Teaching in Rome Abroad as a British Council Assistant

 Sorry for the hiatus! Finally back from Italy and my year abroad and will be posting more regularly.

This post originally appeared on the well-travelled postcard run, run by Virginia, a modern languages graduate. Check out her blog for all things related to Spain, using your languages and living abroad!

My biggest regret of university was never having studied abroad and so after graduation I looked for ways to travel and live abroad for extended periods of time. During summer I took the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) as a means to work abroad, but was a bit hesitant to jump into a full-time job teaching English without a lot of experience. The British Council language assistant job appealed to me, but having not studied languages formally I was ineligible to apply for certain countries.

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By chance, I met someone in Rome doing the British Council’s Comenius Assistantship, where you can spend between three and ten months working abroad as a language assistant anywhere in Europe and some European territories further afield for French. No specific degree is required, only the interest in becoming a teacher and gaining teaching experience and you are given a grant to cover the cost of flights, apartments and daily expenses.

In January 2013, I sent in my application and was placed in a public school in Rome by April 2013. The assistantship requires you to work 12-16 hours per week and to spend some time teaching your native language. At my school, half of my lessons are spent teaching English, with the other half teaching English through other subjects such as mechanics, history, engineering and mathematics. Comenius would be a a great option for undergraduates who study more than one language and want to divide their year abroad, as you can choose to spend between three months or one whole academic year abroad, whilst the British Council Language Assistantship, on the other hand is compulsory for the whole school year. The best part of Comenius is the fact that you’re working, earning money and independent, but you’re still learning in an assistant language teaching role, so it could be the best of both worlds for those who want to study and work during their year abroad.

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Onto the job itself, I’ve got to say it’s a lot of fun! The teachers are supportive and friendly, the staff room is always full of Italian desserts and the students are lovely. I work in a boys’ technical college teaching 17-21 year olds and aiding with science and engineering subjects. Having studied English Literature at University, I thought I’d be out of my depth, but I’ve been lucky to find such a welcoming school and great staff. From the beginning it’s important to establish your exact role in the school, as you will always be teaching alongside qualified teachers, but being the language assistant means you can make the lessons more fun, interactive and relevant to the students.

The British Council provide you with a grant to study the language of your country, and for me, learning Italian has been one of the best bits of living here! Languages have always fascinated me and last year I spent 10 weeks volunteering in El Salvador learning Spanish, which gave me a good base for Italian. It’s taken me a while, but I can now translate virtually all of what my students are saying (even the rude things!) and working in a school has been excellent listening practice for my Italian. I also do a lot of language exchanges with Italians, read Italian books, listen to music and spend a lot of time with Italian friends. I haven’t signed up yet for language lessons, but all of the above activities I’ve found to be more than sufficient to reach a B1-B2 level. I started off as a beginner and have found that through determination and immersion I’ve been able to pull my level up, without studying Italian formally above A1 level. Even though I teach English for over 12 hours a week, I’ve found that this hasn’t been a hindrance to picking up Italian and it won’t be for you either as you’ll have around 100 hours left over per week to dedicate to your foreign language!

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Working 12-16 hours a week means I have plenty of free time and so I give private English lessons to Italian students, spend a lot of time learning Italian, volunteering and doing other things. I also have Fridays off so have been able to use these to visit Venice during Carnival, Padova, Verona, Assisi, Naples and lots of other beautiful Italian cities. This weekend I’m off to Florence to enjoy the gelato festival and throughout the year there are also a lot of feste which will give you more time off to travel. I’ve tried to find a downside to this job to give a balanced view… but I can’t think of one! I was placed in Rome as I specifically requested it, but obviously some will be placed in smaller towns and villages. The loneliness and lack of young people have been a negative for some assistants placed in rural towns, so this is a possible downside. Technically you can be placed anywhere in your chosen countries, though you can specifiy whether you would prefer to be placed in a big city.

My Comenius Assistantship is coming to a close now and after this I will be working for ACLE at their English summer camps in Italy, where I will be staying with Italian families and travelling around the country gaining more teaching experience and improving my Italian. I have had the most incredible year as a Comenius Assistant in Rome and would heavily recommend it to all of you lovely third year abroaders!

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I ate, I prayed, I loved

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On my last trip to Naples, I mentioned how I was disappointed by the quality of the pizza at i decumani.

After reading Eat, Pray Love, I became intrigued about the pizza place Elizabeth Gilbert visited and described so incredibly. I did a quick online search and found that, actually, Pizzeria da Michele (mik-yel-eh) was popular before Julia Roberts!

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We arrived at 7pm and there was already a big queue and took tickets to wait for a table, essentially a very unItalian, but organised system of queueing. Once we got in I was shocked by the place. The decor was stark and it looked like one large bathroom on the inside and from the outside it looked like a kebab shop that dabbled in pizza, burgers and a bit of everything! The menu was simple and only listed pizza margherita and pizza marinara (without cheese) and drinks were limited to soft drinks, water and beer. The prices were CHEAP and I’m talking Bolivia-cheap, with a standard Marg costing €4. The place was filled mostly with locals, which was  a good sign and there was a discreet picture of Julia Roberts displayed by the cooking area.

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The wait for the food was quite long, but it was a busy night (Saturday night) and O M G it was incredible. I’m not really very discerning when it comes to food and in general I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘foodie’ but this was the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. The dough was fresh and crispy, the tomato sauce was rich and sweet and the cheese was great. The best thing was definitely the dough, which you could see being made right in front of you, before the whole pizza was put into the wood-burning oven. It was really nice to see that Michele wasn’t cashing in on the fame of Eat, Pray, Love and had kept their prices and decor the same; the only thing they ask at the end is for a tip, which, considering the outstanding quality of the pizza, is merited!

I’m so glad I tried this place and I’d recommend it to all who are visiting Naples! I can’t wait to return again next spring, when I’ll be working up an appetite after climbing Mount Vesuvius 😉 Michele, I’m coming for you!

Pizzeria da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale, 1-3, 80139 Naples, Italy, it is very close to the main train station, Napoli Centrale.

Learning Italiano Part II (E come puoi imparare italiano)

 

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Sorry for the huuuuge absence; I’ve been travelling, celebrating my birthday and just getting on with life here in Rome! This is the complementary post to the previous one about learning Italian.

As you all know, I’m very passionate about languages and chose to come to Italy primarily for the culture (which I knew I would LOVE) and the language. Having a background in Spanish helped me learn Italian and now it’s been over six months since I’ve been in Italy and I can now say that I have a very good level of Italian 😀 I can understand almost everything everyone says, but talking is harder. It often feels like the more I learn, the more exasperated I become what I have yet to learn, but someone told me that feeling frustrated like this is normal as it means you’re breaking through to the next stage! 😀 so I will just choose to believe this! I’ve jumped from A1 to B1 in the past six months and I hope to leave B2!

For anyone interested in learning Italian, this is what I’m doing right now:

  • Watching films like La Grande Belleza, La Vita è Bella, Il postino. I try and watch without subtitles as I’d not be able to concentrate on the language properly otherwise
  • Watch the TV series, Gli Occhi Del Cuore. It is HILARIOUS and more like English comedy
  • Listen to Jovanetti and other Italian artists. I’m less interested in music and more in TV, film and books, though
  • I’m currently reading Io E Te by Niccolò Ammaniti
  • Exchanging languages in person and online through TheMixxer.org
  • Using a flashcard software programme like Anki on my phone which I normally flick through waiting for the bus or any other free minute
  • Old school eavesdropping has worked a treat; whenever I see anyone on the phone in Italy (basically all the time, they are always on the phone) I listen in to see if I can understand

I think it’s important to try and immerse yourself as much as possible in the language. I have yet to take official language lessons, as I don’t think they’re very helpful, but the Comenius Assistantship allows me to spend €300 on language learning, so why the hell not!

Christmas In Rome

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Sorry for the absence guys! I’ve been back in London for about two weeks enjoying family, friends and food (the three F’s!)

I love living in Rome. So much. And I was so excited to be around during the Christmas holidays to see what would be happening in the city. In terms of decorations, there weren’t as many in London, but the rainbow lights on Via Del Corso, the main shopping high street from Piazza Venezia, were beautiful, extending for about 3km, making for a lovely passegiata.

1465413_10201607777130259_1235828344_nNativity scenes are BIG here and they can be found all over the city, even ‘live’ nativity scenes with actors in the middle of the city’s main piazza. Some of the besyt open-air ones are at the Spanish Steps, the Vatican and Piazza del Popolo, which is by the end of the colourful rainbow lights down Via del Corso.

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Italians (and apparently a lot of other Europeans besides us Brits) celebrate Christmas on the 24th!! They have a big meal on the evening of the 24th, where they are only allowed to eat fish and open their presents at midnight. Who knows what they do on the 25th. My family usually prepares international food for the Christmas dinner-none of this turkey malarky.

The Christmas period ends on the Epiphany on the 6th January, which is a national holiday. On this day, La Befana, a friendly witch of Italian lore, is said to visit children and deliver sweets if you’ve been a good or coal if you’ve been bad. The event takes place on Piazza Navona and is full of children! La Befana arrived on a motorbike with a gang of Harley Davidson bikers. I tried getting a picture, but one of the motorheads had no idea how to use a camera and we tried twice, c’est la vie.

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Cafe culture in Italy (Starbucks where art thou?)

1003527_10201378143309557_110463338_nA lot of people are surprised to find out that no, Italy doesn’t have a Starbucks or any kind of take-away coffee culture. And it’s easy to see why. Not to be all snobby (OK maybe I’m being a snob) but that double bubble mocha frappe latte chino crap on the Starbucks menu is not the kind of thing you would ever see here, because that’s not really coffee is it? Its more of a liquefied Victoria sponge cake blended to within an inch of its life, with cream on top and served in a Styrofoam cup with a mermaid on it. Who is she?

Having said that, I love the feel of American coffee shops; being able to linger over a coffee (or a mocha-OK I’m a hypocrite!!) and work on the laptop/read a book or hang out with friends is so enjoyable when it’s cold outside and Costa are offering double points. in Italy,  however, the coffee culture is completely different and you need a whole new vocabulary to navigate the murky, caffeinated waters of Italian coffee.

Firstly, SIZES. OK America, we get it, you like large, but forget the sizes of grande, venti or whatever, this is one size fits all. Here, they only have one size and its baby-sized, the coffees are tiny cups filed with one shot of coffee that you can take at the bar or at the table (tavolo), which is a little more expensive. A café is called a bar and a coffee is called un caffé. It’s normal for most Italians to start the day with breakfast (colazione) at a bar and eat a cornetto (sweet pastry dusted with sugar sometimes with chocolate) or biscotti with a cappuccino and a packet of sugar (zucchero). Dentists in Italy must be making a killing!

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Prices vary, but even in Rome if you’re not getting ripped off, you can get a coffee for €0.80-1.00 at the bar, more if you’re sitting down. This is in very stark contrast to the prices your normally pay in Starbucks and other coffee chains, where you can pay around €2.50 for take-away coffee, which will be watered down and filled with sugar. Another thing is that here, they don’t do take-away Styrofoam cups. The coffees are so small you can normally finish them in one gulp and people normally come to the bar between work hours to get their fix, not to shoot the breeze or take their Cake In A Cup to their stressful workplace, whilst yapping away on their BlackBerry.

Latte in Italy just means milk, so don’t bother ordering this at the bar. A macchiato is a shot of espresso “stained” with milk, a cappuccino is half milk and half coffee and a caffé normale is just a shot of espresso. My favourite drink is un marochino, which is a smaller shot of espresso with cream (panna) and chocolate sprinkles on top. It is definitely the prettiest coffee I’ve ordered (see main picture) and at the café near my house normally comes with complimentary biscuits. The calling card of a tourist is ordering a cappuccino after 11am, which most Italians would never do, because apparently milk hinders digestion. It seems only Italy got this memo and whilst there are stories of Italians recoiling in horror whenever an afternoon cappuccino is requested, they’re used to tourists by now.

You’re normally served a glass of water with your coffee, but if not you can ask for one. In some places you order first and then pay and in others you pay first at the cash register and then bring your receipt to the barrista. Try and ask for the coffees in Italian and you’re less likely to get ripped off in the tourist centre. The coffee culture is one of my favourite things about Italy and whilst I barely drink any in England, I have become addicted to them here!

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Floating On A Log Across The Border To Honduras

578671_4963667003481_1207389806_nHere’s one thing I hate about travelling and an embarrassing fact that I don’t tell anyone for fear of ridicule:

I. Can’t. Swim.

In El Salvador we visited so many fantastic locations near water; the beach, the bay, a tranquil lake or two and I, a non-swimmer, would usually sunbathe outside the water inconspicuously. Or be chilling in shallow water like below.

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One day we visited the most beautiful river, called the Lempa, which formed the international divide between El Salvador and Honduras. The lake wasn’t very wide at all, but had a super-strong current running through it, making it even a little dangerous for those of us who could swim (everyone but me). We did a two-hour hike here to commemorate the victims of the River Lempa Massacre in 1981 and it was amazing to be able to share this experience with our Salvadorian friends. We were given the history of the walk and were told stories from the war and about the victims who had originally walked this path.

527679_4963670563570_1576516330_nAfter two hours of hiking and stunning views, we ended up here. No one was around as the annual commemoration walk was a few weeks in advance and it was so peaceful and tranquil. The water was beautiful and clear and just ripe for swimming! It was 30 degrees out, so everyone got in.

The fact that we could swim just a few minutes to another country was amazing and all my friends fled the country. JUST LIKE THAT. So there I was, stuck in boring old El Salvador, while my friends were living it up across the border in Honduras. What made it worse was that I could hear them cheering and see them taking photos. Man, why didn’t I ever learn to swim?!

And then, just like that! One of my friends offered me a ride across the water. Obviously, I’d never piggyback a ride in water, that would be far too risky (did I mention how strong the current was?), but he suggested grabbing one of the big logs hanging around and hitching a ride on that, whilst he swam and pulled it forward. I’d gone from sulky to perky in 2 minutes and floated all the way to Honduras.

In the main photo, the left side is El Salvador and the right, Honduras. We had lunch here at the Lempa River, picked the nearby fruit trees, swam (and floated!) and had an amazing time. Funnily enough, my best memories from El Salvador were near or in bodies of water, showing that not being able to swim won’t always hold you back when travelling :D. And hey, this story wouldn’t have been half as interesting if I could swim!

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Surviving the Inca Trail

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The Peruvian government has introduced legislation that limits the number of people who can walk the Inca Trail per day, which means that you have to book at least three months in advance and even earlier if you’re travelling during peak season. For my April 2013 trek, I booked in January with Peru Treks for $565 and this included three meals, guides and a sleeping bag. Water outside of meal times was not provided, nor was a porter.

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  • Walking sticks-Don’t bother buying expensive, fancy metal ones from Cusco, wait for your first drop-off location on the Inca Trail at Ollyantaytambo where you can buy two walking sticks for around 6 soles (£1.63) I recommend buying two sticks. Mine are pictured above in the photo (I grew somewhat attached!)
  • 3 litres of water- Not all tours include water in their price (except during meal times) and I brought enough to sustain me outside of meal times. You can obviously buy water along the way but it is crazy expensive. The higher the altitude, the more expensive things get.
  • Thermals and a hat- It gets REALLY cold up on the mountain at night.
  • Sun cream
  • Sun glasses
  • A day pack- A lot of people I saw walking the Inca Trail had 6kg day packs, as well as luggage that they paid for the porters to carry too. Don’t make life difficult for yourself! I rented a backpack from a shop in Cusco for a fiver and only carried about 3kg. Even then it was bloody difficult to walk with.
  • A porter- For additional cost you can hire a porter. If you don’t hire one then you may need to for day 2 which is Up Hill Day. Some companies include porters in the cost though.

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Day 1

The first day was fairly flat and easygoing, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t buckle under the weight of my backpack! Our guides were fantastic and had worked in the mountains for many years; they were both of Quechua descent (the native people of the land) and so knew the history well. Along the way they pointed out numerous different ruins and their history and place in Inca lore.

Before we arrived for meals, the porters would set up a big teepee and collapsible tables and chairs, the teepee was good as it protected us from the wind. Hot drinks like hot chocolate, cocoa tea and coffee were always provided, which was good, as it was nearly always cold! Meal times were great and the food was incredible! Nearly every one was a 3 courser which sometimes got a bit much, as I’m not really a foodie, but we were served waffles, crackers, chicken, vegetable soups, garlic bread(?!), Peruvian chicken dishes, cerviche and more.

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Day 2

In the morning we were awoken at 6am with a hot drink of either cocoa leaves tea, hot chocolate, coffee or water. Our guide brought these straight to our tent, which was a nice way to wake up. You have to empty your tents and they are then dismantled by the porters, who carry them ahead of you. Our guides stressed the importance of chewing cocoa leaves often to acclimate better to the altitude, but I didn’t have any problems with this throughout the trek.

936339_10200410683683671_1698650709_nThe second day is renowned for being the hardest and has around 5 hours of uphill walking. On the way lots of porters will pass you carrying over 15kg on their back. New legislation has come into play on ethical treatment for porters that ensures they don’t carry over 20kg and I’d go with a company that guarantees that. I didn’t hire a porter for the trek but hired one just for the second day and it made the uphill walking more bearable.

Today is the day you walk up the famous Dead Woman’s Pass which is a relentless uphill slog. This is the highest point of the Inca Trail and afterwards is a sheer drop and then another uphill climb until you reach the campsite. Towards the end I started taking my time more and got to see the sunset and take lots of photos with stunning backdrops, like the photos above and below! The campsite we stayed at was lovely and was overlooking ruins and the uphill path of Day 3. We glanced with terror at what awaited us tomorrow!

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Day 3

The last real day of the Inca Trail had the most incredible views. Whilst Day 2 is all about ascending, Day 3 is all about the descent, which I preferred, but steady on those with weak knees. More ruins are available along the way and you get to trek through cloud forest too. Our guide, Percy, conducted a special Quechua ceremony, which was lovely. Throughout the journey he kept reminding us how sacred the walk was and exactly whose footsteps we were following in.

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Inca Ruins

947057_10200410685203709_755487794_nOn the way to Wiñay Wayna (“forever young” in Quechua), normally the final campsite of most groups, you have to walk down a huge set of steps and your legs feel like jelly towards the end. Since this last bit was downhill, I was really in my forte and sped all the way to the campsite. The porters greeted me with a round of applause!

For dinner as per usual. we got an abundance of great food, but we also got CAKE! How they got a cake intact, up the Inca Trail I’ll never know.

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Day 4

There’s not really much walking on this day. From the campsite there’s a bit of competition and all tour groups try and wake up earlier than the others at around 5am. Expect to queue until the passage opens at around 7am. From here, its a one-hour hike to the Sun Gate, where you’ll get your first glimpse of Machu Pichu (which I discovered is NOT the name of the mountain). People tend to walk this bit really fast, the energy is incredible, but its so fast-paced that I couldn’t even take my jumper off and pause to drink, incase I lost my group in the mob. Once at Machu Pichu (its still a fair way down) you are given tickets and a tour by your operator. You will be taken to different temples and told the history of the Incas and how Machu Pichu remained undiscovered by the conquistadores. You’re then allowed free time to wander and are given a free bus ticket to Aguas Calientes, a neighbouring town, where we had our celebratory lunch, at a restaurant specified by the company. Make sure you bring enough snacks for today, as you are only served breakfast at around 5am and you will most likely not be finished at the ruins till 1pm. We skipped the thermal baths at Aguas Calientes, as they didn’t look that nice at all but went for a cheap massage just after the trail!

 

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Other treks: Just a note that there ARE cheaper treks out there, which have scenery on par with, or even better than the commercial Inca Trail, such as Salkantay and Lares. These don’t have to be booked far in advance, but I wanted the classic Inca Trail experience and though Salkantay was around half the price, the trek was also a lot longer and round-about.  A lot of people complain about how the classic Trail is so crowded and touristy but it really wasn’t; I was shocked at how peaceful and quiet it was in some parts.

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Other notes:

  • The Inca Trail costs $565 with Peru Treks and the prices are roughly standardised across all tour operators (April 2013, includes a sleeping bag in the price)
  • Don’t feel obliged to lug around heavy walking boots and a sleeping bag from your home country. Most companies will let you rent a good quality sleeping bag and I managed the hike in trainers. In my opinion, walking boots are just a bit of a gimmick unless you have specific foot problems/weaknesses.
  • Bring snacks from supermarkets, I brought nuts, dark chocolate and biscuits to keep me going, as there’s no food available between meals
  • For the best weather, come during the South American summer (October-April) but note that the Trail is closed in February
  • There are no toilets on the Inca Trail! Only at the campsites

We also got a sweet certificate from our company, which I loved!

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Disclaimer: As much as I wish I was sponsored for the Inca Trail, I was not! All opinions are my own and I only recommend Peru Treks as I had an enjoyable time with them.