On not knowing

by Laura A

I hesitated about writing this post, but it’s time. Because European countries are profoundly different from one another, and also profoundly different from New York City. That’s the main lesson I’ve learned here, and it’s time to tell something about how I’ve learned it.

I could start anywhere, but I’ll start with the conservatory that Sarie attends. It took over five months just to figure out how to enroll. When we asked from New York about procedures and deadlines, the secretary (a sweet girl, in person) kept sending us curt, uninformative e-mails saying that we needed to talk to the Italian consulate. The consulate, meanwhile, said that this was the school’s responsibility. And we couldn’t find Sarie’s teacher at all. So from January until May of last year, we went round and round and got nowhere until a New York friend introduced us to a young man from Torino. He took a look at the website, found the appropriate deadline buried in some document, and walked me though filling out the forms  (not intuitive), which I then overnighted to the conservatory.  By the time we found the deadline, it was four days away.

Even after we sent in the application, the secretary continued to insist that we’d have to go through the consulate.  Until one day in mid-June we got an e-mail saying Sarie was scheduled to take language and entrance exams in September.  So she did.

Now Sarie attends the conservatory Mondays and Thursdays–depending on what’s changed this week.  It’s not uncommon for her to show up for a lesson or class and wait for the teacher thirty minutes, or even even find out that the lesson has been cancelled altogether. If we’d known that her piano lessons, in particular, were going to be so spotty, we might have kept records for the fun of it. But my hunch is that she gets about 60% of the lesson time she’s scheduled for.

For chamber music, she was finally placed with a coach in about mid-December. The teacher then told the self-formed group that he didn’t have time for them, so they could meet every other week.  The first few weeks they showed up, the class either got cancelled or they’d have to wait so long for it to start that they only got to play for a few minutes.  Then the coach told the girls they couldn’t do the piece they’d chosen, so they hemmed and hawed about that for a while.  There was also some confusion as to whether Sarie had to take a chamber music exam at the end of the year, which apparently limited the number or type of pieces they could prepare.  Finally, Sarie went to the other coach, who said that yes, she had an exam, and put her with a different group to prepare a piece for it. This was in March.

Last week Sarie attended a masterclass with Vadim Brodsky. She had heard about the class, was excited about it, and requested to sign up to audition for it, but was told that she was too young and the places would go to college students. Then one day last week, her accompanist was looking for some info on the bulletin board at the school and found Sarie’s name on the masterclass list with a time next to it.  So she went, and enjoyed the class thoroughly. Brodsky even asked her to come back for the next session in May. At the end of the class, another young man came in and requested to be allowed a session, because he had been out of town at the sign up time. He was told no.

Sarie and her accompanist preparing for a performance of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata at the conservatory Friday before last.

But the most baffling situation of all concerns the maturità. The maturità is the exit exam Italian students take to graduate from high school. It’s a three-day exam, with an oral component, covering a five-year high school syllabus. Subjects include Italian literature and composition (graded very strictly for grammar, I’m told), Italian history, similar science and math subjects to those we take in the US, philosophy, religion, and in some schools, Greek and Latin. And naturally, classes are in Italian. It’s an intriguing syllabus, and perhaps if we’d moved to Italy when Sarie was in eighth grade, I might have considered it, despite what I’m told is the rote nature of it. But she’s a junior.

Why is this important?  Because you need it to graduate from the college-level conservatory. When we arrived last fall, they faculty were pleased with Sarie’s audition and said that once she had piano and European-style solfege, she could audition for the college level and easily get in.  When I asked the staff what they would accept as proof of graduation from an American, they’d just shrug. Finally, two weeks ago, and because it was time to make a decision about next year, I had a friend call the Ministry of Education to get to the bottom of this. The man there told my friend they accepted no substitutes at all.  The next week, Sarie and her teacher visited the school’s director, and she said the same thing.  Across the board, they all say that Sarie should just get started studying for for it, though maybe she’d want to just do a vocational school version of the test.  Either way, it means at least a year in an Italian high school, or attending a cram school where they do two years at once. Never mind that she couldn’t attend the conservatory at all if she did this.

We’d originally liked this dual attendance scheme because it gave Sarie time to finish high school while getting used to life in Italy, learning Italian fluently, and preparing for an eventual conservatory audition somewhere else. We even thought that it might be possible to do all of undergrad this way, which would make it lots more affordable to eventually attend graduate school in the US.  It might take an extra year, but she would be able to study both music and English literature, her other favorite subject, at a high level, while learning Italian language, history, and culture by immersion. Knowing that some schools in Europe will accept four APs as a substitute for that fifth year of high school, we were planning those out, too. But now the government is saying it won’t accept that.

What’s in the back of my mind, of course, is that this is Italy.  I have a strong suspicion that there’s some way, regardless, to make it work. As I learned from the five-month enrollment process, much depends on whom you ask, or perhaps even on what you assert. And there are exceptions, like that Brodsky masterclass. Yet, not being Italian, I don’t know the workaround for this one. And I confess to being a little exasperated, and wanting to be a not-so-gracious guest in my host country. I confess to wanting to point out that if they’re so serious about requirements and rigor, why don’t they hold half the classes they schedule?  And a few other things, which I will keep to myself. But none of this surprises or even seems to bother Italians, who are remarkably patient, if a bit obstructive.

So instead, I shrug, and we plan the best year we can for Sarie next year under the circumstances. She’ll stay in the high school-level conservatory. She’ll keep studying at home.  And eventually, we’ll figure out a solution for her college education. I don’t know what it is yet, but what I’ve learned from seven months of living in Italy is that I don’t have to. We’re not in New York.