How to Speak to a Foreign Language Learner

I’ve been in a lot of all-Italian groups since living here, both when I barely spoke a beginner’s level of the language, up to now when I think (or hope) that I have a fairly good grasp of it. I am extremely lucky for the fact that 90% of the people I spoke to were so accommodating to my complete inability to converse. Whoever put up with me in those first few weeks, I am truly indebted to you: how dull must those conversations have been? However, it is thanks to these conversations that I ever improved. I do my best to bear this in mind when teaching English: the conversation might be slow and one-sided, but they are getting so much from it. There are also a few techniques and things I remember, especially when dealing with the frustratingly slow students, because I was that slow and frustrating in Italian at one point. So if you want to make a foreign language learner’s life a little easier, consider these points:

  • Speak slowly, but avoid being patronising. We often don’t realise how quickly we talk in our mother tongue. Though to us it may seem easy to follow, to those still adapting to the language it can be difficult to distinguish the words. Slow it down a bit and pronunciate your words. That being said, there is a clear line between speaking slowly and being downright patronising – if someone doesn’t understand the word, repeating and dragging out each syllable isn’t going to help, and you’re just going to make them uncomfortable.

  • Don’t worry if they’re quiet: they’re probably just trying to follow. People often feel guilty for not including the foreigner, and while involving them is great, it’s also totally normal that they’ll want to stay zitta and just listen for a while: following the conversation can be enough of an exercise. But…

  • Check up on them. Although you certainly shouldn’t attempt to translate everything as it happens, give them a nudge every now and then to see if they’re following, and maybe give them a quick summary (either translated or in simple terms) if they’re still looking flummoxed.

  • Speak to them directly. As I said, it’s often enough of a task simply following the conversation, especially in a large group, so finding the chance to contribute is even more difficult, let alone unnerving. I remember the frustration of understanding something, thinking of something to say, translating it… Only to realise the topic had completely moved on. Ask us some direct questions to get us involved.

  • If they’re a basic level, ask about their life. Discussions about family, work and basic hobbies are included on most beginners’ language courses, so chances are they’ve got these topics down. By asking questions based around this, you give them a chance to contribute confidently and feel like a part of the conversation. (Though if they aren’t so basic, change the topics. They have probably done them to death – I certainly have).

  • Don’t mistake zoning out for disinterest or rudeness. Learning another language is tiring! I have never been so tired as on my first few nights out with Italian groups. It doesn’t matter how much you have studied: nothing prepares you for being so submerged by a language. Unlike your mother tongue, you cannot let your mind relax for even a second or you will lose track of the conversation. You are constantly focused. Eventually, of course, tiredness will take you, usually just a few seconds before someone asks for your input, making you seem completely ungrateful for the invite. Please don’t hate them for taking a break. And last but most importantly…

  • Be welcoming. Luckily for me, the English always seem fairly welcome in other countries, no matter how ignorant we are. However for many other nationalities there is the age old “If you come here you should know the language.” Have you ever learnt a language fluently without staying in that country? If you say yes, you’re lying. Studying and practising with other foreigners is not the same and will never completely prepare you. So please, no prejudice remarks that will make them uncomfortable. Make them feel welcome, and the relaxing atmosphere will probably see them speaking much more confidently.

Of course, learning a language is 99% down to the individual. Though the environment, teacher and social groups certainly help, at the end of the day there’s only one person who can conquer the confusion. My next article will be some tips for the language learner abroad. 

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Santa Lucia

Ask any child from the Veneto or Lombardy region what their favourite night of the year is, and it won’t be their birthday, nor Halloween, nor even Christmas Eve, but the night before Santa Lucia. This Christian martyr holds all the excitement of Father Christmas, without the huge commercialisation.

The tradition originates in Sicily, the birthplace of this Saint who stood for Catholicism during the Diocletianic Persecution. Her fame has also spread to Scandinavia, where they celebrate with a religious feast on the 13th December. In Northern Italy, however, her tale has evolved into that of a gift-giver. Though Italians will likely disagree, there are several parallels to Father Christmas:

  • She brings presents only to good children, and gives coal to those who are bad.
  • In the weeks beforehand, children write her a letter explaining how good they have been, and what presents they would like.
  • She has a “magical” aspect that allows her to visit all the children in one night.
  • Children must go to bed early the eve before her arrival.

However, there are also a couple of elements which highlight just how unique the Santa Lucia tradition is. For instance, although children cannot look at Santa Lucia as with Santa Clause, it is not for spoiling the magic or showing they are naughty for not sleeping, but because Santa Lucia will throw ashes in their eyes, blinding them like herself. Not so much like the jolly red man now, is she? In fact, the three year old I look after needed some reassurance that she really was a “nice lady”, despite the whole ash-throwing thing. On the 12th December she was bursting with excitement, but also genuine fear at accidentally seeing Santa Lucia.

There are at least a couple of weeks lead up to the day, with all the adults asking how good the children have been, and several towns having Santa Lucia and her donkey visit the central piazza for the children to come and see them. There is no sitting on her lap and asking for presents, however. As the three year old bluntly told me when I asked, “Did she say hello to you?” – “Of course not, Sarah. She can’t see, she’s bliiiiind. She carries her eyes on a plate.” Ah, okay then. My mistake.

When she does appear in these small festivals, she is always fully disguised in long gowns and hooded cloaks to hide even her face. Research suggests that she is also accompanied by an escort, Castaldo, however whether this tradition is fading, or present only in certain areas, I am unsure: in the Brescia region of Lombardy, he was never referred to.

As well as the occasional appearance in local festivals, Santa Lucia is also known to check up on children in the preceding days to December 13th. No one is allowed to see her of course – do you want ashes in your eyes? – but she announces her presence by ringing her bells, at which point any child in the vicinity promptly loses all sense of self. Depending on their behaviour, Santa Lucia will leave either sweets or coal, usually just outside the door. She must be a fan of sweets, as she also often uses them as a trail to the main presents on December 13th.

Now, to ruin the magic. Just as it is the parents who are responsible for Santa’s stocking in Britain, it is the mother who is responsible for creating the magic of Santa Lucia, and sometimes also the grandmother. Although children generally grow out of the fantasy by about ten years old, mothers often still give their children – even adult children – a gift for the day, just not on such a grand scale. They buy the gifts, make the sweet trails, and discreetly ring the bells when “she” arrives. So as with most things in Italy, it is all thanks to the mother.

In Brescia, where I live, Santa Lucia truly is a beloved tradition, so much so that Santa Clause is almost non-existent. Though some families are lucky enough to receive gifts from both, the majority see Santa Lucia as the gift-giver for Italy, and Santa Clause as that of other countries. The sad thing for me, however, was that Christmas itself is consequently not such a grand occasion. They have decorations and a family meal, however the day holds little excitement for children, who have already had all the excitement they could ask for a couple of weeks before. Can you imagine a day dedicated simply to a family meal as a child? It wouldn’t seem so thrilling.

However, I will always appreciate how pure the Santa Lucia tradition is in comparison to the big red-suited man. There are children’s songs, promoted toys, and sweets on offer; yet it largely escapes commercialisation, retaining its folk and religious origins. No one, for instance, knows what Santa Lucia looks like beneath her cloaks, so there can be no dolls or figurines of her. She has no sponsors, no huge publicity, and yet every child in Lombardy and Veneto knows her name.

For me, Santa Clause will always be my preferred gift-giver, in the same way I will always be English: it is embedded in my cultural upbringing. But I suppose, whilst in Italy, I can enjoy the best of both worlds – just as long as my own mother continues making me a stocking.

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English vs Italian Breakfast 

​While Italy is worldwide renowned for its dishes, the full English breakfast is arguably a competitor for food fame. So which nation wins when it comes to coaxing us out of bed? Let’s start where I started; England.

Any English mother will tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it is unsurprising that the best loved morning dish is the calorific feast of a good ole’ fry up. Bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, mushrooms, toast, hash browns, black pudding, and – if you want a healthy addition – tomato. Just thinking about it makes the stomach rumble and the blood pressure scream. Of course, as good as it is for a hangover remedy or a lazy weekend, it isn’t an everyday thing (or else we might be beating America in obesity levels).

Generally the English have a slightly lighter start to the day, with their preferred cereal, toast, or – if they still fancy a treat – a bacon or sausage sandwich, or eggs on toast. Still all plenty filling meals to see one through to lunchtime.

So how does the Italian breakfast compare? Well, its certainly a change from the meat and bread focused plates of its northern friends. Instead it takes a sweeter focus. The non dieters enjoy brioche, biscuits or even all out chocolate cake, while those more health conscious opt for crackers with marmalade or yogurt. Although cereals are sold in all supermarkets, the lack of brands and the high price is evidence that they’re more a tourist commodity. Toast is also off the menu, with loaves of sliced bread being half the height (I still don’t understand the reason for this), and toasters not existing as a common kitchen appliance (the “toast” you see on lunch menus is actually the favoured ham and cheese toastie of the Welsh – done in an Italian style, obviously). As for the meat part: well, any fellow bacon fans will be very disappointed. Pancetta is delicious, but it just doesn’t give the same crispy, salty satisfaction as bacon. However, if you’re lucky, there’ll be an Italian nonna or mamma to bake a cake specifically for breakfast: often appearing like the British sponge cake, the butter is substituted for milk, and yogurt or fruit are added to make a slightly healthier but still tasty start to the day.

Drinks wise, both cultures are fairly similar – Italians are obviously dependent on their espresso, and the English also need a caffeine boost via a tea or long coffee. For those who somehow create their own energy, fruit juice is the way to go in both cases.

But which one comes out best in terms of morning motivation? Well I’ll be honest, when I first moved to Italy I was ready and willing to denounce my homeland as soon as I breakfasted here – cake, for breakfast! I could hear my mum tutting, and judgy colleagues thinking I had hit a low point. But here, it was completely normal and even encouraged.

That said, the novelty soon wears off. Maybe it’s because I had twenty two years of savoury breakfasts behind me, but I soon found myself craving something a little less sugary and a little more meal-like. The lighter Italian options, such as a few plain biscuits, rarely see me through to midday like a bowl of bran would. And although I’ll never say no to a chocolate brioche, if I’m breakfasting alone I’ll often pay the extra euro for some cereaI.

It’s just a shame a bacon sarnie is off the menu.

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Padenghe Castle 


Looking over the small lake-side town, this mediaeval castle is one of the highlights of Padenghe-sul-Garda and the surrounding area.

Constructed at the end of the ninth century on a Roman fort, the original outer stone walls still remain, along with three of the four towers. Part of the drawbridge also still stands, though a cobbled pathway now replaces it as the entrance through the arched gateway.

One of the most unique attractions tourists find in Padenghe castle is through this gateway: several rows of quaint, terraced houses, all intricately decorated with flowered windowsills and individually crafted house signs, as though taken from a film set. The ambience also matches that of an abandoned film set: it is curious how tranquil the place feels considering the apparent number of inhabitants, yet it also seems likely that several houses profit from their castello address by turning into B and Bs when the season strikes – something to take note of if you’re looking for a place to stay in this area.

As well as admiring the outside of complete strangers houses, the inside of the castle also offers a walk up the castle walls by the front tower, allowing an almost birdseye view that stretches from Padenghe to the opposing towns on the East side of the lake. Unfortunately, this particular section has recently been under construction, blocking visitors’ access. But there’s no need for disappointment – the views just outside the entrance alone make the trip worth it.

Speaking of trips, why not make this into a day – or at least an afternoon – one? If you are staying in one of the nearby villages, leave the car behind and take the scenic route. Moniga and Desenzano are just a couple of kilometres either side of Padenghe, and there are several countryside, woodland, and lake-view paths connecting them. The easiest to follow is the cycle path – signposted in brown, it goes from Desenzano to Salò, passing through enough woodland and fields to make it an adventure, and enough inhabited areas to reassure you that you’re not entirely lost. Be prepared for a few inclines – the castle is looking over the town, after all.

If the weather is not in your favour, however, or you left your walking boots behind, parking is conveniently located at the castle entrance. Just follow the signs for “castello” from Padenghe centre, and take ten steps from your car to see the view of your week / month (depending on how long you’re staying and what else you’re seeing on Lake Garda – you may have understood there’s a fair few breathtaking sights in the area). 

For being both free and convenient, with the possibility of a quick stop or an afternoon trip, there is very little to fault with Padenghe castle. Bring your camera and relax on the perfectly placed benches outside the entrance to watch over just one example of the exquisite Garda Lake landscape. 

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Manerba Rocca

​If you are staying on the southwest side of Lake Garda and looking for a light walk with a viewpoint, the Rocca of Manerba should be high on your list. Although a steep incline up to the first cliff, which holds the mediaeval and Roman ruins, your panting will last only a few minutes before you are greeted by the iconic (though honestly unsightly) metal cross that marks the peak.

There’s a car park at the immediate start of the official path: it is impossible to miss, and parking there saves you the incline of the roads leading up from Manerba centre. Of course, if your legs and stamina are up for it, feel free to get some more exercise, as these roads also provide some spectacular sights of the lake.

Though the highest point is by the noted eyesore of a cross, a walk around the fortress ruins that surround it will take you to a steep decline of a path which leads to the outer cliff, bordering the lake.

The views are largely the same, but with a slight zoom. However, despite the way it appears from the peak, the walk is fairly short – fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on your fitness level and ankle strength (remember the “steep” decline? This is not a pushchair friendly path). Flat topped like the first hill, there are less ruins and more grass covered spots to allow for a perfect picnic area (seriously, bring a picnic. It was my biggest regret arriving there without one). You could easily pass an afternoon here, especially on out of season days when the tourists are few, as it is the perfect relaxation spot watching the surrounding mountains and listening to the waves tumble against the rocks below.

If watching the water is tempting you to go for a dip, the wooded area you pass through to reach the outer cliff also crosses paths that lead to the beach. As with all Lake Garda beaches, bring water-friendly shoes. Manerba’s coast is blessed with finer pebbles, but unless you have hobbit-like feet it’s still not going to be a pleasant paddle with bare feet.

So far I have focused largely on the natural beauty: my personal attraction to the Rocca. However, it should be noted that the motivation of many tourists is related to the huge amount of history to be found here. The subject of several archeological excavations, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, the site can be dated to the Copper Age and even Mesolithic settlements, as well as the clear evidence of the Mediaeval and Roman era found in the ruins today. There are several signs along the route to inform you of the findings of these archeological studies, and if you are looking for more information there is also a museum dedicated to this as well as the natural environment. All of the information is available in English, both on the signs and in the museum.

With an intriguing history of destruction and rebuilding, a brief but satisfying walk, and arguably one of the best views you’ll get south of the lake without climbing a mountain, the Rocca of Manerba has a lot to offer in natural and historical beauty. Although not often on the essential to-do lists for Lake Garda, if you happen to be nearby it would be a loss not to see it.

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5 Tips to Tackle Homesickness

Living abroad can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of your life: you are constantly discovering new things about the culture and location surrounding you, and your everyday routine becomes that of a self-discovery, motivational movie. That said, it is not the holiday that friends and family from home often imagine it to be. More than likely, you are working a full time job to pay for your stay, getting hopelessly lost when you do find time to travel (and with no phone data to save you!), and then struggling to communicate in a foreign language to get directions back to the station. When you finally do collapse on the train that you’re pretty sure will take you where you need to be, it is completely normal for a few pangs of homesickness to hit you – where was your best friend to laugh at you tripping up the platform stairs, or your mum to insist on taking a bottle of water for your now dehydrated self? Those few moments of pause between the general excitement will leave you craving all the simplicities of home life, wherever that may be.

Though it can be tempting to stay in a WiFi zone messaging your loved ones about just how much you miss them, this will rarely make you feel better, and often make you miss all the opportunities that your foreign life gives you. Instead, try these five tips when homesickness hits:

1. Find somewhere that reminds you of home. For me, this was an Irish pub in the nearest town. Sure, I may not be Irish, but they speak English there, serve beer and cider, and have a welcoming, traditional pub atmosphere. Yours may not be a pub, but in this international world there is sure to be something for you which has remnants of home life to fill that empty spot.

2. Find people who speak your language – literally and figuratively! I cannot encourage enough learning the local language, however there will always be those times when you are simply too tired to mentally translate, and need to relax by speaking naturally. I was lucky enough to find a group of Americans who live nearby (and even better frequent said pub). Look out for any opportunities to meet up with people of your native language. Try and, where people will often create events in certain languages – though it is generally for people to practise a second language, there’s almost always a couple of people who are mother tongues and can give you contacts. I highlighted literally and figuratively, because even if you are fluent in another language, there is often a humour and personality that simply cannot translate between cultures. Speaking in your own language with people from your homeland allows you to be your natural self, sarcasm and all.

Keep yourself busy. Not only to make the most of your time abroad, but also to give yourself less moments to think about home life. Fill up your timetable as much as possible, and say yes to every invite: the added motivation is that you will never receive the majority of these invites again. Every occasion is a once in a lifetime, so take advantage. And the busier you are, the less those pangs of homesickness will creep in.

Get involved in the community and culture. You will likely be the stranger of your community when you first arrive, sticking out like a sore thumb with your national traits (pale and blonde is something not generally found in Italy). In some cases you may even encounter some prejudice, but try not to take offence – instead, get to know the community a little better, and show them who you really are. Say hi to the neighbours, go to local events, and make your face a known one. The prejudice will lessen, and you will feel a little less like a stranger, and more at home (even if it is a different one).

-If all else fails, take those cheap flights home for a few days. This obviously depends how far you have travelled, but if you are still in Europe you should be able to find flights as cheap as train tickets (thank you Ryanair). Treat yourself to three or four days at home, hug your mum, go for a drink for your best friends, and take in all that you’ve missed. When your time is up, those homesickness pangs will be for your place abroad.

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So I now completely understand the age old expression that “life is unpredictable”. Having just read my last post from nine months ago (I know, nine months – let’s just skip the apologies of my lack of writing here and get back on track shall we?), I realise that there is no way I could have predicted the next year of my life…certainly not that I would be returned to my Italian life seven months later. So much for a “closed part of my history”.

If you’re curious, here’s a quick recap of all that I haven’t blogged about:

-I spent September in Berlin on a travel journalism programme by City Travel Review. Berlin was amazing, the work was great, but the programme overpriced and fairly disappointing (I have heard good things about their other programmes however, so maybe I was just unlucky).

-Thinking it was time to be an adult, on my return to England I got a job as an office assistant, which turned out to mean a sales, administration and customer service representative who took most of the responsibility for the office at a lowly wage.

-I heard from my Italian family that unfortunately their current aupair would have to leave early, and would I be interested in coming back – I handed in my notice at my overworked, underpaid office slave job a couple of weeks later and started counting down the days.

-In January I went adventuring with my fellow hiker, traveller and friend to Ireland – three days walking the Giant’s Causeway (stunning, even in the wind and rain), one day in Belfast (somewhere I need to go back to, as I’m convinced I’ve barely touched the surface of this city’s beauty), and two days in Dublin (interesting and exciting place, but honestly not up to the hype – or perhaps I was just too tired after three days trying not to be blown off the Causeway Coast).

-After a month of downtime, blocking the office work from my memory, and doing a few freelance articles (people pay you for writing, why has this not occurred to me before?!), March saw me reunited with my Italian life once more.

…And that just about brings us up to date – the last couple of months have been fairly routine for my Italian life: nannying and spending time with the family, aperitivos, and walks at the lake. Unfortunately a lack of time and money has prevented any travelling, but hopefully I can fix that soon.

In the meanwhile, it’s about time I made use of this blog: let’s say fortnightly posts? As before, I’ll be focusing on Italian destinations, culture, language quirks and tips, aupair life, and, well, anything else that pops into my head and might be relevant!

A presto.

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