Italy Through Its Own Eyes

By Scott Bembenek

The email first blinked into my inbox while I was sitting in the Vilas basement writing up a news story, as I had spent more than plenty of nights that semester already. I breezed through it, and thought the idea sounded exciting. After all, how many people can say they volunteered in high schools while abroad? It was for the Italy Reads Program, run by John Cabot University each semester. Participating schools read a novel (the one for my quickly approaching semester in Rome was Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”). Then, I’d just have to go with the other volunteers and run an in-class discussion about the book as a way for students to improve their English skills.

Sounds simple enough, I thought. Seems like a cool way to put a unique twist on studying abroad.

After consulting with some close friends and family, though, I was nearly talked out of it. While some people had the same train of thought as me, a lot of other people had a different perspective.

“You’ll be busy enough during a semester abroad as it is. Why would you want to take up hours you could be using to explore volunteering?”

After hearing that statement (or ones like it) enough times, I started to agree. Why use up my time that way? Although the idea still hid the back of my mind and made a nasty habit of creeping out over and over.

The first time the itch really hit hard again was at the airport in Atlanta. I had just arrived from Milwaukee and was waiting for my flight to Rome when I saw the girl next to me reading none other than “A Farewell to Arms.” I thought about asking her about Italy Reads and if she was planning on doing it, but decided against it and put my headphones in to pass the time.

The idea kept creeping up on me even after the first couple of weeks at JCU. I saw posters about it all over campus and had gotten probably three more emails about it since I arrived. Eventually I just thought Why not? I’ll go the info session, ask a couple questions about it, and decide from there.

Besides, there’s free pizza.

It was the second info session for us procrastinators who didn’t make it to the first, so the room was pretty empty. The head of the program came in after a bit and described Italy Reads to us and to be honest, a notion that started as no big deal got ever more intimidating as I thought about the details. How do I connect with these teachers? What about the kids? What are they like? How will I find the schools? How in the world do I talk to them about Hemingway for an hour? What if I get lost going there? In short, I was nearly scared out of it.

That night, I resolved to just do it anyway. I hopped online, found the website for a local bookstore and picked up the book up the next day. And that’s the story of how I got started with Italy Reads.

Oh yeah, I pretty much missed my first day.

Yep, honestly. I woke up about ten minutes before the session was supposed to start, and, needless to say, just about had a panic attack. I kept trying to call the volunteer I was paired with, to no avail, and I got in touch with the head of the program to let her know I’d be late but was on my way. Did I mention there was a heavy downpour outside? Because there was.

By some miracle, I got to the school without getting lost. It wasn’t too far from my apartment, so I was only about 15 minutes late or so. But now I couldn’t get in the school. What I thought was the main gate was locked, and I had no way in. Standing in the heavy rain shower, trying desperately to coordinate a way in, I stood outside the main gate for the next 45 minutes without getting in. I felt absolutely horrible when I got back to JCU and sent emails profusely apologizing to the program head, my fellow volunteer and the professor whose class I was scheduled to meet.

It wasn’t as bad as you might think though.The Italy Reads administrators forgave me, and my partner had actually completely forgotten we were scheduled that day. But I didn’t learn the best part until my next visit with the class.

I got there, and in a fractured amalgamation of Italian and English said something like “Mi dispiace, couldn’t get in la scuola last time. I’m so sorry.” (To touch on an earlier point, I was standing at the wrong gate in the rain before, so I could’ve gotten in if I had walked half a block up the street).

The professor’s response? “Oh. I thought you just didn’t come because of the rain. I didn’t expect you’d make it in that.”

So the next couple visits came and went, but not quite as expected. We spent almost no time talking about Hemingway or the book. We just sat and talked. About Italy. About the U.S. and about what high school was like in each country. And how in the world I managed at a school with a student population of about 40,000 back home (let alone in all that snow!). These short hours taught me more about my host nation than I could ever have hoped to on my own. Not to mention the fact that those kids were brilliant. Many of them were multilingual and spoke English about as well as the average high schooler back home.

That first class became my most visited and was, to be honest, a bit of a favorite of mine. It was the only class I saw more than twice (it was more like five times), and I got to know those kids the best. Not to mention, after each class, the professor would send one student down to the school coffee bar with my partner and me to get us some cappucini. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I been obsessed with cappuccinos ever since. The student who usually accompanied us was a nice young woman who, on top of Italian and English, was also fluent in French. There she’d usually talk about the day-to-day workings of the school and how some kids used to sneak a cigarette behind cars between classes before she had to speed back upstairs for her next lesson.

This class was also the source of what’s become one of my most cherished memories. On about my third trip there, the other volunteer had beaten me by about ten minutes. He was spot on time, I was now used to “Italian Time” (alright, that’s part of it, but sometimes I was just running late again). But here’s the thing: the class refused to start without me. They were so used to me being there with the other volunteers that they made him wait for me (I visited that class more than just about anyone). Then, when I finally arrived, they all turned and excitedly shouted my name, ready to start another one of our too-short sessions together. They wanted me there just as much as I wanted to be there, and that honestly was one of my happiest moments in my entire 117 days in Rome.

There were other schools I went to besides that first gated, concrete Vilas Hall-esque fortress in Trastevere. One was no more than a few city blocks away from the Colosseum. I’m not kidding when I say you can see it from the front steps of the school. The first time there, we broke the class up into small groups and mine wanted to learn about how the United States government worked. Unsure where to start, I stammered through what I know. They then tried to explain the Italian government to me, which was about as confusing to me as I imagine my explanation of the U.S. government was to them.

The next time, my group was four boys, all about 17, and we had the obligatory Messi vs. Ronaldo debate. It was a bit one-sided as all but one of the kids in my group agreed Messi is the best. They then quizzed me on AS Roma, and were nothing short of amazed when I said not only did I know, but had been to the recent AS Roma v. Juventus match. Then they asked who my favorite NBA team is, and I was equally astounded to learn that not only were they aware of the Milwaukee Bucks, but could name one of their players (Giannis is a bit of a worldwide star, I suppose). A bit of a stereotypical conversation I admit, but one that was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Some classes did want a bit more of a structured experience, though. There was one class near the Castel Sant’Angelo, where after getting there by asking some people around where the room was (in Italian! No small feat, I assure you.) They then expected me to give a full-blown lecture about Hemingway and his life and works. These kids knew the book better than I did, but it was still a fun and productive class. I was still particularly proud because I had to do this by myself, as I was left partnerless for this round.

One of the more eye-opening experiences came in my second- to-last class visit. Here, we were asked to talk to the class about American views of World War II. So, I skimmed their history book and made sure I had my facts right. Then, one student asked me what Americans think about the use of the atomic bombs in Japan. I, frankly, was left fumbling for an answer, and just gave my perspective on it and its gravity, but it was a far cry from other conversations I’d had to that point in my visits.

It all ended were it began: at the school where I had once stood in front of at the wrong gate in the pouring rain. It was much more relaxed than any of my past visits. We had talked “A Farewell to Arms” to death, and we just sat and talked about what they wanted to do in the future, what I wanted to do when I got home (only about two weeks away, now) and who some of our favorite guitarists were. It was an easy afternoon chat, and that was that. I was done, with nothing more to come than a certificate ceremony honoring successful volunteers at an end- of-the-year event for John Cabot.

To say choosing to be a part of Italy Reads was one of the best and most impactful choices I made in my semester in Rome wouldn’t be entirely correct. In fact, it’s a vast understatement. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made, period. It gave me a glimpse of Italy (and the U.S.) through its youth, one I wouldn’t have dreamed of having otherwise, and it taught me more about connecting with other people. It showed me how to experience your own home through perspectives you couldn’t get in a classroom or over the occasional weekend trip.

What did I really learn in the process of helping these kids wade through Hemingway? Reach out. To everyone, look through their eyes, walk in their shoes and most importantly, listen. It will give you more than you could ever imagine, I promise.

This article will be published in our spring 2016 print issue. Love this piece? Check out How I Found Madison Under Budapest.

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