Thursday, 31 July 2014

Home Again...

Two years ago, having worked a season at a holiday resort in France the previous summer, I decided to do what everyone tells you not to do. I decided to return. I announced that I would be going back to the same place, with the same company, to do exactly the same job.

"It won't be the same."

"You'll ruin the memories you had of the year before."

"It will never live up to your expectations based on last year."

Almost everybody thought it was a mistake.

My thinking, however, was different.

My thinking was that I was unequivocally, unbelievably happy when I had done that job before. My boyfriend at the time told me that he literally saw the pain in my eyes when I discussed how much I missed it. He had never seen me like that about anything before. If I had the opportunity to go back- why on earth wouldn't I?

My other main argument in the should-I-shouldn't-I-debate was that I knew it would be different. Of course it would. But everything changes all the time. Imagine if you only ever did everything you enjoyed once just in case it wasn't exactly the same next time.

Imagine if you only ever did everything you hated once just in case it was exactly the same next time.

We'd never learn. We'd never improve. And we'd be missing out on so much!

(I didn't like coffee until I was 24, for example. Starbucks and I would both be missing out on the best part of my day if I hadn't randomly kept trying it until my taste buds changed their minds.)

I returned to France and, as I had expected, some things were exactly the same, and some things were totally different. Partly because it was a new year, with new people, new management and new ideas. Partly because I was different. I returned that year with detailed knowledge regarding what the job would involve. I knew a lot more about what worked and what didn't, I knew what my weaknesses were and I went in with a plan to strengthen them. I had spent the six months of winter as a Nanny, and six weeks after that working for a con company in Greece. I had learnt more about working with children, that my strengths lie with younger people, and that the company that I was working for in France were probably the best company I would ever work for. I also knew that when the summer finished I would be going to do my dream job in Walt Disney World.

This new knowledge and my new experiences made me a better instructor, a stronger member of the team and a more confident person as I made decisions about how to handle certain aspects of holiday resort life.

In those six months of winter my family also changed in a way I never could have predicted and my boyfriend let me down in a way that I had never truly believed he would.

I was more cynical and more vulnerable than I had been last time which made me a totally new person in a different way.

The memories from that summer will stay with me forever. And guess what? So will the memories from the summer before.

For years I have been trying to find the words to explain why I don't believe anybody should ever avoid returning to something that made them happy "in case it's not the same", because we, and the world, and everything around us, change so much that returning to something can only lead to improvement and knowledge and moving forward.

Finally, a few weeks ago, in my new favourite book of all time, I found the words I have been looking for.

"The voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again."  

Thank you, John Green.

Three days after I read this perfect sentence, my favourite sentence in any book, ever- including everything by Cecelia Ahern and Dr Seuss- I received an email from a company that I worked for in 2009.

They wanted me to start in a fortnight and work for three weeks teaching English to children. In Italy.

I could have turned them down. I could have been concerned that to return to something I had loved so much five years before would be foolish- I would tarnish the memories, have expectations that were far too high, be disappointed.

Obviously I didn't.

Thanks to the amazing support of the management team that I work for in London; joint with the wonderful help from the Italian company, both of my parents and Pumbaa, I somehow managed to pull it together.

Two weeks later I was on a plane from London Gatwick to Milan Malpensa where my latest Italian adventure would begin.

And this time I was five years older. Five years wiser. I would sail through the potentially awkward moments and disasters that I encountered on my last trip to Italy, wouldn't I?

I would love to describe to you every single second of every single day that I was there- because every one of them felt like an adventure to me. But I'm not sure that you'll ever read my blog again if I do that. So I'll just tell you the most important parts.

Here are my favourite things about my time in Italy....

1. Italian People.

Italian people are the best people in the entire world.

They are passionate, hospitable, warm, friendly, funny, loud and full on. In my experience they cannot do enough for you and rival even the Irish in the charm stakes.

Every stereotype you have ever heard about Italians is true.

Coffee and good food are at the centre of their lives, they're super family orientated and they're passionate about everything. As far as I can see these traits start in Italians at around the age of two. One of my favourite things to do is just watch Italian children talk to each other. When it comes to talking, Italian children could just be tiny adults. They skip any childish habits and go straight to talking like their parents. It's brilliant. I once watched what looked like a full blown, adult argument between two six year olds. Arms were flying, voices were raised, facial expressions were changing at a comical rate. They were discussing the fact that one of their classmates didn't like Nutella.

One of my new favourite things about Italians is something that I didn't know about them until this trip. I don't know how I managed to let this one pass me by for so long but it has explained plenty about the Italians I met on my last trip and about the beautiful Italian I was lucky enough to live with for six months once.

Italians live by rules that somehow the rest of the world manage without but that they are adamant are vital....

1) You must always dry your hair. Thoroughly. It is very dangerous to wander around with wet hair.

2) You must shower in the evening because it takes 8 hours for your body to dry. It is very dangerous to wander around with damp skin.

3) You should never mix coffee and milk after 9am. It's bad for your digestive system and you won't sleep.

4) You should never eat pizza or polenta close to bed time. Similarly to the combination of coffee and milk, heavy food and bedtime will cause indigestion and lack of sleep.

5) Plain pasta cures any number of illnesses.

6) You must never have bare feet. Ever. Unless in bed or in the swimming pool.

They do actually make a lot of sense (well, some more than others) but a lot of the people I met in Italy were so passionate about these rules that I had never heard of before that it made me laugh.

I was lucky during my time in Italy in that I was so totally immersed in Italian family life that I saw it as it happens every day and some days felt as though I were sitting inside a film, able to watch it from the inside. I witnessed a baptism, dinners out, dinners in, special occasions, normal moments, arguments and love.

At the baptism I watched as the entire family reminisced about years gone by and discussed what was to come. They laughed, smiled, disagreed and fussed over the baby. One of the kids broke a glass playing aeroplanes with it. One of the aunties helped herself to my cheese and got told off by her sisters. Another auntie spilt wine on her white top and asked her mum to get the stain out for her. One of the uncles chased the kids around the restaurant gardens when they were bored of sitting nicely at the table. The Grandad fussed over his eldest grandaughter as though she were a Princess. Her parents told me her grandparents spoiled her because she was the first grandchild.

One night I cycled home in the pouring rain, got in, had a bath, warmed up, and was about to have dinner when we realised the dog had escaped and had to chase him three streets down.

One morning at breakfast I was eating (my chocolate cake and coffee- another of my favourite things about Italy. More on that later.), and the mum was bent down with her head in a cupboard. Without saying a word the eight year old padded down in his pyjamas, put his arms around his mum's neck and kissed her gently on the cheek.

One evening we all fell asleep in front of Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone and had to drag ourselves up to bed in the middle of the night.

In some ways, Italians are no different at all from my own family. Noticing these similarities reassured me in a way that I don't think I can explain here, but I'm hoping you can understand.

2) Italian food.

The rumours are true. The food in Italy is the best in the entire world. I've never totally understood why France have that title and now, having spent a substantial amount of time in both countries, can confirm that it's totally unwarranted. The food in Italy is unrivaled.

Granted, they massively struggle with the concept of vegetarianism, which lead to some brilliant moments including being offered bacon, ham and sausages, and- on one occasion- a platter of cold cuts, but somehow I managed and still experienced absolute culinary delight.

As I mentioned above, breakfast is...different in Italy, in that it doesn't massively exist. If they do eat it, they tend to have something sweet (like a croissant, biscuits and, to my absolute joy, chocolate cake) and coffee.

Now this is where John Green's advice really comes into play. Last time I was in Italy I didn't drink coffee or wine. Thankfully, over the past five years my tastebuds have developed (or disappeared- I read once that you like different things when you're older because your tastebuds die- I'm not sure if that's 100% accurate though?) and I now delight in both. Which means I really should live in Italy full time now.

They don't drink coffee the way that we do. They will only drink a cappuccino first thing in the morning (otherwise they'll never sleep- all that coffee and milk mixed together!) and they tend to sip shots of espresso, finish the cup, and that's it.

I spoke to an eighteen year old who had once visited Dublin with an Irish tour guide and had found it so weird that she bought a huge coffee from Starbucks and carried it around in a takeaway cup for the entirety of the tour.

They don't really do that.

They also don't share Brits' love for what my host father called "interesting combinations" for breakfast.

He told me an absolutely brilliant story that went as follows:

Years ago, when he had been visiting England, he had missed what he was being offered for breakfast. He decided to go ahead and accept it anyway and waited for it to come out.

When it came out he could not believe it. 

"Beans on toast. Beans. On toast. I mean I like beans and I like toast but they doesn't mean they should ever be put together! It's like putting marmalade on pizza."

He was so passionately disgusted I actually cried with laughter as he was telling me.

They also tend not to snack really. Obviously I was only there for three weeks so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong- but in my experience they seem to really only eat two meals a day- lunch and dinner- and not eat a huge amount in between.

But when they eat- during lunch and dinner- they eat a lot. 

My poor little tummy just couldn't manage that much food in one go. The courses seemed to go on forever. Every single bite was delicious and it seemed such a waste to leave it, but every single day there would come a point when I would have to give up, declare basta (enough in Italian- remember it, trust me if you ever go you will need it) and stop eating.

Every time I did this the same two things would happen.

1) I would be told- despite the fact that I had just eaten what I would eat in a day at home- that I eat nothing. Sometimes I would have eaten a bowl of pasta in a tomato sauce, then a huge plate of stuffed vegetables, then another, equally huge, portion of cheese, crackers and bread, then fruit, then they'd tell me I eat nothing.

Then I would explain that it was delicious but I just couldn't eat anymore, then they would concede that they understood, my body wasn't used to it, then-

2) they would ask me whether I wanted alcohol in the coffee they were about to serve with my tiramisu for dessert.

I did once consider explaining that in the UK I would have had that initial bowl of pasta for dinner and basta- nothing else, but I didn't think that they would ever, ever understand.

On one occasion having eaten enough and explained that I just couldn't cope with anymore they told me that they were concerned that I was going to come back to London to my boyfriend and tell him they didn't feed me.

That was never going to happen. 

I mentioned above that I now like wine.

On my first night with my first family we were sitting down to dinner when my host father told me that the region I was in was famous for producing a certain type of wine. He told me that all of it, in the entire world, was produced in the small town that I was currently staying in, so here it was particularly good because it was more attainable and definitely the real thing. 

He told me he thought I might have heard of it.

It was called prosecco. 

Why did I ever leave? 

That area was also renowned for having invented tiramisu- up there with prosecco as one of my favourite inventions ever. 

The tiramisu I had there was delicious. However. During my third week, when I was with my second family, I mentioned that I like tiramisu and in the time it took me to watch one episode of Buona Fortuna Charlie- the host mum had whipped up four individual coffee desserts without even breaking a sweat.

It was the single best thing I have ever eaten in my entire life. I managed to control myself but if I'd been alone I might have cried.

If for no other reason- go to Italy for the food.

3. The other tutors.

The job that I did involved teaching my own class of children at the appropriate level in the morning, then in the afternoon joining up with the other classes to do larger activities that involved practicing English in a real life setting.

Tutors are made up of all native English speaking nationalities, and I was lucky enough to work with people from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and America.

I don't think I ever could have explained to the other tutors just how wonderful they were without gushing. But seriously. In my first two weeks in Italy there were thirteen tutors. That could have ended in disaster. I was actually really nervous about that before I went- that's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. And the kind of people who leave their home country to go and teach English through ridiculous songs and games tend to have big personalities that could potentially clash.

Not us.

Every single person was an inspiration in their own way and I learnt something from all of them.

I have never laughed so much at work before. I've never been around so many interesting, funny and talented people in one go. I was meant to be in Italy for those two weeks- if for no other reason than to meet them.

Have I gushed enough yet?

4. The Job.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language has been one of the most fun, entertaining and surreal jobs I've ever done. It's also been one of the most challenging.

A few days ago Dale was telling me that he finds being around his niece and nephew exhausting. Imagine the children you know. Imagine how exhausting it is being with them.

Imagine that they're six years old, that there are twelve of them, and that they cannot understand anything you say.

Imagine that they range between the ages of six and fourteen, that there are one hundred and thirty seven of them, and that between them they can only understand a few words you say.

Sometimes, it's really, really hard. It's frustrating and maddening and tiring.

And sometimes, it's really, really, really funny.

If the children are the right children, and the other tutors are the right ones for your personality, it can be like real magic.

Luckily for me, that's exactly what it was.

And when it's like that- and in fact, even when it's not- it's a welcome break from reality.

There were moments when I was doing ridiculous things- jumping around in the middle of a circle of 60 children singing "you can't ride in my hot ferrari 'cause I'm too cool and I'm down to party" in my middle class accent, for example, when I would picture my home life. I would picture Dale's face if he knew this is what I was doing. I would picture the team at The Lion King, counting t-shirts and promoting Simba plush, and think- how on earth did I end up here, in this circle, doing this? What is life? 

I would also look at the other tutors. One of my favourite people to watch has a Law degree. I used to watch her bouncing round the circle impersonating a pensioner and try to imagine her as a solicitor.

I was hoping that this job would chill me out a bit- I am a notorious worrier and have been told that I need to stop worrying so much, and I thought maybe a break from reality would remind me that nothing actually matters. I really thought it was working, and even discussed the fact that things from home don't seem to matter anymore- when on my last day one of my colleagues told me she'd never met anyone who worries as much as I do. Oh.

Apparently Italy can't cure everything.

I cannot recommend this job enough though, and if- after reading this- you're interested, please get in contact with me.

5. Just Italy.

For my first two weeks I was near Venice. I went to the beach, I went to the gorgeous city of Treviso, I learnt some Italian, I appreciated everything. The buildings, the smells, the roads, the fact that everyone cycles everywhere...I just love Italy and being there- even to work- is just magical.

For my final week I was in a mountain.

Every single time I stepped outside my breath would be taken away. The children who lived there didn't understand my sighing at all- you're from London, an amazing place, why would you be excited about a mountain?!

One day they'll understand.

And now I'm back.

And despite the fact that this was my second Italian adventure- I loved every single second.

And despite the fact that you're not supposed to ever return to something you loved- I am back at The Lion King.

I haven't chilled out, in the slightest. I haven't stopped annoying everyone with my worry, and I haven't developed any big new personality traits to add to the team.

But I have changed, because adventure changes you.

So I'm back at The Lion King, and I'm different. And it's different.

Dale's back in the UK. And he's different.

But we're not never going to see each other again because it was so amazing in America and we don't want to ruin it. I'm not going to leave The Lion King because I loved it before Italy and I should quit while I'm ahead.

Why is this the advice people insist on giving out?

Not me.

I'm going to keep doing the things I love- better and again. 

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