“Masti cazzi!”

The two shared a laugh, as I methodically stabbed a piece of cantaloupe with my fork and lifted it to my mouth.

“Do you know what this means? It’s one you should learn.”

I had been sitting on the outskirts of their conversation, a comfortable place I have learned to call home.

“I always mix up the profanities, but ‘cazzo’ means dick, right?”

“No, no, it’s not a profanity! It means ‘nevermind.’”

“What’s the literal translation?”

“These dicks. But that’s not what it means.”

“Ahh okay. We have phrases like this in English, too.”

“But it’s not a phrase. It’s a lifestyle! For example, you wake up late? Masti cazzi. You forget your laundry in the washing machine? Masti cazzi. You lose your job? Masti cazzi.”

So it’s the Italian hakuna matata, but with dicks? Ho capito.

“How long have you stay in Italy?”

“Otto mese.”

“Why haven’t you learned Italian yet?”

“Sono pigra.”

I have the latter part of this conversation at least once a day.

“I’m lazy” has always been a lame excuse for something deeper.

“I battle with a constant, depressive existential crisis and struggle with interpersonal self-motivation,” is not exactly polite to say. Even if I said it, I don’t think it would mean anything.

Now, ‘I’m lazy’? People can really sympathize with that. And I’ve built a solid defense for this excuse. But I accidentally learn something every once in awhile. Piano, Piano. It’s not a phrase, it’s a lifestyle.

Over the last six moths, I made an important transition from “living in Italy with a random family and being totally clueless” to “living on my own in Italy and being totally clueless.” I have been teaching English for a private company in Monteverde Vecchio, which I recently understood quite literally means “old green mountain.” This old green mountain, which sits 298 steps above the tram tracks, is adorned with vibrant vines climbing up the sides of distinctive romantic houses, in pale yellows or baby pinks, contrasted with deep-hued shutters on door-sized windows. The ceilings are tall, just like the trees, and everything feels a bit closer to the moon when night begins to fall.

IMG_8416

Teaching English has been a strange and rewarding experience. Before, I never had to think about why my verbs agreed, or how time and language are so deeply tangled together in an expression of existence. Now, I have been asked to explain things for which I had never previously assigned reason to.

“What dose how mean?” an adult student once asked me, causing my brain to implode. How do you explain how? It’s something I’ve been considering ever since. It’s the way by which something is done, but also related to a state of being. It can express both quantity and quality. Methodology and measurement. When she asked, I didn’t have a thoughtful answer. I believe I said, “ummmm.”

It felt like I was teaching someone how to breathe. I don’t know how, it comes naturally.

IMG_7751

Apart from needing to consider my language in a thoughtful way, I also began an exposition into the psychology of learning. I had 40 students, aged 7 to 40. Some were in small groups, others individual lessons. Each leaner needed to be motivated in a different way. The biggest challenge in teaching is keeping students interested. The school is full-immersion, which means it’s forbidden to speak in Italian to the students. I can’t speak in Italian anyway, so it was an easy rule to follow, but it proved to be very trying in a class with eight 7-year-olds who don’t speak a lick of English. Some of the worst-behaved kids were my favorite students, because I saw a lot of myself in them. The bad kids were usually the most intelligent. They were bored, so they clung to distractions.

In a way, each class was its own chemistry experiment. I had to learn through trial and error how to be relatable. The first step in learning a language is a desire to communicate. I quickly learned my younger students are Justin Bieber fans. My 10 year olds even had opinions about Donald Trump.

Sometimes I would have to separate students, or a few kids would be absent. This completely changed the classroom dynamic, and I started to understand more about the influence of a social setting. Different combinations of students brought out different social environments. I learned the importance of developing an individual relationship with each student. Disappointment is a more effective tool than anger.

IMG_8421

The school year ended last Wednesday and I realized it’s been six months since I published on my blog. Everything about life has changed. When I moved to Italy and began this blog, I was really bored. I thought if I threw myself into an ambiguous situation, I would finally have “something to write about.” Roma has not disappointed, and I feel incredibly shocked and lucky each day that I’m here. I hope to continue writing, and I thank anyone who takes the time to read. I’m not an expert on anything, I’m just a girl with a hypothesis.

336A8731.jpgHas anyone ever metaphorically spat in your face? It just happened to me. I received a long lecture on how abruptly leaving a job as a caretaker is, well, careless. I was told I was not respectful, and to do what I’m doing makes me a bad person.

It’s hard to disagree with, and brings up memories of me leaving from a string of situations on less than graceful terms. Naturally, it has snowballed into an overall speculation about the nature of my existence, and if, in fact, I am “bad”.

To answer this question, one must first understand what defines bad or good.

If you take a dog for a walk on a day full of sunshine, a soft breeze tickling the hair on the back of your neck, whispering in your ear a melodic cacophony of early spring, this might be good.

If you’re getting a last miute haircut by the only hairdresser who doesn’t have clients booked, and the blow drier short circuits causing a spark to light a fire that burns down the building and also envelops your whole head of hair, this might be bad.

However, both applications of these values are created by yourself in the scenario, meaning they don’t construct an objective reality for which we can build a consensus. Generally, most people would agree that these situations are “bad” or “good”. But what if you change perspectives with someone else in the scenario? What if the dog really hates you, and being forced under the control of your subordinate leash brings him great anguish and turmoil? What if you’re walking the dog past a girl who had her own dog die recently, and the sight of your dog triggers her grief? Alternatively, what if the proprietor of the building always secretly hoped for a fire because he had a big insurance policy? Now he is happy. And I don’t think he cares about your hair.

The problem with morals is they are subjective. Everything in reality is. Physics tells us time does not exist the same on street level as it does the 9th floor of a building. I constantly vow to give my sisters “tips from the future” because my day occurs 8 hours ahead of theirs. This is a different problem, though, and we can talk about it later.

So what are these morals, and where do they come from, if everyone is looking at the same situation with different eyes? Most of us assume that murder is wrong, but is it still wrong if you murder someone who is trying to murder you? Where do we derive our rules for how to navigate life? For many, it’s religion. But throw religion away for a second, and pretend it isn’t real. We could still probably agree on the golden rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Okay, that’s nice, so *WHAT IF* I’m really into being tied up and spanked? Does this mean I go around tying up people and spanking them? Seems like a bad rule of thumb.

I was asked to turn the situation around, and see it from the employers perspective. I tried to explain I’ve gone inside and out of the matter, but sometimes you just have to let other people talk. “What if we decided we were throwing you out, with only three days notice before you must leave?” I said I would have to create a plan and find somewhere else to go. This was not a satisfying answer. “Yes, but what would you tell other people when they asked you about this situation? You would say we were bad people.” For me, the idea of having to find a new place to live seemed like it would be the most important thing on my mind. She did not believe me.

One time in college I was sitting on a bench in a tree-spotted greenspace referred to as the oak grove. I was pretending to do trigonometry homework, but mostly watching a group of “larpers,” or, individuals who do role-play jousting. A dog stopped beside me, who I began to pet, surprised by his outgoing personality. The dogs companion, an old gentleman with white Einstein hair and crystal blue eyes, approached me next, and started telling me conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination and what really happened on 9/11. He then told me he used to teach sociology at IUP, segwaying into a lesson I didn’t ask for. He explained the “A,B,C theory of emotions,” developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950’s.

Einstein-man told me “A” stands for an action. Life is comprised of action and inaction. There is no connotation associated with these things. Nothing is “good” or “bad,” it just is. “B” stands for the conscious or subconscious belief we have regarding the action, which provides the action with assigned meaning. “C” stands for emotional consequences, or feelings we derive from the meaning we assigned to an event. For example, A. Sally sees a snake. B. Sally has heard bad stories about snakes. C. Sally is scared. With this logic, we assign meaning to everything, and that meaning is left up to our conscious or unconscious thoughts to translate into our emotions. Realistically, we can control our emotions about an event by assigning our own meaning to it. This is a therapeutical technique aimed to shift the traditional viewpoints and approaches about human behavior from assigning a one-size-fits-all template to “actions,” and instead giving an individual the power to customize their feelings and beliefs. That was a really long sentence, and I’m sorry.

I’m headed to London tomorrow, and before leaving, I was asked to pack up my belongings and reimburse the employer for 30 euro. This is all action, and my conscious belief tells me after I’m on the plane, I’m going to be just fine. I’m headed to visit a dear friend for his final photography exhibition, as he graduates from the University of London Arts with a degree in photojournalism and documentary making. His project is called “sonostalgia,” the inverse of nostalgia, which is the phenomena of feeling homesick for home while still living there. It’s feeling homesick for the way things used to be – a place you can never go back to. And when I return to Rome, I will begin a new life, something I have become quite practiced in.

“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.

IMG_5709.JPG

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.