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.

On our way from Rome, we stopped in the small village of Portaria to eat. Leonardo Gioffre, the 37-year-old son of my host family, had called to warn us that it was after one PM, and if we didn’t stop we’d miss lunch. The trattoria was in the town square—a few outside tables shaded by a canopy of ivy. Leonardo, a slender man with dark hair, a charming smile and light brown eyes, arrived on his motorcycle a bit windblown but dashing in a linen shirt. He greeted each of us—my kids, Livia, eight, and Jasper, four; my mother, Pryde; my husband, Mark; Christina and me—with kisses on both cheeks. Then he took charge, ordering pizza, sausages, long-aged prosciutto and chicory sautéed with potatoes.

Leonardo reminded me immediately of the Italians I had known, proud of his country and not hesitant to tease us for our Americanisms—that we might miss lunch or order a Fanta with the meal. I was brought back to when I first came to Italy and learned what I hadn’t understood before, that food is revered, the making of it, the eating of it, the growing of it. And though at first this reverence and its expression can seem overly fussy, it soon makes sense, teaching you a deeper appreciation for the tastes and subtleties of things, be it food or language or a country walk.

After lunch, we met the rest of the Gioffre family: Leonardo’s brother, Max; Max’s wife, Alessia, and their two toddler boys; and Anna and Ernesto, who sit at the head of the family. The couple moved to Ficareto from Rome in the early 1970s when their sons were small. It was a utopian fantasy to leave the city to farm—and they had done just that, for decades, until Ernesto became fragile with Alzheimer’s disease. The old farmhouse has been turned into four apartments, the old pigsty into a kitchen, and a great hall—designed by Leonardo, an architect—has been added as a gathering place for guests. But Acquaviva still reflects Ernesto and the life he created. The family doesn’t advertise. They want it to be a simple place for people who won’t mind rooms without television or air-conditioning.

That evening, Leonardo took us to a Notte Bianca (White Night, an all-night festival) in the village of Massa Martana. This time of year Umbria is alive with   sagre—festivals—honoring things like gelato and racing bulls. And we arrived there the day before Ferragosto, the celebration of the Virgin’s Assumption and the biggest summer holiday in Italy. The village was crammed with revelers listening to music and watching mimes. In the central square I was plucked from the crowd by Rufino the Clown, a well-dressed rogue who proceeded to court me before his audience. I felt 16 all over again, wide-awake with jet lag, thrilled to suddenly be a part of another world. I remembered arriving during those summers long ago, asleep during the day, up at night with my friends, eating watermelon and playing the guitar in the vast garden behind my host family’s house.

Over the next few days, before our Italian lessons began, Anna taught my daughter to make a crostata, an Italian sweet crust with jam; my family and I took a tour of the Cantina Tudernum to learn about the local white wine, Grechetto; we visited the Caseificio Montecristo cheese shop and tasted sweet ricotta and aged pecorino with chestnut honey dribbled over it; we took a hike on one of the ancient roads that connect other hill towns to Todi, across a landscape fragrant with mint, up and down slopes, past small villages and vineyards, to the Roccafiore winery, where we tasted sweet Umbrian passito, known as   un vino da meditazione —a wine that makes you think. One evening, Anna had a party for about 20 people at Acquaviva. She gathered us around the end of a long table that was covered in flour and potato, and taught us to make gnocchi. Dozens of hands rolled the dough into long ropes, cut it into small dumplings, pressed it against the tines of a fork.

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.

But it is in Assisi where this story ends, in the upper basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, surrounded by Giotto and Cimabue frescoes, where I sat in a pew next to Christina in the airy, light-filled interior while Mark and my mother studied the paintings and the children roamed about. As churches will have you do, I began to reflect. I had thought that having a family had placed Italy and my enthusiasm for it deep in the past. But here I was relearning it, speaking it, using it to inspire my family with the passion that fueled me as a teenager, opening up our world, making it wider and more profound. Christina had made this possible, and I felt grateful. Just then, Livia and Jasper quietly came up to us, pointing to a group of about 40 nuns in their gray habits, awed by the concentration of them. The nuns had just finished a tour led by a priest who stood now before them, thanking them for coming. As he bowed, the nuns began to sing a prayer of thanks. They filled the church with song, and when they finished, Livia, her eyes wide, mesmerized, said, “Grazie.”

Learn Italian in Todi

How to enroll Speak! Language Center’s annual trip, "Two Weeks in Todi," takes place from June 20 to July 4 in 2009 (about $2,200, including classes, lodging and most cultural events). The   school also offers customized trips year-round.

How to get there  If you fly into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, Todi is easily reached by bus (the trip takes three hours and costs less than 20 euros). Flying into the smaller Perugia  airport is also an option. For more information, click here.

Where to stay Speak! Language Center will do the booking for you, but there are a number of hotels to choose from: In central Todi, try the charming and historic  San Lorenzo Tre, a bed-and-breakfast with views of the surrounding hills, located on a side street just off the main piazza. Just outside Todi, consider the elegant boutique hotel Roccafiore, which also houses a spa and winery. My favorite, of course, is Acquaviva, where we stayed in the countryside, surrounded by gorgeous views of Todi.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-20 11:05

Find this story at: