Wellington is nothing if not characterised by its University, Victoria University of Wellington. It is a hive of activity where little buzzing students cross-pollenate learning all around the city, from the law school by the railway station to the architecture school in Te Aro.
It was at Vic, as a student, that I fell in love with the Italian language. Italian is an odd choice to study if you live at the bottom of the world. It is not spoken widely like Spanish or French. Almost by accident, when I took a random paper in my first year, I was captured by Italian and the world surrounding it – an Italy of food, coffee, art and culture. It is not so surprising, now I come to think of it. These are, after all the core foundation of Wellington’s coolest little capital reputation.
An Italian in Aotearoa
Dr Marco Sonzogni was my Italian lecturer at Victoria in my second and third year of study and although study is many years behind me, I’ve stayed in touch with Marco. A gentle soul who can both talk a million miles an hour, but also listen intently, Marco embodies the culture clash of the old and new world. He is football crazed (he supports Inter Milan, for the record) and is a true Italian.
On the other hand, he enjoys yoga and a little meditation to maintain balance. In 2013 and in 2014 respectively, the Republic of Italy and the Republic of Poland bestowed on him the Order of Merit for services to culture. He may be an award winning poet, translator and editor but to me he was the gatekeeper to Italian, a language I love, and also he has become a good friend. Recently, I sat down at Starbucks on Lambton Quay (a favourite haunt of his) to discuss why he came to Wellington in the first place, so many miles from Europe.
A family tradition of teaching
Marco was born on 7 June 1971 in a small town called Mortara, between Milan and Pavia, with the mountains (the Alps) and the sea (the Mediterranean) not too far away. “The story goes that my mother was teaching when she got into labour. I was delivered safely into the world at 3pm”, Marco explains as we sit upstairs in the Old Bank Arcade over a vanilla caramel latte. “There is a bit of continuity somewhere: my maternal grandmother was a teacher; my Mum and Dad are retired teachers; I am a teacher; and my younger brother is a teacher. I am a workaholic as well but that’s entirely my fault.”
The world Marco was born into in 1970s Italy was deeply unsettled but for the most part he was sheltered from this early on in his life. “I was born in a small town but grew up in a village: a self-sufficient, sheltered, natural lifestyle. The community was less than 1000 people: honest, hard-working people who lived by the cycles of nature.”
Awake to the world - Italy in the turbulant 1970s
The year 1978 was, for Marco, an awakening to the reality of the outside world. In 1978 there were social, political, and religious upheavals going on in Italy. “On March 16 of that year Aldo Moro, a respected politician, was kidnapped and later assassinated by the Red Brigades. His body was found on May 9 in the booth of a Renault 4 in Rome’s historic centre. I will never forget the images broadcast by RAI, Italy’s State TV.”
Also in 1978 three Popes were dealt to in quick succession, a matter of note in Italy’s Catholic history and society. “Pope Paul VI, a close friend of Moro’s, dies on 6 August, the same day as my brother’s birthday” remembers Marco. “Then John Paul I is elected, who is only Pope for thirty-three days and dies unexpectedly (some still claim he was murdered with a poisoned cup of coffee...). Finally—possibly my most vivid memory as a boy—there is that evening on October 16 when the Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope as John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope since the 1500s. I remember sitting on my father’s arm chair and watching the election… the white smoke and the Habemus Papam.”
“So 1978 was the year when I fully realized there was a world out there: an awakening to the fact there was more than the village, the farms, and the animals in the world. There a whole wide world—full of challenges.”
Marco also remembers 1978 as the year of the Football World Cup in Argentina, which the home team—captained by Daniel Passarella (who would later play for Inter Milan) and inspired by the long-haired genius of Mario Kempes—won 3-1 against Holland (Italy, he notes with seriousness, would have to wait until 1982). “So 1978 was the year when I fully realized there was a world out there: an awakening to the fact there was more than the village, the farms, and the animals in the world. There a whole wide world—full of challenges.”
Academia, small break-throughs and Wellington at world's end
Marco read English, Russian, Italian and Linguistic at the University at Pavia. It was there he encountered Anglo-Irish literature, which would turn into a life-long passion. In 1993 he left Italy with a scholarship to study in Ireland, and completed his Masters and PhD at University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin respectively. In 1995 he began his academic career as a language assistant. “The 10 years that followed was a time of uncertainty—contract after one-year contract—until I was offered a permanent position at Victoria. During that time my desire to be an academic was constantly challenged and renewed and sharpened,” Marco says. The secret? “Small breaks-through—and I never gave up.”
Wellington came about as unexpectedly as an overtime goal in a football match. After almost 13 years in Ireland Marco was looking around for a new challenge. He searched jobs on the internet and the position at Victoria University was the first job that came up and he applied immediately¬—with just over 24 hours left to submit an application. The interview was over the phone when Marco was in Paris to see some rare books that belonged to Samuel Beckett.
He was offered the job and immediately accepted. “Then people started to say have you checked out Wellington, the weather, how far New Zealand actually is and so on”. To this day, it is the bravest and best decision I ever made,” Marco recalls. “Getting started, keeping going, and getting started again is most important, as writer Seamus Heaney used to say. I started over in Wellington and I keep going. Now I have a house here. I hear the birds at the break of day in Brooklyn and I think how lucky I am,” Marco reflects.
Safe to say, today Marco is well contented with his Wellington life and has a solid regime. Each day starts around 6am when he wakes, checks the news then showers around 6:30am. Life wouldn’t be life as a Wellingtonian or as an Italian without a healthy dose of morning coffee. However, Marco admits, he lets his wife Julia pick the brand. “I am letting a nation down,” he laments. Marco tends to arrive at the University around 8am, work with breaks, and leave University around 6pm. At home, he and his wife Julia—who teaches yoga in Wellington—cook together. Later on, Marco will work from 9 until 1am or 2am. “Four or five hours of sleep are enough for me.”
“I remember when I was growing up seeing students writing letters of appreciation and gratitude to my mother and father. It is a very rewarding experience getting to contribute to someone’s life..."
Of Italy, Marco notes a distant sadness about its cultural and intellectual decline. “I haven’t lived there since I was 21, but observing from a distance, I do feel sad.” From food to fashion, from literature to architecture, from sports to music, Italians have always been second to none. “It makes me proud to be Italian” Marco explains. “But Italy’s grandeur has been clouded by poor political decisions made by unreliable politicians. But then again, my home country has a history of thousands of years—it’s inevitable there will be some baggage there, and heavy too.”
Marco remains enthusiastic about teaching as he was when he started out. “I remember when I was growing up seeing students writing letters of appreciation and gratitude to my mother and father. It is a very rewarding experience getting to contribute to someone’s life and encourage them to grow their critical understanding of the world, to have a go at becoming the best person they can be.” The constantly changing expectations and needs of students, and the emphasis from learning long term to passing, make the job particularly challenging.
“I like to say, ‘Would you like to live in a house without windows?’
Marco also believes, however, in the enduring power of education and in particular the value of an arts degree in the 21st century. “People will always be attracted to degrees that have the promise at the end of a job that earns you good money. The other story is that an arts degree provides you with a critical, alert, open mind that can apply what is learned to various situations” he observes. “A good society accommodates all learning. All degrees have value. All people who study serve society. We do this each in a unique way with what we chose to do—from when I see my solicitor to buy my house to when I go to see the doctor at hospital.”
Careers advisors in secondary schools, Marco notes, do not all see value in learning a second language, particularly when the whole world seems to be speaking English. “I like to say, ‘Would you like to live in a house without windows?’ Being mono-lingual and mono-cultural is like that. Studying another language exposes you to another mindset and another culture—indeed, it’s like opening, and exposing yourself to, a big window. It makes you a better person at whatever you do by interacting with people who think, speak, and function in a different way. Otherwise, we remain who we are with no growth. As I’ve mentioned, helping people grow to the best version of themselves is what learning and teaching is all about. And am privileged to be able to offer my contribution in this beautiful country and in this beautiful city.”
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