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IN A FIT OF GOOD will last February I agreed to take over a service project this summer for a friend of mine. "It's all set up," he said. "All you have to do is drive seven Italian teenagers, all of whom speak some English, from their house in Cambridge to a Catholic parish in Dorchester where they'll be tutoring kids in math and helping out at the parish summer camp."
"Maybe iron a few wrinkles out," was all he said. "Make sure the Italians have something to do in the evenings, and get them to their English classes in the afternoon after camp."
It didn't sound too difficult. I have lived in inner city Chicago most of my life, so I felt I wouldn't have trouble with the neighborhood. And I'd get virtually free room and board if I lived with the tutors. So I decided to do it.
But now, after a full month of "babysitting" the Italians, as well as one Hungarian from Sweden, I'm beginning to wonder whether there might be an easier way to familiarize myself with European youths.
The trouble began the day I picked them up from the airport. Once the tutors emerged from customs, the boys immediately asked where they could make a phone call. But being unversed in the ways of AT&T, it took them 45 minutes to call their parents to tell them the plane hadn't crashed.
The next day we went to Simmons College, where the Italians are taking their English classes at the local office of English Language Service (ELS), an international English teaching corporation. (This is a bit of an irony, as we are an all-male group and Simmons is a women's college.) We arrived at nine in the morning and were told the Italians' placement tests were at 2 p.m.
Unfortunately, no one had warned ELS (or me) about the World Cup. Italy was playing Uruguay at 3 p.m., and obviously, the Italians would be unable to see the match if they took their tests as scheduled. Enrico asked me to intercede, so I asked if they might take the tests earlier. But the ELS coordinator said no--that would be impossible. I thought the issue dead.
BUT LITTLE DID I know then how stubborn Italians can be about their sports. As the infuriated Italians registered, one by one as they went through the line they asked to take their tests earlier. And it worked.
Every problem in the first few days became a pattern. Enrico would ask me a question and I'd answer it. Then he'd ask another question that made it obvious he had misunderstood my answer. So I would repeat my answer again, phrased differently, and he would nod his head and then say something like "So we can take the Red Line to the Aquarium?" when I'd told him, no, they couldn't.
Communication has been the major problem, but it's not just a question of language. Even when I know they've understood, the tutors will simply ignore me.
Getting lost and not telling me what they are doing have been other themes of my tutors' summer. Gigi, one of the more articulate and interesting students, keeps disappearing to go on what he calls "appointments," more commonly known in the U.S. as dates.
THERE ARE SOME things the Italians love about the U.S., and some they feel a bit more ambivalent about. Breakfast, for example, which they take 45 minutes to eat, is often the high point of their morning. But it's just hard for me not to feel a bit queasy when I see Enrico putting sugar on his Captain Crunch and in his glass of milk.
Of course, there have been many good points about working with the Italians too. Dorchester is an interesting place, and I know Boston much better than I did before. There are quite a few Dorchester kids who know how to multiply much better than they did last month. And when they aren't complaining or being arrogant about American sports, the Italians can be very entertaining. They play a mean game of soccer, even if it took me two weeks to get them to stop calling it football.
Whipping the tutors into shape has brought out a new, more forceful side of me. With nary a flinch I can say no to requests to do silly things like drive a van to Buffalo without insurance just to see Niagra Falls. Now I know how my father felt trying to whip me into shape during my high school years.
On the down side, I'm afraid I correct people's English even more readily than I used to, making me a veritable Attilla the Hun of Grammar. My friends are getting a little annoyed at my role as Grammar Cop.
Since the Italians are here for two more weeks, there's a chance they'll do something even more ridiculous before they leave. We're going down to Washington for three days, and I hope they don't get it into their heads to drain the reflecting pool or rock climb the Washington Monument. We'll see.
If nothing else, once the summer's over, I'll always have a place to stay close to Rome. And a few kids in Dorchester will know a bit more about math, and a lot more about soccer.
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