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My Top Three Lessons from “School” in Italy

The cheers in the stairway reverberated off the walls, giving us goosebumps as we waited to ascend into Scuola Mazzini in Genoa, Italy. It wasn’t easy to have all eyes on us, and my palms began to sweat as I thought about stumbling through a first conversation with my daughters’ teachers in my awkward Italian. I already had a lump in my throat, as I always do on the first (and last) day of the school year for my kids. The slightest provocation could set tears flowing, so I held steady, not wanting to cause a scene among strangers.

This was the start of the school year in our new temporary country. Maestra Gabriella had invited us to be part of the traditional welcoming parade, where all the new students and their parents would be publicly “inducted” into the world of formal education. That march up the elementary school stairs (shown above) was meant to mark the beginning of each child’s long journey to becoming knowledgeable and participatory Italian citizens.

Though my family would only be in Genoa a year, this journey would be as eye-opening and mind-expanding as a full Italian education. Academics and language acquisition aside, we would be learning both broad and subtle points about Italian culture. It proved to be a “schooling” full of delights, challenges and surprises.

The top three lessons

Whether or not you’ve traveled to Italy, chances are you’re familiar with the three “truisms” I’ll share in this post. Proclaimed by Italians themselves, they still fall under stereotypes, which we could only unpack from an American perspective. While each truism is worthy of its own book, I’ll keep it short. And I’ll share what these lessons continue to teach us, even though our year of Italian schooling is behind us.

1. “Italians love children.”

I was struck by this truism from that very first day of school. Mothers, fathers, and teachers too were unabashedly affectionate with the kids they knew. Even away from school, in everyday social settings, adults were unafraid to show simple affection to random children. This stood in stark contrast to the cautious vibe I was used to, and it evoked two distinct and opposing reactions:

1) Don’t touch other people’s children, especially if you’re a man — you could get sued!

2) No one should be afraid to show basic human affection to a child — why isn’t this the norm?!

Was it the Puritanical roots in my own culture or today’s litigious atmosphere that shaped my first thought? Maybe it would be good for me to open up to a warmer, more affectionate approach with children.

2. “Italy is the worst country for bureaucracy.”

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was one of many to make this proclamation, and for us this stereotype proved both prevalent and unpleasant. Having lived in only two countries, I can’t say for certain that Italy is the worst, but bureaucracy is alive and well there— and a pain in the culo! We had to navigate buying special stamps to ensure documents were “official,” jump through multiple hoops just to retrieve a package or even to buy a basic cell phone plan. My Italian teacher in Genoa emphasized that no one in his country can make sense of formal instructive Italian documents. That provided a small measure of comfort: at least the locals shared my confusion about the “rules” and how to follow them.

My approach to figuring out Italian bureaucracy was to understand how Italians themselves dealt with it. Complaining about it was part of daily life. And whenever I delved further, I would get an earful about a country “buried in senseless red tape,” and an overtaxed population whose money “fuels a corrupt Mafia-infested government.” Yet aside from the periodic transit or worker strikes, I didn’t see much pushback on the system.