Diplomatic spouse’s urgent task: learning the local language
As a trailing spouse of an American diplomat, I always feel that it is important for me to learn the language of the country where we are assigned because even the basic language skill makes my daily life much easier. I was given an opportunity to take a 2-month Italian language course prior to our arrival in Milan, Italy where we are currently assigned. However, I realized that I could not even carry on simple conversation with “portinaio” or guard at our apartment building. I recognized the urgent need to take Italian lessons and made a decision to do a total immersion by myself for 2 weeks in September outside Milan, which I thought would be the most effective way to learn the language in a short period of time.
One of my husband’s colleagues recommended a school in Montepulciano, Tuscany. I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Montepulciano before, as my knowledge of Tuscany comes from a couple of American movies. Then, the moment I visited the school’s website, I became intrigued by its location: a small school situated in the heart of a medieval town. And the school seemed to have a homey atmosphere. It was love at first sight. I instinctively knew that I would be comfortable learning in this school. In retrospect, my first impression on the school stayed with me until the last day of my class and the Tuscan hills were even more beautiful than the pictures posted on the website.
The medieval town of Montepulciano, Tuscany
The hill towns of central Italy are what we envision when we think of the quintessential Italian countryside. Montepulciano is no exception. It is a medieval and Renaissance town in the province of Siena in southern Tuscany. It is located on the hilltop with steep cobble stone streets, old churches, palazzo and piazza. When I stood in the middle of Piazza Grande surrounded by Palazzo Comunale and the Duomo, I felt as if I had slipped back in time to the Middle Age or was on a film set. In fact, there are several Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) that were filmed in its historic center. A 20-minitue walk took me to elegant San Biagio Church, an impressive Renaissance gem, at the base of the hill. (It was quite a challenge to walk up into the town center on the steep street, though.)
To wine aficionados, the name of Montepulciano may be familiar. Vineyards on surrounding rolling hills produce one of the best Italian red wine, “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano”. It is young and smooth wine made primarily from the Sangiovese grape. One Saturday, I went on a wine tasting tour and had a chance to taste this “Vino Nobile” at several different local wineries. In mid-September when I was there, grapes were almost ready to be harvested. To get to Montepulciano, I strongly recommend renting a car and driving from Florence or Rome. This way, you can get the most of Tuscany and enjoy its stunning beauty to the fullest, as well as have an easy access to surrounding medieval towns.
My husband decided to accompany me and spend the weekend before my class started on Monday. We arrived at Montepulciano on Saturday, so that we could explore the town before attending a “Welcome Aperitivo (cocktail hour)” organized by the school on Sunday evening. It gave us a great opportunity to get to know teachers and mingle with other new and existing students, and the orientation was conducted essentially in Italian with a minimum assistance in English. The students’ learning experience already started from this moment. We were allowed to speak English among students and it was great to see the diversity of students ranging from college students to semi-retirees and retirees. I met several retired couples who return to this school every year because they were fascinated by Tuscany. The students usually rent an apartment nearby in town or stay at an “agriturismo” or “farm-stay” in the surrounding area. “Agritrismo” usually offers farm-to-table dining and the accommodation is set on the farm property surrounded by the field, trees and overlooking the hills. You may get lucky and have a chance to tour the owner’s working farm or vineyard while staying.
Tuscan dinner table at “home”
In my case, instead, I took a home-stay option at a room with half board in a family home within a 5 minutes’ walk from school. The school arranged my accommodation upon request. Since Montepulciano’s historic center is small, many local landlords seem to help the school accommodate students’ housing needs. My landlord was a widow of a local firefighter in her 70’s and prepared breakfast and authentic Tuscan dinner for me every day. Since my Italian was limited and she is not highly motivated to teach me the language and she is clearly not an Italian teacher, we exchanged a few words and watched her favorite American dramas dubbed in Italian on TV. On the dinner table, a bottle of table wine was always offered. As a first course, she would serve me a Tuscan specialty like “Pici”, a thick pasta like fat spaghetti with a ragu sauce that she spent all day cooking and meat or fish as a second course. In Tuscany, wild boar meat is usually used in the ragu and rabbit is a popular choice for the main dish. Doing home-stay was a perfect way to get familiarized with Tuscan cuisine. If you are interested in having this type of social experience, I highly recommend a home-stay option.
Lessons at Il Sasso italian language school
The school offers full language courses and 2 or 3-day mini-culture course. For the language course, there are various options for group, private, and intensive classes meeting in the morning and afternoon. To take a full advantage of the opportunity, I took 3-hour group lessons in the morning and 2-hour private lessons in the afternoon.
For group lessons, two teachers took turns every hour and the class had between 5 and 9 students, subject to weekly changes. One of the teachers had strength in grammar and never used or let us use English in the class. I think that this method is very effective, except for classes for total beginners. The other teacher was fun, energetic and motivating with a big smile. In my opinion, group lessons were well structured. Although some grammar points introduced in the class overlapped with what I had already learned, lessons helped me gain much more confidence.
Private lessons are a custom-made language course catering to individual students’ needs. My teachers focused on the area I would like to improve, “fluency” in my case, by using the material of my interest, such as Italian society, gastronomy and music. I was very lucky to have two young female teachers who are good and resourceful. Homework was assigned daily in both group and private lessons. My favorite time of the day was late afternoon doing my homework with a glass of Tuscan red wine at the terrace of a local cafe. There, I never got tired of seeing the green rolling hills.
The school organized afternoon activities on weekdays like trips to surrounding medieval towns and hiking. I participated in a school field trip to Cortona. On weekends, I took a 30-minute bus ride to Pienza on my own. Both Cortona and Pienza are also hill towns in Tuscany. Cortona, put into the limelight by Frances Mayes’ novel “Under the Tuscan Sun,” still attracts many tourists while retaining its rustic charm. Pienza, a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, is a quaint and charming small town and is my favorite. Since the entire town was rebuilt in the Renaissance style under the order from locally born Pope Pius II in15th century, it was worth spending just half a day to enjoy its architectural sights and the sweeping view of valley “Val d’Orcia” (also a World Heritage Site).
It was a wonderful experience to get away from the modern city of Milan and immerse myself in the life and culture of Tuscany. Even though only for a short time, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to live in a medieval town at the home of an elderly Tuscan lady and study the beautiful language of Italy.