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I took a short trip to Rome two weeks ago to speak at a TESOL Italy Conference (i.e., of English language teachers). In keeping with the PN tradition from my summer 2001 travels, I hereby share a short trip report. Since my time in Italy was unfortunately brief, so too will be this report.
I get a lot of invitations for international travel, and unfortunately I can not pursue all of them, but I do try to make exceptions for places that I really want to go. And, not suprisingly, Rome just about tops the list. For those of you who have not had "la buona fortuna" of having gone there, let's just say it's everything it's made out to be. Most of my time was tied up at the conference, but I did get the opportunity to enjoy several delightful Italian meals, plus a truly delightful evening in the Trastevere district.
For those of you who know Italian cuisine, what we would consider a full meal -- i.e., a healthy plate of pasta -- is only an appetizer there to the main course. In past visits, I've never been fully able to take advantage of Italian's multi-course dinners, settling for a couple of "first plates" (pasta and a soup or salad) and foregoing the main dish. In this trip though, I was usually too busy during the day to eat much lunch, so by the time that a late dinner came around I was ravaged--and ready to enjoy to whole many-course (and wine :-)) extravaganza!! And did I enjoy it.
The last evening in Trastevere (a wonderful district across a river, with outdoor cafes, classic architecture, stone paths, etc.) we instead ate in a pizzeria. And for those of you whose main exposure is to Domino's or Pizza Hut--well, Italian pizza is another thing all together!! Fresh ingredients, natural cheeses and sauces, grilled veggies...hmmmm. Anybody know a great Italian pizzeria in Southern California? I miss it already. (There was, however, one oddity at the pizzeria. People were mixing beer [or was it wine? my memory fails me] with some kind of soda water. It looked bizarre to me--does anybody know what I'm referring to?)
Then, of course, there's the Italian people--stylish, fashionable, fun-loving, romantic, passionate, and friendly. The best part of the whole experience was just being able to hang out and talk with people there.
As I indicated in the previous message, the popular sentiment there was more anti-war than I expected (or that I felt was justified). This is not surprising, however, given the history of the Italian left. And its a history that I myself strongly value and admire. Italy's strong labor movement, its democratic marxism, its passionate social causes, have all contributed to an admirable democratic culture in the country. And its a culture and way of life that people see as threatened by the electoral victories of the Italian right, led by Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi apparently owns about half the major media outlets in the entire country, so the left is naturally concerned about the consolidation of media and political power. And politics in Italy are much more polarized than in most other European countries. The imperatives of globalization are causing an adjustment away from some of the social welfare policies of social democracy throughout Europe. In some places, this is happening somewhat gradually, with more or less a right-left consensus (or at least not bitter battles). In Italy, with its strong right-left polarization going back to before the war, the contention is sharper. And, with the Italian right taking a strong pro-US position, it is not surprising that the left defines itself on different terrain.
This phenomena--with the left now weighing its historical anti-Americanism--is apparently reverberating throughout Europe. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, much of the European left started to see the American way of life (defined by elements such as unbridled capitalism, fast food, the death penalty, etc.) as the main enemy and threat. The events of September 11 are thus causing some soul-searching, with many on the European left now also reflecting on a different America, one that had helped Europe defeat fascism and reconstruct itself. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays itself out.
As for the conference itself, probably the most fascinating element to me was people's attitudes toward information technology. I noticed more reticence in Italy to embrace educational technology, at least among this national group of English language educators, than I have seen in many other countries. Again, I think this reflects on some very positive elements of Italian leftist tradition. Italy is a "high-touch" country, with educators (and especially in humanistic fields such as language and literature) stressing human values, human experience, and human contact. There seems to be a fear--justifiable, if one looks at how computers are used in many circumstances--that technology can serve to automate the instructional process and detract from the human element. Of course I also met a number of Italian educators that are embracing new technologies--but they too are taking care to emphasize the underlying human element. The reluctance to use technology is thus perhaps a healthy skepticism that others can learn from.
(And that appears to be why I was invited to the conference--because a paper that I had written, read by the conference organizers--The Changing Global Economy and the Future of English Teaching (http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw/global.html) had discussed the turn toward technology in a politicized and human context. I was quite pleased to hear from one of the conference organizers that he--an educational leader in Italy who had never previously used computers in teaching and considers himself a relative novice in their operation--became highly interested in doing so--again, toward very humanitarian ends--after reading that paper, and has now become actively engaged in using technology in his teaching. I also met some people who have established a neat multilingual teacher exchange site, called Centro Friend. Check out its English version at <http://www.centrofriend.it/home.htm>)
Finally, I also had the enjoyable experience of talking to a number of young immigrants to the country--from Nigeria, Albania, and elsewhere--several of whom were borrowed from a local tourism school to work as conference assistants. Not only were they totally charming, they also gave me insight on the views of a large and growing segment of the Italian and European population.
All in all it was a great trip--far too short, somewhat tiring, but a thoroughly refreshing experience, from a personal, professional, and political point of view! Molto grazie to those of you who invited and hosted me and to all who I met there!
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