San Remo has the air of an ageing actress, once renowned for a glamour which has long since evaporated. It was once a favourite destination for the more glittering classes of Western Europe, escaping the cold of their homes to while away the winter months under the soft sun of the Riveria. Reminders of this period remain in the irregular scattering of villas that litter the town, the pastel shades of their walls now almost obscured by the omnipresent graffiti. Perhaps the most famous seasonal fugitive was Alfred Nobel, who built his home here – a sumptuous villa in the classical northern Italian style, to which he added, rather inexplicably, arabesque turrets – overlooking the pebble beach.
In those days San Remo may have shared a stage with starry Monte Carlo and Cannes.Now it is not much more than a shabby reflection of either. Yachts line the coastline just the same but the docks are adorned with spray painted exhortations of support for AC Milan and tributes to long forgotten girlfriends. Drawn-looking women in old jeans look on and smoke rolled up cigarettes as their children swing from tires on chains in the dilapidated playground close by.
A still starker contrast between Italy’s haves and have-nots can be found in the medieval La Pinda (The Snail – for it’s concentric streets – once designed to frustrate the attacks of Arab pirates) where I ventured to meet Amilio, who had promised me a tour and (unbeknownst to him) an opportunity to spend some time with actual Italians rather than my determinedly Anglo-Saxon fellow tutors. Early for our appointment and somewhat aimless, I found myself outside a Catholic church, its doorway blocked by locals of La Pinda – mostly male, mostly workmen and mostly without work – many dragging the mangy dogs whose barks are an almost permanent accompaniment to any conversation in the old town. Following them into the church I found I had stepped from Ciduade De Deus into St Peters. Gaudy as the street outside was sparse, and sumptuous as it was poor, it was hardly an advert for the charity of the universal church.
Amilio, not a fan of the church either, was happy to take the opportunity that my recollection of the experience provided to talk about his favourite subject. The Italian scholastic system is broken, he said. Pupils learn by rote from books, even to the extent that one teacher, his school situated opposite the colosseum, declined to take his class outside when studying the Romans because “there was a perfectly good book” on the subject. Amilio laments that Italian children are never challenged to think for themselves or take responsibility. He once stood outside his children’s school and handed each teacher a piece of tissue because the school insisted that pupils ask to use the toilet roll – kept safe by the teacher – before being allowed to use the bathroom.
The scholastic system is crying out for reform, he says. If a man who died 100 years ago were magically returned to life, he would not recognise much of Italy – the jets ferrying people from London, Glasgow and Paris to Milan, Venice and Rome, the children glued to their mobile phones or the Vespas that outnumber cars on San Remo’s dusty streets. “But if he walked into a school,” quipps Amilio, “he would say, ‘this is a school!'”
Italy is a nation badly in need of educational reform. Its economy lies in tatters and there is little but tourism by way of industry with the potential for long term development. “We adults are now worried, before there was a future, now… we can’t see a future.”
Which, of course, begs the question of why something hasn’t been done. Amilio, a man with no faith in politics, leans close as if the medieval stones might be eavesdropping. “Centre left, centre right and then there is always the church. Children are not taught to question, they are taught to obey”. Local politicians he dismisses as corrupt – a rot fed by money from the casino. Had he ever thought about politics? He laughs. “If they are nice they just ignore me, if they are not they throw me out of their offices.”
His response has been to fix things himself. And so he has, founding an English teaching company 35 years ago. An organisation which began with Amilio and eight students and now employs over 700 tutors at locations across Italy. Tutors come from the United States, Canada and Australia with a smattering from other English speaking countries including the UK. The tutors never speak to their students in Italian but teach drama, games and sports in English. It’s almost learning through inspiration rather than instruction. Amilio is so committed to his model that half way through our dinner of pasta, pesto and oil spiced with chillis, he suddenly grabs the young waiter and informs me that the boy had done badly in his exams and has been told to study English over the summer holiday. “I told him, ‘don’t study – speak!’” he exclaims and demands I spend the next half hour talking to the boy in my own language. Amilio berates him whenever he lapses into Italian and chastises me if I allow the boy to get away with anything but perfect pronunciation.
Italy, though, is hardly a country with an optimistic next generation. During my short time in San Remo an earthquake devastated the Emilia Romagna region and the European economies braced themselves for the outcome of the Greek election that seemed destined to send the Italian neighbours into a deathly spiral. Amilio has been expanding his operation every year but now he finds himself having to shut some locations down. As we spoke, nearly a hundred of his tutors were sitting idle around the country with little prospect of employment picking up in weeks to come.
Clutching glasses of Limoncello that kicked like a tequila shot when I tried to match Amilio sip for sip, we found ourselves at at a tiny restaurant where customers sat under the arches of an ancient seminary at trestle tables sitting uneasily on the cobbled street. I asked Amilio if he thought he would eventually succeed in his revolution. For once he looked sad, despite the brightness of his eyes. “No,” he said. “But maybe someone will carry it on after I am gone.”