With February safely out the way, my mood, along with that of my colleagues and the Neapolitans in general, seemed to improve almost tangibly. Not that the weather had improved much. It was still raining more often than not, but there was a general feeling that the worst had come and gone. To cheer me up even further, I had just been offered what seemed to me to be a cracker of a course to teach. It involved eight hours of lessons per day with a group of four men out in an aeronautics plant on the outskirts of the city. The course would last for one entire month. That was 160 hours of teaching! I would be seriously well-off after that. And, even better, they were all total beginners, the easiest and most rewarding of all levels to teach, once you have had a little practice. In a city in which you are only provided with information on a need-to-know basis and, quite often, not even then, no-body seemed to be in a position to tell me why, exactly, these people needed to learn English or why, more importantly, they needed to learn it with such haste. No one knew what their jobs were or whether any specific language skills would be required. “Just teach from lesson one,” said the Director of Studies with a dismissive wave. “The rest will become clear as you go along.” I was whistling merrily to myself as I strolled into the factory on the Monday morning of week one. I had decided to spend the proceeds of this on an Easter break in Florence and, mentally, I was already there.
The Human Resources Manager greeted me cheerily, showed me to my classroom – whiteboard, overhead projector, stereo, … not too shabby – and promptly left. Minutes later, four men ambled in, nodded to me in greeting and collapsed slobbishly onto the tiny wooden chairs that looked as if they might collapse under the strain at any moment. They had the expectant expression of a well-refreshed audience at a working men’s club, when the first comic of the evening walks out onto the stage and everyone settles back to enjoy the show. Oh dear. They didn’t look too intelligent to me. Thick, heavy-set faces that took several seconds to change expression, three-day beards and flat caps perched on their heads, they looked as if they would have been much more at home snoozing under a tree with straws in their mouths, fingers clasped around the neck of a flagon of wine, rather than sitting here studying the English language. I began, in the time-honoured fashion, with numbers.
“1” I wrote on the board, and pronounced it carefully so that they could follow the movements of my lips. Gennaro made the first attempt. It sounded something like: “Urggghhh.” I smiled indulgently. “Er, not quite. Let’s try again. Ahem … ‘one’.” “Urggghhh.” “Hmmm. Pasquale. You try. ‘One’.” “Urggghhh,” responded Pasquale. I kept going for a couple of minutes, but all I could get out of any of them was “Urggghhh”. I gave up and moved onto the number two. “2” I wrote on the whiteboard. “OK, Gennaro. ‘Two’.” “Urggghhh.” “Pasquale?” “Urggghhh.” This was hopeless. After forty five minutes, both Gennaro and Pasquale could count to ten thus: “Urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh, uh-urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh, urggghhh.” Ciro and Gianni couldn’t even manage that much. In desperation, I called a coffee break and hoped that they would take the scenic route to the coffee machine and back again. They all departed, apart from Gianni, who sat staring at me, shaking his head occasionally, as if he were wondering just what the hell I was doing there. I was wondering pretty much the same thing myself. This was going to be a long month.
I pulled out my copy of “Il Mattino” and started reading, not so much because I wanted to read, but because Gianni’s staring was putting me on edge. On page 2 there was a story about a Neapolitan waiter who had moved to Milan in search of work, and who had found a job in a Milanese restaurant. After six months of abuse at the hands of his employers, who constantly insulted him and called him a terrone, an offensive northern term for a Southern Italian, he had climbed onto the roof of the restaurant with a kitchen knife, cut off his own balls, and had hurled them to the ground, screaming to the bemused/horrified Milanese below that they had “emasculated” him. I tossed the paper to Gianni. “Read that!” I said. “I can’t,” Gianni replied. “No, it’s OK. It’s in Italian.” “I can’t read.” “You can’t …” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, although it started to explain a great deal. “None of us can read. We paint aeroplanes. That’s what we do. What do we need to be able to read for?” I decided to do what I really should have done and, had I been more experienced, would have done right at the very beginning. When the others came back in, – they had, it seemed, indeed taken the scenic route – I asked them why they were doing the course and what they expected from it. The story they told me turned out to be quite sad in a comical sort of way. The company they worked for had won a contract with a Thai airline and were to send four workers out to a remote part of Thailand for a month to fit out a fleet of aircraft. Pasquale had, in fact, already been sent out there a few months previously. “Porca miseria! It was awful,” he told me now, his eyes filling with tears at the memory of it. “Nobody could understand a word I was saying. And I couldn’t make them understand what I wanted. No-one spoke Italian. And there was nowhere that sold spaghetti or an edible pizza.”
“Why didn’t you try the local cuisine?” I asked him. “EEEUUUCHH!” he barked, screwing up his eyes and shaking his head at the very thought of it. Thai food, it was well-known, was revolting. Inedible. Worse than English, even. He lowered his voice to a whisper and looked as if he were about to tell me something particularly painful. “They even eat snakes.” There was respectful, hushed silence from the others. Finally, after two weeks of eating nothing but bread, emaciated and at the end of his tether, he had put himself on a plane and flown back to Italy. And he had insisted, via the unions, that if workers were ever to be sent out to Thailand again, then the company must first provide one month of training in the English language. The company had agreed, and this was how we had tumbled into each others’ lives. At least I now knew why I was there and I knew what had to be done. But I had a new problem. How on earth was I going to teach a bunch of illiterates enough English to get by in Thailand in one month? Clearly the grammatically-based structural method favoured by most Italian students was not going to work. These people wouldn’t know a verb from ice-cream. No, I was going to have to come up with something more communicative. But how? I decided to spend the rest of the day trying to teach them how to utter some basic phrases intelligibly. And then, quite suddenly, an answer to the problem presented itself. As I was trying to teach them the word “water”, Pasquale asked, “But what does it mean?” “It means acqua,” I told him.
“Well, then, let’s write it,” he said, leaping up from his chair, grabbing the board pen from my hand and writing A-C-C-H-U-A on the whiteboard. That was it! Although they could neither read nor write, they did have a basic concept of letters and the sounds that they represented. If I could somehow render some basic phrases using letters that they could pronounce, then we might be able to get somewhere. I abandoned the role of teacher and, instead, we worked together on producing a sort of “phonetic” phrase book that enabled them to make themselves understood, and which then created situations in which they could practice the phrases through role-play. It was a primitive system. The question “How are you?”, for example, had to be rewritten as “au oriù?”, but it was supremely effective and, by the end of the four week period, my heart swelled with pride as they reproduced mini-sketches with heavily accented, but thoroughly passable, phonology. “At the Doctor’s”; “In the Restaurant”; “Buying Petrol”. I was sure that they were going to be fine, and I envied them the experience of a month spent learning about a new culture. They, however, did not regard themselves as quite so fortunate. “It’s a wrench for me to have to go to Thailand,” Gennaro told me one day, unhappily spooning gnochetti into his mouth. “Why?” I asked him. “I’d love to go. It’ll be a fascinating experience for you.” “But you’re a young man. You’re open-minded. You have no ties,” he replied. “Me, I miss my family. A month’s a long time. I don’t want to miss my children growing up.” His big, dozy eyes filled with tears. I supposed that children would make a difference. If I were a father, I might not want to miss a month of their childhood either: the first words; learning to walk; the first day at school. Perhaps I could understand him after all. “How old are your children, Gennaro?” I asked him. “Twenty one and nineteen.”
I suppressed a smile. I grew very fond of these simple men, though they could be infuriatingly infantile and were prone to temper tantrums. Every day, they seemed to dream up something else that they would insist the company pay for while they were out in Thailand. Hour-long phone calls back home once a day. Packs of spaghetti and tinned tomatoes to be shipped out. At one point, they seriously suggested that I be sent out with them to act as interpreter. I would have jumped at the chance, but I suspected that their company, and probably my school as well, would take a pretty dim view of this hare-brained scheme. And, as it turned out, I was right. The final day of the course came. It was just before Easter and the boys, as I had come to call them, arrived with a huge Easter egg as a present for me. They each kissed me on both cheeks and wished me well for the future and I believed that their affection was genuine, as mine certainly was. They had chosen the warmest day of the year thus far to present the egg to me, and getting it back to my flat by way of two different buses, was an arduous adventure. It stood by my bed, misshapen and generally looking rather sorry for itself, for several weeks. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it, and I liked to see it there as a reminder of what had been the most professionally satisfying month of my life up to that point, and probably even since.