Interviews for new teaching staff were held in Cheltenham, a stroke of luck for me, as my parents lived in a village just six miles away, meaning that I could combine business and pleasure, spending a few days with family and friends, interviewing during the afternoon and enjoying a pint of bitter with Colonel Jim or an old schoolfriend or two in the evening. I had never interviewed anybody before, and was nervous about doing so, but my fears evaporated when I realised that the experience was much more nerve-wracking for the person on the other side of the table.
I simply could not believe some of the moronic things that people say at interview. Quite a few of the candidates made the mistake of telling me that they fancied a year or two “dossing around” – those were the very words they used – in the Mediterranean, before finding a “proper job” back in the UK. Others, on being asked whether there was anything they wanted to know before the interview drew to a close, immediately wanted to know how far the nearest beach was from the city centre. Some turned up in jeans and T-shirt. Others displayed prominent tattoos or spiky green hair. Some even seemed to think that they had been invited along to interview me. I didn’t know whether interviewers in other lines of work had similar experiences, but it struck me, yet again, that the TEFL industry attracted more than its fair share of losers, drop-outs and unemployables. Colonel Jim was bemused by what I told him of those I had interviewed. “What young people need today is a bloody good dose of hard work.” After a sip or two of beer, he decided that that wasn’t halfway drastic enough. “Sometimes I think that another war would do everyone the power of good. Nothing like a spot of war to instil discipline and pull everyone together, what?”
But somehow, from the motley crew at my disposal, I managed to put together a team of half-decent English teachers for the following year. There was Joshua, a young Jewish boy with a passing resemblance to Jeff Goldblum and with natural authority for one so young. There was an hysterical blonde by the name of Debbie, who loved a crisis and would often knock breathlessly on our door, late at night, pregnant with news and just dying to tell us of some insignificant happening in the Middle East, or perhaps in Timbuktu, which she would amplify and pad out with dire prophesies until we were convinced that World War III was about to commence. There was Thomas, a state school qualified teacher who shared my passion for both Germany and Italy, whose hobbies were listening to the Pet Shop Boys and collecting Doctor Who memorabilia, and who, believe me, was a lot more fun than he sounds! Finally, there was Joanne, a lady of 58 who had begged me, during interview, not to allow her age to influence my decision. She was a hard worker, she said, and a team player. And she certainly wouldn’t object to working for a younger boss. Young blood in a business was, she concluded, a good thing. Had I been more experienced, I would have noticed the warning signs. I would have noticed that she interrupted the other candidates during the group interviews and chopped at the table with her open hand, as if to say, “This is the way it is and I will not be contradicted.” I would have pried more deeply into her private life to discover why a lady approaching her retirement years, who had never left the UK for any considerable amount of time, and who had two grown up children, would want, at this late stage in her life, to drop everything and go and live in Italy. But, of course, like the novice that I was, I ended up feeling sorry for her and offered her the position.
Joanne arrived in Naples on a Monday evening, two weeks after my return to the city. Our driver, Donato, went to pick her up at Capodichino airport and brought her back to the school for a briefing. We could hear her before she walked through the door. “… totally ridiculous. Driving like a complete bloody madman.” Donato scuttled in behind her, rolling his eyes at me. “Now, are you the manager?” Joanne was addressing Karen. “Good,” she continued without waiting for Karen’s reply. “Now, I insist on being taken to my apartment. I kept trying to tell this little man as much, but he wouldn’t listen to me, and brought me here instead. Doesn’t anyone around here speak plain, simple English? What sort of people do you employ?” On and on she went, and Karen gave me an exasperated “What-have-you-gone-and-done?” look. I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror with an expression very much like the one Karen had just given me. Joanne was still carrying on when I came out. “Absolutely not, my dear. I’ve had a terrible flight; an awful journey. I’m hot and tired and all I want is a nice cup of tea and to go to my apartment and put my feet up. I’d be grateful if you’d call me a taxi.” We did. Anything to get rid of her. “Sorry, Karen,” I said, when she’d gone. “I think we’re all going to be sorry,” said Karen, glumly. “But she was so different at interview,” I tried to justify myself. “They always are. But you’ve got to ask yourself why someone that age wants to start a new life; even if they’re genuine in their intentions, they’re often so fixed in their ways that they can’t cope with a new culture or modern pedagogical methods. And most of the time, they’re running away from something.” Sadly, Karen was right. What Joanne was running away from was death. The death of a much-loved husband, in fact. With her children grown up, and her husband having dropped dead of a stroke just a few months previously, Joanne had attempted to make a new start. But the sudden change had proved to be just a little too much for her and she had rebelled against it practically the moment she got off the plane. Culture shock generally hits teachers after a matter of weeks or months. I remembered the way I had felt in late November/early December of my first year. For someone like Joanne, who has undergone such a dramatic upheaval, it can kick in almost immediately, and its effect can be far more devastating. Unfortunately, there are many Joannes out there. And they are the reason for the rampant ageism in the TEFL industry. I would estimate that 8 out of 10 of those over 50 who travel to teach abroad after a lifetime of happy and contented family routine, end up like Joanne, admitting their mistake after a matter of days and flying home to lick their wounds. And, to my shame, I soon found myself binning the CVs of anyone the wrong side of 40. As I got horribly close to that cut-off point myself, I regretted not having had the courage to go out and bat for them just that little bit harder.
Humour is a strange thing indeed. Before I had ever lived abroad, I would have sworn that something was either funny or it was not. If it were funny, then it would be laughed at from Newcastle to Nairobi. And if it were not, then it wouldn’t. Simple as that. But things aren’t, in fact, as simple as that. Germans, it is often said, have no sense of humour. That is not so. While it is true that their attempts at a “build-up-a-story-and-finish-it-with-a-punchline” style of joke tend to make only other Germans laugh, some of their more intellectual comedy is very subtle and extremely humorous, if only you can speak their language. Italian comedy, back in the 90s, on the other hand, was predominantly visual. They loved slapstick: custard pies, banana skins, people’s trousers falling down … It was no surprise that they all adored Mr. Bean and considered Benny Hill to be a comic genius. Neapolitans have their own local hero in the figure of Totò, star of many a black-and-white film in the 1950s and 1960s, some of them masterpieces, others jolly amusing and others still nothing short of dick-headed.
A bust of Totò adorns many a Neapolitan mantelpiece. What Italians had no time for, however, was the sort of black humour beloved of the British. On one particular late spring evening, we were having a meal on the terrace under a moonlit sky. Giovanna’s friend Elena was there with her Austrian husband. A friend of mine from Germany was also present, as were two friends of Joshua’s from Milan, and Sandra with her latest boyfriend. At a certain point in the evening’s proceedings, the conversation turned to Monty Python. Christian, the Austrian, was a big fan and he rocked with laughter as he recalled some of his favourite sketches. Matthias, from Munich, nodded in approval. The Italians, however, were silent. They had never heard of Monty Python. Christian was appalled. “Never heard of Monty Python? Then you have never laughed!”
On hearing that I had a selection of Monty Python videocassettes in my cupboard, he insisted that we all adjourn to the kitchen for just a few moments, so that Monty Python and the Italians might make each other’s acquaintance. The sketches that Christian selected to introduce our friends to the Pythons were taken from the film “The Meaning of Life”. The first involved an unfeasibly fat man by the name of Mr. Creosote, gorging himself in a restaurant to the point at which a “wafer-thin” after-dinner mint causes him to explode, spraying his guts over the other diners. The second featured a man having his liver forcibly removed while still alive, the consequence of his carrying an organ donor card. In the meantime, his wife made small-talk with his butchers and offered them a cup of tea. Christian was laughing so hard that he was almost choking, as was Matthias. The Brits among us had, of course, seen the films many times before, but we were still laughing out loud along with the others. The Italians, on the other hand, were not laughing. Neapolitans and Milanese alike, they looked absolutely horrified. Giovanna was staring open-mouthed, as if wondering how such barbarism could possibly occasion hilarity, and Sandra looked as if she were going to cry. As we took our seats again, back at the dinner table, the Italians were uncharacteristically silent while the mood of the Northern Europeans had become cheerier, and we chatted and socialised until the early hours, reliving our favourite moments from the “Flying Circus”.
The North/South divide made itself very much felt that evening and has done so on many an occasion since, in which humour has played a major part. Indeed, apart from abysmal pop music and evenings spent driving around in cars, there is, perhaps, nothing that makes me feel more foreign in Italy than the humour barrier.