12 May 2013

LIFE: Table Talk

Guest blogger Elisa Scarton Detti recalls her first encounter with an Italian food critic. Of course the food critic was only three years old and the encounter took place in a nursery school (which in Australia are called kindergartens), but here in Italy food critics are born, not made.
Elisa Scarton Detti and the Tuscan Twenty
Table Talk
By: Elisa Scarton Detti
As I tucked into my second plate of beautifully dressed fennel with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, I knew this was the life. Content, I nudged my fellow diner, looking forward to sharing my delight over the salad greens. As I open my mouth to speak, my neighbour finished licking all the dressing off his last piece of fennel and dumped it unceremoniously onto his napkin along with the others.

“Finnochio fa schifo,” he said to me as he wiped his fingers on his smock. I didn’t agree that fennel was gross, but I couldn’t exactly start an argument about it. He was three years old and we were sitting in mini chairs around a mini table in the middle of a typical lunch at a country Tuscan kindergarten.

I was tempted to snort and tell this kid that down under in my home country of Australia, little brats weren’t served lunch at kindergarten, let alone the expertly prepared, hot two-course meal he just devoured. But then I remembered that an English-language aide teacher should have a certain level of graciousness and sophistication, so I just muttered ‘you evil little thing’ in English and left it at that.

In my years of teaching English to Italian kindergartners, I learnt a lot of things. I learnt that those under five show no interest in reciting numbers in another language when they could be covering themselves in paint. I learnt that you should never leave a four year old with a handful of plastic coins unless you expect her to eat them. And I learnt that Pingu the television penguin is not an effective language teaching aide when you consider that he only speaks in indistinguishable honks.

When I look back at my experience of the Italian education system, I look with the eyes of an expat who is about to become a parent. In a few years’ time my little brats will be attending an Italian kindergarten, elementary school and hopefully, if they don’t decide to pursue professional sport or super stardom in Hollywood, secondary school. Will I send them to an Italian school or an international school?

My strongest memories of the Italian state school system are wrapped up in school lunches. I still enviously and fondly remember the meals we were served every midday in the kindergarten parlour with its Post-it note yellow walls and scarred linoleum. Slices of tender veal cutlets, ricotta ravioli with sage butter and shaved parmesan, steamed long beans with a tomato ragu sauce! As creative as my mother could be back in Australia, her standard school lunch consisted of ham and bread.

Of course, the Italian children I taught were disadvantaged in other ways. No Australian teacher in her right mind would leave an inexperienced 18-year-old foreigner (me) with two dozen under-fives, while she went outside to have lengthy mobile phone chats. In my first year of teaching, I grew eyes in the back of my head just so I could keep two on the little boy who had a perchance for pulling down other kids’ pants.

When I moved to an Italian elementary school, the classes I observed were sometimes haphazard, the teachers weren’t always experts in their fields and the lack of extra-curricular activities was surprising to a young woman who had been forced to play tennis, dance in school plays and head a debate team throughout her schooling years.

There’s no doubt the Italian education ethos is different from its international schools, where everything is as pristine and polished as a couch that still has its plastic cover on. In the international school I taught at, there were no lovingly prepared school lunches, but the education was as proper as any private school in the U.S or the UK. But it was an utterly un-Italian education, devoid of the natural affection and passion the country is famous for and devoid of the almost subconscious appreciation and instruction of European art and culture.

Over the years, expat friends and parents have asked what school system I recommend. Their number one concern is always whether their children will suffer because they don’t speak the language. I honestly don’t know whether local or international schooling is best in Italy, so instead I tell my friends about the beautiful Romanian children I taught when I was at my Tuscan kindergarten.

On mini chairs on the other side of the mini table on that faithful day when were eating dressed fennel there sat four Romanian cousins. Three girls and a boy, they’d only be in Italy for a couple of months and were as shy as could be. But I remember as they watched Mr Brat discard his fennel, the little boy turned to me and said with perfect fluency, “Questo qua é piuttosto un rompipalle”. I couldn’t fault his Italian and I couldn’t fault his logic. That kid really was a pain in the butt.

About the author
Elisa Scarton Detti is an Australian journalist who came to Tuscany for a year, fell in love and decided to stick around. Not one to keep amazing holiday destinations to herself, she now writes a blog and travel guide (www.maremma-tuscany.com) about the infinitely beautiful Tuscan Maremma, so that others can get a taste of la dolce vita.

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