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Juniors’ Year Abroad

Sarah, Francesca and Stephen in 1996 after we returned from a year in Italy.

Sarah, Francesca and Stephen in 1996 after we returned from a year in Italy.

When our children were young, we packed up and left for Italy. A year in the middle of another culture, we reasoned, would expose them to different ways of looking at the world. Maybe they would come away from the experience with the realization that our town in California is not actually the center of the universe. Maybe they’d hate us forever. It was worth the risk. So in 1995, we sold the cars, rented our house and said goodbye to family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

Stephen, Franny and Sarah show an early interest in olive oil production.

Stephen, Francesca and Sarah show an early interest in olive oil production.

You may be surprised to learn that support for our adventure was not universal. Some friends thought we were making a terrible mistake in terms of our children’s educational process. A year in a foreign school where they don’t speak the language? They’ll return hopelessly behind their peers and spend the rest of their years in compulsory education just trying to catch up. Colleagues worried that I would find it difficult to reclaim my university position, that I’d be sidelined while others were promoted in my place. Brian’s friends thought his clients would forget about him, turning to other designers and builders in his absence, never to return to him once we were back.

We were baffled. How could total immersion in an Italian-only preschool have a negative effect on a three-year old? Two lovely, grandmother-like teachers warmly welcomed Francesca on her first day at the scuola materna. On the second day, Franny told us we could go home and come back later when school was finished. At the end of the first month, Franny had a part in the school’s Christmas pageant, singing Italian Christmas songs and nursery rhymes. An endless round of birthday parties and play dates followed, featuring Franny and her classmates chatting happily as only three and four-year-olds can. Clearly a growth-stunting experience . . . she’ll never recover.

After the harvest, we joined our neighbors for lunch (Franny on the left; Sarah on the right).

After the harvest, we joined our neighbors for lunch (Franny on the left; Sarah on the right).

Sarah and Stephen had it a little harder at first. After all, first and third grade require an entirely different level of communication, not to mention homework. Stephen made a huge impression right from the start. Lovesick third grade girls sent him no end of anonymous notes and everyone wanted to know if he knew the television stars of Baywatch. Once the novelty wore off, though, he was left with third grade math, science, literature and Italian history—all in a language for which he had no preparation. Little by little, it all became a little less incomprehensible. He finished the year with friends, a solid portfolio of work and a few tears when we left.

Francesca's grembiullo, a required accessory for scuola materna students.

Francesca’s grembiullo, a required accessory for scuola materna students.

Sarah shone in first grade. She had taught herself to read during the summer before we arrived, which put her ahead of her classmates. As they learned to read, so did she— this time in Italian. She developed a particular flair for the memorized recitation of Italian poetry and would practice endlessly out loud. None of us can shake the opening lines of Sarah’s particular favorite, “ La Luna Piena,” from our memory stores.

Stephen and Sarah carried Italian backpacks called zaini. They were nothing like understated Jansports . . .

Stephen and Sarah carried Italian backpacks called zaini. They were nothing like the familar understated Jansports they were used to in the U.S.

Best of all was the first back-to-school night. I couldn’t wait for the day to come so that I could learn something about elementary school curriculum, how the children were faring, etc. Instead, the focus of our two hour meeting with the teachers was entirely on the lunch menu. At back to school night, I learned that Italian parents consider pedagogy to be the province of the teachers. They wouldn’t think of questioning or interfering with the process of teaching. Lunch, on the other hand, was a frightening leap of faith for these families. It turns out that our school had become a “tempo pieno” school several years earlier. Most Italian schools are in session on Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 1:15 p.m. or so. Our school in Umbria elected to introduce “full” days,” which meant that lunch would be served to the children while they remained at school. Apparently it took several years for the consulting pediatricians, the teachers and the parents to agree on a menu and there was still controversy as witnessed in the prolonged group free-for-all at back-to-school night. Lunch, it seems, is firmly the responsibility of the mothers of Italy.

The Faris children fifteen years after their Italian year abroad (Francesca, Sarah and Stephen).

The Faris children fifteen years after their Italian year abroad (L to R: Francesca, Sarah and Stephen).

As for our own livelihoods, I was promoted within a few months of returning to my old university position. Brian was besieged by pent-up demand from former clients. Our house, a little worse for wear after a year of college-aged tenants, bounced back after a deep clean and a few repairs. Our children rejoined their friends in American public school. We settled in to our old lives, but something was clearly different.

The Faris family (L to R: Francesca, Stephen, Brian, Catherine and Sarah).

The Faris family (L to R: Francesca, Stephen, Brian, Catherine and Sarah).

In the end, we considered the year to be one of the best we ever experienced. It awakened a desire to choose our lives rather than exist where we found ourselves. Our children, now adults, see the world just a little differently and are unafraid to navigate within it. They’re compassionate with people whose first language isn’t English and they’re curious about lives that are different from theirs. They don’t actually hate us. Our year away deepened our bonds with one another and forever forged our relationship to Italy. It’s not particularly surprising that now we’ve been called back for another Italian junior year abroad.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I can’t imagine a better education for 3 little children…what a wonderful experience.

    January 24, 2013
    • Thanks, Debra. Our experience underscores the value in going with one’s instincts. We regret nothing! Glad that you’re back in Italy.

      January 25, 2013
  2. Marzia Elgani #

    I was born in Italy and moved to the US in 1966, where I grew up in upstate New York. I have since returned (1994) and now live in the Lake Region of Italy (provincia di Lecco). Just curious… do your children still speak Italian? I find one of the greatest assests of having grown up in two cultures, is the fact that I’m completely bilingual. Love your blog!

    January 30, 2013
    • Hi, Marzia–Thanks so much for the kinds words about my blog. First of all, the children—who are now 25, 23 and 20—still speak some Italian, but their proficiency varies. Francesca, the youngest, is probably the most comfortable speaking Italian, followed by Sarah, our middle daughter. Our son, Stephen, still retains a great deal of vocabulary and can follow just about every conversation, but is less likely to join in during conversations. Instead, he spent half a year in Chile during college and is fairly competent in Spanish, which came in handy during a recent trip to Spain with him. I wish now that I had continued to speak Italian with them when we returned, but it just didn’t happen. Like you, though, they are extremely comfortable culturally, which has had a huge effect on their willingness to try new things. Thanks again for reading!

      January 30, 2013

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