When I applied for an internship abroad in Italy, it was for all the wrong reasons. I was in the midst of a personal drama, I had no job, no plan and wanted nothing more desperately than to leave it all behind. As a German-Italian who was born and raised in Germany, I’d always wanted to live in Italy for a while – so this opportunity to work for a cultural institution in Tuscany seemed almost too good to be true. Looking back, maybe I should have been suspicious – after all, shouldn’t it be much harder to get a job that sounds like a dream come true? Without hesitation, I set off on my new adventure – without a clue that I would end up working for a wheel-dealer whose exploitation was far from limited to his interns.
My workplace was a German cultural institution based in the small town of Prato, close to Florence. Founded by a German expat and his wife, who had been living in Italy for almost three decades, its goal was to make German culture and language accessible to everyone. To achieve this praiseworthy goal, they organised exhibitions, film screenings and other small events, managed a small radio station with German music and provided language courses for all ages. As an intern, I was supposed to be involved in all of these activities – or at least, that’s what it said on the job advertisement.
When I arrived in Prato, I was soon to find out that me and the other three interns were mostly supposed to do one thing – and that was teach. Neither of us was trained to be a teacher – and personally, I was very sure why I never considered this the right profession for me: I don’t like public speaking, I’m terribly impatient – and, hell, I don’t even like children very much.
For the above mentioned reasons, I was still pretty happy to be in Italy, so despite this unexpected development, I really didn’t feel like giving up. And thus, I began to teach.
I was responsible for very different types of classes, from small groups of elementary school kids who had never heard a word of German to classrooms full of high school students in their third, fourth or fifth year of studying the language. Now of course, each of these groups come with their own perks and perils. The young children were mostly super excited about the new language, eager to learn and said the cutest things. One time, when I had them colour in a drawing on a worksheet, a girl heart-warmingly told me how she “loved colouring, because it makes the world more colourful.”
With the high schoolers, it was a whole different story. They were less likely to laugh at my mispronunciations of their language – and even more importantly, they thought I was cool. Now that was only because I was just a few years older than them and of course also only until they started to ask me all kinds of questions about the hippest Berlin festivals that I could answer zero of.
Teaching gave me all sorts of emotions and sometimes all of them in one day: It was exhausting, rewarding, infuriating, hilarious, sometimes fun, sometimes everything but fun, full of surprises and at times, driving me down-right crazy. I was trying really hard to be a good teacher for these kids despite my complete lack of experience or qualification – and I sincerely hope that I haven’t done any harm to them. Or at least not more harm than many of the worn-out and ill-tempered teachers that I met in these months, who were more than happily storming out the classroom to “take some photo copies” or “take a call” as soon as they had backup.
So, I wasn’t born to be a teacher and there was no denying that. My lack of qualification to do my job properly was honestly frustrating to me, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything that made sense (it was the sheer frustration of this job that finally made me create my travel blog). The fact that my boss turned out to be one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met didn’t help – and neither did his tendency to yell at his employees for no reason. He once shouted at me because I didn’t agree to work extra hours on a Saturday – when we had been pulling extra hours in the evenings for weeks.
But honestly, I couldn’t really complain: I got to explore Tuscany in my free time – that was worth all the hassle with my boss. Despite the weird working situation, I really might have stayed.
But that was before he took me to the factories.
Prato is well-known for its textile industry. Thousands and thousands of factories line the outskirts of the city, flushing the market with cheaply produced pronto moda. The concept is simple: When designers present their new collections, the workers in these factories reproduce cheap copies pretty much overnight. Oh, and did I mention that they’re exclusively Chinese?
Yes, you read correctly. Prato, a city of less than 200.000 inhabitants, has the second biggest number of Chinese immigrants in Italy (following Milan with its more than 1.3 million people). There are no official numbers as to how many Chinese actually live in Prato, because it is well-known that most of them live there illegally. They work in the factories, which are mostly run by other Chinese with proper documents.
But of course, the system doesn’t work without some locals getting involved. One of these locals was my boss.
He had never made a secret of his other business. In fact, he had spoken openly about it from the very first day – proudly even. Many times, he left the office saying things like “I’ll go check up on my Chinese” or “I’m off the China”. Revolting as this was, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around it. How could there be thousands of factories full of Chinese workers right here in the middle of Italy?
One time during my stay, the whole city was bustling with excitement for weeks: The Pope was coming to Prato and apparently, that’s the real deal. Everyone was freaking out about it and of course we wouldn’t miss that, so we gathered in the piazza with everyone else. When the holy man was done with his speech, I bet he would have dropped the mic if, you know, he wasn’t the Pope. In front of all of Prato’s officials and the whole assembled residents, he decided to address the misery of those in the factories. Specifically, he decided to commemorate the seven workers who had been cruelly killed in a fire at one of the factories back in 2013, calling it a “tragedy of human exploitation”.
According to my boss, things had gotten “a lot better” in the factories since then, because there was now a law that prohibited for the workers to sleep in the factories. However, they did still practically live there. Of the many Chinese kids we taught in school, I know that many of them went to the factories instead of home after school to be with their parents.
So when one day after about three months of my internship, my boss took me to the factories with him where he had “business to do,” I should have been prepared. But I still couldn’t believe the conclusion I had to make in my godless pagan mind: The Pope had been right.
Needless to say that after this experience, I despised my boss on a completely new level and made sure to find a good excuse to get out of there asap. I didn’t want to be around, let alone work for, such human scum.
Looking back at this time, I can’t say that I regret any of it. Would I have taken the job, if I had known what it was really about? Hell no. But I am thankful for everything I learned while being the world’s most untalented teacher.