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Looking back...

August 31, 2016

A couple of years ago I started to consider the possibility of jotting my Italian life experiences down on paper... Now I'm no writer, and so much has happened in the last twenty years that I've never really known where to start, but I've noted bits and pieces down along the way and it turns out that this occasional reminiscing now amounts to more than 20,000 words. So rather than keep what is, to all intents and purposes, a personal diary of my journey thus far, I'd thought I'd put a few excerpts up on my blog so you can take a look too, see what you think. 


Let's start by jumping back to 1996, to when I first landed on Italian soil...


I left school at 18 with the inexplicable urge to spend time in Italy. I’d never been before, couldn’t speak a word of the language but for some reason I was really keen to study the subject at university. I’d taken French and German at A-level so it would have made a lot more sense to spend a gap year in one of those countries but instead I made what was perhaps, in hindsight, a rather hasty decision and popped over to the Bel Paese with the intention to spend a few months of my ‘year-out’ working as a live-in babysitter for a rich Bolognese family in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region. I applied for a position via a UK-based agency and was put in touch with the family ahead of my placement. I even had the chance to meet the lady of the house and her 6-year old son, albeit very briefly, for a sort of ‘interview’ while they were holidaying in Oxford. Having not got any particularly bad vibes from them (but then how much could I possibly deduce in the space of 10 minutes in a busy train station?!), I took a leap of faith, accepted the position and booked my flights.


I touched down in Bologna in September. The plan was to stay for nine months – ‘it’ll fly by!’ I imagined. I was hooked on Italy almost as soon as I landed in Bologna but although I immediately fell in love with the unique city, I think we can safely say that the job was not for me. This probably had something to do with the fact that it bore no resemblance to the job description the au-pair agency had given me. Having been told I’d be expected to take care of the child for 5 hours a day, I’d only really agreed to it as a way to spend some time in the country and begin to learn the language. The reality was rather different. Having to play ‘mum’ to a 6-year old boy 24/7 pretty much put paid to my chances of experiencing any of the dolce vita and although I was given a day off, the fact that this had to be a Monday left me with few options, as anyone I got to know would inevitably be working on that day. I was not a happy girl and called home regularly to update my folks about the increasingly frustrating situation. It didn’t help of course that the mother of the household seemed to be suffering from a fairly extreme case of bipolar disorder while the boy was, quite literally, the scariest 6-year old I have ever met. I later came to learn (probably for the best that I didn’t know this at the time) that he hospitalized the au-pair that came before me and the one that arrived after, injuring one with a knife and attempting to blind another with soap powder. His fiery red hair and missing teeth did nothing to endear him to me. He was an extremely difficult child but I put this down to having never spent quality time with his parents and having had to endure an endless stream of au-pair girls that his mother told him he should treat like sisters – perhaps that’s why he felt the urge to physically hurt some of them! The father seemed like an OK guy to be fair, but he was never home - I think I got where he was coming from…


The lady of the house also had three adult children from a previous marriage. All three were friendly to me and I socialized with the eldest on occasion but it became clear that the 6-year old would quickly become a mirror image of these grown-up kids. They all enjoyed a privileged upbringing but a dysfunctional family life had left its mark on each of them, with one suffering from a serious eating disorder and the other two heavily into drugs. One of the three, a girl who couldn’t have been much older than me, had a young baby and I learned that she had met the father of said child while in rehab for heroin abuse. Long after my placement was finished, I heard that she had died – I don’t know if her death was drug-related but it made me wonder how the little boy I had once babysat had turned out…


The work wasn’t all bad, 10% was probably just about tolerable. On the plus side, if you can call it that, I did get to join the family on a (working) holiday to their summer home in Grosseto - just a ‘little’ 10-bed villa don’t you know. If I recall they also a mountain retreat in fashionable Cortina but I didn’t stay long enough to ‘enjoy’ that vacation.


My work meant that I came into contact with other babysitters while making the school run. As most of them were, like me, young foreign students with an interest in Italy and all aspects of its culture, suffice to say that we quickly became friends and would meet up any chance we got to enjoy a gossip about our various ‘families’ over a bowl of pasta and a bottle of red. It quickly became clear that all of our host families were as dreadful as each other and so no real surprise that most of these same families were also friendly with each other, or at least masquerading as friends while really just trying to one-up each other, vying to prove themselves as the wealthiest, the most educated, the best dressed... It was fun to laugh and joke with my new found friends but only made me realize how much I disliked the job and how I would really rather be studying at the university. I went and sat in on a few lectures and this made me look forward to my upcoming uni studies all the more.


Although I had agreed to stay with the family for almost a year, I am sorry to say that I only lasted three months. It just wasn’t working out and I wasn’t even learning much of the language as I was meant to be helping the family practice their already perfect English. In the end I talked it over with my parents and decided I’d fly back to the UK, raise some funds working in my local pub, and then come back to Italy for a spell of study and travel during the final months of the gap year. After spending the winter back in the UK, I did indeed make my way back to Bologna and met up with one of the girls I had met while babysitting. She was also studying part-time and through her network of friends she quickly found me accommodation in the city centre, in a big, airy apartment together with four other girls, two of whom were Italians, one German and one Brit. And this time around I feel like I really got a taste of Italy – I had time to travel, to study, to meet the locals, to eat in the restaurants, the four months flew by and I knew exactly where I wanted this to go. Next stop university in the UK and then, hopefully, fingers crossed, I’d find a way back to Bologna…



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