Moving Forward in a Backward Manner – From Tour Guide to Student

Tea Time near the Duomo

After my recent post about leaving Bus2alps, I have been repeatedly pummeled with a single question: What now? Friends and family from home, friends here, and even some that I haven’t spoken to in ages want to know what is next in my non-traditional life. I wish I could tell you. But the fact is that it isn’t as easy as that. I can’t just blurt out an answer that will solve all of my problems. But I found a small, temporary solution for the time being.

Working with a student-travel company that has a customer base almost completely of american students, even though I have been living in the heart of Tuscany and dating a Florentine (for those of you that don’t know, though, Rami is absolutely fluent in English and sounds American – which doesn’t help my situation), my Italian speaking skills are male – aka “bad”. More like terrible. It has come to the point where my non-american friends immediately switch to English when I enter the conversation. Shop owners (if I don’t dress correctly) welcome me with “hello.” What a tragedy I am.

Because of this and because I now have time on my hands, I have decided to go back to school.

I set off one morning in the Italian sunshine with a simple list of language schools that I thought looked promising. Finding them is somewhat of a challenge at times, for the first few I entered were in old palaces – set on the upper levels of grand staircases that left me out of breath. I’d have to stop before the doorway and collect myself before going in (I also need to start going to the gym again if you haven’t noticed) – then decide if I was going to attempt to ask for information in Italian or English.

A few were boring – the women at the desk uninterested in me. Some lazily shoved papers across the counter with price lists, while others dragged their feet in true Italian lackadaisical fashion while I followed, peeking in the classrooms they motioned to on my “tour.” I wasn’t impressed and slightly nervous that I was expecting more than I could find. Rami was getting frustrated with me sitting around the house with nothing to do and knowing how much inactivity made me restless – even after only a week. I needed to find something.   The last school I looked at that day was the one I chose. Located near the church of Santa Croce, Parola is a small language school that just so happened to be referred to me by my friend, Jess Dante, who now runs The Abroad Guide. Because it was later in the day, the school was quiet when I walked through the door, but a man was behind the desk, speaking with another potential student in rapid Italian.

My speaking Italian is a catastrophe, but my understanding has gotten significantly better in the past year so I could understand down to what type of classes she was asking about, but whenever she walked out the door and he turned to me, I faltered.

Voglio…lo stesso…di lei,” I pieced together – and even though that isn’t remotely correct for numerous reasons, he smiled and began the conversation in Italian – which, as a respect thing, made me feel better. It’s like when you let a toddler dress themselves for school. Probably can’t do it, probably will come out with a tutu, two left shoes, and a belt around their face, but they want to try and feel important so you let them struggle until they decide to ask for help. He continued with Italian for a bit but then did transfer over to English once it was understood I couldn’t possibly ask the questions I wanted to ask in Italian. He explained that I could begin a class within the week if I wanted to, and told me that it would be 490 Euro for a month-long group class with lessons Monday through Friday for four hours a day. When I asked why this was so inexpensive compared to the other schools I had looked at, he grinned and shook his head.

“We aren’t trying to push up prices just because we can,” he shrugged as he did the chin-jut that most Italians do when words seem to fail for a situation. If you want a demonstration, I’ve found myself doing it at times as well. Body language Italian is another whole class in itself, though I believe it is much easier to pick up. He introduced himself then as the director of the school, Simone, and said he had even taught in Boston College for a few years.

“We’ve kept the same prices for years because we can afford to,” he said. “It also allows our classes to be full. We don’t want to offer a class, and then not be able to fill it. We’re here for you; we’re not going to take your money just because you expect higher prices in Florence.”

He persuaded me to take the evaluation test right there, even though the school was officially closed for the day. As I struggled through the questions, mumbling apologies the entire time over my shoulder that this was the first test I had taken in three years, he was very patient and simply waited for me to finish. He told me I was an advanced beginner and that I should start class the next day.

After that interaction, with genuine care about me enrolling in his school, and even though I was out at a club until four in the morning that Monday, I dragged myself to school last Tuesday at 8:45 and began a pretty intensive course that involves two hours of grammar, and then two hours of conversation. I couldn’t be happier.

Though I’ve talked up the school so far, and the first few days have gone extremely well, I’ll wait until I finish the program before I review it fully on here. Hopefully after a few more weeks, I’ll be able to at least begin to insert myself in the Italian conversations that happen in front of me every day.

This week has been a little hectic with the World Championship Cycling Races being held outside my window and I’ll try to write a post about that a little later, as well as a follow up as to my plan for life after my class is up. Because obviously a month long class doesn’t really fix my long-term predicament. But for now, I’m focusing on parole or “words” for a bit.

**Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the past couple of weeks (nevermind years) and helped me with their advice, or simply just listening to my stories and complaints. You don’t know how much it means to me. And of course, a special shout out to my Mum, brother Ned, close friends here and at home, and Rami. Without you, I’d just be empty words on a page.

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The Prouty and Why I Push Myself

They had already gotten ahead of me – tires spinning on the concrete, the smell of pine flying by my face at fourteen miles per hour. I could see the three of them rounding the corner, my two uncles and my cousin – legs pumping on their bikes, charging through the New Hampshire back-roads as I struggled to catch my breath from the last hill. They were going to drop me, obviously. I hadn’t trained in years, nevermind months; and as I looked down at the frame of the Cannondale bike, as I felt my calves burning from the over-under pull, as I heard my breathing catching in my throat, scraping in my lungs, I was wondering why I had decided on mile ten to do fifty, instead of the twenty, or the thirty-five I had registered for. But then as I looked up at the surrounding mountains, as I crossed over the bridge and looked down on the river below, I remembered:

Because the pain in my legs is nothing compared to the pain that Jay had as he tried to sit up straight and joke with us only months before, even though he had lost weight, and the pain couldn’t be reduced by the medication. Because the wheezing in my lungs is childsplay when I think about Jean, struggling to walk up the stairs to her bed, needing to drain her lungs of fluid every few days. Because I can push just that much harder, I can go up one more hill because my “struggle” is nothing when I think of those I loved that had to go through so much with this horrible thing called cancer. My legs, are fine. My feet can do one more turn, my heart can do one more hill for them. Becuase I am healthy, I will ride for those that aren’t. Because I can push myself, I won’t stop when I am “tired,” I won’t complain that I am “sore,” I won’t refuse to ride because “my butt will hurt.” More will hurt if I don’t. My soul will hurt. Because nothing I do, no pain that I go through riding a bike, will ever compare to the pain that I saw in their faces, to the pain I felt when I could do nothing to help them. So I will ride until my legs give out. I will ride until my lungs can’t take it anymore. I will push myself up over that next hill, and the next, and the next. I’ll go that extra mile because I can and they couldn’t. I won’t quit. I’ll never quit.

For more information on The Prouty, you can follow the link! Thank you to all who have supported me in this ride, as well as my past – especially the Pan Mass Challenge. Everyday, we’re closer to a cure!

http://www.theprouty.org

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The Art of Skiing with Children

“So nowww…” I started to proclaim in a high-pitched overly-excited voice. I am facing uphill, skis pointing outward with a little forty-pound bundle of unhappy child in between. “…. I want you to make your skis into the shape of a pizza slice!” I try to make this sound like the best idea in the entire world. That this feat would earn him a sticker, a hot chocolate, a puppy, horse, million dollars. Fail. The little bright blue eyes peeking out of what seem like enough material to clothe a small army start to tear up.

“But I don’t like pizza!” the four-year-old Tyler started to moan. This is my last lesson of the day. It is only two degrees out. The two of us are the only ones out on the bunny slope. I want to cry too.

Why parents believe that their children actually want to be forced into snow suits and strapped into skis for a lesson at seven p.m. on a Tuesday night is beyond me. But they come in hordes; bringing gifts of tearful children and mittens that I have to readjust every five minutes because their “thumbs are disappeared” within the abundance of Gore-Tex and polar fleece. An odd situation for many, yes. But this is my job.

I am a ski instructor.

I was born on skis. My family owns a house in Danbury, NH, almost at the base of RaggedMountain. I learned to ski when I was three years old. My father dedicated seasons of skiing to teaching me when I was young – endless games of follow the leader, shadow, say what I say and do what I do. I never was in a real lesson. I had my dad. He was taught by a Swiss man. I excelled just with him because I liked pizza, but more importantly I liked the speed and the freedom that forced me down the slope once I had K2’s on my feet. I was captain of my high school’s ski team. Skiing is a passion of mine. The thought of sharing that passion with others by teaching seemed appealing. I signed up to become an instructor in the fall – when ski excitement is at it’s peak. I was ready.

I started teaching lessons at Ski Bradford in high school. Ski Bradford is not a mountain. It is a hill located in Haverhill, Massachusetts that someone decided to put a chairlift on. One can see the top from the bottom, and cruise every one of its twelve trails multiple times in a few hours. Yet, it serves its purpose. Many youth of the MerrimackValley come here to learn to ski and/or snowboard. Many youth work there. As with any small, family run business, there are quirks to the workday.

It begins in the lodge. A classic ski lodge equipped with an overpriced snack bar, walls of cubbies, round tables and a stone fireplace. It’s perfect, until the kids show up. When the yellow school busses pull into the muddy parking lot, there is only one word for the action that commences.

Chaos.

It’s a lodge built for two hundred people that pretends it can hold five hundred. Plus, for every one individual, there is double that of those god-awful mittens, a helmet that is sometimes heavier than the owner’s head, clunky boots, coats, hats, and scarves. The sounds are unique. Questions of “Where is (article of clothing)?” or statements like “My boots hurt!” echo across the small room. With some, the only visible body part is their eyes behind goggles. Other older children “forget” to bring hats, mittens, and sometimes ski in jeans because proper attire of snow pants was opted “out of style” in the pre-teen world. Unless one is capable of staking out one of the limited tables and defending it with their life and, occasionally, a spare ski pole, the lodge can be a terrifying experience. Instructors also have to share this space. And it does get slightly frustrating when one mother feels the need to take up an entire table so as to set up her laptop. I usually opt out of this hothouse and spend my time on the slopes.

When not in lessons, I love to tear down the trails in seconds; eyes tearing and nose frostbitten. Ski instructors can be pinpointed on any area of the mountain. We have a uniform, per se, with our silver and blue jackets complete with nametags. They allow us to control the mountain, to maintain order among the peons of the hill. But when the call comes over the loudspeaker, my fast paced fun ends, and that coat that just a minute ago gave free range of the ski area turns into a leash to the bunny slope. I assemble for “line up” at the bottom of the hill with my coworkers, awaiting our lesson assignment.

No one takes his or her job seriously here. How can you when half the time you are acting ridiculous to maintain attention? I can honestly say that about ninety percent of my co-workers can execute the choreographed Cotton-Eye Joe dance perfectly in ski boots. I am perfectly capable of walking into work outfitted in full spandex gear without shame. There was one particular day where I was seen toting around a snowball with two pennies for eyes. His name was Henry the Third and it was mandatory that he existed in my hands for the entire duration of this one little girl’s lesson. Yet, at the end of my two hours with her, she proceeded to place him (the snowball) on the Magic Carpet and bobble away in her bright red ski boots, as if sending him off to sea. Though, perhaps in her eyes it was a magical journey for her frozen friend. Everyone that has been to Bradford has had a special admiration for the carpet.

The magic carpet is nothing out of a Disney Movie. Rather, the skiers that use it look more like checked bags in an airport than Arabian royalty. The carpet is a moving sidewalk per se, for skiers. Skiing onto it, the ramp grips onto your skis and moves up a small incline to the top of the bunny slope. Though simple in design, the out of the ordinary set up of a moving piece of land in the midst of a white landscape does seem like magic. Instructors can skate (moving on flat land on skis) up and down alongside the carpet twice as fast as those taking the leisurely ride the fifty feet up. Though sometimes, the little ones need assistance on the carpet, so I go along for the ride. “Don’t try to walk! Don’t move your feet!” The same warnings are always stated multiple times, yet every year movement happens, and little skiers fall. Falling is common within ski lessons, yet the predicament is heightened when there is moving mechanics under one’s bottom, rather than stationery snow. When down for the count, the child is still (like luggage) moving right along, only now on one’s bottom, rather than one’s feet. Some flail until the operator shuts the carpet down, others are motionless – vegetables on a conveyer belt, staring up at the sky through their goggles until I come to the rescue.

One child gave the impression his legs were without bones. Ironically named Tripp, he took the art of pretending to have noodle-legs too far. He was three feet tall, flaming orange hair, and a freckle faced grin that let out giggles as if they were part of the breathing process. He could be seen purposefully wobbling stating “Ohhh no! I fallinggg!” and drop like a fallen log onto the snow, laughing all the way. Trying to pick him up, he would be dead weight; his helmeted head lolling with giggles, loving the fact I was struggling, thinking it was a game.

 “Tripp…” I’d groan. “Tripp you have to get up or we can’t ski down and have fun anymore!” He’d giggle and pretend not to hear- flailing his arms. He would eventually stand again, but only with the promise of  a fire truck sticker.  If I simply had Tripp, there would be no problem. But in that particular lesson, I had four three-year-olds. Usually, by three, humans have grasped the concept of standing. However, it seems that at any age, once skis are put on a beginner’s feet, the theory of controlling one’s own movements ceases to exist.

Therefore, in Tripp’s lesson, I had four of these little bodies who were surrendering themselves to gravity. I would line them up at the top of the hill like little soldiers, ready for a run, and one by one, they would tumble. Sara would start sliding forward, Beau would be moving in the direction of the Magic Carpet, Tripp would be on his back, and Nikki, good little Nikki, would be standing, arms out as if trying to grab onto something, trying desperately hard to stay in one spot, but failing miserably. Sometimes, instead of telling them to stay still, I’d have to persuade them, and the whole scene would go with slightly more conformity. “I’ll let you make snow angels if we can stand still for ten seconds!” or “If we can stand in line right now, we can go down the steep part of the hill next!”

Most of my day is persuading, haggling, and bartering. The little ones aren’t dumb. They have the what’s-in-it-for-me attitude. Sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with business professionals, rather than children who think I’m old. One of the older ones asked me this past season what year I was born. When I told him 1988, he was almost bowled over by the shock of it.

At twenty-two, I’m not old. But when spending day to day with people who still can’t zip their own coats, according to them, I am ancient. For example: many of my analogies deal with some facet of Disney. The Magic Carpet, for example, is obviously a reference to Aladdin. Anyone my age would immediately understand. Yet, when I say, “You can be just like Princess Jasmine!” they turn their helmeted heads my way and look up at me in confusion.

“Who’s that?” They ask, blank faced. So I keep going.

“Do you know who Ariel is? King Triton? Snow White? Belle? The Beast? Bambi?! Cinderella?!” No light bulb goes on. Instead of knowing these characters that shaped my childhood, they talk of Justin Bieber and the Wiggles (which, in my opinion, are quite disturbing).

This makes me realize that I am old, or, older anyway. But with this job as an instructor, you can’t be old. Because you’re running around pretending you’re a hippo, duck, monster, horse, cat, dog, monster truck, snowflake (they make a SHHH sound FYI)   to make the kids laugh, or having snowball fights, or making snow angels, or singing at the top of your lungs on the chairlift. I like my job, not because of how much I’m paid (almost nothing), nor the deep freeze lessons with a ball of clothing that somewhere contains Tyler at seven at night, but because it’s a job where I can be as crazy as I want to be. At Bradford ski, the kids don’t mind if I don’t act “normal” or if I have the right grade point average. I don’t need to know what I’m going to do with my English degree after graduation.  I can be where I belong – on skis.

So if you’re ever in or around Haverhill next winter, stop by. Make your way through the lodge and come out for a lesson. But don’t complain about being cold, bring your own tissue because I am not wiping your nose, make sure you don’t lose your thumbs in your mittens, have bones in your legs, and like pizza. I promise you’ll be great.  I’ll even let you make a snowball friend with penny eyes; but only if I get to name him. He’ll be Henry. The Fourth.