If I say to someone back home in the US that my day job is working as an English teacher, certain expectations might leap to mind. For instance, they might picture a room with neat and orderly rows of desks with young children or teenagers seated in them, either a chalkboard or whiteboard on the wall, perhaps even a bell which rings to denote the start and end of a lesson.
While this is not too far off the mark for some teachers, for me, it's almost completely wrong.
I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) here in Italy – and most of my students haven't been teenagers, much less children, for a good long while. I don't have a classroom filled with desks, or a bell to tell me when to start and/or stop the lesson. The only times I get to use a whiteboard are when I'm teaching at the school itself – and sometimes not even then.
Instead, I get to travel (in my case, this means walk) around the city, visiting different offices for an array of businesses including banks and fashion houses. I teach groups and individuals alike, and sometimes I'm lucky enough to develop a real rapport with my students, which makes all the walking around – in rain, snow, wind, and sun – worth it.
One student in particular stands out in my memory for a number of reasons. His English was remarkably good, his vocabulary quite substantial. He worked for a bank where I had many other students, and we met twice a week for two hours per lesson. Since he was already well-versed in legal terms in English, we had little need for lessons on that subject. It wasn't long before our grammar lessons all but ceased and we began having conversations about his interests outside of work – many of which we had in common.
One afternoon I arrived and sat in the reception area, waiting for him to show me to whatever meeting room we would be occupying for the lesson. When he emerged from the stairwell, however, I was somewhat dismayed to see he already had his coat on.
Great, he's a no-show, then.
I stood to greet him as he approached, one hand extended to me. He smiled, his bald head gleaming in the last of the daylight filtering through the picture windows. "Hello, Kimberly," he said and I couldn't help smiling back at him, even though I was ruing the fact that I'd walked all the way across town only to have him cancel our lesson at the last minute. At least I'd still get paid.
"Hello," I said as his hand engulfed mine. "Do you have a meeting?"
"Oh, no. I thought we'd do something different," he said, already leading me toward the front doors and the city street beyond them.
"What's that, then?"
"I thought we could talk over coffee, today."
As we stepped back out into the cold and strolled across the street to the nearest coffee bar, he explained that all the meeting rooms were occupied and he'd forgotten to reserve one after our previous lesson.
No harm done, then.
I stepped into the bar while he held the door for me. The interior was classic Italian: all terra-cotta flooring, red paint and dark wood trim, filled with employees from the local businesses and, of course, from the bank itself. Two patrons had even brought their dogs in out of the frosty December air, and the tiny terrier and shih-tzu were getting to know each other with amiable sniffs amidst the bustling crowd dressed in designer suits and elegant tailleur.
As usual, I felt completely out of place.
"So what would you like? A cappuccino, I bet. Women love cappuccino."
I had to laugh. "That would be fine. Thanks."
He looked around, spotted a table, and pointed it out to me. "Why not grab that one for us?"
I nodded and went to the table, where I watched him shove his way between a couple of men in expensive suits to place our order. I noted the cashier near the door, checked the price of the cappuccino on the board and felt in my pocket for the change I'd put there before leaving for work. Luckily I'd brought enough with me to pay for this unexpected treat.
A few minutes later he joined me, placing the cups on the chest-high table where I stood. "Do you want sugar?"
"I can get it," I said, already moving toward the counter.
He stopped me, shaking his head. "No, I'll do it. It's too crowded in here."
In spite of myself, I acquiesced and found I was quite pleased that he would do this for me. I was used to my husband doing these little tasks – ordering my drink or meal, retrieving a packet or two of sugar, whatever – but to have a student doing so felt especially nice. This simple display of chivalry made something of an impression on me.
He returned with several packets of both white and brown sugar and placed them next to my cup and saucer. As I tore open the brown sugar packets and poured them carefully into the center of the foam atop my drink, I watched him drink his espresso. He took a gulp which was probably half the contents of the cup. He hadn't added any sugar – the thought of the hot, bitter taste gave me a small shiver in spite of the close warmth of the café.
"Okay," I said, "I have to ask you something."
"All right, what is it?"
"It's about cappuccino. I've always heard one shouldn't order a cappuccino after eleven a.m., yet you suggested it to me right away. Why is that?"
He smiled at me while I took a sip of my drink. "There are some people who say that, it's true. I don't. Did you ever ask your husband about that 'rule'?"
"Yes, I did. He said it wasn't true, too. But I always hear it – from guidebooks and travel programs, mostly, but also from other expats who've lived here a long time."
"Do you like the cappuccino?" he asked.
"I do. I prefer it."
"Then drink the cappuccino." He bolted back the rest of his espresso so there was scarcely a trace of the crema left behind. "Maybe don't have it after dinner. It might affect your digestion."
We continued chatting for a few minutes while I finished my drink and then we made our way toward the cashier and the door. I dug my coin purse out of my pocket and he reached out one hand to stop me.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm paying for my order."
"No, you're not." He gestured at the woman behind the cassa and she nodded, making a note next to the register. "You're my guest. I invited you, so I pay."
"Fair enough, I guess. But I'll pay next time."
"No," he said, his breath turning to fog as we stepped out into a street brightened with festive holiday lights.
"Why not? We should take turns."
"No. You're a lady, and I'm a man. You're the teacher, and I'm the student. I will pay."
"So much for equality of the sexes," I said with a small laugh. "Even if it's hard for me to mind too much, in this case."
He laughed too and, since the front entrance of the bank was now closed for business, we strolled around to the back to go in and continue our lesson.
From that evening on, every lesson began with a coffee at one of the nearby cafés. We'd have a casual chat about anything but work and we'd have a hot drink before going back inside the centuries-old palazzo which housed the bank. He always paid. I always had a cappuccino.
I still do, too. Anytime I want one.
Kimberly Menozzi has her own website and can be contacted via Facebook and Twitter too. What more could you possibly want?