There are people who talk about making a difference in people’s lives, and there are those that do it.
I met one of the latter when my wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais and I moved to Abruzzo region of Italy in 2015 to open a tour company and vacation villa.
I urgently needed to upgrade my Italian language skills and Lisa, who spoke Italian reasonably well already, wanted to improve.
In Italy, there are two formal routes to learning the language: private tutoring; or public classes. We choose the latter largely because it’s cheap, and we were lucky enough to discover government-run, Italian-as-a-second-language classes taught in our hometown of Torre de’Passeri.
We did the placement test and the result was I sucked, so I was put in the beginner class while Lisa went on to the intermediate class.
At the time, I had the typical North American vision of an Italian language class: a nice old villa with glasses of wine, some cheese and sliced meats and an adorable Italian lady instructing us on correct verb usage.
This was not that … at … all.
The thing is, for most of the last 100 years, Italy has been a place from which people leave, but in the last 20 years or so things changed.
The Balkan war of the 1990s started a wave of people from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia which continues today. The entrance of Romania into the EU led an influx of Romanians whose language is very similar to Italian. And in the last 10 years, sub-Saharan Africans have been arriving by the hundreds of thousands each year by making the perilous and often fatal crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, mostly in rickety boats launch from lawless Libya.
Add to this a mix of Moroccans, Poles, Pakistanis, Syrians, Northern Chinese, and some wayward westerners like us, and you get modern Italy. It’s becoming multi-cultural and all new arrivals must learn the language.
So on the first day of class, I walked into a concrete box class room with no windows filled with people from eight to 60 years old speaking several different languages and at the front of the class stood the irrepressible Paolo Tosi.
The first thing he had us do was introduce ourselves, say how long we had been in Italy, and why we came.
I just about died when, after listening to reasons for leaving their countries like war, famine, religious persecution, lack of economic opportunity, and gender inequality, I had to explain that I felt unfulfilled with my excellent, privileged, fully-employed, well-paid, and very safe life in Canada and wanted a change.
After that, Paolo asked us how many years of school we all had. I led the pack in my class with 18 years of combined schooling. On the other end was a Moroccan lady in her late 50s who informed Paolo it was the first time she had been in a classroom – ever … anywhere. Not only didn’t she read or write Italian, she didn’t read or write Arabic for that matter.
Honestly, I thought, “This a mess. This isn’t going to work?”
Then Paolo started teaching and it was unlike any class I’d every been in. People talked over the teacher in languages few understood. They argued with each other. Others got up and wandered around the classroom while the teacher worked with other groups and individuals. People left willy-nilly to have smokes.
Through it all, Paolo never lost his patience. He never stopped teaching. He never stopped engaging. Our lessons revolved around learning what to say at the doctors’ office, when dealing with the government officials, when renting an apartment and other practical matters. But they were peppered explanations of what people’s rights were in different situations and advice from Paolo on problems of all sorts.
Each week, guys who were working 14 hour days in factories fell asleep in class. Others failed immigrations tests. Family members died overseas. Others had permits revoked. People lost their jobs. People got sick. Landlords turned off people’s heat. Others got evicted.
We learned the language talking about these things. “Perche Irfan dorma?” (Why is Irfan sleeping?) Paolo would ask. “Irfan dorma perche lui ha lavorato siedieci ore alla frabrica oggi,” (Irfan is sleeping because is he worked 16 hours in the factory to day).
Paolo would then explain that it was your right not to work that long. Other days he told everybody to bring their pay stubs in so he could check to see if they were being paid in accordance with the law.
This guy wasn’t just going through the motions. He really cared for his students, and over time, I learned that his commitment went farther than the classroom too.
He fought landlords and employers who were taking advantage of his students. He paid for books out of his own pocket. He attended doctor’s appointments so his students felt comfortable. Sometimes he even provided health care himself. He attended immigration hearings to make sure his students rights were respected. He gave unpaid private tutoring lessons leading up to the government language tests his students are required to take. Every minute of his day was devoted to helping immigrants.
Eventually, I learned he had degrees in several subjects, and that basically he could be working anywhere and for better pay, including teaching proper verb conjugation to wine sipping tourists in a nice villa. But, instead, he chose to devote himself to helping immigrants in a country still getting used to the idea of immigration.
For seven months, in 2015 and 2016 I attended these classes. I eventually got bumped up to take the second level with Lisa at the same time as I completed the first level. That made it three hours per night, four nights per week. It was exhausting, but I learned the basics of the language, and a bit more.
I learned I should be thankful for the advantages I have had through the sheer luck of being raised in a great country like Canada with all its fairness and wealth.
And more than that, Paolo Tosi taught me what really helping people in need looks like.
Next week: Driving in Italy: It’s all a dare.