Looking for work in Rome turned out to be like a lot of my first experiences in the city: embarrassing, culturally confusing and all about language. The fact that I’m a native English speaker is what got me every single English teaching job I had in Rome. In fact not one school asked to see my English teacher certification. Not. One. The fact that I didn’t speak Italian and had just moved to Rome with almost no money, no job and no visa posed an obvious challenge. Despite having spent a semester trying to study on my own while finishing university and a summer practicing with Rosetta Stone software before my move, I could only really say “Ciao” with great confidence. After that I got a bit muddled.
Need to catch up on Laurenissima? Click here to read the previous post about how I got my teaching certification or click here to start from the beginning with how I moved to Rome and who Laurenissima is.
I started calling schools that I found through the Pagine Gialle online, the Italian yellow pages. I started with my strongest phrase: “Ciao!” and quickly devolved from there. “Yes, hi…umm parli Inglese? English?” Eventually some English speaker would be found and I’d tell them I was looking for a job.
I went for interviews at many schools. I had no smart phone so even getting to these schools involved figuring everything out on my computer in advance, writing down bus times and locations and drawing maps to help me since I didn’t have a printer.
Some schools said they’d only hire me if I had a work visa which is the old chicken and egg problem since you need the job to get the visa but you need the visa to get the job but you… oh whatever, let’s go for coffee.
I never did get a visa through any of the schools I worked for. I heard a combination of: “No we won’t help with that” or “Yes, maybe later on down the road” and I was naive enough to think they meant it. I met a couple people who got visas through their schools. Just a couple and often they’d had teaching experience before moving to Italy and had set up the job and visa in advance (basically, responsible people). One girl I’d met who got her visa after moving to Rome had spent over a year proving to her school that she was worth it. Worth the hassle, the money, the risk. If you are one of these people, tell me what you did! I’m always curious to hear about miracles.
Why don’t English language schools want to help with your visa? Because it’s expensive for them and for you and you have to go back to the US to get it. Not just to the US, you have to go to the consulate where you have residency, which in my case was in San Francisco, 10,000 kilometers and about a thousand bucks away, which I quite simply didn’t have. Schools want you to start work immediately and they know that you’re probably not going to stay in Italy long enough to get a visa anyway. That and they definitely don’t want to pay you a high enough salary to even qualify you to ask for the visa. Plus there’s the taxes on that – no way. Oh and plus the consulate will probably say no anyway. If you’ve just got your TESOL or TEFL, how can you prove you’re the only person that can take the job of explaining what a pronoun is to an Italian child?
I’ll never forget the interview where I met the infamous Daniela, director of an English school that operated across Rome. She was a small woman who is the closest human equivalent to beef jerky I’ve ever seen. She was all sinew. The definition of tough. She was minuscule and in constant motion like a shark or a mosquito and I have no doubt in a boxing ring she could have taken down Muhammad Ali. She fixed you with an unblinking stare while she talked. “Ciao?” I tried.
Our first interview went well (“Ciao! You are from the US? Ok, perfect.”) and we scheduled a second in which I’d do a mock lesson on house vocabulary. She made it sound like just a formality so when I stood in front of the board and she pretended to be a student asking me questions in a fake bad accent (“What is mean: bedroom?”) I was a little thrown off. After five minutes of using my best Byron techniques (show pictures, elicit vocabulary, write on board, make sentences) she stopped me with a look of horror on her face.
“What,” she said, “are you doing?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“What do you think you are doing?”
I stood, frozen in the eyesight of the angry little bull like Bambi, clutching my pictures of sofas and bathrooms. “I’m … teaching?”
“No. No, no, no, no. I’m sorry Lauren, this is just not how we do things here.” Her tone was the equivalent of if I’d been showing porn to children. Disappointed. Horrified. Shocked. Disturbed.
“How would you do it?” I asked. I hadn’t even gotten to the vocab reenforcement game I’d come up with.
She stood up. “Let me be the teacher,” she said, taking the dry erase marker out of my hand. She wrote the word “Door” on the board.
“Repeat after me! Door!” Her eyes bored into mine. Oh, I was supposed to play along.
“Door?” I said.
Dear God, will this end?
“Repetition is essential,” she said. “Meaning can come later.”
And that in a nutshell is exactly what I was trying to escape what I saw my life being in the US if I followed expectations. The office. The 9 to 5. The five day work week. The routine. The repetition. A performance of order and decorum that I feared would suffocate me.
In third grade at the age of 8 I felt depressed about going to school, not because of the school work itself or my teachers or other students (except you, Eric, man you were annoying) but because of the routine.
Rob Bell said: “Despair is the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.” Context was different (he was a former pastor being interviewed by Oprah) but when I heard that quote I remembered my 3rd grade self having a tantrum on a Sunday night, telling my mom, “It’s just THE SAME every day and then the next day, it’s THE SAME and then the next week it’s THE SAME and even next month: THE SAME. And then there’s summer break but after that… it’s THE SAME.” I’m sure she thought: Welcome to life, kid.
I felt equally depressed by my prospects after college. I couldn’t bear the idea of the internship before the job before the promotion before the savings before the loan payments before (finally!) life could be lived.
I wanted to say, “No Daniela, meaning has to come first.”
I also wanted to say, “I can repeat whatever the hell you want because I’ve been to a ton of schools and if I don’t get a job soon I’m going to be screwed.”
I didn’t have time to say either.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t hire you if you teach like this.” I think she saw the look of desperation and frustration as unbidden tears welled in my eyes because she did something I hadn’t expected from the tiny, charging bull.
She grabbed my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. She was close. I was scared. “Come on,” she said. “We are women. We are strong! You can do it!” Then, dropping her arms and turning to leave the room,
“Now I have to go. Ciao ciao!”
Later that week I got a job. I could do this. Now, I’d just have to figure out … how, exactly.