– Can you please tell me about your remotest memory?
– I have a bunch of memories from when I was little. We were living in the countryside. The most remote one would probably be just looking out my room's window. My window was facing east, so I could see the sunrise coming up. Living in the countryside was amazing. It meant a world of adventure., it meant I could just wander off into the field and create my own place. Meet the other kids from the other houses from across a couple of fields down, and we could create, you know, tree houses and invent stories, there was a lot of freedom and a nice relationship with farm animals and things like that.
– What were the toys like in your childhood? Were there any of your favorite toys or maybe ones that you had dreamed of, but never gotten?
– I would say there's one type of toy that dominated my childhood and it's Lego. It was just amazing. It was great. In fact, I had this anecdote – so this is actually funny because my mum is a techie. And this one Christmas, I can't remember how old I was – nine or five, something like that. I got a Lego train for Christmas. I can't remember whether I got given it on Christmas Eve or… I didn't actually find it on Christmas morning. And I think normally that used to be the case, you know, Christmas morning, you wake up and there's a present there. And of course, it was my parents cause Santa doesn't actually exist. But what my mum did, she couldn't actually bear for it to be in a box. She wanted to build it herself. So in the night, she built it, and then I got it ready in the morning. She built it as well. It was one of the cool ones, where you can make your own tracks. It's not electrical or anything, just simple. I quite liked Lego, plush toys, animals, stuffed animals, and things like that. I liked making things as well. But it could be simple things. It could literally be a piece of wood that looks like a gun, and then we'd be off in the field. And then, you know, just fighting like that or… it could be anything.
– So you lived in the countryside and you went to school there as well?
– The countryside is very close to a town, a big city, and so I went to the city for preschool when I was a toddler. But my first couple of primary years were in the village where we were living. We weren't properly in the middle of fields, but if you took a small drive or a long walk, then you'd be in the village. And then that's where my first couple of primary years were, but then we moved to Africa and things changed a bit. Yeah, that was different.
– Were there any particular subjects at school that you enjoyed the most?
– Yes, absolutely. I can tell you that I've always been fascinated by science. It wasn't my favorite subject or anything, but my mum was working as a tech in schools, so when the school was shut, she'd take me with her and I get to play around and do experiments and things like that. I liked drawing and art. I really enjoyed that. That's probably one of my favorite subjects of all time. I used to despise history in middle school, but when I went to high school and I started reading, it became one of my passions. I really, really enjoyed it. That's also one of my passions. Science – I was good at it, I enjoyed it, so I ended up making a career out of it. Mathematics – I was good at it, but I didn't enjoy it particularly. So it was more like an end means to an end, rather than anything else. So yeah, I would probably say that I was going to go into architecture at university, trying to mix science with art. And then, in the end, I last-minute changed my mind and just went into science.
– How could you describe your school years?
– Very varied. Yeah. Things changed a lot because we started moving around. And so it wasn't just that we were changing schools, it was changing backgrounds as well. I was mostly educated in Italy, Somalia, and Egypt. So very, very different peers, different situations, different social situations around the school. But I love them. I enjoy them. I thoroughly enjoyed learning and finding out new things, and I was excited, and I wouldn't say I was bored by much. There wouldn't be lessons I would dread going into because they were boring. Things were a challenge. You know, they were… trying to do something new, trying to do it in a new language, trying to do it in a different context with people having completely new views and outlooks on things. So that kept it interesting.
– So how was it, moving around a lot? You said that you moved to Africa when you were small, then, I guess…
– Then when we moved back to Italy because the civil war broke out in Somalia, and then we moved to Egypt. So that's mostly those three, but also, you know, cost changing schools within these places. So it was fun. It was great. I lived it as an adventure. I think my parents were really good to sell it to me, marketing it as we were going on an adventure. And I remember stepping out to the plane in Cairo and feeling like Indiana Jones because that was the setting – Cairo, the pyramids, the dunes, and everything. And of course, I've seen Indiana Jones films, and it felt like "Oh my God, there's so much to do".
It was sad to leave friends behind, but I think that by moving around a bit, first of all, you get this idea that friends don't disappear, you know, you can always go back to them, but also every time you move, it's an opportunity to make new friends. It's also an opportunity to reinvent yourself and, in a way, detach yourself from stereotypes or ideas that people have about you. So it feels a bit freer. I must say no, it's always been the case that it's sad to not be with them, but if they're true friends, they'll always be there. You know, we get this thing whereby if I meet with a friend and we haven't seen each other in a while it's as if we met yesterday. And so that gap doesn't actually make any difference. We're still friends. We still enjoy things together or still have things in common.
– What was your childhood dream job before you considered architecture?
– Firefighter, classic. Because it was cool. It was dangerous.
– What was doing household chores like?
– They were actually very well-structured. When I was a kid, my parents decided to foster – it means that you are opening your house up for another kid and you're taking them in. You're not legally bound to that kid – if they want to go away, they can go away. You are just making yourself available and you're taking kids in. And when I was little – four – my parents took two kids in, brothers, and we spent life together. They were coming from very challenging and sad and also kind of not very loving backgrounds. So they're a bit all over the place. So very quickly my parents just put something in place, so we all had chores and tables on the wall and who was doing what on which day. And all the chores are divided between grownups and kids, according to what they can do. It was very well structured. I was washing the dishes – we didn't have a dishwasher, I was sweeping the floors, I was cleaning toilets and everything. It is just according to how old I was, of course.
– Have you been to your house after you left?
– No. I left and then never went back. Then when I went back to the same place, they'd taken it down and destroyed it, and built a villa with a swimming pool instead. It had a great outdoor garden with a hammock and a table outside and chairs, and we used to spend most of the time outside if we could, we used to have breakfast in the morning outside under the three cherry trees. We had a vegetable garden with tomatoes and other things, and we had chickens and chicks, and we had a dog Shannon, a German shepherd. We had a bunch of cats that just came and went to a large area outside between our house and the other two houses around.
– Was the climate warm?
– No, this is not the part of Italy that's sunny. It would be lots of fog in the winter and very dam snow at times. I remember when I was a little kid, the snow was taller than me. It gets really hot in the summer, but it's like a human hot because this is the place near the Po river.
– You said that you had quite a strict chore order in your family. Were there any customs, maybe family traditions, celebrations?
– We'd have the normal holidays, Christmas – my family was never religious, so it's not like we went to church or anything. Christmas was exchanging presents and that was it. I remember asking my mum to go to the stores to buy presents for the rest of my family, and it'd be silly things like a pot for my mom, so she could cook. It wasn't great, but we'd all do those traditions, and for Christmas, it would be having the family over and spending the whole day with family. The family would arrive late morning to help out with cooking. My grandparents would help out with the cooking, they would have brought something, and then we'd eat a meal, and then more people would arrive in the afternoon, we'd play games and people would just stay munching, you know, tangerines and walnuts and peanuts up until it was done at a time. And then you just reheat some things if people wanted anything and then people would just stay for the whole day. That was it. I mean, the other things were small. They weren't big things. It was routines, like eating outside on a Sunday morning because we could, if the weather was good enough, and stuff like that.
– A bit of a time skip: how did your life change at the brink of the '90s?
– Quite a lot, because we left for Somalia in 1989. And when we came back, quite a few things changed in Europe, but we didn't know about them. I remember coming back for Christmas and my parents were like, oh, the Berlin wall is coming down, whoa. I was separated from the world. I mean, Somalia. It would take three to four hours to get the line, to be able to call Italy and make a single call, and the call would be cracked up and rubbish, and it probably last ten minutes a quarter... But yeah, big changes, I suppose. Of course, that experience really changed me. When I came back, actually, I went back to the same group I had at the start of my primary to end primary with them, and I was very different. I had many, many more experiences, and I'd seen things that they completely did not even fathom. They didn't consider what could be possible. So it personally changed me quite a lot. And the bigger events – I wasn't quite aware of, cause it was in primary.
– So there were no changes in your everyday life?
– No. Well, no, except for the big changes because I was moving. The big political events did not bring about any changes at that point, later in the following years – then yes. But again, on a personal level, my family has always been left-wing and both my dad and my granddad were involved in the communist party in Italy, my granddad in particular. Right. So when it all came tumbling down, a lot of the things that were happening that people didn't know were happening then became common knowledge. My granddad was very let down by a lot of things. He was a bit kind of disillusioned by what happened and by the shattering of a dream. To him, it was a dream. Fun fact, if you didn't know: what happened is very interesting, because the communist party in Italy was very, very forward, and they were doing loads of activities, and there was a lot of propaganda that was coming from Russia to Italy. It was like on welfare, this project was done, and this is the norm in Russia. But it wasn't, it was just propaganda. It wasn't real. But it hit Italy, and then the communist party believed it. So what they did is they said, well, if they can do it in Russia, we can do it here. And so actually in the region – because Italy is broken down into regions politically – in the region where we lived, loads of very forward welfare schemes were set up, things that were really properly left-wing and socialist, for the good of everybody, were set up and made to work. That was propaganda, but because people believed it, then it happened. And so my granddad had made all of that happen. And then when he found out that all the things that he was grounding, his work and contributions were not real. You can see why he was upset.
– So your parents and the adults of your family did not quite talk to you about politics?
– I'm sure they tried to explain it to me, but I was eight and nine in '89 and '90, so I wouldn't have gathered much. There was a big event that happened in '92 that I do remember, and it was Europe coming together. In '92, the status of the European Union kind of jumped up. I think it was more countries joining. And then it became that became a political string of events in my life that I could relate to and that I could see. There weren't any celebrations, but little things that a kid would pick up on like the EuroDisney opening. That was in '91, '92, and the EuroDisney and Europe were happening, so as a kid, you go, oh cool, that's in Paris – cause we're all now a union, so we can do that.
– You mentioned going to the store with your mother for presents. As you grew up old enough to spend money, how did you get your spending money?
– It would be the chores. Me doing the chores would get me an allowance, and the allowance would be very small, and I'd be prompted – my parents would ask me to keep a tally of it to make sure that I've seen how much I was spending and what was spending it on. I remember, actually, I used to have this little booklet when we were in Somalia where I would write down how many guineas I would get and write them down and write what I spend them on. It must be somewhere someplace, you know, it's like 'I spent this much on a piece of pizza, I spent this much on ping pong balls', because we had a place where you buy the ping pong balls – your hire their rockets, but you buy the balls.
I usually would spend the money on either treats or toys and things like that. I would definitely spend them on books. They would go to fairs, town fairs, and things like that. And as well what I would buy if I could were books, comic books, quite a lot as well.
My dad used to do this brilliant thing. If I asked for something, like 'oh, can I get that toy?', my dad would go 'so we split half and a half?'. And that was great because what it did is if I was prepared to pay for the half of it, he'd given the other half, which meant that my money could go a long way – but was I really that into that thing to want to spend my money for half of it? And it really made me realize that some of the things were just whims. They were just – I want it, and if you'll give it to me, I'll have it. But if I have to commit to it, then maybe not. And it really made me realize my dad was really good. I really miss him. And it made me realize the value of money I suppose, and what I was prepared to spend. My dad was saying, you can't buy it now, but if you save up, then you can buy it next time. He would do this thing, which I do with my kids as well. We'd go to some fair or some market or to the supermarket, and he said, okay, you've got this much money to spend – which would be something stupid, like a thousand liras, which is like half a euro, or something like that, or two or three thousand liras or whatever. And it might not buy me anything on the spot, but if I didn't spend it, then the next time I could sum it up to the next allowance. So like the marshmallow test. My dad was a teacher, child development was his specialism – language development in children, psychopedagogy, and that sort of stuff. He absolutely used me as a Guinea pig. I'm actually in his master's dissertation as a Guinea pig experiment.
– We talked about your childhood a bit, and now I would like to ask you a few questions about your adolescence. Quite a lot of pupils in Letovo right now are going through the university application process and they're deciding on their future careers, and I'm quite interested, what was choosing your university and major like for you? How did it feel to make the final step to choosing your career?
– I was in high school and it would have been Cairo, Egypt, and I was attending Cairo American College. It was very well-structured – we had counselors, like you do, who would help us out – one counselor in particular. She was really good. And she helped me out through the process, making it very clear. I knew I wanted to do something that involves some of my passion, and I kept on doing architectural drawing and CAD designing and stuff like that because I enjoy that, and the creative side of art, when you get good enough that you can start making projects, houses, and things like that. I wanted to go into architecture because I wanted to do something that was creative but also was grounded in. I didn't get into my reach university, which was Cornell, but I got into Carnegie Mellon, which was my second choice, and I was really happy about it and I really enjoyed that.
But then there were other factors, little things, like… my dad's cousin had moved to the States in his youth and then he'd never come back to Europe, and he was just weird, and I was worried I was going to become that weird too, that detached from reality as he became following the American dream. I wasn't sure I wanted that. I had developed a very good relationship with my grandpa, who stayed in Italy, and I kind of wanted to develop that a bit more. I wanted to spend time with him cause he was much older. I wanted that side of my life, and I would have lost that had I gone to the States. And last, but definitely not least – there was a girl, cause there's always a girl, a girl I've fallen for, who used to be in primary school with me. And then it started adding up. I also wanted to spend time with one of the two foster kids that have stayed with us. We had a big age difference – six years, but by the time I'd grown, we kind of had more things in common, and the difference faded away. At the same time, I also had a very big passion for physics.
I remember the distinctive moment when I decided not to pursue architecture and pursue physics. I went, do I really want to go to the States? So the day before my deposit was due at Carnegie Mellon. I send the letter saying no thanks, and I decided to come back to Europe instead. It was a big change at the last moment. I had this life that I was imagining, that American campus and everything. But I'm actually glad of the choices I've made.
I actually spoke to my dad years later and he told me: 'God, was I relieved', because you know what fees are like in the States. The fees in Europe were much lower. So I was pondering whether to go to the UK and then spend like a year abroad in Italy or to go to Italy and then spend a year or two abroad in the UK. I went for the last one. So in the end I did that. I think my parents were relieved. They said, 'If you've thought about it, you considered everything and you think is the best choice, we'll support you'. Once they knew that I thought about it, they were fine with my choices. Although we didn't meet that often for quite a few years because they were around as well. So they kept them traveling the world, and then I went around as well after this.
– So you resigned from the architecture major. How did end up somewhere else eventually, studying Physics?
– I went to do physics at the University of Bologna, which is where my family's original. It was also a choice of convenience because you have people who put me up in bed. My grandparents first, and then I got placed on my own, and the girl was there. And so it was my brother. And so I looked around for other universities – Bologna didn't have architecture, they didn't offer it. I would have had to commute to or live in another city. And so I decided, well, this is fine, it kind of all fits together, I'll just do physics. This was such a good choice because Bologna is a really cool town, about a quarter of the population is students from all over. It's very much a uni town, but you don't have a campus. The university buildings are scattered around the city and it's got lots of history, which was definitely one of my passions at the time. And the Physics department was just for the weird people. I was the only one not to be in a band. It was like Philosophy majors, very kind of weird and alternative. All square people go into Engineering, so Physics had all the people who really, really just wanted to do Physics. Literally, people joining because they wanted to build a time machine, that sort of people – nice, weird, but nice. So I definitely fit in.
– Did you live in an apartment?
– At first, I was just staying with my grandparents and going to the uni with my Vespa, and then I got my own place, but it wasn't my own – it was like a place with other students, friends that would share rent. And it was good fun. It was always somebody from a circle of friends around, you know, evenings were ours because we had a place and I was really part of the group there.
– What were your university years like?
– I think that anybody who got pretty much what I got at uni and didn't party as much as I did or didn't have as much fun as I had kind of wasted those years. I could see a lot of people, especially in Physics, very devoted, very dedicated who only ended up getting a couple of more points out of 110 than I did, but who just slaved away at books all the time. I've always been more about smaller groups and activities than parties, so it'd be like playing role-playing games or playing games, or just chatting, maybe throwing a meal and everybody brings something and just spending time like that, going to listen to music, we'd just do house parties, and that's kind of the most partying I got. I wouldn't go to venues and things like that. It's just not me. I went to the cinema with friends.
– What was separating from your parents like? Was it like an adventure or was it sad a bit?
– By the time I left home at eighteen, the environment was pretty much like 'let's travel the world, let's go around, let's do new things!' So it was obvious. I was always going to learn new things and do new things, and my parents would be there. They'd always be there if I needed them. But 'there' just means in the world, a flight or a phone call away. But not any closer, especially for the first few years – they went to Eritrea, then they went to Paris and I was going across Europe and living in the UK
It was fine. My dad's very stubborn, like I am, so towards, seventeen and eighteen you start arguing quite a lot. I think it was good for us. Not living with them actually made my relationship with my parents, in particular with my dad, improve because then I learned that when we met, there was no point bickering about things you might as well just enjoy, make the most of what you've got. So just a lot of things that would probably have argued with my dad about, I just didn't because the time we have together is limited.
– Was it difficult to learn to do all the chores on your own? Like adult things, buying groceries, doing taxes?
– I could do integrals in three dimensions. I can do taxes. That's just boring stuff, so it wasn't hard. I was used to cooking. I was, cooking for my family when I was ten just because I was the first one to get back home for lunch, so I'd just make lunch for everybody else. I didn't really feel that I'm was doing a grown-up thing. I still really don't. I mean, I'm just organizing myself, and organizing my time, I guess, was the biggest challenge. But that didn't really happen until I started working, and I've always been in jobs where I was able to have flexibility in how to do things and certain flexibility on when to do things. I guess talking to people and having to work with people was the hardest bit – having to work with people who are not like-minded and growing up, you know, in a context of physicists, you find that there are lots of assumptions that people go with. If we have two options and one is clearly logically the less efficient one, it doesn't get considered normal.
– Could you please tell me a bit about your path to becoming a teacher?
– It probably started with me liking to talk to people, and enjoying talking to people. Enjoying talking to people about things I am passionate about. That would have to be at the heart of it. Then it'd be things like friends and family giving me positive feedback, like my auntie. I remember her asking something my dad and then my dad would tell her and then she'd go 'I don't understand'. And I explained to her and she'd understand. Then I started doing private lessons, and tutoring for younger, and I enjoyed that.
And then when I went to uni doing Physics, I wanted to do astrophysics. That was my passion – I had a telescope, I was in the astronomy club at school, and everything. But then we started doing this really cool project where we teach Physics in the theme park, and so we'd do lessons to groups of children. I really enjoyed that. And it kind of slowly started growing on me. I enjoyed finding a way to explain things to people. And then at the uni, I was at had a master's in History and didactics, teaching physics and mathematics. And I was like, oh, that's intriguing, that's kind of weird. It had philosophy modules as well. By this time I just didn't want to be in the box of physics. That made me want to do that. So I did that, that was my master's kind of branch that I took.
By then I decided I wanted to be a physicist, a physics teacher. I looked around for training programs and I did the PDC in the UK which was really cool, but very tough because I ended up in a very poor area of the UK where children had lots of issues and growing up to a lot of issues as well – poverty, unemployment, and things like that. It was also a kind of job where I could continuously try to make things better and try to improve them every year, trying to get in more interesting resources, improve links, and make new links.
I graduated, got my PDC, and then that year my grandma had ischemia. Then my granddad died, so she needed to carry that year. And my mum was with my dad in Paris and I said, I've just got my PDC, I have not got a job yet, let me go back and let me take care of her for a year. So I did that, I started doing three different jobs, one of which was teaching in a local school. And then in the meantime, I was trying to, get a job in a proper school and I did that. The following year I went to a really good school that was doing the IB because I did the IB as a high school student and loved it. It was absolutely fantastic. I loved it when I learned about other programs and other systems that convinced me the IB was definitely the best. So I said, when I'm going to start my career properly, I'm going to do IB. I've always been doing IB Physics and TOK in my previous school.
– How did you end up teaching at Letovo?
– I taught in the UK and then I taught in Italy. So I taught them the UK in a school that was doing kind of like an IB school, A-levels, and some of the students would do the IB. Unfortunately, it wasn't really well-presented, it wasn't promoted very well, so the people who ended up doing the IB diploma felt like they were getting a rough deal because the others would do less work. And at the time universities would also be more familiar with A-levels and UK universities, so it would be a bit harder to get into unis and they were doing effectively twice as much work. I didn't like that. I thought that the IB was the better program, but it wasn't really promoted as such. And then the school decided understandably that because the cohort of IB students would do small to justify the prices for the IB, they decided to discontinue it.
So when they decided to discontinue it, I said, okay, fine, I'm sure there are other schools. In the meantime, in fact, this other little school in Italy headhunted and contacted me asking me if I could go and I could set up the IB there cause they were starting it. And I said, oh cool, there's an opportunity to actually make it happen properly. So we moved to Italy and conveniently, it was not in the town of my parents and grandparents, but it was a near town. So I could commute and I could be there. We did all of that, set them the IB and everything, but I am really restless. So definitely one place I didn't want to live in was Italy, because I knew it. I was familiar with it. It was interesting at first because it was picking up Theory of Knowledge and I became TOK coordinator, and the job made it really interesting because there was not some normative novelty there, but as soon as I it was outside of work – this mentality also was very closed as well.
I then started looking with my wife because she was also feeling like that because she's also a traveler. We like traveling, we started looking for alternatives, and we were looking for non-profits organizations. And we were talking to another nonprofit school which then ended up having to close because of COVID, so they didn't hire that year. And then we saw the ad for Letovo and it was perfect. Cause it was in a new place, definitely a place that I know not much about, and definitely a place where my life can be challenging. Cause I like to be challenged. I like when you guys speak Russian, I like that my mind is straining to keep up with what you're saying and it's trying to fill in the gaps between the things I know. I enjoy that. So I wanted to be in a place like this. I wanted to be in a place that was more international. And I wanted to be in a place that was doing it not just to get people's money. I think that's one of the biggest things that brought me here. The fact that the school is non-for-profit.
– And what was the choice of moving to Russia like? Maybe you faced some stereotypes, something that your friends said?
– You have no idea. Most people I told were like '…why?' What do you mean 'why', cause why not? 'Why Russia?' – hadn't ever been! I don't want to go somewhere I know cause it's boring. No, in fact, I must be honest, when I met my current wife, she was studying Russia. She did this very special university for interpreters and translators – she became a professional translator when she got out – and her languages were English and Russian. So when I met her, I also met the Russian culture. It was filtered through with her, but loads of things that I didn't know about, about history and folklore and language were really interesting. She kind of opened a window into Russian culture that I never actually explored. So we knew about it a little bit. She knew about it and she speaks the language and everything, but I knew about it a little bit, so it made it more interesting for me to move here. I'm sure there are other places in the world I know nothing about that I would love to live in, but yeah.
– Were there any concerns regarding politics or maybe the climate?
– The place we were living in had a rubbish climate. So it'd been cold. We'd lived in cold places before, and we've lived in hot places before. So no, nothing like that. Honestly, I don't know. I've lived in countries that had regimes. So I think, as long as you can fly out, it's all right. If you're a guest in a country, I don't think you should judge it. I think that people who live in that country and feel they belong to that country have whatever right to set up whatever political system that they want. I don't think that any country is better than others. I think some countries do some things in ways that I agree with more. But for a lot of people, it was a big deal. In fact, what I've found here is there are lots of stereotypes that people have that are completely bonkers. I fell in love with Moscow, I think it's probably the second most beautiful city I've lived in – Paris being the first. I'm loving it. I think I'm very lucky. I mean, I use public transport every day and I've never seen public transport so efficient in any other capital. You know, the metro is amazing, and the services are great. I'm really, really glad about being here. And yes, there's a lot that people don't know and a lot of propaganda from the west on how things are, there's a lot that doesn't get told much to other countries. Maybe people should see a more realistic picture.
– You've worked in a lot of schools. What can you say about the school itself? How is it different from other schools?
– You've got good kids who want to work hard. I've always been lucky because the people who want to take Physics are the people who love Physics, so I very rarely had to work with students who didn't want to be there. In my experience, physics diploma students are always dedicated. It's different because the IB diploma section is a part of a bigger deal. But then I had that before in other schools. It's different because it's a school that's still in its early days of the IB diploma, but I've seen that in other schools as well. So I'd say it's got elements of other places of work. There was nothing unexpected when I came here. Of course, people are gonna have different points of view on how education should happen, different habits. There certainly were some expectations that I had, and then I realized that people didn't have the same expectations and vice versa, you know, expectations that people had that I didn't realize that they would have, a lot of that is down to culture and what people are coming from and what people's priorities are.
I guess different places have different priorities, but then again, if the priority of the school, like my previous school, is to make sure that the fees get paid and more and more people come, so more fees get paid, that changes what the school does and how it does it. So it's all based on priority. But I wouldn't say that there's anything I'm shocked about. I mean, no, in a good way – absolutely. The facilities here are great, it's very nice, the labs are great and for me, what matters is the equipment is cool. There's a lot that's missing that I'm used to having around, but then I can just order it, so it's just a temporary thing. And the people are probably the thing that I have been enjoyed discovering the most. People have all been so supportive. Everybody's just nice, people wanting to work well, and that's probably a big difference. The biggest difference from other schools I've worked here is that in other schools there have always been people who just don't want to work. They don't want to do their jobs well. And working with people who want to do their jobs is truly amazing. And it's not just the students, my colleagues as well. People who want to give their best and also experienced people, because at the school, at least for my department, there are all-expense people working there. That also makes a difference.
– When we arranged an interview, I asked you to think of a subject to bring. Could you please tell me what is the subject that you've chosen and why have you chosen it?
– So I brought a deck of cards that are traditional to my region, sort of regional – my grandparents'. Those are playing cards, like the ones that my grandma would play with me when I was little. I love them because they are pieces of art, each one of them. These are actually older than the French cards you have. So you can see, the clubs are actually clubs here, right? Spades come from swords, so you have swords here, right? Have you heard that song by Sting, Shape of My Heart? He talks about this, 'you know the spades are swords of a soldier, you know the clubs are weapons of war, you know, that diamonds mean money' – for this art.
I've chosen this because you asked me to bring something about my childhood, something that is important to me. And I think that games are really important to me. Games are a way to grow, to learn, but in a fun way, they are a way to learn about others you are playing with, but also a way to learn about yourself. They are a way to keep my mind active because I get bored really easily. Literally, if I'm tired, make me play a game and I'll wake up. If you make me do something boring, I'll just fall asleep. But it also when I play these cards, they remind me of the hours and places I've played with my grandparents, my grandma, and then my parents. Recently we were playing with my kids, we were playing with my mum and me with these very cards. And I think they paint a bit of a fantasy, medieval picture, and the theme is also quite cool.
In fact, there are different versions of these in Italy. Every region pretty much has its own. These are the most pictorial ones, the ones that have the most detailed pictures, which is why I like them. But I've seen cards just like these in Spain. When I went to visit Adelphia and I picked up on the deck of cards, it was exactly like that. It's not exactly any of the pictures, but exactly the seeds and the whole idea. I have lots of fond memories connected to these cards.
– What events of your life would you consider had the most significant effect on the formation of your individuality?
– Definitely traveling and seeing other people in different places, living in completely different ways. It made me think that we shouldn't take for granted the way that things are around us and we shouldn't expect them to be that way. They can always be different, there are always alternatives. That's something that I know is a big part of me. An event that happened to me and is probably related to this – I remember I was in Somalia with a friend and we got lost and he was half Italian half Somali. We got completely lost, utterly lost. The dark came, we were in the middle of bushes. And I was like, oh, what we're going to do? And there were some men sitting around the fire and he just went up to them and asked them. I was like, it's that easy, isn't it? If you know the language, it's that easy. So that probably was the first time when I went, well, I want to learn languages because every language is a key and I can open doors that I couldn't go through otherwise. That sparked my passion for languages. Other important events in my life… meeting with my wife, obviously, because now we have a life together and children and a big part of who I am is being a dad. But in forming my identity, I would probably say, yeah, traveling has made me open my mind a bit more. It's definitely something that's addictive and you kind of keep on wanting to do more and more. Every time you travel to a new place, you discover something new and you learn something new about yourself about the things that you gave for granted.
And just, you know, there's more, I'm really thirsty for knowledge. It's not about using it. It's just being able to see the links that I couldn't see before. That gives me pleasure. And every time I hear a new story, I have more links to make because it's a new thing that I can incorporate with the network as other things I know.
– Could you please tell me a bit about your first love?
– Oh, okay. Now that's the fine love because I had a girlfriend in the primary. I was like… six years. We actually started before primary and we went all the way till I had to leave for a different country. So that was one there, and of course, I had crushes on girls, I had a very big crush on this girl. That was one of the reasons why I decided not to go to the States. It wasn't the only one because I was a bit realistic about it as well. But just being around her would… just being around her.
Love as in 'oh my God, she's the best in the world', would have to be my current wife. There was another girl at uni that made me feel like that, but I've always been very, I dunno, I don't want to say picky, but there are things about people's characters that I don't relish so much. My friends all have defects of course, but you know, it's some things that make you go: 'I don't want to spend time with this person'. And it's normally being closed-minded – you know, people just expect things or demand things. And what I meant with my wife was that I was like, 'oh, what's this one going to have that I don't like?' And then I was looking, and then I was looking, and then I kept on looking, and I'm still looking. There's nothing with her that I don't like. I know that sounds a bit demeaning, but I would definitely say that I am in love, like the proper, romantic love. And I wasn't before. I was just infatuated before.
– What was dating in your childhood like? Like if you wanted to ask a girl on a date?
– I guess childhood is a very long time. I mean, it's clearly different. If you're in primary, you just kiss her and say, boom, I kissed you, now we're boyfriend and girlfriend. I gave her rings I'd take from my grandma's stack of old rings and stuff. And she got a ring, and she's like my wife, all of a sudden. As I got older, in middle school, it would be like, I fancy you, so I write it on a note if I can't tell you, and then I give you the note at the end of school, and then we walk off and then I get a note back saying, 'you're nice, but you not that nice' or 'oh, I don't like you that way', things like that. I must admit that it's normally been girls coming up to me and kind of striking the deal kind – they asked and I was fine. In high school that would be things like, let's go out, let's have something, a drink together, kind of the usual time spent together, maybe activities to do together, maybe clubs and things like that. Cause you really want to get to know the person, so 'will you come to the dance with me' and things like that.
– So would that be parties, cinemas, or clubs, something like that?
– Well, yeah, depending on the situation. In high school, I was in Egypt, so some films were in English, but lots were in Arabic. So, yeah, it'd be some people's parties or just going out for pancakes or something like that.
– What was the beginning of the new millennia like for you?
– It was cool. It was definitely interesting, but let's not forget that it kind of coincides with my first year at uni, cause I went to uni in 1999. So 1999 was the year I got out of my house, I was in a new place, I was in a new uni, new ideas, uni courses, lots of people to meet, lots of things to do because the uni time was amazing. But the end of the millennium was there. I'm sure you've heard about the millennium bug. You haven't? Okay. So there was this scare in 1999, that on the midnight of the 31st of December, all tech would stop working because all tech had been designed to have internal clocks, but no one thought about the millennium number, that digit, no one thought about resetting. So they had no idea what the programming would respond like to when the internal clock switched to a new thousand because it'd been designed for decades, even centuries, but not for thousands of years. That was a big scam. Nothing happened, but that was going around.
There was a lot of expectation about what the year 2000 and the new millennium would have brought. I think for maybe half a century, people were looking at the year 2000 as a, you know, this milestone of humankind. And then you quickly realize that it wasn't, it was just another year.
I had no expectations. To me, it was just cool to do new stuff. I've been thinking about the year 2000 and thinking, oh, I'll be 19 in 2000, isn't that cool. I think some of us, my generation and definitely me, but others as well, when we write the date, we still write 19-something in the year gap, but it also has to do with age. You kind of get to a certain age and you don't really mentally grow anymore. You've grown professionally. You grow physically, but you don't grow mentally.
It's only when I look back that I can see some changes have happened. The biggest change for me probably was money. That was 2001. I was not in the monetary union cause it was in the UK. So when I went back to live in the EU money zone, I met the euros. So I left that the euro was there, and the euro and the other currencies were happening together, but to me, it was just switching to, you know, to the euro. And then all of a sudden, everybody had euros and you could go anywhere with just the money you had in your pocket, you could literally walk out of your country because no one's going to check anything – no documents. You walk out and you can go to the next country and spend the money you had in your pocket to start with, which is amazing, actually, especially if you had lots of friends to meet.
– Did the political climate have any influence on your relationship with your family? Maybe like you had different opinions from someone?
– No. I would say that we are probably all very much on the same. I definitely do not take as much interest in politics as maybe my parents, my dad, and my grandpa did. It just seemed very femoral to me – you know, things come and go, if I'm going to learn something, it's going to be the laws of the universe that are just pretty much going to be there for a while. Politics is lots of in Europe, there's lots of politics. It's just a show and entertainment, and it's not the sort of entertainment I'm interested in. I wish I could say that when you discuss politics, you discuss the ideas, but a lot of people just talk about other people and what that person said as opposed to what that person said. And if it's just going to be down to what comments people have made – I'm not interested. If it's down to what policies are actually happening and what changes are happening, then that's cool.
– What is your favourite genre of music?
– Jazz. Jazz, classic rock, and folk music as well. And Bob Dylan as well sort of thing. I don't not like other types. I like other types as well, but these would be my favorites.
– Are you good at cooking? What do you usually cook?
– I enjoy cooking. I really take pleasure in cooking. I'm sorry when I cannot do it, when it's like ten minutes and I've got to put something on the table. I wish I had more time. I enjoy doing it. I have a very experimental approach to it. So I don't like making the same recipe the same way twice because it's boring, I've done it already. I want to change. I want to put some different spices in. I want to change ingredients and things like that, which makes me a horrible cook. I do have some dishes that I like to make. I like cooking chicken and curry. I like making sides – it's very simple, but you can go a long way. I'm not very good at making cakes and biscuits and kind of bakery stuff, so I'm mostly going for main courses and sort of meat, pasta, sauces.
– You've lived in a lot of countries. Have you inherited maybe some of the traditional cuisine?
– I would try local dishes where I was because what you get in the store and the ingredients you get are based on the local culture. So you could try the local thing. That's one of the things that a lot of people definitely just cannot conceive – when you go into a country where they don't have that brand of sauce or that type of pasta. But to me, it's always been – you're in a new country, you're going to try the food and there's always something good. Every country has some good food, except for England, maybe, but then they just adopt other countries' food.
– You said that in your childhood you had like a lot of animals: chicks, chickens…
– It was in the countryside, yes. And then I would have things like tortoises and a chameleon and monkeys would be the cats cause they'd come around and steal stuff just like cats. So cats – quite a lot, because we were living in flats. We had a house as well, but I think a dog really deserves to have a lot of space outside. And unless you have a big, big garden, then it's not fair to have a dog. So mostly cats in the end.
– What was your reaction to the emergence of the Internet, social media, and streaming services?
– These are very different timelines. The Internet came out way before social media. The internet was cool, but it was so slow. The internet would literally take ten or fifteen minutes to load pictures. So it was mostly about being able to write home to people or write emails. In terms of tech, the internet is one thing and by the internet, I mean, the world wide web, and broadband was the next, because only with broadband you can have a lot of information quickly. The Internet was cool. I liked it. It was an alternative, but a slower alternative to CD encyclopedias. I mostly just used it to chat with people. When I got together with my girlfriend, my future wife, we would chat in public chat rooms, cause there was a thing that you didn't have individual chats. That'd be public chats, a place where everybody could chat at the same time, and chatting would not be vocal, it would be written. Then private chatrooms came out. That was cool because that allowed me to talk to all the mates I had at school and we all kind of exploded across the world because no one stayed in Cairo, but most of them went around. So it was nice to keep track of that.
I've never really gotten into social media. I was just too busy spending time with people in front of me. I was busy having drinks or meals or walks or playing games with people. If I've got friends, sometimes I'll check my emails and I'll send an email, but it had that taste of writing a letter to a friend as you would do at the start of the last century. And the letter is kind of a moment for you to sum up present things that have happened over a larger month time, and I liked that. I liked writing letters to people rather than just quick messages. I mean, I use WhatsApp today, but it's not the same thing. I'll always call if I can, I like hearing the person's voice because it's more authentic. Because the tone does not get conveyed with WhatsApp. And if I can, I'll meet with people.
– And streaming services, like the fact that you get all of these movies and series collected in one place, instead of… going to rent a movie? I don't know how it works…
– Well, if you think about it going to Blockbuster is the same as browsing on Amazon Prime. You're just not browsing by walking and looking around, just browsing by looking at cover pictures on the computer. So there's not much difference. I mean, it's short, you don't go to the shop, but when you don't go to the shop, you're not taking a walk around with friends. When you look at a screen, you both see the same things. When you're walking around a Blockbuster, they're on a different aisle and they find something special, and also there's more kind of sensitivity to it. I don't think there's a massive difference. I've always enjoyed watching films and the cinema at home.
Probably the biggest difference for me is that I was completely upset with advertisements on television. I don't like watching ads for 15 minutes before the film. I don't want to waste time like that.
– Do you have a role model or a hero?
– There are a lot of characteristics I'd like to have that I don't have. That's true. There are characters that I love and I wish I were, and I agree with, mostly fiction characters though.
– So like, superheroes?
– No, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Superheroes – not much. Superheroes tend to be people who don't really think straight about what they do. And I think when someone designs a character like that, they try to put something in a character that people would relate to. And when you find a character that you like and that you enjoy, but characters are meant to be flawed. I don't know, maybe a role model is someone who's flawed, and I'm already nailing that. I wish I could be doing things in different roles. I suppose I do have that. I have role models in different roles. I have role models for parenting and how to be a dad. That probably would be my dad because I liked what he did and I agree with what he did. But not like one character… okay, I said it, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
There are elements. There are some amazing people that have been teachers, you know, Richard Fineman maybe, he was great. I only just recently found out that he was actually quite a misogynist, so maybe it was great in that respect promoting others. I think the thing is when you think about a personal role model, if it's a real person, there's more to them than you know. There's going to be things you don't know. So just completely investing in 'oh, I want to be like them' when you don't know half of it doesn't seem reasonable. There's always hidden aspects.
I don't resent not being myself. I'm very, very glad to be myself. Yeah. But I can learn, you can always learn.
– Here's a question to finish. Do you have a dream?
– A dream? One dream? I have millions, a million things I like to do, be able to do, be in. It's so many. I know I don't have one that I'm going for, that's it. I think I did. At some point in my life, I did have a dream of becoming a father. And I really wanted that to happen. I had a dream of traveling the world, but that was already what I was doing. I had a dream of continuing to do it. There were professional ones: I wanted to teach TOK and I got to, I wanted to teach Physics and I got to, so I think I'm very lucky. I think most of the dreams I've had throughout my life actually turned out the way I wanted them and my wife is telling me off for it recently, it's like 'things always go the way you want, darling'. Or do I just abandon the things that are not going to happen? I don't know.
I wish the world were a better place. I wish people didn't have to suffer. I think that's obvious. How could that happen? I don't know. What I can do about that? I think making young people like you think a bit more outside the box and have less prejudice, but also think more analytically and use evidence and reason a bit more. I don't know. I'm not sure. There are many things I would like to see. But I don't think I'm going to see them. So there are no expectations there. But personally, I already have quite a lot of what I dreamed of when I was younger.
– Thank you for that conversation. It was fantastic.