Thursday, May 21, 2015

My poem to Padova, 1 year later

Padova, 2014
Robin Danzak

I arrive in rain.
Move in too fast.
I know one person in this city, and I just met her today.
There’s also the very polite doorman downstairs,
Who calls me “Lei” and speaks extra slowly, carefully.
I understand, I tell him.
Io capisco.
He gives me an umbrella.
Misa, messa, masa.
Sant’Antonio di Padova.
Venezia in Carnevale.
I walk...
Smells like espresso, brioche, fiori, grana padano, biciclette, pomodori.
The must of churches erected in 1300, the University 1222.
The birth of human anatomy.
Olive, rucola, radicchio, finocchio.
At the university,
I get a key, a card, an empty office that says, “Visiting Researcher”.
The feeling of being temporary.
Closed doors.
I work...
At high schools,
I meet teachers, students in their universal teenage sulk,
Smoking and riding Vespas,
Giggling at my strange words.
The language inside my head does not match
The language inside my mouth.
I walk...
Sant’Antonio, Santa Giustina, Santa Sofia, San Lorenzo.
Orto Botanico, Prato Della Valle, Piazze della Fruta, delle Erbe, dei Signori.
In the blink of an eye, three new friends!
One lives upstairs,
I knock on her door, looking for missing things.
She is a scientist, a researcher, a foreigner like me.
We become sisters, sharing evening tea and gelato.
We walk...
Two others I find at a conference,
Tutto in italiano.
They make ceramics, teach immigrant kids, counsel women victims of trafficking.
We become travel companions, amiche dal cuore.
Gnocchi, orecchiette, tortoloni, ravioli.
Trofie con pesto.
Verona, Venezia, Murano, Burano.
My husband arrives!
Easter, Wine, Love.
Lago di Como.
Bello bello bellissimo.
Cioccolato, pizza napoletana, più gelato.
Trains and busses.
We walk...
My husband leaves.
Back to work.
The machista guy at the fruit shop, the old lady at the housewares shop, the same doorman who answers all my questions.
Albicocche, spinaci, arrance rosse e bionde.
I write...
The cantor at church, the little girl and her black cat, the Sicilian grandma who teaches me passato remoto.
Misa, messa, masa.
Sant’Antonio di Padova.
Venezia, Bologna, un weekend a Londra,
Tutto in italiano.
The students are used to seeing me now.
Tutto va bene. Sto bene, starò bene.
Conosco alcuni amici.
Finisce la ricerca.
Adesso capisco quasi tutto.
Posso dire quasi tutto.
I am happy here.
It’s time to say goodbye.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Return to the U.S. … and monolingualism?

I have been home for a little more than a week now and, in some ways, it feels like I never left. These days, instead of shops, fountains, and piazzas filled with people, my daily walks are witness to quiet, residential streets lined with quaint, Cape Cod style houses with perfectly manicured lawns and precious summer gardens. It sure looks different around here. I left with snow on the ground, naked trees, and an icy beach.

A view from my evening walk around the neighborhood 
Long walks to do errands in Padua have been replaced by drives around town. Instead of making sure I had comfy shoes when I arrived, I got an oil change and a carwash. Instead of walking home with gelato and people-watching, I drive home eating frozen yogurt and listening to NPR.

Visits to fruit-veggie shops with chatty owners and Italian grocery stores where you weigh and tag your own produce have been replaced by huge, cold supermarkets with isles and isles of products: 21 different kinds of toothpaste, 16 different kinds of bagged lettuce (that all taste like plastic anyway).

Uninterested, generally inefficient Italian restaurant staff are now overly friendly servers, checking in multiple times and bringing free refills. All restaurants have numerous, giant-screen TVs showing current sporting events -if we're lucky, the World Cup (broadcast in English).

Finally, the garbage has multiplied exponentially: everything from food to mail-order books to household items comes with an exaggerated amount of packaging… so does take-out food. Instead of charging extra for plastic bags, stores here give you more than you want or need to simply carry your items to the car, to then drive home, take off all the packaging, and throw it away.

Clearly, there are some cultural differences. But what about language?

As my first language, obviously, speaking English here is no problem. I only almost slipped up once, opening the door for an older gentleman at the dry cleaner and starting to say, "Signore" (but I caught myself and said nothing). I also enjoy integrating Italian hand gestures into friendly conversations.

Spanish is still a bit problematic, however, as Italian fillers like "bene" and "certo" want to interrupt my speech. I don't think I'll ever be able to say, "tranquilo" again without thinking twice (is it, /traŋkwilo/ or /traŋkilo/?).

To reactivate my Spanish, I listen to Latino radio everyday in the car (I did before, anyway), and there are plenty of Spanish speakers to talk to around here and, of course, friends. In an attempt to preserve my Italian, I am reading the translation of Tuesdays with Morrie, which I brought from ItalyI also chat with Italian friends on Facebook, write emails, and dream.

Yes, bilingualism is still a dream: every night, Italian sneaks in. Apparently, language is not something you can leave behind. You pack it in your suitcase and take it home with you. The journey of multiculturalism and multilingualism continues.      

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Arrivederci Italia!

Of course, now that I am about to leave Padua, I feel totally at ease here. What is this phenomenon? Similarly, it seems like, when you are saying goodbye, people suddenly find you more interesting, and those you have spent time with appreciate you even more.

After just about four months, I have the map of Padova in my head. All the lovely, sampietrino streets… I can walk everywhere, but if I want, I can hop on a bus or tram and know where it's going and exactly when to get off. I can go to the train station and use the ticket machine (in Italian!) to purchase just the right ticket to get where I want to go as quickly and cheaply as possible. I know where to buy everything I need, and where to put all the trash and recyclables. I finally have some good tea and, most importantly, I have some really good friends. It will be hard to say goodbye.  

At the same time, I am thrilled to be going home. I can't wait to be reunited with my wonderful husband and our furry friends. I left Connecticut with snow on the ground; now I can go back and enjoy summer in New England: biking in the forest, walks on the beach, shopping at farmers' markets, visits to local wineries with beautiful views, and Red Sox games at Fenway Park!    

So what will I miss the most about Italy?

1. My new friends. I have been fortunate to meet exactly the right people in the right place at the right time. I have learned and shared so much, and enjoyed many memorable conversations and experiences.  

2. The amazing food. Awesome fresh, high-quality veggies and fruits, homemade pasta, pesto genovese, pizza napoletana, and of course… gelato!

Croante all'amarena, from Gelateria La Romana. "Ice cream" will never be the same.  

3. The outdoorsy, walk-everywhere, people-everywhere, piazza culture: Enticing smells of caffé con brioche floating out of cafes every morning, seeing people smile and greet one another on the street, well-adjusted Italian dogs, friendly and familiar small-business owners, and beautifully designed store windows; all of this is irreplaceable. 

Street market in Venice

One of the many, visually-tempting stores in Padua

4. Spectacular mass at Sant'Antonio. I am not a churchgoer, but had to check out this amazing cultural event. People from all around the world visit Saint Anthony's Basilica in Padua. Sung mass on Sundays is standing room only, complete with spotlights, music, elaborate costumes, candles and smoky incense… kind of like a Broadway musical, but free!  

5. L'Orto Botanico. One of those places to go and enjoy again and again, the historic, University of Padua botanical garden was my escape to nature within the paved confines of the city. 

L'Orto Botanico: A little green paradise in Padua.
6. Speaking Italian. Cosa posso dire? Did the Italian language make it out of my head and into my heart? We shall see just how much I miss it… 

Me at Prato della Valle, Padova's famous, giant piazza-park. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Italy: Wrapping up (the official version)

I am down to just a few days left in Padova. Direct from my Fulbright Final Report, here are a few, completely sincere reflections on my overall experience. Stay tuned for the "unofficial version" shortly. 

Piazza Garibaldi, Padova, in the city center

The Fulbright has been an amazing experience. Thanks to my time in Padua, I have grown both as a researcher and educator, as well as increased my multiculturalism and multilingualism by participating in various projects and communities. 

Regarding the Fulbright research project, my collaborator at the U. di Padova has been an outstanding role model and is now also a dear friend. I am so grateful for her invitation. In collecting and processing data for our project, I learned a lot about the Italian school system and Italian youth. I was also able to work with teachers of English and better understand the context of second language learning here in Italy, as well as in Europe. 

In another realm, my experience volunteering and co-facilitating a photography workshop at an after-school program for immigrant students allowed me to get more involved in the community. I engaged in many interesting conversations with program volunteers about bilingualism and the state of language teaching and learning in Italy. Thanks to my collaboration with a Portuguese educator and an Italian Education student, I was exposed to new pedagogical methodologies and frameworks during the photography workshop. I should also mention, the kids -and facilitators- had a great time.  

In sum, in both projects and their related community engagements, I was able to bring my passion for working with bilingual students to the Fulbright experience, and broaden my perspectives as well. Thus, I can say that both of these inquiries allowed me to contribute to the involved students/communities as well as acquire valuable knowledge and experience that will serve me in the future. 

The international experience of living in Italy for four months was intense in many ways. I worked hard to increase my knowledge of Italian and experience the culture in diverse contexts. I recorded my experiences and reflections and developed various theories of bilingualism in my blog. By re-experiencing the challenges and rewards of speaking a second language and learning to navigate a foreign culture, I was able to gain a new appreciation for the immigrants/second language learners with whom I work in the U.S. 

Many times over the past few months I have thought to myself, and I say now, "Thank you, Fulbright!"

A view from the hills just outside Padova, Colli Eugagni

Lion of St. Mark, symbol of the Region of Veneto, in Padua's Piazza dei Signori 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bilingualism as unfinished architecture

With just a week left in Italy and in the midst of analyzing high school students' Italian/English bilingual writing for our research project, I continue to reflect on my own Italian language development. I have been here for almost four months, and have used Italian everyday in some capacity, from ordering food to sharing stories with friends to giving research talks. Yet still, it is not quite natural or easy for me to BE in the Italian language. I am still learning. As one of my most inspirational former students said, "Everyday is a new day and everyday I learn a new word".

As I think about the continuous, never-finished process of language acquisition, it reminds me of the many churches I have visited during this experience. These churches are ancient, but still standing, and in constant states of evolution. It has been interesting to realize that these historic landmarks often do not have exact dates of completion; instead, information provided usually lists a range of dates from when construction possibly started to when some historical document offered a clue to the beginning of its use. Of course, later dates are also relevant: When various interior frescoes were completed, stained glass added, statues or relics arrived, destruction due to WWII bombing or natural disaster, reconstruction, and restoration.  

Language is just like this. Although it may be in constant use and may even be on public display, it is never quite finished. There is always a new structure to (re)build, strengthen, fix, or embellish. Just like the apologetic signs I see in store windows in Padova (Questa vetrina è in uno stato di cambiamento), I sometimes feel that my Italian needs a warning: Italian language under construction! Sorry for any inconvenience.

Of course, just like these beautiful churches, language in a state of construction does not mean it cannot be used to its fullest potential and enjoyed. Would tourists stop visiting San Pietro (the Vatican) or San Marco (Venice) just because there might be some scaffolding in view? Of course not! Thus, developing bilinguals can and will continue to build and adjust, renew and restore, just like these spectacular, ever-unfinished works of architecture and art.

Here are some examples of churches representing "unfinished architecture" in Padova:

San Nicolò, Padova, whose earliest documents date 1088, although it is suspected it was begun prior to 1087.  First restorations took place in 1305, with further construction occurring in 1571, as well as between 1660-1680. Interior art dates late 1500's, with restorations throughout the 1960's-1980's.

Inside the famous Basilica di Sant'Antonio (Saint Anthony of Padua), constructed from 1238-1310, with interiors completed over a period of centuries, from 1300's-1600's. Additions and restorations continue today, evidenced by scaffolding inside (often seen in many churches here).

Santa Sofia, Padova. The exterior is said to have begun construction sometime between 1106-1110, damaged by an earthquake in 1117, and completed in 1127. Art inside dates from the early 1400's, with restorations taking place in during the decade of the 1950's.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

School daze: A glimpse at education in Italy

What I know about Italian school comes from spending days and days collecting data in two private high schools, one day at a public high school, 51 high school students' essays about how they would improve the school system, and talking to teachers, students, and parents about school experiences. The Ministry of Education website also helped me out!

Let's start with a general overview of the K-12 system. There is no kindergarten here, and preschool is optional. Kids can enter grade 1 at age 5 or 6. They then complete elementary school (la primaria, grades 1-5), middle school (secondaria di primo grado, grades 6-8), and high school (secondaria superiore/liceo, grades 9-13). You got it, there are five years of high school in Italy. Also, most schools run from 8:00-1:00, Monday-Saturday. Kids go home for lunch, but they go to school on SaturdaysNational testing occurs only at the completion of 8th grade and 13th grade.

Before entering high school, the students choose a track. There are true vocational/professional schools, but the "academic" high schools are also divided into a few different options (this is the same on a national level). In all tracks, students study the basics like Italian language/literature and mathematics; however, specialized courses and time spent in each subject differ based on the chosen track.

Tracks include: 1) Classical: considered the most "scholarly", for star students. Here students study philosophy, Latin, and ancient Greek. 2) Linguistic: where I spent all of my time; in these schools the emphasis is on languages. Students study Italian and English, plus two additional (generally European) languages like Spanish, French, German, or Russian. 3) Scientific: here the emphasis is on laboratory science. This is considered by some to be a more "technical" option, as students graduate prepared to work. 4) Artistic: with an emphasis on fine arts. It would have been a tough choice for me between linguistic and artistic when I started high school.

Students begin high school in a class of 30 or so students that all have the same schedule. They stay with the same class all day, all year, for 5 years. In fact, they even stay in the same room all year (e.g., Year 1-A, Year 3-B). The teachers move from room to room when the bell rings. In fact, I was surprised at that, at one of the schools I worked with, during bell time and breaks, teachers completely abandoned the classrooms, leaving students to their own devices until the next teacher showed up.

Another surprisingly tolerated student behavior was smoking. Kids smoke right outside the school door before class. They are not supposed to smoke inside the school, but many do, in the bathrooms. Several students complained in their essays that they would like to have smoke alarms installed in the bathrooms so they didn't have to smell smoke in there.

So how did the kids want to improve their schools? Remember, these were the private (linguistic) high school students. Many students wanted to start school later (typical teenagers want to sleep in!), e.g., 9:00 instead of 8:00. Of course, they also requested longer breaks (they have a 15-minute break where they wander around, eat a snack brought from home, go outside, and/or buy an espresso from a machine). Many students complained that they weren't allowed to use their cell phones at school (imagine that!), and some wanted more technology at school. In their defense, I have to agree, technology in the Italian classrooms that I observed was rather sparse.

Picture from:
This still looks like what I found to be a "typical" Italian classroom in 2014. 

One of the schools I worked with did have a cafeteria, and almost all the students complained about the food: too much pasta, not enough variety, bad taste. The funny thing is, to me, coming from the U.S., that school cafeteria seemed like a five-star restaurant. Kids ate real, fresh-cooked food on real plates with real flatware, drinking water out of real cups (no disposable anything!). This real food consisted of a primo piatto (always some kind of pasta, but that is the Italian way!), a secondo: meat or fish, along with a side of cooked veggies, salad, and a piece of fresh fruit (apple or pear). That's it. No processed/packaged junk food, no french fries, pizza, or burgers… no drink options (just water). I can see how the kids may have felt limited, but at least they had an actual meal made with decent ingredients. I wish we could move in this simpler, but healthier, direction in the U.S.

Another major difference between Italian and U.S. high schools that the students here are aware of is the emphasis on sports in U.S. school culture. Here, it's just academics, no sports (the same is true at the university level). If they wish, kids can participate in sports outside of school via community centers, clubs, etc. Makes me wonder how sports got to be so important in U.S. schools and universities.

There are so many facets to education that I know I have just scratched the surface. Basically, with only four months in two, northern Italian (private) high schools, my vision has been limited. However, overall, it was a great experience working with the students, and they taught me a lot in a short time. Maybe through more comparative research on students' perspectives of schooling around the world, we can all find ways to improve our respective systems.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Italian language immersion weekend… in London!

Ironically, it took going to London to experience a full weekend of Italian-language immersion. How did I manage that? By traveling with two friends from Italy, of course!

Both countries are getting psyched up for the World Cup!

Like any major city, London is incredibly diverse, multicultural and multilingual. We enjoyed soba noodles for lunch, bought green tea at a huge Japanese food emporium, had a delicious Afghani-Persian dinner, and ate at a Thai restaurant located inside a pub - the whole time, speaking Italian amongst ourselves.  

Yummy boba: lychee, passion fruit, and my matcha green tea. :)

Even in our attempts to focus on "exotic" (i.e., non-Italian) cuisines, we were unable to escape Italian language and culture. For example, in the Chinatown area, I insisted we have some boba (bubble) tea, one of my favorite treats and something I have never had in Italy. After interpreting the menu and helping my friends make decisions on their first-ever boba, I ordered for everyone (in English). After the drinks came out, we realized the employee was Italian! The same evening, we came across a gelateria I couldn't resist. I walked in, and everyone was speaking Italian, so I ordered my gelato in its native language.

No thanks, I'll have some English breakfast tea, please! 

It wasn't nearly as odd as I thought it would be to speak mostly Italian in England. I mostly felt like we were still in Europe and, therefore, everyone should naturally be speaking multiple languages (which was the case). The hardest part was trying to translate from written English to Italian for my friends, for example, in museums. I just don't have the specialized language. It wound up being much more effective for an Italian friend to translate, with me filling in missing details and/or explaining unknown terms (usually I didn't know the Italian word anyway, so I had to circumlocute).

My favorite London experience was the Matisse Cut Outs exhibit at the Tate Modern. The exhibit was so complete and really spectacular. For example, there was an entire room filled with pages from the book, Jazz, which contains pages and pages of Matisse's hand-written notes, in French. We didn't attempt to read everything, but when we did, it was quite chaotic. My Italian friend translated some text aloud into Italian, which was helpful for our other friend but not for me. In my case, it was better to ignore the Italian voice and instead try to understand the French directly from the text. At any rate, the combination of written English (the exhibit guide), written French (by Matisse), and spoken Italian was a totally new and challenging language context for me.

Overall, this rather spontaneous weekend trip to London, in Italian, was great fun and exceptionally multicultural-multilingual. Next time I will try to pick up some English-English!

London, London, London… not so far from Italy (see the Vespa wallet?)