Unforgotten Italy

By Martha McPhee
The scenic Todi landscape
Photograph: Photo by: Bobby Fisher

Then my Italian lessons began. La Lingua La Vita, bustling with students of all nationalities and abilities, is in the center of Todi, on the top floor of an old palazzo. I’ll confess, I hadn’t taken a class in anything except yoga since I’d finished my graduate studies. In fact, back in New York when I took a placement test for the school and sat there at my computer with access to the Internet, my first impulse was to cheat! But here I was in the classroom with Stefania Belli, a generous, well-dressed woman, with cropped red hair and intense brown eyes. She instructed us to shut our eyes and imagine ourselves at a moment in our lives in which we felt most triumphant. She asked us to breathe deeply, relax, surrender. Her approach, based on the neuro-linguistic programming method, is designed to connect the right and left sides of the brain—the intellectual and the emotional—in the learning process. The idea is to become viscerally connected with the reasons for learning. With some resistance, I obeyed. And here, another confession: Quietly, I began to cry.

With my eyes shut, I recalled myself as a 16-year-old girl who came to Italy on a summer exchange and fell in love with another language and culture, going from troubled teen to a young woman filled with curiosity. I had been a bit lost in a big and complex blended family, a terrible student who had no focus or interest. But I returned home with a determination to learn Italian, a goal that transformed my education. I went from being a C student to an A student. I’d been sparked by things large and small—eating mozzarella and homemade pasta for the first time, smelling an apricot plucked right off a tree, strolling by Roman ruins, discovering the magic of being able to speak another language, how capable it can make you feel, to be let into another culture through its words.

For about eight years I went back and forth to Italy, working any job I could to earn the money. I lived there for two years, was involved with an Italian man for six. At college I designed my own major in Italian literature and art history, writing a senior thesis on the influence of Giotto on Dante. My exchange family became my Italian parents, teaching me about food and art and love. Preserved in me are nuggets from those days: simple things, like the fact that I won’t go barefoot (the Italians I knew never did). And big things: a reverence for time, for family, for the sweep of history.

But by 24, becoming serious about writing fiction, later falling in love with an American poet and having the corresponding income of an artist, I abandoned Italy. And crying here now in Stefania’s classroom, I understood I’d come to Italy not only to reclaim my Italian but to reclaim my 16-year-old self. I wanted her back, for me, for my family.

That settled, the remainder of the two-week course went beautifully. For grammar instruction we focused on the unnerving subjunctive, and with the striking and animated Federica Vizzotto, we used the second half of each four-hour daily lesson for theater and playacting, a way to work on pronunciation and tone. I felt like Eliza Doolittle in Italian phonics, learning how the phrase “You’re late” can be said with rage, humor, delight, horror or as a fact—go ahead, try it. Now try it in Italian!

With my family in a beginner’s class, we soon fell into a rhythm, waking early, driving over the hills to Todi. Lunches, often at Enoteca Oberdan in town, would involve lessons in some aspect of Umbrian cuisine. I learned all about the many varieties of salami and prosciutto—from the neck, the back, the leg, aged and fresh—and the minute differences in taste. In the afternoons we went on excursions, visiting the Roman ruins at Carsulae on the Via Flaminia; the smallest art theater in the world, in the hill town of Montecastello di Vibio; Cascata delle Marmore, the highest man-made waterfall in Europe, constructed by the Romans to release the stagnant water they believed was the cause of disease. And, of course, we couldn’t resist a bit of the beaten path, to see Orvieto and its green-and-white striped cathedral atop the tufa (volcanic rock) hill, soaring toward the heavens.

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