An Academic Year in Italy Travel Blog
Part I: Three months in Sicily
October 2016 - Siracusa/Syracuse
I arrived in Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian - which name I shall continue to use here, so as not to confuse it with Syracuse, New York state, USA), Sicily, Italy from Vancouver via Toronto, Rome and Catania on September 29, 2016 and was picked up at the bus stop by the logistics representative of the small private school with which I had signed a contract in English. I had selected this school in Siracusa from a narrowed-down list of four job offers from Italy and Spain, because it was the first to send me a contract in English whose terms I was willing to accept. In fact, I had received and signed the finalised contract on the previous Saturday, booked my flight on the Sunday and left Vancouver on the Wednesday without much time to think about anything else.
I had just completed a 100-hour course in Vancouver to gain certification in TEFL/TESOL and was now authorised to “teach English as a Second Language” to “Speakers of Other Languages.” I was found a room in a B&B for the weekend until I had decided on a permanent place to live for the next nine months and, at a very brief orientation on Friday morning, was given my timetable and shown the books I was to use. I was scheduled to teach mostly classes of 8- to 11-year-old children with up to nine children per class. Friday evenings and Saturday mornings were inescapable, as this was when most of the children's classes took place. The rest of the week there were some classes in the early evenings for children but during the day I was given adults to teach one-on-one, something I was much more comfortable with and had had experience with before. I had taught languages to adults before and even to teenagers one-on-one, but I had not taught 8 year-olds since I was a teenager.
Thus it was a true immersion into the deep end for me that Saturday October 1. There were “difficult” children who had no interest in being there or in learning English and made no effort. However, I survived my first lesson, and was interested to discover that the other teachers - younger than I but with some previous experience teaching ESL in other countries - had had just as problematic a morning with their classes, which bonded us. It was now 1:00p.m., classes had started at 9:00a.m. and we had each taught two classes each of two hours without a break. I managed to find my way back to the B&B to drop my books and then spent the rest of the weekend getting my bearings and discovering my new home, wondering what I had gotten myself into!
On Sunday, I walked round the area around my school and then into the old town, Ortigia - which I had been told by other teachers who lived there was a delight and very romantic, but I was not sure I agreed. Below are a few photos from that sunny day. I found Ortigia to be mostly a pedestrian area: its cathedral and several other tourist sites had all been recently cleaned, so were bright and shiny, white buildings, though of course residential buildings built in ancient times were pretty much looking as they probably had for centuries. After crossing the island widthwise, I took the route around the island on the “sea wall.” There was a beach of sorts - small and rocky, no sand - and there were bathers.
Ortigia was a bit of a hike from the school though, so when I was asked where in town I wanted to live, I elected to live closer to the school in Siracusa proper. Our logistics colleague took us to visit a few places in both Ortigia and Siracusa that weekend and finally, on Monday, as I had to leave the B&B, I decided to take the best I could find. It was about a 20-minute walk downhill to the school, and was in a complex of apartments with a gate and a guard, and was considered new (for Siracusa), having been built in as recently as the 1970s! I suppose it is all relative, when you have ancient Greek and Roman ruins all over the place and a bank that dates from 1427... However modern it purported to be, the balconies were crumbling - concrete was falling off the façade into nets that had been put up specially to catch them. I was told by my landlady that the apartment owners of the complex of about five buildings all had to raise an ungodly sum for the repair, but that it could in fact be years still before any repair work would actually begin. Such was Italy!
So now I come to my landlady: a pharmacist who worked long hours for a low salary (or so it seemed to me considering the long years of study it takes to become a pharmacist). In order to be able to pay her high maintenance fees and property taxes, or perhaps it was her mortgage, had divided her apartment into two, renovating my side to include a bathroom and a joint kitchen/dining room/living room as well as a large bedroom. Located on the fourth floor with two balconies facing south and east, it was light, bright and breezy enough, but the one snag was the lack of privacy. There was a door to my part of the space that I could lock, but just inside that door - on my side - was the washing machine. Of course, every so often she would want to come in and use the washing machine. She also wanted to learn English in exchange for teaching me Italian, but frankly I just wanted peace and quite after teaching English all day. The rent she was asking was on the high side, compared to places in Ortigia, but the location was right and, I told myself, I could keep looking for a more suitable place as the rent was month to month. Honestly, I did try, but nothing better ever came up, so there I stayed...
After I had completed a week of teaching and survived, both the director of studies and owner, having looked in on a few of my classes, noted I was not all that comfortable with the younger children (they said I was not “bouncy” enough), and as a result drastically changed my timetable for week two, much to my delight. In week two, I had only five classes with children and ten classes one-one-one with adults, varying from elementary beginners to upper intermediate. I could go on teaching the one-on-one classes for hours, whereas some of the children tested my limits, though it had been commented on positively that I was able to control them when they did get rambunctious.
By the end of October, I decided I was not enjoying my new job. By the time I finished teaching my evening classes on Thursday of each week, I felt exhausted, and I still had Friday and Saturday classes to teach (thus leaving me with a one-and-a-half-day weekend, which barely provided enough time to get chores done like shopping and cleaning). I calculated that I was earning more from translations per hour than I was from teaching, as I had added a couple of European translation clients. Unfortunately, I had had to turn down a couple of very lucrative translation projects due to my teaching schedule, so I made the decision to cut back on the classroom teaching and dedicate more time to translation. I asked to meet with my Director of Studies, telling him of my decision, citing not being totally happy with my accommodation circumstances, and moreover, as a city girl, feeling rather trapped in such a small town with nowhere to go, few means of transportation, no trains to speak of and the nearest airport an hour away, and hardly any time left in the week to go anywhere anyway. He agreed to cut back my classes but this meant he now had to hire two new teachers as another teacher - an American - had left during the first week for family reasons. Anyway, compromise we did and my hours and classes were reduced to give me more time for translations.
November 2016 - Siracusa
The temperature changed practically overnight in November, and after a sunny, hot, almost sweltering climate in October, suddenly rain, storms and strong winds started on the long, holiday weekend of November the 1st. Luckily for me, about that time, I had a friend come to stay and for a change of pace and view, we took advantage of the four-day weekend to book at a resort on the other side of the peninsula (seen in the photos below). Although dry, it was cloudy, fairly windy and the sea was rough, so it was impossible to swim in the ocean as we had planned. Yet, it was a pleasant change of pace, sort of luxurious, definitely relaxing and we enjoyed the time away. My friend, too, could see I was not happy with Siracusa or Ortigia, so we started thinking about where I could teach next, where I might be happier. I knew I wanted to be in Italy, but not in a small town, somewhere I could teach a higher level of English, to adults, and ideally have three-day weekends to do some travel. Consequently, I set my sights on ESL-teaching jobs that would start in January, as I already planned to go home to Vancouver for Christmas.
I was well aware I had been teaching fewer hours this month, but it was still a bit of a shock when I received my pay from the school for November and it was just barely enough to pay my rent. That was the final decisive factor, and I started looking for new teaching positions elsewhere in earnest. I sent out my resumes to eight ESL schools in Rome. My solution clearly was to leave Siracusa and find a place and a new job where I could feel happier.
December 2016 - Siracusa
December started off well as I was phoned by one of the schools I had applied to in Rome and was told they wanted to interview me. (Three other schools were also interested in my application, but said they only hired people who already were living in Rome. I was invited to re-apply with them once I had found a place to live in Rome - but I never did get in touch with them again as it turned out.) We arranged a time via Skype and during the Skype session they told me they were looking for a native English-speaker to teach adults business English at a pharmaceutical company Mondays to Thursdays. My interest was definitely piqued. The timetable they sent me later had me teaching mornings and evenings with big gaps in between, but I figured this would give me the opportunity and time to discover more of Rome. I liked the fact, too, that I would be autonomous in my teaching - contrary to the school in Siracusa where the director of studies and school owner would drop into our classes unannounced, making us all rather uncomfortable. The new job did mean I had to find a place to live in Rome, on my own, as there was no assistance for housing provided by this school. It would ideally be somewhere that was not too far from where I would be teaching, but the job sounded ideal, and the pay was higher, so I accepted. Moreover, the acting director/owner of this new school was very helpful about suggesting areas to live in Rome, providing me with train and underground metro routes. I agreed to go to Rome a day earlier on my way back to Vancouver for Christmas so that I could meet my new colleagues and get copies of the books I would be teaching from. Yes, finally things were looking up. It seemed that Rome was where I was meant to be. However, I sense strongly that my time in Siracusa did have a purpose as it enabled me to discover my teaching abilities and preferences.
Meanwhile, the days in December became shorter and shorter and I was returning home from school in the dark evenings, when there was frequently rain. Siracusa's infrastructure is badly maintained, drainage is bad, so the streets become lakes in the rain. In the knowledge that Siracusa was located near Africa, and confident that the weather should surely be warm and dry year-round, I had not brought any boots or any really warm clothes. Being a Vancouverite though, I had a rainjacket and umbrella, which had to suffice. Consequently, it was inevitable that I caught a nasty cold - not surprising really when one is hanging around children and many of the children had colds. One time I remember having to go outside with my terrible cold, not only to get medicine but also to recharge my wifi, in order to be able to complete my other virtual work. This too was a bone of contention with the city and the apartment. There was no wifi access in the apartment. Instead, I had to buy a gadget that plugged into an electrical socket, but it had a limit of gigabytes and they would only sell me 20 euros worth at a time, which (they said) should last me for three months, but I ended up having to buy this amount each month. One time I suggested buying a higher amount (50 euros worth) but they told me I would not need it - I mean, really, how would they know how much I needed?
Talking of colds, though, in fact many of the teachers caught colds before I did, so I was frequently called upon, and accepted, to substitute for them in their classes. I found this type of teaching easier, as it did not require any preparation and it gave me the chance to teach some different classes - teenagers preparing for Cambridge English exams, for instance - although it did mean that a couple of times I ended up substituting some of my old children's Saturday-morning classes that a newly-hired teacher had taken over from me. However, it was much less stressful as I would just take them through the next chapter in their books and when they got bored, I would give them pictures to colour or puzzles to figure out. (This ended up being the way to get them to quiet down, and I would let them be creative so they could think on their own.)
Despite the hours of substituting, my pay for December wasn't enough to pay January's rent, so it was a good thing I had decided to leave. December 13th was the feast day of Saint Lucia - the patron saint of Siracusa. They parade the silver statue of the saint containing her relics in a long procession from the Cathedral in Ortigia to the Church of Santa Lucia in Siracusa and it takes about 5 hours: as the statue is so heavy, the people carrying it on a platform have to rest every few steps. Although I was planning to get out to see the parade, I ended up not doing so as I was teaching that day. However, I did go and see the statue during its stay in the church in Siracusa and you will see it in the photos below. Moreover, December meant Christmas and on December 18th the school put on a lovely Christmas party for the staff. We were shown how to, and helped, make a number of dishes, among which pizza and candied almonds (shown here). The Christmas party was also when I gave my final lesson in Siracusa, and this time it was delivered to all my colleagues, in both English and Italian. At one of our monthly staff meetings, I had been asked to compose a song for the school. For the tune, I used the melody I had been hearing three times a day every day for the last three or so months at 8:00 a.m., 12noon and 4 p.m. from the Basilica Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime di Siracusa, and which had become an earworm to me. Teaching the song to my colleagues was quite fun - it was a surprise for many. It was my chance finally to reveal my teaching talents to them. (As a presentation method, I had taught all the words in the song before we all sung it, creating a scenario whereby my colleagues were children learning English in my classroom.) I should add here that, although the town and apartment were not for me, I did feel I had made some new friends among my students and colleagues in Siracusa.
That was the last time I saw all my colleagues. I was not scheduled to teach that last week because my adult students had already taken off the week so as to prepare for Christmas. I had time to pack and clean up, and by the end of the week I was very ready to leave. I flew to Rome from Catania, finally able to see from the plane Mount Etna above the clouds and covered in snow (photo below). I stayed in an airport hotel for two nights and visited what was to be my new place of work in the San Giovanni area of Rome. I had also been in contact with a couple of apartment agencies and was able on that same day to visit two apartments. I chose the second of the two I visited as it had the views and the light I like, plus it was in a concierge-gated apartment complex, was modern (yes, really modern - built in the last 20 years or so) and had a bus stop just outside which would take me to the A-line metro, and thence 16 stops to where I would be teaching. Another quick decision, but it was, with my new job, about the only apartment I could afford, yet was quite liveable and had 24/7 internet too!