Friday, August 31, 2007


I was walking up the steps to Raffaele the hairdresser’s this morning when a woman’s voice from behind me called out, in perfect English, “ Please wait! I think I know you!” Astonished, I turned round and found myself in an embrace before I could work out who it was. Then I found myself looking into a pair of startlingly blue eyes and recognised Alessandra, the Modican teacher with whom I worked on the second school exchange project in 1995. I haven’t seen her since then, as she moved to Rome not long afterwards, so we had one of those rapid catch-up chats. We were genuinely pleased to see each other and exchanged real and email addresses, promising to keep in touch as people do.

The encounter brought back memories of that exchange which, for me, was a rather fraught one: Our previous exchange with a Modica school, in 1993, had gone very well and it had been my friend Marco here who had had his work cut out trying to persuade the protective Sicilian parents that their stereotypical idea of the British – in short, that we are a nation of drunken, drug-taking, promiscuous heathens – was mistaken. No one could possibly have blamed them for having this impression because that is what they saw and heard about, and still see and hear about, in the media. Anyway, we brought the group of 16 – 17-year-olds over, the students from both countries got on well together and the parents were pleasantly surprised. Several romances blossomed, too, and I still have the video of the last assembly before we left for Britain, in which several big, tough-looking 17-year-old boys can be seen with tears streaming down their faces as they faced the parting from their Italian girlfriends. We even gave a light-hearted prize to the boy who had broken the most Sicilian hearts!

This time, however, things went badly wrong and I sensed that they were going to as we were driven into Modica: “Don’t they pay road tax?” was the first loud remark I heard from one of our group: “I know! There’s no pavement!” exclaimed another. Now, I’ve been known to complain about the lack of pavements in certain parts of Modica myself but I just couldn’t believe that nobody noticed the lemon trees , the palms or the sun in February!

When you lead a school exchange, you usually stay with a teacher yourself and of course you are with your students all day at school and on organised trips. The students have your phone number for the duration of the trip so that they can call you at night in the event of any problems or emergency. It usually does take a day or two for students to settle and I do not underestimate the “cultural shock” they may experience at the beginning. We had talked about this and I had warned them what to expect: little or no social life at night; different food; families eating together and no McDonald’s! [I don’t think they believed me, though.] So I was very surprised when at around 11pm on the first evening I received a call from Cardiff: it was the mother of one of the girls and she was in an absolute panic: “My daughter hates it! She doesn’t know how to speak to them! She doesn’t like the food and they went to bed at 10!! Can’t you send her home?” [The girl had been in Italy for all of 4 hours.] I refrained from suggesting that perhaps if her daughter had attended a few more of her Italian lessons she would be better able to communicate and managed to calm the lady down. I explained that it would be quite impossible to send her daughter home , even if we had funds for that, which we did not. I was the only accompanying teacher and I could not leave the group to escort her home . I said that we would give the girl 3 days to settle in and if she was still unhappy at the end of that time we would try to move her to another family. Eventually the parent agreed to this and eventually the girl did settle. I should add that even I did not have a mobile phone then, let alone the students, so the girl had made this long call to Wales on the family phone without asking permission or offering to pay for it.

After 2 days another crisis blew up: I was called by one of the boys to come and rescue 2 of the girls from a situation they had got themselves into with older men in a bar [ late at night]. Apparently these girls had just walked out of their host homes and wandered into Modica Bassa. I got down there and discovered them with some very dubious types indeed. “Have you been drinking?” I asked. “No, Miss." At that I just gave them what I used to call “the look” until they became decidedly sheepish and confessed, “Yeh, all right, we have but what do you expect? We have to sit and be quiet while our exchange partners do their homework!” [This was said as if it doing your homework was the most scandalous activity in the world.] Marco , who had come to help, and I then had to take the girls back to their host families, who were genuinely worried about them and I felt so ashamed. How could our students treat these kind people like this? But more was to come: Marco and I had just about calmed the situation with one family and we were all having a civilised cup of coffee when the mother said, “By the way, I suppose I’d better raise it now. I’m a bit worried about these pills I see her taking.” She didn’t have to explain: we knew what the concern was. “Oh, don’t worry. They’re not drugs; they’re contraceptive pills” , said our girl brightly. I leave you to imagine the look on the mother’s face.

The next day in school I asked for a room where I could be alone with the British group and the riot act was duly read. I spelt out all the risks they were running, from the small matter of their GNVQ project being scrapped to that of rape and police involvement. Alessandra and Marco made it clear that I had the backing of the Italian school and the rest of the two weeks passed relatively peacefully.

The trip did have its lighter moments: I celebrated my 45th birthday during it and, as that morning Irma and I had to take one of our boys to the hospital with a minor injury [the same boy who had helpfully alerted me to the goings-on of that night in Modica Bassa] Irma decided, on the way back, that there was time for a gin and tonic to mark the occasion. So the three of us sat outside a bar on the Via Sacro Cuore and had a very civilised interlude. You’d be fired if you did that in school time in Britain!

When we got back and I discussed it all with colleagues in Britain, we came to the conclusion that in 2 years, something nasty had happened to British society somewhere out there on the streets and that whatever it was had certainly affected our students. Not long after I moved here in 2005 I met, in a shop, the very student whose family had hosted the “contraceptive pill girl” and we talked about what had happened. “Oh, I understood after I came to Britain”, she said. “She didn’t really know what a family is, did she?” That was probably quite an accurate observation and one which I know will resonate with James. Italians are very forgiving and often more tolerant than we give them credit for.

12 years ago I could hardly switch on a computer or write an email and most of us had not heard of blogging. Who would have thought that Alessandra and I would meet again on Raffaele’s steps, that I would have moved to her town and that she would be intending to read this blog and use it with her students in Rome?

The photo shows me on my 45th birthday. Alessandra and her colleagues had taken me to a restaurant in Ragusa.


Ellee Seymour said...

You look stunning, no change at all. One day I hope we can eat together, and I can thank you in person for your kindness in proof reading my project which I sent off today.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Ellee, thank you! One day we will and I enjoyed proof-reading your project. So glad you have sent it off - it must be a huge relief.

tooth fairy said...

Regarding the mother who called about sending her daughter home ... we have a term in America called "helicopter parents". It's very hard for them to let their children work out their own issues. Consequently, it's hard for the children to grow up. My hat's off to teachers especially when they take students on trips.

jmb said...

Lovely photo Welshcakes, dressed so beautifully, but you have to learn to smile when the camera comes out.
This post about the exchange program resonates with me because of my daughter's involvement in exchanges with the French school at La Rochelle. They always seem to have problems of one sort or another.
What fun that you met this teacher after so many years. I'll bet she was truly surprised that you moved to Modica.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

TF, thanks for that. I'd never heard the term before.
Hi, jmb. I always think I am smiling! Yes, there are always problems on schoool trips. If I were teaching now in the UK I think I would refuse to lead one as if the least little thing goes wrong you can end up in court. Some of the teaching unions now advise their members not to get involved in these trips. As a language teacher, you are under a lot of pressure to do them, though. I think I was the last person Alessandra would have expected to bump into!

James Higham said...

[The girl had been in Italy for all of 4 hours.] I refrained from suggesting that perhaps if her daughter had attended a few more of her Italian lessons she would be better able to communicate and managed to calm the lady down.

Always the way - the most unreasonable are also the least cooperative. Another way of putting it is that they are trouble. It's not very nice of me but I'm glad I'm out of education now.

James Higham said...

And the photo's great!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

James, I couldn't agree more! I don't think I could stand secondary sector teaching now.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thank you, kind sir.

Liz Hinds said...

You haven't changed at all, welshcakes!

How amazing to bump into an old frined like that. And what trials and tribulations await the teacher taking a school party abroad!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, Liz. I never want to have to escort a school trip again!

Whispering Walls said...

My Italian colleague in my office here, who comes from Brescia, was shocked to see the morning after pill advertised in the Metro. She said it's illegal in Italy.
What an appalling trip for you. Teenagers are insufferable - I suppose it's the hormones

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, WW. I can imagine that would have been a shock for your colleague. The worst part of that trip was feeling so ashamed because the Italians were so tolerant and kind.

Maria said...

What a great picture! Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Amazing how life can come full circle don't you think? Just another great sign that there is alot more to this world than one can imagine! All the best always! M

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Your talk about dealing with student/pupil problems reminded me of a couple of incidents during my wee time teaching in a first year chemistry lab (actually called "demonstrating").

There I was, first day, demonstrating how to use a pipette with a syringe and I explained very carefully how to hold the two together without breaking the pipette. Luckily for me one of the Profs was standing right next to me. Less than a minute later a student came up to me covered in blood - his hand needed immediate medical attention and he was dispatched to the nearest ER (which happened to be next door). The head Prof running that lab (probably over a hundred undergrads - it was one of the largest undergrad teaching labs where students moved from one lab bench to the next to complete maybe 10 experiments over a semester/term). I explained that I had explained to all the students on my bench how to avoid breaking the narrow neck of the pipette I was in the clear - the Prof who happened to be standing next to me agreed that I had demonstrated the correct procedure. I was demonstrating in this lab three times a week, and saw the boy who cut his hand - I asked him how he managed to cut his hand - apparently, he heard what I had said but ignored what I had said.

I did have one unofficial complaint, a student came up to me and asked me why I thought she was a 'COW' ... I said I never said such a thing - turned out that my short signature 'CDW' could be read as 'COW'. Needless to say from that day on I did my best to stop using my middle initial while marking lab write-ups.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Sorry about the late reply, Dr CW. Thank you for sharing these delightful stories. I do identify with them! Love the "Cow" story.


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