James Clark is a travel writer who in a previous life was an English teacher. He worked at various locations in Italy before later returning to the United Kingdom to continue his studies. We join him in a hypnotic regression session.
How was your introduction into the world of TEFL teaching?
While reading a copy of the Big Issue I came across an advert offering a 48 hour intensive TEFL course at a hotel not far from where I was living for a couple of hundred pounds. It had been something that I had been thinking about doing for years, but never quite got a round to. After a telephone conversation with someone from the course provider I was happy to whip out my credit card and pay for the course.
The course took place a month later and taught us different survival techniques for the classroom, covering teaching methods and ideas and we were all given plenty of time to prepare short lessons and micro teach. It was nice at the end of it to walk away and not feel like I had been ripped off.
As soon as I got home I sat in front of the PC for five days applying for every TEFL job I could find in Italy. I had been to Rome and travelled Sicily extensively and was keen to spend some time learning the language and living in the country. I have always been one for wanting to get under the skin of something, I have a curious nature. By the end of the week I received a call from the director of a language school in Bari, Puglia in the South Italy and after a brief telephone interview was offered the job. The school was closing that day for summer holidays and I was assured that I would be met at the agreed date at the airport and accommodation would be sorted for me by then. The role would only pay €750 a month, but I knew that would be fine as the standard of living I knew was much cheaper than here in the UK. So I boarded the plane knowing everything had fallen nicely into place.
Can you tell us about your first 48 hours in Bari?
It was a complete nightmare. From the moment I jumped out of the taxi outside the school, which was located in the centre of Bari everything went awfully wobbly. It was located on the second floor of an apartment block and I could see that the shutters on all the windows were closed. It was a bad sign and indeed nobody was there. I waited a round for a couple of hours and after several unanswered phone calls I found an email cafe and sent the director an email to find out what was happening.
Later that day, I returned to the airport not knowing quite what to do, to discover that I had lost my credit card. My day was going seriously bad and my insurance company would not consider transferring any cash to my account unless I had an address and a telephone number, not a simple task in a foreign land with no cash, but I am nothing if not determined. I had a broken and difficult to understand conversation with a girl at customer services who took pity on me and agreed to take me to a hotel at the end of her shift. Within an hour I was sitting on a hotel bed in the quiet coastal town of Bari Palese and the next morning €500 was transferred to me.
By this point I presumed that I’d been let down badly and booked a flight back to the UK for a couple of day’s time, I figured that I may as well explore a little while I was there and see what Puglia had to offer. At some point I received an email from the director of studies and after a telephone conversation everything was sorted and I was driven to my accommodation. The apartment I shared with three others was in a dilapidated state of repair and the landlord, Vincenzo, lived in the same block upstairs. He often let himself into the apartment without forewarning us to talk and rant on; laws and social taboos protecting tenants are weak in Italy.
Ouch, not exactly a dream start. How was the job?
The first thing I needed to do was brush up on my grammar, more than brush up, grammar was something that I had barely heard of let alone had any knowledge of. I went to a state school and grammar wasn't taught at that time. The Italian language grammar rules are complicated in comparison to English grammar and I had students who preferred to study English than their own language. Fortunately for me I had plenty of time to do this as nothing is done in a hurry or on time in the South.
Students were always late by on average of 45 minutes or didn’t turn up at all, leaving me plenty of time for study. I had a three hour daily contract at the army barracks La Brigata Pinerolo teaching officers English. If an officer was to turn up at all they’d do anything to avoid the books and we would spend most of the time drinking coffee and trying different Italian liquors in the cafe.
Few students studied for academic or exam preparation reasons and were generally more interested in communication lessons. In Italy it is necessary in most university degree courses for students to complete a paper in English, so it wasn’t unusual to get a new student that didn’t know any English with a paper in English to take in two weeks time. It was challenging, but with plenty of time and dedication they could be brought up to where they needed to be. Most students back at the school were late or didn’t turn up at all. After a while I stopped banging my head up against a brick wall and getting stressed and accepted that's how things are in the south of Italy. The moment I changed the chip is when I began to relax and enjoy my time in Bari. Italians naturally take things at leisure even to the point of being able to return each year to University until they pass and it’s not unusual to come across someone who has been studying for seven years.
Could you tell us a little about Bari?
The old town Bari Vecchia is quite beautiful and is a small area filled with old houses, apartments, bars and restaurants, it is where Bari’s beautiful hang out to be noticed at night. Pointless going out much before midnight at the weekend even to eat as it doesn’t get going until midnight which is typical for Italy.
The food is fresh and extremely cheap and so is the Italian beer and wine. It can take anything up to an hour to get your first drink served, so patience and a relaxed attitude is paramount. The rest of the city is new and ugly looking concrete apartment blocks are everywhere. The city isn’t attractive and there is very little to see in the way of tourist sites, but Bari is close to some fantastically stunning coastal locations that shouldn’t be missed, Puglia is breathtakingly beautiful.
And how is it different from the World’s perspective of Italy?
I had been fortunate enough to have had a couple of holidays in Italy at some of the usual stunning locations that tourists head for and had naively thought that all of Italy would be as beautiful. Bari is a very run down city, with little in the way of luxury and designer shops, although the young manage to look good. Its main problems are the mafia, tax avoidance and that it’s one of the few areas in Italy where tourists don't visit and spend money. This may start to change as flights into Bari and nearby Brindisi are now more frequent.
How was it in Italy regarding working papers and red tape?
The first thing you’re going to need when arriving in the South of Italy is a friend who works as a policeman or a lawyer to help you with all the bureaucratic red tape that you will have to cut your way through when trying to sort out documents on arrival. Fortunately I had one of each in two different classes at the school. If you want to stay you’re going to have to work for the privilege, nothing comes easy in the South.
The first document I needed was a ‘Permesso di Soggiorno’ a certificate of permission to stay, which I could apply for at ‘Ufficio Stranieri’ the office for foreigners at the police station. If you’re planning to stay on a permanent basis it can be a really difficult to arrange the correct documentation, in the first instance head to ‘Ufficio Anagrafe’ the registry office at the local town hall to make your enquiry, the process may take so long that when the document finally arrives it may have passed its expiry date. If you want to get hold of either of these documents you’re going to need plenty of patience and some help.
My first attempt at obtaining a certificate of permission to stay failed. I entered the small, sweltering hot office for foreigners at the police station in Bari and when I reached the front of the queue the clerk behind the glass pulled down the shutter and left. I was taken a back, but soon discovered that this was normal behavior in all public sector workers and of officers in the area. It takes time to get used to the "why do today what I can do tomorrow" attitude, but nothing in the South is done in a hurry and the quicker you accept that the better your time there will be. If you scream and shout they will think you are crazy, no one will listen to you.
In contrast the second time, I returned with a student who worked as a policeman, he took me to the front of the queue and the documents were issued almost immediately to the dismay of those who had been waiting most of the day. I remember some Romanian girl telling me off for pushing in, but I was more than happy to get to the front and the paper that I desperately needed.
Another paper I required was a ‘Codice Fiscale’ similar to a national insurance card that I needed to start work in Italy. Added benefits include cheaper health and dental care and it is often asked for as a form of identification. This one is simple to sort out and the director of studies at the school made the call for me.
We hear a lot in the press about crime in the South of Italy, did this effect you in anyway?
Despite what the guide books say Bari isn’t full of wallet and bag stealing gangs of muggers, but does have a massive problem with unemployment and the poor live very different lives to the wealthy. If you don’t have connections then doors won’t open to you. Breaking the law is a way of life in the South and many choose to avoid paying tax and hide their money and businesses pay extortion charges to the mafia. Organised crime gangs are a normal way of life, but I never found myself in danger, gangs focus on the illegal building trade, extortion and drug trafficking and have no interest in a humble English teacher.
I had a friend in a nearby town called Bitonto that was known for its mafia connections. His family were rich and on enquiring I discovered that his father’s wealth was made from stitching up and removing bullets from gang members avoiding the hospitals to avoid police involvement. In the UK this would be considered bad taste and highly illegal, but in Puglia it was perfectly normal.
Things are slowly changing in Italy and in November 2011, 93 arrests were made by 600 police from ‘Sacra Corona Unita Mafioso’ the United Sacred Crown Mafia.
What about the locals?
Bari’s residents are suspicious of outsiders and stare constantly, perhaps explaining why they go to the trouble of wearing sunglasses all year round to cover their eyes. I walked the same route five times a week from my apartment to the school and everyday the same people would stop what they were doing and stare at me and discuss me with each other. Outside a bar on La Pane and Pomodoro beach and a crowd of women come over and started touching my face and hair and pointing at me. I soon learned how to deal with it; they weren’t used to people from other countries coming to Bari and meant no harm. Italians as a nation are very curious people and will always stop and ask.
Any tips for English teachers heading down that way?
You need to learn some basic Italian quickly as English isn’t widely spoken, nor is Italian; locals speak their own local dialect which they are fiercely proud of.
You may find that some of the older generation will refuse to serve you in shops as they can’t understand you. Many young people speak Italian and a little English for university purposes, they are very friendly and welcoming on nights out so my advice get down to Bari Vecchia and make yourself some friends.
Would you recommend Bari and the small town life?
Absolutely, apart from the few initial teething problems that I encountered on arrival, I really enjoyed my time there and would recommend it to others that love the sun and are looking for a very relaxing and different way of life. It’s completely new, undiscovered and like nothing you will have encountered previously, which makes it a unique and special location.
Bari is perfect for a new teacher; there are quite a few schools located in the city centre and most of them prepared to take on newly qualified teachers. The environment is relaxed, which gives you the opportunity to brush up on your grammar etc before the questions start flooding in. You won’t get paid enough to gain any savings, but the standard of life is much cheaper and things like food and clothing are really well priced. Money talks, you won’t get anything for nothing, they don’t even have a word for free and use the Spanish word ‘gratis.’