Venice at dusk, on the way to station.
There is a well worn truism that every parent knows, and possibly those who have chosen not to become parents: if you want to come face to face with the deepest, darkest, and ugliest part of your soul – have children. For through parenting you are forced to view yourself anew, and often those parts of yourself you would rather not contend with are reflected back to you through the eyes, and behavior, of your children.
Of course, it’s not all sturm and drang, there are occasional pinnacles of great joy, with a more common peppering of cozy, contented moments. I believe this same truism can be applied to the light that is shed upon yourself from the experience of travel. My friend Scott, a journalist among other things, conducted an interview with the well known travel writer, Pico Iyer, who said that “[Travel] confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home.” I couldn’t agree more.
A Venice piazza
Any kind of travel is challenging, when you are away from your routines, comforts of home, familiar faces, and language. In today’s world of utterly global travel it would seem quite cushy just to pitch up in western Europe for a couple of months. I’ve seen plenty of other blogs chronicling the more extreme and intrepid adventures of mothers, fathers and sons and daughters, trekking through southeast Asia, South America or China. No, Italy is quite tame by comparison. However, if ever there was a country that suffered under the paintbrush of sweepingly romantic ideas of how life is lived on a daily basis, Italy is the posterchild. How could it not be? The church bells still ring – not only ring but play an achingly beautiful song – three times a day and the shops still close from 1 to 3:30pm every day and all day Sunday.
Without a doubt, there is much to admire and love about Italy. But there is a sense of country that is suspended in an insular bubble in time, setting aside its current political and economic straits. It is a country resting on the laurels of centuries of enormous art and cultural contributions, but yet to find a footing as a 21st century world player.
It is also a very tricky place to live if you are a foreigner, even if you are a white, middle-class foreigner, to say nothing of what it must be like for huge number of African immigrants who come here every year. Many who can be seen panhandling in the center of town or hanging around the missions they stay in, no work available to them and nothing to do but wait for their papers or benefits to arrive. It is difficult, even for us, to make social in-roads as well. We even have Italian friends who have acted as built-in guides for navigating all things.
Of course, language is a factor. After two months, my Italian is far from fluent, though it is much better, and L understands quite a few words. Context, we have learned, is so much a part of assimilating a new language. When the supermarket check-out clerk talks to me as he tallies my purchases, I may only catch one or two words I understand, but yet I know he is asked me if I have a store discount card and if I want him to give me a bag. It always feels good to get through a foreign language exchange without stumbling and feeling totally at sea!
For the past two weeks, we have had the privilege of experiencing the Italian school system. At first we were told by the principal that L could not attend, because we could not produce a certificate of residency from the Commune di Vicenza. But after various phone calls on the part of our friends to the larger school system office, and assurances that we were their official guests for several months, that turned out not to be the case and L was invited to attend.
Since he is officially registered as being homeschooled this year with our school system back home, the main reasons to have him go to school here were to learn Italian, make friends, and have fuller access to play games with the football club he currently just practices with. However, after two weeks we have decided it’s not for us. Or more precisely, L has come down quite firmly that he will never set foot in the elementary school again after the end of this week, football games or no football games.
I think the main reasons it has not worked out are that 1) almost no one in the whole school speaks any English at all – really, really hard for him, 2) he is in a class with kids a year younger than him because the kids his age are actually in 6th grade – the first year of middle school – and the school authorities thought that would be too hard for him with no Italian, and 3) there is one teacher he really doesn’t like and there’s no avoiding him. So, it has not been the best experience for him, though he has made a valiant attempt and has been quite a trooper. But I decided since this year, or this time, was supposed to be about a break from tradition and structure, not about enduring more school, which he struggles with in the best of situations, there seems no reason to put him through the stress of it all.
Next week we will resume our homeschooling activities with L having had a memorable, if not entirely joyful experience, and a bit more Italian under his belt than he had before. And I will continue to try to find the Italian equivalent of some common household products that we can use to create some home science experiments. L is really game for this as long as I promised it involves at least some kind of minor, preferably major, explosions.
actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, life renegade