Tag Archives: Italy

The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.

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Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.

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Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

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Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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Processes or progress?

Every time I think I have reached an understanding of quite how frustratingly convoluted this country is, I am confronted with yet more examples of the sublime and the ridiculous.

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You think you dread the queue at the post office in the UK? Think again. It took me 15 minutes to collect a parcel yesterday, and that was after I’d already queued for 10. Bear in mind that I have to collect everything – normal post included – from the Post Office because the Italian Postale refuses to recognise that our address exists. It should all be so straightforward:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter
Man reads name. Man gets parcel. Man gives me parcel. Exit stage left.

But instead it runs thus:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter.
Man takes paper.
Man looks at paper.
Man wonders what is written there, even though it has been written by a colleague at the Post Office.
Man takes three paces behind him to look at the two parcels left there.
Man examines paper and parcels.
Man seems unable to join dots up, so I help him out, asking to look at the parcel, which I am fairly sure is mine.
Man reluctant to accept help; reluctant to show parcel.
I try again, ‘Fammi vedere?’
This time he brings the parcel towards me, not too close, mind, it’s more of a waft, at several arms’ length… perhaps to show me the parcel properly might be to relinquish control.
I confirm it is mine.
Then we start the painful process of trying to scan the barcode.
I kid you not. He scanned it about 15 times.
Then he walked off.
With the parcel.
I saw him hand the parcel over to a colleague who disappeared with it.

Mamma mia – how difficult can this be? I am collecting a parcel with my name on it, which has already been recorded as entering the Post Office from the deliver company, hence the slip of paper in my PO box.

Some minutes later, the colleague enters, with the parcel, affirming that it has, indeed already been scanned and I am indeed allowed to remove it from the Post Office.

Eh voilà. Parcel collected.

thumb_IMG_3397_1024I think I have said before, Italians actually seem to enjoy this. Nay, they REVEL in it. Give them a reason to create an obstacle to something simple, and create it they will.

Take the procurement of school text books. Not for the Italians a simple system whereby schools receive funding, including that for text books, allowing them to purchase the books and distribute them directly to pupils at school.

No, we can make this far more exciting and protracted, which is particularly fun in the stifling heat of July, the month in which we are allowed to collect our text books.

I say merely ‘collect’ but it’s more of a process than this word implies, a process involving at least two additional bureaucratic steps; this naturally goes hand in hand with additional paper work and signatures. So, a ‘cedola’ – or coupon – is required in order for pupils to receive their books. In the case of pupils already at school, the ‘cedola’ is given in the last weeks of school – with strict instructions, however, not to take the next step before a designated period in July. For those not already at school – such as P., moving up from materna to primaria, – the cedola is obtained from the local education administrative office. Of course, precisely where in the area you leave affects just how ‘local’ this office is. But why create a system which could avoid an additional 40 minute drive?

A ‘cedola’ for each child in hand, we then go to a local ‘libraria’. The books of course, aren’t in stock in the bookshop, they have to be ordered and delivered, which means that we get two trips to the local libraria for the price of one. It’s not that this in and of itself is hard, it’s just that it’s entirely unnecessary. We don’t pay for the books, they are state funded. We don’t choose which books we want, so this isn’t an extra step designed in order for us to assert a degree of autonomy over learning.

For that matter, neither do the individual schools choose their books – they are state written, state distributed text books. Herein lies another problem of the Italian education system. A big one.

Thus at the bookshop we wait while the correct boxes on the cedola are ticked and information is entered into the computer system (the same information which has already been entered at the education administrative office, where it was required in order to enrol children at school in the first place).

In a week or so, we will be able to go back to the libraria to collect the books, which naturally will involve a little more box ticking and paper shuffling.

The whole ‘cedola’ system is simply a way in which we can overcomplicate a system that could be really quite straightforward. The beauty of it, of course, from a bureaucratic point of view, is that it allows for provision of another piece of paper, which must carry an official stamp and be signed by the ‘dirigente’ (director) of the area’s schools – a nice opportunity to assert authority and clarify hierarchies.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s all designed specifically to keep people in work and humanity in communication. Perhaps Italy is fiercely protecting its archaic cedola system in order to keep local book stores alive and local authority officers in jobs. Perhaps the several steps required before we are in possession of our tools for learning should be seen as a triumph of the supremacy of human interaction. Perhaps this is something we will yearn for in England when we realise that our pursuit of progress and modernisation consigns us to engaging in futile and furious interactions with ‘online processes’, as we rage against machines and systems which crash on us at the crucial moment

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Setting up School

Our immersion in Italian bureaucracy a few weeks ago, when buying our piccolo fabbricato rustico, is naturally but the beginning of a segue into what we are fondly calling our bella avventura.

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While we have been fast track learning how to prune olive trees and keep vines, I have also been intrigued by my collaborations with a culturally different mindset, joining up with a small group of Italians and internationals to set up a progressive, independent school here in Tuscany.

In attempting this, I am struck by how very much more possible things are, on one level, with how very much more complicated they are on another. Thus I alternate between being inspired and frustrated. Establishing a school, albeit a modest prototype at present, ironically feels infinitely more possible here than it would do in the UK. There are laws here, but there are also interpretations of laws and there are the odd laws that are more ‘belle’ than ‘brutte’. So while the state school system is rigid to a T, and entering a regular state school classroom would remind one of 1950s England, a key law governing education of children states only that parents have a duty to ensure that their ‘child is educated’. This is markedly different from a law saying that parents have a duty to send their children to school. So far, not so very different from UK law which allows for children to be homeschooled.

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The school building, set among fields and vineyards.

What marks Italy as an interesting place in which to try to do something different is the way in which it is possible to move from homeschooling (and frankly, anyone who can homeschool his or her own child deserves to be kept in mind for canonization) to setting up an establishment which can deliver education, but is not subject to the application forms, red tape, rules and approval that would be needed to create a Free School in the UK or indeed the regulations that a quick google reveal are required to establish a UK based private school. Thus here, an associazione is formed, fees for schooling are taken in the form of monthly subscriptions to the association, of which all parents and children attending school automatically become members. The school is therefore established and run in essentially the same way as a sports or social club, with a committee of a minimum of three named persons responsible for finance and administration thereof. The school’s articles, which we have written, are as wide and all encompassing as possible, allowing for the school to diversify as it grows.

Bingo, we are essentially setting up a very, very small quasi-private school. Freed from the fetters of state education administration, we are freed from such absurd rules as that which requires permission for a parent to donate to pupils photocopies of an educational book on growing your own vegetables…For sure, there will be stumbling blocks ahead and Italian bureaucracy will no doubt frustrate frequently, but within impossibilities here, it is the glimmers of possibilities which have allowed us to get this far that we need to pursue.

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Clearing the building

Bringing an Anglo-Saxon mindset to a meeting with a group of Italians on getting the school up and running, however, is another story. I am drawing on all my Arab blood and background to try to bring to the fore a mentality more akin to the Italians in the group. An early meeting was a perfect illustration of the confusione we have to overcome to make this project operate. Present: two Italian from the north; one Italian from the south; one British-other (that’s me; I feel the ‘other’ Arab blood is of particular importance in such circumstances); one Swiss/American (C.); one British/Ukrainian (A.) and one British (N.) who has lived here for years, speaks fluent Italian and has agreed to coordinate and facilitate meetings and the cultural exchange.   The distinction between the Italians from the north and from the south is important, the mindset of Italians being so regionally specific.

Arriving home from the meeting, which had run for two hours, and would have continued had we not curtailed it, Tom asked me how it had gone. I was, rarely for me, a little lost for words. Finally, I came up with ‘indescribable’. Under the impression that the meeting’s purpose had been to distill the school’s philosophy into a succinct and marketable form which could be used to attract more parents; to consider in more detail what the school day would look like; to allocate specific roles to group members and to discuss the development of the website, I felt slightly detached from myself as the ‘meeting’ unfolded before me. A. opened the meeting with a clear statement and focus, but within minutes we seem to have digressed entirely from any decision making on the point made, and thoughts flitted about, covering the teaching day, drawing parents in, what we wanted children to feel like.  All lovely points, but none of them particularly to the point.  As the discussion descended into a debate between the northern and southern contingents of the group, A. and I tried to bring the meeting back to the focus, and I tried to translate mentally, contribute verbally (my Italian feeling hopelessly broken and inadequate) and respond to endearing comments la Principessa’s was whispering in my ear.  This cycle of a point being made, followed by elaborate and inconclusive discussion repeated itself throughout the meeting, to such a point that when A. asked N. for translation of what exactly was going on, N. laughed that he couldn’t really translate, there not even being agreement between the Italians. C. went off to stretch in despair at trying to operate like this and I continued to feed rice cakes to la Principessa, who was blissfully unaware of any sense of lack of achievement, happy to have me sitting still in one place for more than five minutes so that she could keep up with her running commentary, (‘Ah, Mamma, num-num. Nice num-num. Mamma no eat num-num? Me more num-num.’ And so on)

Just as A., C. and I were at the point of deciding to quit while ahead and take our toddlers home to bed, there was a flurry of action and a delegation of roles: A. and I were to work on distilling the philosophy, I was to work on curriculum overview and A. was to take on the website development.

So that’s all good then.

And thus, it seems to me, we played out the physical equivalent of an Italian newspaper article, in which the ‘noce’ of the story is often completely obfuscated within elaborate, embellished, albeit beautiful, language and style. Precision and focus in writing is perceived as cold and the same, I feel, would be true of a meeting driven by a clear, formal agenda. Yet at the end of the meeting, there was a sense of movement and progression. As my friend, married to a Sicilian, pointed out to me later, it’s about putting aside the Anglo-Saxon expectation of how things ‘should’ be done, and recognizing that there is more than one way to operate. The Italian interest in the ornate linguistically transposes itself into its modus operandi. There are many challenges ahead in bringing this school to fruition, not least the culturally different mindsets of those of us who are involved. But, handled correctly, the conflation of the organizational discipline of the Anglo Saxon mindset and the internal know-how and sensitivities of the Italians, could ultimately be the strength of the school. Indescribable, yes – or rather, not something I would describe as a meeting… but mulling it over since, I have hopes that our diversity could prove the strength to realise the vision, and in this little corner of Tuscany we will found an exciting, inspiring and progressive educational experience.

 

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Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Key with a View

We are the proud owners of this key.

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The hand over of the key, in exchange for a cheque, was a ceremonial process at the end of a five hour meeting, involving a mere twelve people who each signed their names some 22 times between the hours of 11 am and 4.15 pm.

We can only be in Italy.

Yes, this is how one purchases property and land in this country which relishes bureaucracy with the same attention to detail as it does a simple bowl of pasta. The translator (one of the twelve people involved in the meeting), seemed intent on making sure I was absolutely clear about this, when she phoned me three days after The Purchase Meeting, apparently to make sure that ‘now [you understand] what we mean by things taking time and having to be done properly in Italy’.

I cut the conversation short, (she would happily have spent an hour talking me through the various idiosyncrasies of existing here), assuring her that I was quite aware that we are in bureaucracy heaven. Where else would you pay for land and property with a cheque book? Yes, at the end of The Purchase Meeting, the notaio (notary) started tapping numbers into the archaic receipt printer on his desk and a ream of receipt paper curled its way towards the floor. After about two metres of receipts were printed out, he announced the final figures and we wrote out cheques for land, property, translator’s fees, notary fees and taxes. One has to celebrate the fact that there’s a great deal of trust involved on the side of recipients that cheques will hold good. Apparently CHAPS payments do exist here. But how much more fun it is to sit through a five hour meeting than simply to wait for an impersonal phone call to assure one that payment has gone through and the key can now be collected from the agent’s office?

Strictly speaking, actually, we had not quite reached the end of the meeting: the translator was painstakingly editing the translated contract, typing with two fingers, to include the few extra words and phrases the notaio had altered during the reading of the contracts. Having laboriously hand written the changes after the notaio had read the contract for the first time, in Italian, we spent the next hour listening to the translator re-read the document, in English, a responsibility which afforded her the stage she so obviously craved, revelling in the utmost precision, pausing frequently for rhetorical effect. Given that Tom and I had been reading the English document as the notaio read the Italian only two hours before, we didn’t feel this second reading in our language was strictly necessary. Even the notaio was spotted dozing off in his leather chair at the head of the table.

It was as the vendor went for another cigarette and we reached the 30 minute mark waiting for the translator to finish on the computer, that we heard that she’d had a personal crisis: her mother had had her bag stolen, so she was fielding calls on this. Given she was typing with said two fingers, I didn’t think we stood much chance of her multi-tasking phone calls to mamma with completing the electronic document, so I suggested to the notaio we move on to signatures or cheque writing. Or something to move us towards being home before sundown. Our dear friend and witness to proceedings (in Italy, one needs someone to witness the notaio witnessing the translator translating into English, witnessing us understanding the English, a convoluted multi-check process which exemplifies an inbuilt reluctance by anyone to take responsibility for anything), was whispering to her four year old daughter that it would be better to eat merenda (afternoon snack) with Daddy, than wait for mamma to come home for it.

Signing the documentation, was of course, not straightforward. There were five copies of the contract in Italian, (to be accompanied later by five copies of the contract in English), together with five additional sheets. Tom and I had already had our knuckles rapped at 11 am, when we had signed the privacy and identity documentation (at least three times apiece) using only our first and last names, and in my case – illegibly. I wasn’t aware that it was a requirement of signatures to be legible? Thus we were primed to write our full names – middle included (I have two, this was a source of some consternation, but fortunately I am capable of writing four words in a row) – and in a clear style. Anyone who has tried to read a card written by me, will know that a requirement of legibility demanded a change to my writing, but it was Tom who was pulled up this time: he had to repeat his first five afternoon signatures. Apparently they looked too like print, and he needed to write them in ‘corsivo’. This slowed the process down only a little, however; far more time consuming was the way in which the notaio asked the first signatory to sign all 15 sheets before re-stacking them into their original order to move them all onto the second signatory. Fortunately the vendor’s three adult children were as keen as Tom and I were to speed the process up, and lined themselves up, pen in hand, ready to sign, move sheet on, sign, move sheet on. Of course, there was a strict order in which signatories were to sign, which was no doubt connected to some unspoken hierarchy: naturally, the notaio signed last in a  ceremonial process conducted in the final minutes. Incidentally, his signature, large and sprawling, was entirely illegible. It was, however, in corsivo.

Thus ended The Purchase Meeting. We left with the key, five cheques fewer in our cheque book. And not a single piece of paper. Apparently we will be summoned at a later date to collect documentation once it has been made official.

 

And the key with a view? It’s the key to this piccolo fabbricato rustico, standing amongst cherry and fig trees and looking over our vines and our olive trees. A key with a view, holding our dreams.

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casa view