By Leya Van Doren
It was 5 pm on a rainy afternoon in Rovereto, a small town surrounded by the Italian Alps in Northern Italy. I had just spent a month studying commedia dell’arte in Tuscany with students from all over the United States. By the end of the month, my new classmates and friends would either head back home or stay in Europe for a few additional weeks. I chose the latter, traveling up north to work as an au pair.
An au pair is a temporary nanny, but it’s more of a cultural exchange. In return for free food and lodging (and a weekly pay of 80 euros), families will host young adults to babysit their children as well as teach them English. Being a budget-minded student, I thought this was a perfect way to maximize my time in Italy, while completely immersing myself in the Italian language and culture.
Little did I know I was in for some of the most challenging, yet rewarding weeks of my life.
The children were 10-and-12-year-old girls named Gaia and Alice. Their mother, Arianna, owned a children’s clothing shop, and their father, Enrico, worked as a personal trainer, security guard, and was a bodybuilder on the Italian National Bodybuilding Team. They also had an 18-year-old son, three cats and three dogs, which made for a very full house.
Coming from a big family myself, I felt comfortable in such a packed house. Arianna walked just two minutes to work and Enrico worked just a few minutes away by moped. This is very different than the 30-45 minute commute my mother, like many other Americans, do to go to work. Having both parents home so much only added to the warm family values.
Now, unfortunately, I am not a trained teacher in any way. At first, I was overwhelmed at the thought of teaching English to these young girls, but it actually turned out to be a lot of fun. We would play word games, read books or write stories together. I had to teach creatively, leading me to approach language from a different perspective.
One of the most difficult challenges was coming up with activities to do with the kids that would keep them amused. I began to use my drama major skills and organized different plays to perform for the rest of the family, mixing entertainment, education and family all in one.
Living with a foreign family who barely speaks your language was an experience in of itself, like living somebody else’s life. I didn’t know anybody there, but was expected to assimilate into normal family life. I got to experience what it really felt like to be an outsider.
Not being able to communicate with others in my own language felt like I couldn’t show my true personality, and I realized how much we present ourselves to others based off of what we say and how we communicate. Taking that away pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I had to learn to take over the role of observer rather than active participant. Not only did this shape my understanding of Italian culture, but also helped me reevaluate the way I interact with others.
At the end of the five weeks, I was excited to get back to my own life. Not being able to be independent and choose what I wanted to do on any given day was more difficult than expected, but I was also sad to leave my two new sisters. Now I have family in Italy – a once-foreign place, made not-so-foreign anymore through these human relationships and connections I formed.