Unforgotten Italy

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

I went to Todi, a Medieval hilltop town in Umbria, to reclaim my Italian, a language I learned when I was 16, had mastered as an exchange student by 18 but had abandoned by 24. During the long interregnum between then and now, I have imagined dreamily the alternative life in which my love of Italian would have thrived. Others had lived that life, among them my best friend, Christina Ball. My freshman roommate at college, Christina had gone marvelously off the deep end, marrying an Italian from Pisa, getting her PhD at Yale in Italian literature and starting a language and cultural center in Charlottesville, Virginia, called Speak! Language Center. From her Southern outpost, Christina, a beautiful brunette straight out of an Antonioni movie, was building a growing business that extolled the charms of Italian culture.

I’d played a small but decisive part in all of this. The summer after our freshman year in college, I invited her to spend a month with me in Italy. I introduced her to the family that had embraced me, and I taught her to make pasta, to have an espresso after her big midday meal, vin santo with biscotti after supper. I traveled with her to see the David, rode bikes with her through the Villa Borghese Gardens, trolled the Porta Portese flea market, and dove topless from rocks into the sapphire Mediterranean on the Sicilian island of Favignana. The first bit of Italian that I taught her was the first I’d learned: “La vacca è una persona? No, la vacca non è una persona. La vacca è un’animale.” Who knows how my grammar book came up with that, but somehow it worked. Italians laughed when I repeated it. The laughter made me want to be able to say more, and in this same way I inspired Christina. “Is the cow a person? No, the cow is not a person. The cow is an animal.” By August, in the dry heat of Sicily, the course of her life, unbeknownst to her, was decided.

Now in our forties, in a nice coup of symmetry, it was Christina who offered to lead me back to my own, now long-lost Italy. Speak! Language Center (formerly Ecco Italy) offers a full immersion language and culture course in conjunction with its sister school in Todi, La Lingua La Vita. When Christina described to me how the program sank her students into Umbrian life and Italian language, I signed on for August, bringing with me my two children, husband and mother, enrolling them in Italian lessons at the school as well.

Umbria is a region in central Italy best known for the cities of Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto and Orvieto (all within an hour of Todi), but Christina’s itinerary focused on a lesser-known path. Todi, atop its craggy hill, with all its churches, its labyrinth of medieval streets and its history dating back more than 2,000 years to the Etruscans, is a tranquil jewel of a town, not heavily touristed. Just the sort of place that would interest Christina, who, with her big brown eyes, a pile of thick hair, and a spirit and style more Italian than American, always leaves a group of slightly bedazzled, newly minted friends in her wake.

In Todi, everyone seemed to know her—the cheese maker, the wood-carver whose specialty is inlay, an opera scholar, even the barber. If someone interests her, she introduces herself. In this way, she met Stefania Belli, founder and president of La Lingua La Vita. Chris­tina heard about Stefania’s innovative teaching methods, which incorporate performance and theater, and decided American students could gain a lot from her approach. They established a program of morning language instruction followed by an afternoon of adventures that would allow students to put their Italian into practice. But the aspect of the program I anticipated most was staying with a host family, the Gioffres,  at their agriturismo (a farm converted into a hotel), Acquaviva. It’s on the southern slope of Ficareto, one of the many small hills that encircle Todi.

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