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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

A Love Letter to Ostuni

January 11, 2005
The Gantseh Megillah, Issue 6.01


It looked like I wasn't fated to go abroad in 2003. At the beginning of that year, I had decided it was time to take another overseas trip since I hadn't been abroad in almost 1 1/2 years . I checked Elderhostel’s International Catalog and decided on Italy. When I mentioned my intention to my friend, Judy, she remonstrated with me. “How can you think of traveling overseas now, Sonny,” she said, “when war with Iraq is imminent? "

I hadn’t thought of that, agreed that she was right, and canceled plans for the trip, for which I hadn‘t yet registered.

But I still wanted to go abroad, so some months later, I registered for an Elderhostel Drama and Art trip to Dublin that began on October 2. Within two weeks of my registration, Elderhostel advised me that they had canceled the trip for lack of sufficient registrants.

Then, on Elderhostel's Web site, I saw that they were sponsoring a trip by Global Volunteers, a nonprofit organization that sends volunteers abroad for one to three weeks to work at various community development projects, some of which involve teaching English. (I’ll use “GV” to refer to the organization but “Global Volunteers“ to refer to the individual volunteers.) I had thought about doing a GV trip several times in the past but had never found one that was right for me. Now they had one that looked appealing--a trip to Ostuni, a small town (32,000 inhabitants) near Brindisi in southern Italy where I’d be teaching English to school children .

This piqued my interest because everything I’ve done in my life has been connected to the English language. I pride myself on the fact that I have made a life out of my proficiency in English when it was my fourth language. (German was first since I was born in Berlin; Yiddish, the language of my parents, was second; and Flemish, which I learned when my family lived briefly in Belgium, was third.) I’d been a lawyer and, after retirement, became a writer and public speaker. Furthermore, one of my earliest career goals had been to be a teacher. I changed that goal when I realized that teaching in the U.S. was poorly paid and was not accompanied by the prestige and respect my mother told me teachers had had in her native Poland. Now at the age of 75, I was finally to reach that long-ago goal, if only for two weeks.

I registered with Elderhostel to participate in this GV program from October 3 to October 18. For some reason, GV’s package of orientation materials did not reach me until shortly before I was due to depart. I poured over the materials avidly. I learned that Ostuni is located in a region of Italy often referred to as the spur and heel of Italy’s boot on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean Sea. It is a beautiful, medieval town built on three neighboring hills above terraced fields, with ambling streets, stairways and alleys. It is known as the “white city” because of its whitewashed buildings, which look as if they’ve been piled on top of each other. Our hotel, the Hotel Incanto, stands on another hill between olive plantations and the Adriatic Sea, with a panoramic view of Ostuni.

As I was reviewing the materials, I came across a good-sized booklet of advice on how a GV Volunteer was to teach English. It spoke of the Volunteer’s total responsibility for a classroom; the need to be creative and utilize games, songs, and stories; and the need to bring all sorts of classroom materials. I knew I could never handle all that. What was expected of me was in sharp contrast to what I had envisioned as my role. I had thought that I would serve as a model for proper English speaking. As the teacher would teach English words and sentences, she would call upon me to pronounce them. The booklet presented an altogether different scenario.

I was sad that after all my plans and telling friends I was going to Italy, this trip, too, would now not come to pass. I called GV and told the representative that regretfully I would have to withdraw from the program. She told me not to be deterred by that booklet, which had been written for Global Volunteers all over the world and was, therefore, meant to cover all eventualities. She said if I didn’t want to have the responsibility for a classroom by myself without the teacher‘s presence, all I had to do was tell the teacher that. She encouraged me to go.

And so I arrived in Ostuni on Saturday afternoon, October 4. Most of the rest of the story can be told in excerpts from the e-mails I sent to friends, which follow.

E-mail 1: Wednesday, October 8, 2003

On Sunday, October 5, we took a one-hour tour of Ostuni with a guide in the afternoon, but we couldn't get inside the municipal building or any of the churches. They have something called Pronzo: everything closes up from about 1:30 to 5:00 p.m., when the locals go home for lunch and a rest.

Several people tried unsuccessfully to help me access my e-mail on the hotel's computer but, finally, yesterday Dick, one of the other Volunteers, managed it. I am glad that I didn't bring my laptop because I had so many other things to carry, but the hotel’s keyboard is difficult to use because things like the hyphen and apostrophe are in different places from where they are on American keyboards. To use this computer, the hotel charges two Euro for 15 minutes--much more than it cost at the Internet cafes in Poland.

Usually, when I'm in a new town, I don't like it for the first day or two, and I want to go home and return to my normal routine and friends. But I loved Ostuni immediately. The town is charming, and I have a gorgeous view from the window of my hotel, the Incanto. The buildings are lit up at night and resemble Disneyland or a fairyland. But there seems to be nothing to do. I wonder that it is a summer resort because I see little in the way of activities. Perhaps it is different in the summertime.

There are 21 Global Volunteers here, of whom I am one. This is the largest number of Volunteers they've ever had here. The Volunteers are all special people, and all are or were professionals (before retirement). Some were lawyers and teachers; one had been a radio disk jockey and is now a government lobbyist. Others were formerly a library administrator, a military officer, and a chemist. All want to give back something in appreciation for what they’ve received in life. They come from all over the U.S., and a good number are of Italian descent.

When my friends heard about this trip, they thought I was crazy to spend $4,300 to travel overseas and work in a small town for two weeks. But now I’ve learned that I'm not the only one. There are 20 others here like me, and, of course, there are other Global Volunteers all of the world. As my father used to say in Yiddish, "Die narunim veren nit alle." [“There's no end to the fools.”]

On Sundays, we have breakfast at the hotel at about 9:00 a.m. but on the days when we teach school, breakfast is at 7:00 a.m., lunch is at 1:30 p.m. and dinner is at 8:00 p.m. Oddly enough, the hotel doesn’t serve coffee except at breakfast and then it's so strong, I can't drink it. They have cappuccino but generally don't want to serve it at breakfast.

Lunch is the main meal but actually both lunch and dinner are large meals. There doesn’t appear to be anything to do evenings but since we generally get through with dinner at 10:00 p.m., we really don't need much in the way of activities at night.

It is difficult learning how things work. For example, in going down in the elevator, I clicked “L,” thinking it would take me to the lobby; instead it took me upstairs because “L” stands for laundry; “zero” stands for lobby. I am trying to learn how to work the TV, improve the reception, and find out if there are any TV programs in English, such as on CNN. The Incanto has no satellite dish. I was initially told CNN is only on from 5:00-6:00 a.m. This morning, however, I got Fox News and learned about Arnold Schwarzenneger's election, but the sound was so faint I could only hear it if I stood right in front of the TV set.

The English teachers from the schools where we'll be working came over on Sunday, October 5. We were asked whether we wanted to work in an elementary, middle, or high school. (High school here is a five-year school). They have three different types of high schools: classical, scientific and vocational. I chose high school and the English teacher who runs this program for Ostuni selected me as one of four volunteers to work in the Ostuni scientific high school--the Liceo Scientifico Ludovico Pepe. The four of us--Rosemary, Phil, Jeff and I--felt fortunate that we had been selected to teach in a high school and were pleased that it was in Ostuni so we didn‘t have to travel to a nearby town.

The kids must decide by the end of high school what they want as a profession. If, for example, one wants to be an attorney or doctor, he or she goes from high school to an institution that specializes in law or medicine. One does not first go to a college or university and then to law school or medical school.

I barely slept Sunday night because I was so nervous about teaching four classes on Monday. (Our schedules vary; we teach anywhere from three to five classes a day, with free periods if we‘re teaching fewer than five classes.) A number of the Volunteers had been teachers but I hadn't. Monday turned out to be a nightmare. After being retired for 10 years, I had to rush like crazy to make our 6:30 a.m. meeting. (GV procedure is to have a meeting every morning before breakfast, at which time one of the Global Volunteers reads his or her journal of what transpired the previous day and another Global Volunteer suggests a thought for the day.) I had to dash after the meeting to eat breakfast at 7:00 a.m. and be ready to leave for school at about 7:30 a.m. It was hectic.

I have since decided to discontinue attending these morning meetings.

We four volunteers at the scientific high school met with the English teacher, who lent us four workbooks and told us to concentrate on grammar in our teaching. This struck terror into my heart. I hadn’t given a thought to grammar in over 50 years. Verb forms like “past participle” and “auxiliary verbs” meant nothing to me.

One of the other Volunteers suggested we four meet as a group to try to figure out what we were supposed to do, and we all agreed to do this.

We teach from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. five days a week, although the kids attend school six days a week. The kids seem to have very little in the way of extracurricular activities after school ends at 1:00 p.m.; all we've heard about is band.

In a classroom where we Global Volunteers are teaching, the teacher instructs the students to set up the chairs so there are four groups in each class, each one of which consists of a group of four to eight students and one Volunteer. The setting up of these arrangements is always accompanied by much noise and confusion. Since the classrooms are not particularly large, the noise level from these four groups is high and it's often hard for us to hear the students and for them to hear us.

The noise level and the facts that I knew no Italian, had difficulty remembering the 30 or so names of the students in my five groups, and the students’ understanding of spoken English was sometimes quite poor made for an unusually difficult teaching environment. In Italy, the students start learning English in the third grade; nonetheless, my students’ understanding of spoken English and their ability to speak is often poor. Their ability to write and understand written English is generally better. Frequently, I couldn’t even get through to some of them when I asked whether or not they understood me.

The English teacher who was our principal contact gave each one of us a list of the students in each of our five classes we’d be teaching along with information on whether we were teaching the top, middle, or lowest group in that class. This was a tremendous help and helped us tailor our teaching to the level of each group of students.

I learned to my amazement that the 4C class was studying Shakespeare and that each of the four groups in that class will make presentations on Shakespeare, his life, his plays, his sonnets, his poems, the Globe Theater, and the historical background. I had a negative reaction to this because the English of these kids isn't up to Shakespeare and, furthermore, they don't actually read any of Shakespeare's plays! They read brief excerpts, at most. Mainly, they copy material from the Internet about Shakespeare and his times along with summaries of the plays, all of which material they memorize. The English teacher told us that the Shakespeare course is a required part of the national curriculum for the third and fourth years of high school although she thinks it should be given in the fifth year.

In the orientation materials GV had sent to me, it stated that I should be prepared to walk 30 minutes each way to lunch and to walk up three flights of steps in some of the schools. In actuality, generally we get driven to and from school and to and from lunch and in the scientific high school, there are only two floors of classes. Generally, we eat lunch in a restaurant in Ostuni but today we had lunch at the hotel and will have dinner in town.

After my first day of teaching on Monday, I left the school depressed, stressed out, and upset. I asked the other Volunteers about their experiences and everyone but me seemed to have had a good experience. At least, that’s what they said. I told them I hated it. Monday had basically been a day of introductions between the Volunteers and the students, but I worried about what I would do on the following days. One of the other Volunteers suggested I change to another school, such as a middle school, where the teachers might not be as demanding as ours was and the Volunteers were used more as assistants to the teachers rather than as teachers themselves. In my high school, I was totally responsible for teaching my students although the English teacher circulated and was usually available if we needed help. I discussed the prospect of switching schools with the team leader, who said I could do that but she wouldn’t do it for me, and I’d have to solicit the other Volunteers one-by-one myself. Several of the other Volunteers told me that that would be fruitless; since the other Volunteers had heard how unhappy my experience had been, why would they want to switch with me? I decided that I’d have to pack my things and fly back home.

Then the team leader asked me to speak to her at 7:00 p.m. and I agreed to do so. She spent an hour with me that evening, letting me vent my feelings, during which time I cried. She suggested I try again for one more day, and I agreed to do so.

I returned to the school on Tuesday to try again--and loved it. The meetings I had with the other three Volunteers in my school were most helpful. We looked over the four workbooks the English teacher had given us for the lower and intermediate levels--two were teachers’ workbooks and two were students’ workbooks, but the teachers’ workbooks and the students’ workbooks didn’t appear to gibe. Also, we didn’t know how to divide up the four books, when each of us could have used two or all four. Some of the other Volunteers said they wouldn’t use the books, and we agreed that I would have two of them and the other two would be shared by the other Volunteers who wanted books. From mixed messages we got from the English teacher, we couldn’t be sure whether she really wanted us to concentrate on grammar or do our own thing. We all decided to do our own thing--and it turned out that that’s what the English teacher wanted. To my knowledge, she never criticized any of us for what we were doing. She gave the impression that she saw we knew what we were about and left us to our own devices.

I began to develop a modus operandi. I followed the exercises in the books when the group of students I had was a lower group. When it was not, I ignored the books and went off on creative tangents. I gave the students homework assignments where I had them write essays on various subjects; in class, I had them read their essays and I corrected their English when they did so. In addition, I spoke to them on topics of interest to me and we played games, such as 20 questions and add-on. I had read about add-on in GV’s orientation materials or heard about it from one of the other Volunteers. In that exercise, I or one of my students would start telling a story, and then we’d go around the group, with each student adding a sentence.

I started one add-on where I played the role of an Italian politician; the students did fine with it but I got bored so I added the fact that a scandal erupted when the married politician’s mistress reported their affair to the newspapers. The students asked me to explain what a mistress was but after I did that, they did swimmingly in continuing the narrative. The politician got divorced, lost custody of his son, remarried, had a new family, and lived happily ever after. Rosemary, who was sitting nearby, was shocked to hear me introduce such an element but she made sure to listen in to the rest of the story.

Now when it is difficult to make myself understood by some of the kids, I use one of two methods: 1) I ask another student in the group who is more proficient in English to explain it in Italian; or, 2) I get the English teacher to help.

I've already told my classes about the women's movement in the U.S. and my role in it. In one class, I asked my group if they thought men and women were equal in Italy; they all said, "Yes." Then I asked them what their mothers did and they all said they were housewives. When I asked them what their fathers did, they said their fathers owned car dealerships, worked in computers, and the like. Then I asked them who they thought had the more interesting job. All except one, whose father is a mailman, said their fathers did. Then I asked again if men and women were equal in Italy; they all said, "No."

I'm starting to bond with the students, at least some of them, and think I will feel terrible when I have to leave in two weeks. They are so much more respectful than American kids their ages: 14-19.

I was surprised when I asked the students in one of my groups if they liked living in Ostuni or the other small towns around here where they live. They all said, "Yes," except one boy who said he'd like to move to an even smaller town! In the U.S., I'd expect students their age to say they can't wait to leave this one-horse town where there's nothing to do.

I gave some of my groups homework, which included an assignment that they write their thoughts and feelings about the U.S. When my student, Andrea, who’s in his second year of high school, read his paper, it brought tears in my eyes. These kids love the U.S.! They also love Americans and want to improve their English. His paper was so moving, I asked him to bring me a copy tomorrow to share with you and others, and he said he would.

E-mail 2: Thursday, October 9

This is what Andrea wrote:

"What I Think about USA"

"For me the USA is very very beautiful. I heard a lot of things about USA from my cousin, who has just returned from New York, I see many things in TV about the places, about the people and about the politic. So I can say that `I love USA.' I would like and I hope to see the most important places of USA and also of north and south Americas. Sometimes I imagine I am an American boy and I live in New York; I do it because I want to know how an American boy lives, what he does during the day at home, with his friends and at school. I know in USA there are more opportunities to get job than here, and also for this reason I would like to live there. I want to live in the USA because in that way I can improve better my English. To finish I like USA because it contains many people of many nationalities and I think it's good to know people of various countries."

The kids are interested in everything. Among the jewelry I had brought with me was a necklace with a Jewish star. Since almost everyone in Ostuni is Catholic, I wondered about wearing my Jewish star to class; I didn’t want to be in their face with my Judaism. But after much reflection, I decided to wear my necklace. One of my women students noticed it immediately and asked me what that star was. When I told her and the others in that group that it was the six-pointed Star of David, the entire group was fascinated and wanted me to tell them all about Judaism. I devoted the entire class to that subject. I talked about the different branches of Judaism, the holidays, the customs, the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, and the food.

They were most interested in the food, so I told them about bagels with cream cheese and lox and gefilte fish with horseradish. They had never heard of bagels, which I had thought by this time were a worldwide food, and had difficulty picturing them. When they learned that lox was fish and that Jews ate it for breakfast with cream cheese, one girl said, "Ugh! Disgusting!" The English teacher, overhearing this, came over and lectured the students on the need to be accepting of the customs of other cultures. The students were also unfamiliar with horseradish because there's none in Ostuni, and I had difficulty explaining it to them. I called the English teacher over for help, and she tried to find a meaningful combination of horses and radishes but couldn't manage it. Finally, I explained that it was a condiment like ketchup and mustard.

The students were also interested in the fact that I was born in Germany and left because of Hitler. They understood that I would have been killed if I hadn't left, and they knew that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

I asked the group to guess the percentage of Jews in the U.S.--three said 18% and three said under 10%. I told them it was 2% but added that Jews in the U.S. play a much more significant role than that percentage would indicate. When I told some of the Global Volunteers this percentage, they, too, were surprised that it was so low.

Yesterday I played twenty questions with one of my groups. I took as my character the mistress of Mussolini, Clara Petacci, who was shot and killed with him by Italian partisans in 1945 as they were both fleeing Italy. No one guessed her identity and I was surprised at that and at how little they knew of Mussolini until one of my students said they like to forget about Mussolini as that was a “dark period” in their country. I told him that may be but a famous man once said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. [George Santayana].

E-mail 3: Friday, October 10

I felt very fortunate to be able to go to school this morning. Yesterday afternoon, during my last class, I began to experience a stiff neck, which became increasingly painful. I realized that I had been so tense in my classes that it produced this pain. I found it very tense to be running from one class to another, with insufficient time in between (10 minutes) to go to the bathroom, catch my breath, and prepare for the next class. In addition, in class I’m trying to communicate with students at different levels of proficiency on different subjects while trying to control those students, generally boys, who prefer to look out the window or fool around with each other. I feared I'd be unable to go to class today but Elizabeth, one of the Volunteers, suggested a hot shower, and Rosemary, another Volunteer, suggested two Advil, and I followed their advice. I also took a nap and by today I felt fine and tried to maintain a less tense posture in class. I have certainly gained a new appreciation for the work of teachers.

At school, I asked the English teacher about the room numbers. Generally, I spend considerable time between classes going to the second floor when my class is on the first floor and vice versa. The teacher explained today that the C rooms are on the first floor while the B and E rooms are upstairs.

Today, Jeff's group in the 4C class gave its presentation on Shakespeare. Jeff, Phil, Rosemary and the English teacher all gave the presentation top grades. I differed from them, not with regard to the content of the students’ presentation, which was excellent, but I felt their pronunciations needed more work and suggested that, if possible, the school devote more time to pronunciation, using tapes or other methods.

I had given my group in the 2B class two related assignments: three students were to write on why women should have equal rights and the other three on why they shouldn't. Either because they misunderstood or didn't find any reasons why women shouldn't have equal rights, everyone wrote on why women should have equal rights. So I did a role-playing session with them, which got the points across. I played an employer and each of them portrayed a female job applicant. As the employer, I gave them the stereotypical reasons employers in the U.S. had used in the past to justify the refusal to hire women and each of them had to convince me she should be hired.

For my final class, 5E, the English teacher had asked Rosemary, Phil, Jeff, and me to discuss our occupations and what qualifications and education were required for those occupations. Rosemary, Phil and Jeff all gave terrific presentations. After my presentation, two of the women students spoke to me about their interest in buying my memoir and I told them they could get it from amazon.com. One of them asked for my address and said when she gets into the job market in the future, she might want to contact me for help. Then she said something to me that I found tremendously moving and will not soon forget. "I was writing when you began to talk," she said, "but then I put my pen down and said, `That's a great woman.'"

E-Mail 4: Tuesday, October 14

In one of my classes, we were doing an exercise where incorrect statements were contained in the workbook and the students were supposed to correct them. One statement was: "The Pope lives in New York." None of my six students saw anything wrong with that statement. I was amazed! I said, "You don't know that the Pope lives in Rome? I can't believe that." It took a while until one student explained to me that they are unfamiliar with the word "Pope." Their word for "Pope" is "Papa."

I was disappointed today to learn that this Friday, October 17, there will be no classes at the Scientific High School. This school will be closed as its students and others from other schools will be demonstrating in front of this school. I had already been bemoaning the fact that Friday would be my last day of teaching and now I learned I would be losing that day with my students.

The students told me the protest involves the following. The current right-wing Italian government, pursuant to a national vote on the matter, provides money to private schools, which are attended by the children of wealthy politicians, among others. Most of these private schools are in northern Italy; there aren't many in Ostuni. The protesting students would like this money to go to public schools instead.

We also learned that on October 24 there will be a one-day walkout by teachers from a number of schools on the issues of retirement and pensions. One of my students said that the constant protests and walkouts were a "bad thing" and she hoped they would cease in time.

The English teacher asked me to let her have the URL for the keynote address I delivered on the women's rights movement and my role in it at the 20th anniversary of the Women Lawyers of Utah on October 12, 2001, as she wants the students to study it after I leave. I told her it was available at http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/womens_rights.html, a website for teachers, administrators, and researchers of women’s studies programs.

E-mail 5: Wednesday, October 15

Andrea asked if he could come to see me at the Hotel Incanto at about 6:00 p.m. on Friday. I have no idea what he wants to talk to me about, but, of course, I said “Yes.”

I had brought with me to Ostuni interviews of me in newspapers and magazines and articles I had written, which I gave to the students and used for reading exercises. Several days ago, when I entered the classroom, Anna, one of my students, told me that she had read about my narrow escape from the Holocaust in one of these interviews. “It made my skin crawl,” she said. Today, she again greeted me at the door and said, “You are the best teacher for us.”

E-mail 6: Thursday, October 16

Today was an emotional day. It began when the four male students in my 4C class gave their presentation on Shakespeare using Power Point on a computer. I had been despondent in the past about their ability to make this presentation, and Jeff had said they'd surprise me. They sure did! They gave a marvelous presentation. Then, they thanked me for my assistance and presented me with a lovely ceramic bell that says "Ostuni."

Afterwards, there was lots of picture-taking and much hugging good-bye since this was the Global Volunteers’ last day of teaching.

I then went to my 5E class. My students in that class gave me an envelop marked "For Sonia Fuentes with Love- - -" Inside was a card with all their names and the following note:

"Dear Sonia,

"thank you for every thing that you gave us; for your teaching: thank you to tell us your life story . . . for all this experience were . . . MAGIC! We don't forget you!!!

"A lot of big kisses from your group.

“P.S. We take a little present for your special person . . ."

Their present was a beautiful ceramic pitcher.

Then I went to my 2C class. There, my students presented me with a lovely ceramic bowl filled with orechiette, the pasta called “little ears” because of its shape that is the most symbolic pasta of this region, and that I'd been enjoying tremendously at luncheons and dinners. The bowl was accompanied by the following note, which all signed:

"Cara Sonia,

"these two weeks in your company have been fantastic and they will be unforgettable!!!!!

"We hope to see you again soon you!!!!!

"You take a calm trip.


Arturo, one of the students in this class, said he will e-mail me a picture of old Ostuni, if I'd like it, which, of course, I would.

E-mail 7: Saturday, October 18

Yesterday, three of the students from my 2B class, Andrea, Valentina, and Marco, came to see me at the Hotel Incanto at 6:00 p.m. They were there for themselves and as representatives of my three other students in that class. We had a lovely visit at the little hotel bar with cappuccino and tea.

They bought me a beautiful ceramic plate that says “Ostuni” with an easel on which it stands.

Then they gave me two picture postcards, with scenes of Ostuni. On the back of the first, they had written:

"Dear Sonia,

“First we must say that we are very sad because you are going to America, and second because this morning we didn't stay together [this is a reference to the fact that there was no school due to the demonstration] but we couldn't do nothing because all the students wanted to do the manifestation. We are sad, but we can be very happy because you taught us many things. And we think we have improved them. We think your lessons were the best lessons we have never followed, also because you haven't taught us stupid things, but important ones for our life in the future. Finally we think you are a very special person, for your ideas and for many other things.

“Now we must say you Good Bye.

“See the next post card."

The second postcard was a continuation of the first. At the top, it stated: “Your students,” with the names of all six of my 2B students. And then there was a P.S., which read:

“PS: We hope to see you next year!!! Please, don't correct the mistakes- - - - - - - - "

Pluses and Minuses

Naturally, the experience had its highs and its lows. The highs involved my interaction with the students. The lows included the following. Beyond arranging for a tour of Ostuni the day after our arrival (for which we had to pay the tour guide) and having a bus take us to the shopping area on two nights, GV planned no activities for us for our free time during the week from 3:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., nor was a single activity arranged for us for the weekend. I never heard a lecture on Ostuni and its history, never met any adult Italians (other than the teachers, hotel staff, and salespersons), was never invited to an Italian home, and was never provided with an evening’s entertainment or a cultural activity at the hotel or elsewhere. Although the area was filled with olive groves, I was never taken to see one nor was I taken to visit a spaghetti factory in the area. Fortunately, one of the Volunteers was an enterprising woman and she arranged for a van and driver to take us, at our expense, on three different days for sightseeing in the nearby towns of Alberobello, Martina Franka and Lecce. But for her, I might have spent all my free time watching Italian TV in my hotel room.

When I asked GV later about this failure to provide us with any entertainment or cultural experiences, a staff member told me that if such activities had been provided to us, we would have lost the ability to claim the expenses of the trip as a tax deduction. She added, however, that frequently the host community picks up this slack and, works with the GV team leader to provide such enriching experiences. That did not happen in Ostuni.

The four of us at the scientific high school could also have used more books than the four provided for us.

The Hotel Incanto is a lovely hotel with excellent food but it is located on a high hill, isolated from the community. I don’t know whether a hotel with similar facilities and food might have been available in the town itself, where we Volunteers would have been able to walk out and be among the local people, shops and restaurants.

Finally, the trip was expensive. It cost me $4,300, of which about $1,000 was for round-trip air fare and $448 was for the single supplement. That left $2,582 for two weeks at the Hotel Incanto, meals, transportation, and administrative expenses. I asked the president of GV and several staff members why the cost for this two weeks amounted to $2,582 but noone ever responded to me.


When I returned home, I wrote my students as follows:

“One cannot spend two weeks with people and suddenly sever the relationship as if by surgery. It is hard to believe that two weeks ago Ostuni meant nothing to me--I'd never heard of it. It was just one of hundreds of small Italian towns. But now it is not an anonymous town. It is . . . Giovanni, Francesco, Alessandro R., Alessandro M., Hunter, Stefanie, Andrea, Valentina, Pierpaolo, Marco, Danilo, Arturo, Vanessa, Claudia, Maristella, Mimmo, Antonio, Alessandro E., Paolo, Enzo, Giovanni, Federica, Antonio, Alessandro, Donato, and Anna. You all made me feel such total acceptance and treated me with such respect--even though I had never taught before. While she was not one of my students, I also remember the lovely young woman in 5E who is a friend of Anna's and spoke to me after my presentation on Vocational Day and on my last day and told me about her trip to Montreal and interest in women's rights.

“There is a Yiddish word, nakhes, that describes the pride parents feel when their children accomplish something. You all filled me with nakhes.

“I see you all before my eyes. I miss you. I will continue to think of you. I hope to hear from any of you if I can be helpful to you.

“Please go on and lead wonderful and useful lives.

“With love,


I continue to hear from my students. Andrea wrote me as follows almost a month after I left Ostuni:

“Hi Sonia!

“I'm Andrea!!!!!!!! Do you remember me? Or not? How are you? I'm very well and I'm also having good votes at school and specially in English (for example I had 100/100 at last English test). It was very important for me your teaching because I learnt many things and I learnt thinking in an other way, thinking to poor people, equal rights...Did you enjoy the time you were here? I had a very good time, and I think all my friends too!!

“Now I'm reading a book about Auschwitz because I want to understand better what happened in those days. It's a very interesting book and I suggest you to read it. It's "Se questo è un uomo" by Primo Levi. . . .

“Now I must say you good bye because I have to do my homework . . . .”

Arturo, true to his word, sent me a picture of old Ostuni and many other pictures of the area as well. He e-mails me just about every other day.


Copyright 2004 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes