“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The infant was standing on the edge of the sink, facing me, supported by my left arm. With my right hand, I was washing the “cacca” off his small, pale bottom, feigning enthusiasm as a mechanism to keep him calm. I slid my index finger into his tiny crack, encouraging the moss colored reincarnation of his last meal to “come hither”, and leave the child in peace. In this moment, he leaned forward, and kissed me. I think we’re dating now. Things are getting really intimate.

The above situation, I can happily inform you, exemplifies my newest marketable skill: patience. It’s never been a strong suit of mine, but since taking a position where I cater to the needs of an infant, it has emerged from me, if anything, as a proper defense. Another morsel of knowledge I’ve acquired is understanding the notion that the world is not about me. I just happen to be in it. And to be perfectly honest, it’s a great relief.

Back to this patience item, because I heard it is a virtue, but also, it got me a job. I applied, with no expectation of response, to a company that teaches English to Italian children, using creative, non-traditional tactics. Coming from the girl who turned a research paper on “the crisis in Darfur” into a “rap” to get people’s attention, this is my dream job. Also, the money was right. “Au Pair,” contrary to popular belief, is not synonymous with “baller”.

Anyway, they DID respond, and offered me an interview. Which I aced. And then they offered me a job. I was ecstatic. My interviewer asked me a lot of questions about why I was qualified for the position, despite my lack of experience in ESL. Turns out, my current position as a slave-to-children means I am empathetic, rational and, you guessed it, patient. All those things, in addition to the fact I am an English mother-tongue with a degree in communication, enabled me to beat out nine other candidates. (Go me.)

Here’s where the story (unfortunately) gets good. I needed to talk to my host mother/ employer/sister-friend to ensure it wouldn’t interfere with my current work. I came to her with options about how we could handle certain conflicts, and I was shot down. She was too worried about contingencies, like sick children and natural disasters. The more I plead my case and articulated my feelings, the more I understood she doesn’t want to loose the flexibility of having me “on call”.

I was angry. HOW DARE SHE. I stormed into my room like an angst-filled teenager who wasn’t allowed to borrow the car for prom. She was, after all, ruining my life. I began searching craigslist for flats in Rome. I decided it was time to move out.

After allowing myself to feel disappointed by the circumstances, I went outside, smoked a cigarette, and got a hold of myself. Yes, it was unfortunate that this new and exciting job couldn’t fit into my schedule, but in reality, my family comes first. They aren’t my blood, and our skin doesn’t respond the same to Roman water, (mine is very dry at the moment,) But when I chose to come here, I chose to be in it. I chose to clean up the infants “cacca”. I chose to follow someone else’s rules. In return, I have a support system. I have a bed. I have a dinner. For all the bad moments, I also get the good ones. Yes, I wish I could balance both things, but really, I don’t get to make that choice. The employer I live with gets to make that choice. That’s the reality I signed up for.

So, I swallowed my pride, went to the kitchen, grabbed a stack of plates and began to set the table. I met my mother/employer/sister-friend’s anxious energy with a warm smile, and at dinner tonight, we had both bread AND wine.

There are a few take-away’s from today’s experience. First, I am capable of applying for a job I really want, in a company where I don’t know anyone, and being hired. Second, if I can get hired once, I can get hired again. Third, I am patient (finally). And last, bad experiences usually make for good writing.

Everyone is crying, but I remain undisturbed. I have gone into my zen place, elbow-deep in yellow rubber gloves and the aftermath of dinner dishes, sopping wet with soap and minestrone soup.

“Ho freddo,” the young girl whimpered, scrunching her face into an overstated pout, something I have learned she is quite good at. She began to chatter her teeth dramatically, causing an unpleasant clinking noise akin to fine china chirping in an earthquake.

I began to clear the table, as I felt the first drops of a rainstorm falling from her eyes. Next thing you know it, the whole family is in the parent’s bedroom, which is directly across from the kitchen, making me an unintended witness to the episode.

The girl is now screaming, with the infant nearly matching in her pitches, letting out his own wails, crying just because he doesn’t know what else to do. The parents, although not showing visible symptoms, are crying on the inside. Their hallowed out eyes stare vacantly into the faces of their children, and also, oblivion.

“This was a bad idea,” I hear them thinking to each other, searching for reasons to reassure themselves bringing life into this world was in the end, somehow, worth it.

I’m inside of myself, on the fringe of their experience, focused on a food speck sticking to a silver pot which won’t come clean from calcium deposits lurking in the water.

I used to hate to do the dishes, so much they would sit in my sink for weeks. Sometimes, my coffee mugs would begin to resemble a science experiment, breeding bacteria to the point I would just throw them away. I’ve developed a certain level of gratitude for the process now, really thinking and caring about the dishes in a way that never used to make sense. Maybe it’s because it is a requirement of my indentured servitude, or maybe it’s because I’m teaching myself to love a lot of things I used to hate.

I don’t have any real point to make here, other than sometimes I feel like a spy. I’m just existing with this family, witnesses the trials and triumphs of their lives, sometimes playing a role, but mostly just a passive observer. I deeply consider their emotions and actions, and I sometimes just want to stop them and be like, “hey, do you know that you’re doing this?” It’s funny how we can go about our lives blind sighted from certain truths and realities about ourselves. I wish more strangers would stop me to tell me what I’m really like. On second thought, I don’t. I know these humans don’t realize the extent of which I’m watching them, and they certainly don’t know I’m typing up newsletters and posting them on the internet.

I write so many things that I just can’t use because they feel too personal. Too invasive. I would be psycho-analyzing and discussing the intimate details of someone’s life. On the internet. With my luck, they would find it.

The house is now silent, with babies tucked into beds and bourbon being poured into short glasses. I lied about the last part, but I could really drink some bourbon right now if we had any. I used to get worked up in these kinds of situations, somehow taking the crying babies personally. I’m working on creating healthy boundaries between myself and my environment, drawing a bold line to be sure I don’t bleed into other people’s colors.

We’re all still learning, and we’re one step closer to the truth than we were yesterday.

The baby was cradled in my arms, his head against my chest. I rocked my hips from side to side, watching his heavy eyelids fall, then reopen in tandem with my rhythm. The mid-morning light spilled into the room, a luminous gold that will forever belong to the beginning of November. He smelled like sugar and flour – the dust of the day’s breakfast biscuits still clinging to his overalls. He lifted his head, smiled with his eyes, and spit out his pacifier. I am now covered in vomit.

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Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

 

Basically, I’m being paid to hang out with this baby, and when you hang out with a baby, you notice them changing at a rapid pace. He still punches me, pulls my hair, and gets great amusement from slapping me in the face. He bites me (HARD), and if I say “ow”, HE begins to cry. He still, in the middle of playing with a toy, will throw himself on the ground, facedown, and begin uncontrollably crying for what seems like no reason. I kind of see where he’s coming from on that last one, though. Sometimes I want to do that, too.

I first noticed his changes whenever I would try to distract him with toys. Each day, it became more difficult to keep him entertained. The object of his fascination from the day before will never make him blink twice again. Once he understands something, he moves on.

He is fast, and grabs everything in sight. He puts things into his mouth, wears them like a hat, and then sees how hard he can throw them. I watch him detect, analyze and process his environment, and honestly, it’s pretty cool. He’s starting to remember things, and recognize patterns.

He loves to play “telephone”, where he hands me a wooden piece of his railroad track.

“Ring, ring, ring,” I sing, before holding the track up to my ear. “Hello?…Okay. It’s for you.”

I hand him the “phone” and he laughs hysterically, holding it to his face, and sometimes making a word noise that sounds like “hi”.

Babies of his age do not yet recognize they are independent of their environment, which is why they cry so often. This is also why the facial reactions of other humans bear such significance on a babies’ own emotions.

In the 1970’s, a psychologist named Gordon Gallup created a test where he put animals with unscented dye in front of a mirror to determine if they possessed the ability of self-recognition, a major philosophic component of consciousness. Most animals failed. Later, they tried it with some babies. Six to 12 month olds did not recognize themselves and thought, instead, they were seeing playmates. Apparently in 2012 they began attempting this exercise with robots. Just so you’re aware.

I sometimes stand in front of the mirror with this baby, trying to help him find himself. We wave, look back at each other, and contemplate how strange our existence is. He’s moving into a stage where he is becoming more independent, and coincidentally, so am I. We’re taking it one day at a time. Piano, piano.

The most fascinating thing about watching this infant grow is seeing how quickly he becomes a different human. Babies grow at an exponential rate, but adults change just the same. I think we get the chance to live a thousand lifetimes if we want to. I’ve already been through three of four.

Some people find comfort in consistency, but for me, neither one has ever brought happiness. I am the infant, learning what things are, and then moving past them. There’s a certain sadness seeded in this type of growth.

 

 

“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.