, or draw them?)

If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you right now I have been avoiding these classes all week. The hour and a half class is offered five times a day, which means thirteen opportunities passed by before enough self-loathing convinced me I was fresh out of excuses.

The reason I was avoiding the course, aside from general laziness, is because I had constructed an idea of what it would be like. It’s a free Italian course for immigrants, which prompted images of an over-crowded, underfunded classroom that lacked the organization and tools I (believed) I needed to successfully learn my conjugations.

When I googled the course and found a phone number, a man answered and told me he didn’t speak English.

Something about this I found to be discouraging.

Hiding behind a phone call is one thing, but walking into a place, and locating someone in charge to enquire about registration is just NOT the American way. We prefer email tag, cross-referencing, and lots of specifics.

As I approached the block, I immediately knew where I needed to go. A diverse group of individuals huddled together, chatting and smoking cigarettes. They were all waiting, so I waited, too. Upon joining the crowd, I automatically began isolating myself. Without realizing it, I was noting my differences, and building up defense walls. I shuffled around anxiously, not really sure where to look. I was hoping I could identify someone in charge.

A woman began shouting names from a list, and individuals entered the room in the order they were called. I approached her after she finished, and she directed me to a different woman who spoke English.

“I’m new, and don’t know any Italian.”

Level A1, she told me, and motioned for me to enter the jam-packed classroom. There were three empty chairs in the far back right corner. I fought my way through the crowd and sat down.

“Here goes nothing.”

One by one, the students introduced themselves, stating their name and where they were from. I inferred the response structure, as it was repeated by most of the room before me, but still stumbled when it came to be my turn. The seats were not assigned, yet the room somehow reflected the individual’s origins. In the front was a group of African American men and women, to my left a mixture of Asian and Arabic people. In the back right, I was situated among a large group of Spanish people. They dominated the room, and conferred among themselves in their native tongue.

I was the only white person.

For the first time in my life, I was the ethnic minority in a classroom. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I noticed. I thought back to times in my life where a sole individual had a different ethnic make-up than the rest of the room. I wondered how it made them feel.

Despite my whiteness, which was overtly apparent to myself, no one paid attention to me other than a man from the Congo who wanted to know where my boyfriend was. (Ladies… don’t forget to bring your boyfriend’s to class!) Despite the cramped conditions, and lack of table surfaces, I felt comfortable and prepared. People continued to arrive after class began, and once all the seats were filled, students began adorning a staircase.

The room exhibited a collective positive attitude, the energy jovial and focused. Starting with the letter “A”, the teacher asked students to name Italian words that began with each letter of the alphabet. No one raised their hand, but everyone spoke in respectful turns. There was joking, and laughing. I didn’t understand most of it, but still caught myself smiling a few times. The teacher annunciated each word slowly, writing it on the board, laughing right back with the class, teasing certain individuals.

I spent 17 years in the American public education system, and four of those years put me in a five-digit number’s worth of debt. Throughout this time, I was always annoyed about being in class. I could never focus, and was usually counting down the minutes until I could leave, kicking myself for even coming in the first place. In this classroom, I was completely engaged. Stuffed in the back corner, I was stretching to see over heads, copying the words written on the board.

Maybe it’s because I have motivation to learn the language, but something about the energy in the room electrified me. The men and women were there because they WANTED to be there. They came early to sign up for class, and waited outside so they could pick a good seat. Learning this language was like learning a secret for survival, and because it was a tool we all needed for practical use, we were patient and willing to put in the work. Take away money and requirement, and suddenly I’m an actively engaged student. The value of the situation changed.

I could have left at any time, and some people did. I wanted to stay. I was learning. I had a notebook, a pen and a dictionary. This was a lot more than most people. Some individuals were glancing over my shoulder to see what I was writing down. I wondered if they owned a notebook, or wanted a piece of my paper. I realized how fortunate I was to have these tools.

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The experience made me think a lot about the education system. It also made me think about human behavior in general. Why is it when something is given to us, we don’t want it as bad as when we have to earn it? Even so, most of the time we would prefer having something handed to us. The things we feel forced to do are often resented. The things that are voluntary tend to result in higher satisfaction.

I wonder what would happen if we made going to school a choice? I think most children would choose not to at first, but with time, as all lessons are learned, would decide it was something that would benefit their future. Would they then go with the idea that it was a choice instead of an obligation? Maybe no one would go to school, and we would all become street fighters. At least it would cut back on over-population. Or maybe we would populate more because everyone would just be having sex.

Why is theory so difficult to practice?

I don’t have the answers!

Today I felt humbled in the classroom. Social barriers were destroyed, and an unassuming group of diverse individuals bonded over a common goal. For an hour and a half, no one cared about anything else. I also learned a valuable lesson about my anxiety. I can think of a hundred-million reasons to avoid doing something, and at the end of the day, the self-sabotage created in my mind is always exponentially worse than the thing I’m trying to avoid. Once again, the universe has proved me wrong.

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A week before my 24 birthday, I quit my job, packed up my house and booked a plane ticket to Rome.

Half of me didn’t want to tell anyone. I wanted people to just log into Facebook one day, and see a picture of me high-fiving the Pope.

The other part of me knew I would regret not saying goodbye, so in the short amount of time that was left, I started telling people my plans.

“You’re moving WHERE?” they would respond, mouth’s slightly agape, visibly processing the information on their faces.

“Rome,” I loved saying. The word slipped out of the corner of my lips like secret I wasn’t supposed tell, lingering in the air between us.

I wanted to hold onto that novelty forever. With each new person I told, it was like laying another brick in my very own Appian Way. All roads lead to Rome, I’ve been told.

Before I left, there was a lot of celebrating. It reminded me of my last month of college. It felt like I had conquered something that once made me feel small. I could finally enjoy myself and the people around me. As hindsight fell upon me, I began to wonder, “why I would want to leave a place where I have so many friends?” It dawned on me these friends and I didn’t spend a lot of time together until I was leaving. Was it their fault, or mine?

The paradox continues.

Moving at the drop of a hat is nothing new for me. I spend a lot of time in flight mode. But somewhere along the line, the dream-like concept of “living in Rome” blind sighted me from the uncomfortable reality of moving into a stranger’s house, and taking care of their kids.

I’m now working as an Au-Pair, which means I live with an Italian family, and assume a role similar to that of being an older sibling.

“Taking care of kids?” I thought, “I have little sisters. They’re all still alive.” I missed the idea that the goal isn’t just “keeping them alive.” It’s also practicing this modern, laissez-faire, free-range, no discipline, yet, still-shaping-kids-into-upstanding-individual’s style of parenting they talk about on the morning news. We only feed the kids rice-milk. It’s a real shitshow.

In addition to coming unpracticed in the art of lulling a screaming infant to sleep while he’s strapped to my body in a weird marsupial kangaroo-pouch device, I don’t speak Italian, which means communicating with the five-year-old girl (who is linguistically advanced for her age) provides a whole different power-struggle I haven’t completely identified yet.

My contract indicated I would be working 5-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. “What a good deal!” I remember thinking. The rest of the time I will be exploring ROME! I can finally start the travel blog I’ve always dreamed of working on. I will be FORCED to write because I won’t be able to SPEAK to anyone.

The harsh reality was soon realized that caring for children is exhausting. Doing their dishes is exhausting. Waking up at a reasonable time of the day? Exhausting.

Because of my fractured schedule, I don’t have giant blocks of time at my disposal. Exploring a city where you don’t speak the language is an all-day event. You need to allow yourself time for getting lost. And honestly, it’s kind of scary. I have a new level of respect and sympathy for immigrants who come to the U.S. and are expected to speak English and understand our customs. Natives are not very forgiving to foreigners, and when you don’t have a group of friends to laugh with about the angry man at the deli counter, trying to order food can make you feel stupid.

Another challenge in this process has been living with my employer. Truth be told, I’m extremely lucky. My family is mostly vegetarian, which aligns well with my pescetarian diet. The father is a casting director, and the mother is a former journalist who teaches tai chi. I met these people on the internet, for God’s sake. I managed to find the most liberal family in Italy.

As laid-back as they are, they are still my employers, and I live in their small apartment with very thin walls. We’re respectful to each other, but I feel like I have no privacy. I also feel like I’m unintentionally stealing from theirs. Sometimes I have to air out their dirty laundry. Like… I literally hang their laundry on a clothes line on the terrace. But also, sometimes I pick up on personal conflicts. Language barriers only conceal so much. To make matters more cramped, we all share the same bathroom, and it doesn’t have a lock. Or a shower curtain. Or occasionally, for unassuming five-year-olds, a “knock-first” rule.

As wonderful as it’s been to have healthy, vegetarian meals provided each night, when I pictured “eating in Italy”, this was not it. My host mother is a big fan of “legumes,” which, if you aren’t used to eating, can really do a number on your digestive system. I’ve probably lost ten pounds since moving here. I don’t think a lot of people get to say that when they come to Italy.

Last night a friend from home sent me a Snapchat of fried ravioli from my favorite hangout in Baltimore. I told him I was jealous. “You’re in ITALY!” he responded. I’ve been here a little more than two weeks and I have yet to experience this “food culture.” But, it’s out there. And I will find it. Because I’m HUNGRY.

This process has been a 360 from my life in Baltimore. I went from working in the alcohol industry, to getting a glimpse of being a “stay-at-home-mom”. I was living alone in a 5-bedroom house, and now have to tip-toe around after 9 pm. In terms of drinking, which is socially acceptable every night of the week in both locations, I have to practice relative sobriety. Stumbling home at 3 a.m. isn’t a good look. I know this because I tried.

There are a lot of positive aspects to this experience – things that will benefit my self-discipline and personal growth. My brain is being fed all kinds of stimuli it isn’t used to. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own childhood. I know I’m supposed to be having the time of my life, but there have been a lot of uncalculated adjustments. Many Romans have informed me I am “now living in the greatest city in the world.” Last weekend I slept for over 30 hours straight.

A rocky start just means a larger margin for growth. This wouldn’t be interesting if it were easy.

At the end of the day, when the sun is setting over the terra-cotta roof-tops, crowning the glowing horizon, I smile alongside the ghosts of the philosophers, gladiators, architects and peasants who have walked these ancient streets before me.

At the end of the day, I am in Rome.