The days are passing quickly now, in the ways days do once you’ve really settled into a rhythm. And while there’s pleasure in that rhythm, it’s bittersweet as well, because already, mid-February and spring in the air, our time in Rome is drawing to a close.
It’s not that Rome feels familiar, exactly, or that it has stopped astonishing me. Shortly after arriving here I read a few of the essays in Eleanor Clark’s classic Rome and a Villa, which beautifully describe what Clark deems Rome’s “too-muchness,” a city that overwhelms you with an “impossible compounding of time, in which no century has respect for any other and all hit you in a jumble at every turn….”
There’s a thickness to this city, a layering that you know you’ll never get to the bottom of. After five months here there’s still so much we want to see, and so much we’d love to find the time to revisit. And then there’s all that you simply stumble upon: walking to the library we note a sign on a soot-darkened building identifying it as a 17th century palazzo; venturing into the palm-treed courtyard we find an ancient frieze leaning against a brick wall, a marble fountain still spilling water beneath a faded fresco.
What is the story behind the frieze, the fresco, the palazzo? How do you come to ‘know’ a city that contains thousands of years of stories?
Clark has good advice for how to approach a Roman tourist itinerary: “You could start anywhere, it really doesn’t matter,” she reassures us, “you will see so little anyway.” To walk through Rome is to be constantly aware that you are missing so much, and understanding so little.
At the same time, Rome has become familiar. We don’t spend most days at museums or ruins, of course; instead, our daily walks around our neighbourhood have, well, created neighbourhood for us. When I walk into the cafe across the street, the white-haired barista, Roberto, gives me a warm “Bonjourno” and starts preparing my cappuccino. Two doors down the grocer prompts me for milk and eggs, which I almost always need, while my favourite vendor at our local market, a Bangladeshi immigrant anxiously awaiting notice of permanent status, knows I like to buy apples five at a time.
When the kids are with me, which they often are, the reception is even warmer- the barista pounces out from behind his bar to tossle Avi’s hair while the grocer and his wife press a small chocolate on each child. As for the vendor at the market – she’s my favourite because she has a toddler of her own, and her daughter lights up when she sees Eva and Tillie. While I survey the fruits and vegetables, the three girls hold hands for a short circuit around the hall.
And then there’s the woman who always sits beside the door at Franchi’s, a deli that dates from the 1920s, cup in hand. Every time I see her, I give her some change. Every time she sees me coming, she tells me my children are beautiful and I am blessed.
Each time, I know that I have gotten the better exchange.
Back in November I wondered if this whole sabbatical idea wasn’t a mistake. We’d been happy in Victoria- why had we left? The girls were more or less miserable at school, and Trump had won the election – two developments that were totally unrelated, I realize, but together made us question the wisdom of the sabbatical year.
Luckily, at least one of them was solvable.
Italians look at us like we’re crazy when we explain that we’re home-schooling – apparently it is just not done here. I understand where they’re coming from; growing up in NYC I didn’t know anyone who home-schooled, and to the extent that I thought about it at all I would have lumped home-schoolers alongside the man who appeared at the gates to my university each autumn wearing a “Halloween is the devil’s holiday” placard.
Then I moved west and became a midwife and a mother and met lots of wonderful home-schooling families. And, as is often the case, they all had different reasons for choosing home-schooling, but the number one reason centered around a child’s particular needs. Where our children lead us, we try to follow.
All the same: I thought, I will never, ever do that.
Which just goes to show a lesson I learned long ago but know I will keep learning, over and over: anything I have ever judged another parent for will absolutely come back to haunt me.
Here we are, home-schooling.
And, shockingly, I love it.
(Temporarily love it, mind you. I found myself registering for the 2017-18 school year on January 3rd, the first day registration opened. Which maybe says a lot, too.)
It’s been really special to have this time with the girls. Some times it feels ridiculously easy- both girls are at their own tables, working hard, while I read a novel or catch up on emails. Other times they both need help, and I try my best to balance their needs. Jordan teaches two days a week and I take the other three; on the days when I haven’t taught I always want to know what I missed: did Eva get that editing done? Did Tillie’s science project work?
(This is the other thing I should mention: we’re home-schooling through the South Island [that’s Vancouver Island] Distance Education program [SIDES]. It’s like home-schooling for dummies: we not only have been given an entire curriculum, but our girls have their own teachers as well. While designing our own curriculum would allow us to take more advantage of the learning opportunities here – it’s maybe a bit ridiculous that Tillie is working on a project about the Canada Pacific Railway while living up the street from Castel St. Angelo – it would also require, well, designing our own curriculum.)
One of the really wonderful things about teaching the girls has been having the time to work with Eva, particularly on math. I have Eva’s permission to say that she is dyslexic. One of our biggest hesitations about sabbatical centered on her learning: after quite a bit of searching she and Tillie attend a fantastic school back home, and we worried whether it was fair to take Eva away from that environment. We’d cancelled a sabbatical years ago for that reason; she was newly assessed and significantly behind, and moving her into a new educational system felt irresponsible. But Eva has worked her tail off and made such fantastic progress over the last few years, and ultimately we decided to heed the words of the Educational Psychologist who had originally assessed her. “Eva is dyslexic,” she told us, “but that’s not all she is.”
We didn’t want Eva’s learning challenges to deny other incredible learning opportunities. We went for it, and I am so glad we did.
Eva’s teacher back home was truly talented at teaching math. I really am not, but I can provide something no classroom teacher can: loads of one-on-one time. We start each morning with a good hour of math, and while I can’t claim she’s loved every minute of it (or maybe any minute of it) she is truly proud of the progress she’s made.
Plus, Jordan and I have a secret power: his sister Ilana (yes, that’s right, same name, same spelling) who is an incredibly gifted grade-school teacher in Toronto’s public school system. How do I know she’s gifted? Every summer, out in Nova Scotia, she teaches Eva math. Yes, really- we make her work summers. Before she had children of her own she said it was useful for preparing her own classes; once she had her own babies she said it provided a nice break from baby-care. I think the reality is that she loves her work, loves my children, and is unbelievably generous with her time. And to let you know just how talented she is- Eva willingly sits down on summer afternoons to learn math with her Auntie, because her Auntie is awesome.
Here’s how the secret power part works: last summer Ilana began teaching Jordan how to teach math. When I had one tough (read: very grumpy) morning early in our homeschooling experiment, Jordan sat down with me and passed on some of her tips. She is our go-to for learning advice, and her support is invaluable – she knows Eva’s learning challenges intimately, and she is also one of Eva’s biggest cheerleaders. When we were debating moving from our local school to homeschooling I wrote Ilana to ask her advice; once she had given her blessing to the homeschooling enterprise, I felt like I could get on board with it. I can’t claim to have her patience or creativity as a teacher, but when the going gets tough I try to channel a bit of what-would-ilana -(no-not-me-the-other-ilana)-do?
Meantime: Avi is still chilling at scuola materna. There are several things I love about scuola materna, including that it is free (I know I’ve said this before, but it still gobsmacks me) and that now, when we walk into the classroom, Avi is immediately surrounded by friends his age calling his name, taking his hand, hanging round him. But the very best part of scuola materna is simply listening to Avi say scuola materna.
It slays me.
Homeschool doesn’t lend itself to great photos, but here are a few of our favourite recess/phys-ed spot, alongside Castel St. Angelo.