And Then There Were Nuns

Blast from the past! My essay on my year in an Italian convent, which was included in the Leeds University prospectus.

When I first learned about the chance to spend a year of my course in Italy, it struck me as a opportunity that was too good to miss. Not only would I be able to learn a completely new language and immerse myself wholly in a foreign culture, I would also have a very unusual degree and a unique year that I could always look back on. During the two years at Leeds, I looked forward to the year in which I was sure I would develop and mature, although this attitude changed somewhat during the summer before I went, heightened by intense nervousness. Before the year in Brescia started, there was a month-long intense language course in Siena, which I thoroughly enjoyed and was very sad to leave. I also benefited from it in that it helped assuage my nerves, as I felt more confident in what to expect when I arrived at Brescia.

Whatever I had been expecting, it certainly was not being greeted by a nun on arrival. However, that was exactly what happened and was my introduction to convent life. I soon learned that convent life was governed by a long list of rules and regulations, such as the strict 11 o’clock (but midnight on a Wednesday) curfew and at the top of this governing body was Sister Giovanna, the college director. She started out pleasantly enough, with lots of head patting and cheek stroking, but all that vanished in an instant if she saw mess, people having fun, or something equally heinous, and it was soon realised that she was a nun best kept on side. Someone once asked me what would happen if I were to stay out past the curfew but I decided that no experiment was worth the inevitable nun-wrath. There was, however, a lighter side to the nuns. There was another Sister Giovanna, whom we nicknamed the “with-it nun” as she was more on the ball than many of the other nuns. There was also Sister Kelly (christened after one of the Charlie’s Angels), Mute Nun and False-Teeth Nun.  The nuns spoke absolutely no English, rather like the girls (with three exceptions). Living with so few English speakers, my Italian improved greatly and so did my confidence with the language.

We did taste freedom during the year on two notable occasions: the World Cup final, and going to see the boys’ college. We actually went to see boys! Boys! That evening was one of considerable excitement, not least because we had an extended curfew until midnight. It was seen by many as a chance to snare unsuspecting boys and so, much to the disapproval of Sister Giovanna, the short skirt reigned supreme that evening. In the end, it turned out to be less of a night of romance and more into a night of awkward conversation and karaoke. The novelty of having English students had faded in the convent by this point, but was a great talking point with the boys, who insisted on hearing English as proof. The excitement of meeting boys was only eclipsed at the end of the year by the World Cup. Unfortunately, the Italians do not broadcast any foreign matches at all, so I did not watch a single England game during the contest. That was a small price to pay for the excitement of the final, which we watched in one of the nearby squares. By chance, one of the girls had discovered a giant cardboard cut-out of Totti’s head that day and after a debate about the feasibility of bringing a giant cardboard head along to the match, we had to leave him propped up in the corridor. The whole town turned out to watch this match, which, via an offside Italian goal and a head-butting incident, resulted in a nail-biting penalty shootout. Fortunately, Italy won and I had never been in such a joyful crowd before. Grown men were weeping, people were screaming and shouting, and complete strangers were throwing their arms around other complete strangers. It was a night I think I will always treasure. After the match, it became customary to wipe Totti’s forehead for luck and when I left, one of the girls had laid claim on him, with ambitions to take him home in her car.

Brescia turned out to be one of Italy’s best kept secrets. It is such a lovely looking city and so full of character, it very quickly felt like home. It is overshadowed somewhat by Venice and Milan, which are both short train rides away, but I am glad that I lived in a smaller city as I feel that I had a more authentic Italian experience, rather than feeling like a tourist all the time. I never felt overwhelmed in Brescia, as it was small enough to feel homely yet large enough to be interesting. There was plenty to see in terms of historical sites: Brescia is home to a castle, two cathedrals (which are next door to each other), medieval squares, Mussolini era architecture and some impressive restored Roman ruins. Many residential buildings, the convent included, were built around a courtyard which were usually kept as ornamental gardens (with the exception of the convent: it was a car park). The interior of many of the buildings were also very beautiful and the university contained some exquisite rooms and ceilings, which were very cheering on the way to lectures. Brescia also had many quirks and eccentricities, such as the many wool shops, the milk vending-machine shop and The Black Sheep, Brescia’s “authentic” English pub. In fairness, The Black Sheep trying to pass itself off as authentically English is probably Italy’s revenge for the plethora of “authentic” Italian coffee shops that have sprung up in Britain. Despite the fact that it was very different from an English pub, The Black Sheep did possess a certain charm of its own which I doubt I will find anywhere else. I was also pleased to discover Via Brigida, a road name I doubt I will encounter back in Britain. Some other names that I became familiar with over the year are Pam (the supermarket) and Tim (the phone shop). Brescia remains a town which still excite me, and one I would like to return to after I graduate.

Graduation in Italy is very unlike graduation in Britain in that it is a very fluid event. The students themselves choose when they want to graduate so there were sporadic graduation ceremonies throughout the year. Even stranger is the fact that dissertations are handed in on the day of graduation and marked then. It is perfectly possible that a student may turn up for graduation, confidently hand in his dissertation, and fail. It seems a very strange system to me, but then the Italian university system is one of the arcane mysteries I have ever encountered, and, I suspect, remains one of the most arcane mysteries ever encountered to the majority of professors there. It seems that the university is run by a group of people who have never met, and who have no intention of meeting. Asking the same question to three people will provide three different answers, and they will usually be directions to someone else’s office to ask them instead. This treasure trail process of asking questions was usually halted by one of my favourite oddities of Italian university: the “hours of receivement” that a lecturer employs. These are the advertised hours in which the lecturer will talk to you. They will talk to you at no other times. Lecturers were, on the whole, rather lax about checking emails so any queries had to be directed to them during their hours. If you missed the hour, then you had to wait for a week for another chance to talk.

Another one of the peculiarities of the Italian university system is the exam system. There are more weeks of exams than lessons in the Italian academic year, but there is a very good reason for this: exams in Italy are almost exclusively oral, and everybody is allocated the same exam time, which can sometimes cause lead to problems. Take, for example, my English literature exam. The professor taught three subjects, which were all English based, and three years, but gave the same exam time. That meant that come 9.00 of the exam day, three years of English language, English literature and English culture –  roughly 200 people –  descended upon one of the corridors and waited in chaos to be called in to the exam room, one at a time. I eventually took my exam, which was over in under 15 minutes, at 3.30. It seemed strange to me to have to wait over six hours for a 15-minute exam, but I was the only one. The other students thought nothing of waiting hours for an exam. I tried to explain the simplicity and ease of written exams, but no one seemed too keen on them. It may be because inexperience with written papers can lead to mistakes. One such example of this is my one single written exam. There was no chaotic waiting, but it still was not deemed a great success, for although the papers managed to get on the train home with the professor, they failed to get off again when he alighted. Despite the fact that the exam process must surely lead to premature ageing, I also look back on that time very fondly. My favourite exam was Latin literature. Having arrived at the same time as about 40 other people, I waited for the exams to start. An hour after the published time and with no one having had an exam yet, a trainee lecturer arrived with the news that the professor taking the exam had gone to Palermo for his PhD. Many students simply walked out at that point, but a few, myself included, waited to have the exam with the trainee, who was very sympathetic about the whole situation. It is amazing how quickly you become accustomed to something, and I feel that the labyrinthine system and chaotic exams will be sorely missed back in the world of coursework, deadlines, written exams and university departments.

Overall, this last year has been a very valuable one to me, as I have gained so much from it. I am now reasonably confident in a language that I had no knowledge of before I started university and I intend to maintain and improve upon my newfound language skills. I have discovered places in Italy that I never would have visited were it not for this year – Brescia aside, I am also grateful to the language course for introducing me to Siena, which itself acted as a springboard for exploration of other small villages and towns. From living in Brescia, I have visited small, historic cities like Mantua, Verona and Salo, as well as large, cosmopolitan one, such as Milan. As well as becoming intimately familiar with Brescia, I can now give a reasonably competent guided tour of Venice. I am now comfortable with the Italian culture and customs and I was lucky enough to witness some of the sporting traditions, such as the Palio in Siena and the Mille Miglia car race in Brescia. There were many aspects of the year that were important, but perhaps the most important aspect was living with the girls in the convent and the many friendships that I made out there. This experience will be with me for a very long time and I am proud of what I have achieved in this challenging and rewarding year.

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