Just a few days ago I was touching down at Heathrow airport to go home for Christmas, having spent the past three months in Italy. It doesn’t sound like a long time, and indeed there are still another 7 months ago, but you can see and do a lot in just 90 days.
This month, I’ve seen the first snow of the year arrive in Padova, how Christmas in Italy differs from in the UK, went to a communist drum and bass rave, got a job teaching English at a local school, ate Christmas dinner in a gym, and passed an Italian exam. All this and more below.
Christmas in Padova, first snow
The topic that punctuates conversation with a Brit will be the weather, so here’s a good place to start. This month seemed particularly cold in Padova, which is not surprising since we’re in the north of Italy and no more than 50km from the mountains. Nevertheless, I was under the impression that Italy would be warmer than the UK all year round, since it’s closer to the equator and every time I’ve been in the past it’s been 30+ degrees and brilliant blue skies. Why pack differently? I’m not sure why I thought this would also be true from November through February, but I was really wrong. It’s been consistently around or below zero when I wake up in the morning, and never seems to get far above five during the day. I didn’t pack any real winter clothes, so I’ve been cold a lot of the time for the past month.
The university residence I chose, called Nievo, is an old building and as you would expect is showing some signs of its age. The central heating doesn’t really do any heating, there’s bare brickwork everywhere, and the water coming out the showers is about as powerful as a baby’s dribble. There is one kitchen shared by 72 people, so food and cutlery regularly go missing, and sometimes it’s a race to eat your own food before it’s eaten by thieves. The other great game I have every morning is closing the windows after the cleaning ladies open them all. Whether it’s -3 degrees or below, for them every day is another summer day and just the right temperature to let in some fresh, winter air. It’s not the easiest place to live, but the friends I’ve made whilst living there make up for nearly getting hypothermia every day, and at €205/mo it was never going to be the Ritz. My dad would describe it as a ‘character building’ experience.
The nice thing about winter in Padova is that the atmosphere of the whole town has changed. People aren’t in such a rush, and the panic to get around seems reduced. There’s some really nice Christmas markets currently in the main squares in town, and there’s Christmas lights everywhere (I’ve been a bit lazy snapping photos this month so no pictures unfortunately). The decorations are all very similar to those in the UK, but the Christmas markets in Padova definitely beat those at home. Shop owners seem more willing to stop and chat about their wares than in the UK, where it sometimes feels like you’re on a conveyor belt and once you’ve paid you’re expected to be out the door, finding your next Christmas gift.
The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed, and there seems to be less focus on the buying of expensive presents and worrying about if you’ll have bought everything in time, and more on the religious significance the period. This makes sense as Italy is still very much a Catholic country, and though I don’t go to church, it’s nice to see the tradition is still important to a lot of people. For me, the religious part of Christmas was gone after my last nativity play in primary school, so it’s nice to be in that sort of environment where the holiday is the focus and not the commercial side.
I was a little apprehensive about joining the fencing club for dinner, as I had only been a member of the club for about three months, and I was conscious that my Italian had a long way to improve before I’d be able to make small-talk with strangers. That said, a few friends from the club asked if I was coming and I decided that I’d give it a try. I didn’t have to stay for the whole event, and it would be a good to have a proper Christmas meal before I headed back to the UK.
The event was to be hosted in the fencing gym itself, which surprised me as from what I can gather, in previous years it’s been a meal out at a restaurant. I arrived dead on time as the event was set to start, which in hindsight was far too early. There’s a stereotype that Italians are always late, and whilst it’s not true of all of them, it seemed to be of everyone that I knew from the club, so I had an awkward 30 minutes whilst I waited for some friendly faces to arrive.
The whole fencing gym had now been converted into a massive dining hall. Where there were fencing pistes before, the entire floor had been covered in blue carpet, with most of the space occupied by so many tables and chairs. I got the impression before coming that the event was going to be a lot smaller – just the regulars who I was fairly familiar with. I asked how many people were expected altogether, and I think the number was around 180, the biggest Christmas meal the club has ever hosted. For all those people though, I knew only a handful of them and not very well at that.
For the meal I managed to find a space at a table of familiar faces, and things were a little easier after that. Once food arrived there was something to keep me busy, but there was still something very important missing from the table: wine. Fortunately, my prayers were answered and someone brought over a bottle of prosecco and a bottle of red, and things became so much easier after a few glasses. I find drinking makes speaking the language so much easier, so I was quick to knock back a few glasses.
Conversation was easier, and whilst I still didn’t manage a lot, I found it a lot easier to speak once I got going. After the Panettone and Pandoro (similar to Panettone but without the fruit) was served for dessert, some speeches were given about how much the club had grown in the past year, and some of the successes that athletes from the gym had had. Photos were taken of all fencers from all age groups (see below), I got a lift home with a couple of the guys from the gym who think I’m the spitting image of one of their Italian friends studying in Edinburgh.
I’m glad I went even though I felt a little awkward at the start. It’s easy for me to forget that I haven’t spoken Italian for so long, so to go to a Christmas dinner full strangers speaking a foreign language wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. It probably wouldn’t have been even if they spoke English. Whilst I had some uncomfortable moments at the time, it was a valuable experience and I can see the funny side of it. It was a great measuring stick to see how far I’d come since the beginning of the year in terms of the language and how far I still have to go. I’m happy I was able to celebrate not only Christmas, but the success of the club with people who share a passion for fencing.
The communist digeridoo drum and bass experience
A couple of weeks before the Christmas dinner, I was told about a drum and bass party taking place at an old university cafeteria which had been abandoned some time ago. I hadn’t had a good night out by British standards since before I came to Padova, so I was hoping this would hit the spot and make up for what I felt like I’d been missing.
In Padova there’s two main clubs, called Factory and Fish Market. Both of them seem to play exclusively reggaeton, and no matter how much I drink I can never enjoy it. Drinks are expensive, there’s often a queue to get in, and there’s either needlessly aggressive bouncers or someone who’s drunk far too much and feels like they have a point to prove. The place we were going was a university cafeteria abandoned in 2009, but occupied by students who wanted to repurpose the space since 2014. I don’t know what happened between 2014 and 2017, but from the outside the building looked really rough: graffiti everywhere, broken bottles on the stairs up to the entrance, broken windows, boarded up windows. It was everything you would expect when you imagine an abandoned building, but ideal for a night of grotty drum and bass.
Entry was €2, and drinks at the bar were only €1 each, drinks included cold wine, warm spiced wine, or beer. I chose the spiced wine, which turned out to be the Italian equivalent of mulled wine. Once you stepped away from the bar and had a look around, you couldn’t help but notice all kinds of anti-fascist, anti-capitalist symbolism –short Italian graffiti phrases advocating revolution, uprising, or violence against the upper class, flags which have historically represented socialist movements or resistance against right-wing governments, the anarchist symbol, the hammer and sickle – you name it, it was probably spray painted on a wall somewhere. Pretty much everything was dirty, but it all added to the underground vibe. It’s a space where students can drink all night for next to nothing, smoke indoors, and put on their dancing shoes. It was a surreal experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where such political views are expressed so strongly and openly, nor somewhere that looks so run down but still with such a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
The didgeridoo drum and bass band that played that night are called Waterproof, described as an ‘electroacoustic quartet from Venice’. I was sceptical about how good the main event would be at the start of the night, but the combination of the live band, the amount of people in the room, and the atmosphere of the event (everyone was happy – no needless aggression like in some UK clubs), came together perfectly and you couldn’t help be have a smile on your face. I never thought I would hear a didgeridoo played in combination with drum and bass, but somehow the combination worked. I’m by no means suddenly a massive fan, but in the right circumstances the music really works.
The night ended about 5am, when the two of us who made it to the end decided it was time to cycle home. It was my first experience cycling in Padova that night, and I’ve been reluctant to buy one since bike theft seems so common here, but what could have been a half hour walk in the cold was just a breezy 10 minute cycle. When the two of us that lasted till the very end arrived back at the residence, ‘we’ cooked (I was cooked for), ate, and talked until 7am, when the tiredness finally hit and we called it a night.
I don’t think you’d find a place like this that hosts these kind of events in the UK, or at least not without knowing the right people. Despite its run-down appearance the building has a lot of character. I can’t say I agree with the political views expressed by the occupying students, but you can’t walk far in Padova without finding a spray-painted hammer and sickle, so I think such views are fairly common. The event was really well put together, and you can’t complain about a cheap bar. It’s a unique experience, something I’d recommend doing at least once to any prospective Erasmus student going to Padova. Going there is a refreshing break from a typical night out in the rest of town, and the venue really is a something special (in a manner of speaking).
Before I arrived in Padova, I had studied Italian for five years at secondary school and for a subsequent year at university just last year. I lost a lot of what I learned in the 5 year break between the end of school and starting again at university, but I was able to recover some of what I learned at secondary school during the evening classes I was taking outside of my main degree last year.
As part of the pre-departure requirements of my university, anyone aiming to study in a foreign language was recommended to take an online language assessment before beginning their year abroad. The test was conducted and results given with reference to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR for short). There are 6 levels of competency within the framework, letters A to C with two levels for each letter. A1 represents competency at the beginning phase of learning a language, right the way up to C2 which represents the level of a native speaker. I managed to score a B2 or upper intermediate according to the assessment we were given. Admittedly, I did cheat as I had WordReference and Google translate open during the test, which made it difficult for me to get a real sense of how competent I was, and thus defeating the purpose of the test altogether. I estimated I would be at about level B1, lower intermediate, so when I arrived in Italy this was the Italian course level I enrolled on.
After we introduced ourselves to the rest of the class in the first B1 lesson, we moved onto some grammar which I had covered during my evening classes not too long ago. I asked the professor teaching the class about the next level up and she said she thought I would be good enough for upper intermediate, B2, and that I should go and sit in on the class to see what I thought and decide after that. This whole conversation was in Italian so that I was able to follow what she was saying gave me more confidence to try the next level up.
I went to the B2 class and I can’t remember what we were studying, but I remember feeling out of my depth. Even more so after listening to how fluently most of the rest of the class were able to speak in Italian. I don’t think there’s so much focus on spoken Italian in the UK as there is in some other countries, so I could manage the reading and listening tasks but speaking was difficult, more so in front of people who I felt knew the language so much better. I was afraid of making mistakes so didn’t speak more than I had to, but things went reasonably well so I decided after a few weeks to see the course through to the end.
Fast forward about 8 weeks to the middle of December, the week of the final exam. A lot of the reading, listening, and writing exercises we were given in class seemed a lot harder than those in the exam. By no means was the exam easy, but it was definitely a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. I think everyone was pleasantly surprised and most people seemed positive about their results when we congregated outside the room to compare answers we remembered. On Christmas eve, I got an email from our teacher to say I’d passed the exam, so despite my initial doubts at the start of the term I managed to pull it off. I’m pleased I’ve passed, as I know I’m fairly good at the reading, writing, and listening parts, what I need to work on next is the speaking. My ultimate goal this year is to take and pass an internationally accredited exam which covers all four parts of the language at B2 level, so if I keep working on the language during next semester I should be well on my way.
Near the start of the year abroad there was an email sent around the Erasmus students calling for 15 language assistants, to help teach English at local schools as part of a project called ‘Let’s Speak English!’. Interviews took place in the middle of October and I found out a few days after the interview that I was amongst the successful applicants. After that, not myself nor anyone else heard anything regarding when we would start, where would teach and so on. Communications had gone silent.
I sent an email to the interviewer asking whether the project was going ahead, and I was told there was a problem with the funding of the project we were to be a part of and that it would be resolved in due course. Near the beginning of December, almost two months after the start of the process, things got moving again and I was called to have a brief talk with our interviewer, where she would suggest the school she thought we would be best placed at, and we could then agree with her suggestion or not.
Fortunately for me, I have been placed at what she told me was the only school within the city of Padova itself. Some of the other schools taking part in this project are well outside the city. Some people will have to travel an hour or more on public transport, so I’m fortunate to have my school just 15 minutes by foot from where I’m living.
I start on the 16th of January, so I hope to be able to comment on the first one or two lessons in my next blog post. One of my friends has already started teaching, and from what he’s described the workload doesn’t sound too heavy. It’s two hours a week of teaching, and depending on your arrangements with the school there’s either no or very little preparatory work you need to do before class.
I’ve had jobs working with kids in the past (volunteering in the UK, Camp America in the USA), though I’ve never been with them in a classroom environment before. Both my mum and my brother have been in the past or currently are teaching English, and from what I’ve seen it’s not always easy but it is very rewarding. I’m really looking forward to starting, I think it’s going to be a great new experience.
This blog is a week late but it’s always harder to find time over the Christmas period. I think this was a good month for me as I’ve achieved one goal (passing the exam) I set for myself, and am making steady progress in other areas I want to improve as well.
I’ve not made life easy for myself so far, as I’ve come to Italy not only with the to have fun, do some exploring, and make new friends; but also to become relatively fluent in the language, and to practice my sport in a high performance environment with a lot of really talented people.
It’s not always been an easy ride as far as speaking Italian and fencing are concerned. Some days it’s easy to find the words I need, whereas other days I have a mental block and conversation can be really hard work for both sides. It’s also hard to measure my progress with fencing, as how well I do against my opponents depends not only on how I’m feeling on any given day, but also how they’re feeling. My results are up and down, but from the ones I’ve recorded I think there is a steady upward trend starting to emerge. In these two areas I think consistent practice is the only way to get better, and to keep reminding myself of the bigger picture.
Topics I want to cover in the next few posts will include the teaching English job I mentioned and how that’s going, the X-SYSTRA fencing competition I’ve entered in Paris which takes place in early February, revision for semester one exams and how they’ve gone, skiing (I hope), and maybe some other politically motivated party if I can find one. I’ll be back on my regular posting schedule for January, which means my next post should be up around the 20th of the month; so keep your eyes peeled.