Not far from our house is an old abbey dating back to the 12th century. On the last trip I made alone, I decided to spend Sunday afternoon there, exploring the church and grounds.
The abbey was founded by twelve Cistercian monks in 1142. They drained the marshy land, created extensive farmlands and built the church and monastery using material from the ancient Roman settlement of Urbs Salvia. They also built roads and bridges, wineries and oil presses, and the abbey became one of the most powerful religious communities in Central Italy until the 1400s.
I got there in time to see a bride arriving for her wedding. Given that a wedding was going on, I wasn’t able to check out the inside of the church on this visit. Maybe next time.
What I did do was go for a hike around the Nature Reserve that surrounds the abbey. The Nature Reserve, established in 1984, is comprised of 4,448 acres of both cultivated land and woodlands, and is protected by the World Wildlife Fund.
There are three main trails of varying lengths, but all relatively flat. There are also shaded grassy areas perfect for picnicking, and on weekends you’ll see lots of families relaxing under the trees, kicking the soccer ball around or playing frisbee.
It was HOT and I was both thirsty and hungry after walking, so I decided to have lunch at the Ristorante da Rosa, the restaurant on the grounds. It was packed with families enjoying their Sunday lunch. The food and service was quite good and, if you can sit on the patio or the main part of the restaurant the atmosphere is pleasant. As forthe menu, I can recommend the pappardelle alla lepre (pasta with hare ragu). The arrosto misto (mixed grill) is also good, but I didn’t care for the tagliatelle alla papera (pasta with duck sauce).
Now that the house is complete, we have to go about furnishing it.
That raises the inevitable question about what, if anything, we will bring or send from the States. Some people move with whatever they can fit in a suitcase or two. Others end up shipping pretty much everything they own.
We’ll probably be closer to the former. For one thing, we won’t be there full-time initially. We don’t plan to sell our US house for another year. For another, we are at the point in our lives where we want to streamline things and live more simply. We will probably end up selling or giving way most of our stuff. Besides, shipping a big container is expensive.
So I envision us buying the furniture and most of what we need once we’re there, and bringing (or sending) clothes, personal items and a few books, plus those things that are difficult to find or expensive to buy in Italy:
I am not a cook, though living in Italy might just be the nudge I need to finally learn. Ed, on the other hand, is a good cook and so he plans to bring his favorite cookware and knives. We’ve been told that high quality cookware can be quite pricey in Italy.
Something Ed noticed on his latest visit to the house is how tiring it is to stand on a tile floor for an extended period of time, so we’ll be sending at least one of those anti-fatigue mats for the kitchen.
Here are some of the other things we’ll be packing:
Rubbermaid storage containers
Ice cube trays
Gallon Ziploc freezer bags (you can get smaller Ziplocs at IKEA and a few other places, but the big, thick ones are hard to find).
Aluminum foil and Saran Wrap
Non-metric measuring cups and spoons (to make American recipes)
Large plastic drinking glasses
Spices & ingredients
Everyone loves Italian food, but we non-Italians sometimes want a little variety in our cuisine: Mexican Thai, Indian, etc. Good luck finding ethnic restaurants, unless you’re in a big city. Not only are they a relative rarity, but so are the ingredients to make ethnic dishes, not to mention traditional American recipes (especially when it comes to baking). You need to bring your own. Here’s my list so far:
Peanut butter (you can get it in Italy but it just isn’t the same)
Packets of dry gravy mix and ranch salad dressing
While prescription meds tend to be cheaper in Italy, OTC meds are almost always more expensive, so we’ll stock up on those:
Huge double pack of Ibuprofen from Costco (very expensive in Italy)
Towels and Bedding
The towels I’ve seen tend to be small and thin and more expensive than here. Washcloths are non-existent. I plan to stock up at Bed, Bath and Beyond and HomeGoods.
The bed sizes are a little different in Italy (a bit longer and a bit narrower), but US sheets can still work, and we have a better selection at lower prices.
That’s it. When I think about it, there really isn’t that much we’ll need to bring. I’m pretty sure that over time we’ll find acceptable substitutes for most things or discover we don’t really need them after all.
But for now having a few things from home should help ease the transition.
What would you take with you if you were moving to Italy?
When we started designing our little house, the one thing we wanted was an open floor plan … we wanted one big room with the kitchen at one end, the living room at the other and the dining table in the middle.
And we wanted an American-style kitchen, with an island, a decent-sized refrigerator, plenty of storage and counter space and a wine fridge. Most of the kitchens we had seen in existing farmhouses (at least in our price range) were cramped, with not enough storage or counter space. And with curtains instead of doors on the lower cabinets. “No curtains!” was my first direction to Angelo, our kitchen designer.
And Ed wanted an ice-maker. Not just an ice-maker in the freezer (which is rare enough in Italy) but a stand-alone ice-maker (what can I say, Ed is into ice, and lots of it). Angelo looked at him as though he had three heads. Needless to say, Ed did not get his ice-maker.
We spent most of the day at Angelo’s showroom in Civitanova going over our extensive list of needs and wants and picking out the cabinet design and counters. I was tempted to pick something safe and classic, like white, but we ended up going for a greenish-gray color for the cabinets.
OK, not the best picture, but here’s how our kitchen turned out:
I think our full size refrigerator and freezer might be overkill for Italy…. in fact I think our whole kitchen might be overkill…but at least we can stock up with food and wine before a big snowstorm.
Despite designing our American-style kitchen we still ended up with a microwave that is tiny on the inside and an oven that will not fit a big roasting pan with a turkey. But I’m sure we’ll adapt.
Now that the kitchen is done we are starting to think about all the stuff we’ll need to bring or buy to outfit it. I’ve already started filling my cart at Amazon.it.
We are getting close to the end of construction. One of the last things to do is build the fireplace.
Although a pellet stove would have been a more effective source of heat, we thought an open fire would make the place feel cozier, so we opted for that.
Given all the doors along the backside of the house, the only place that made sense to put a fireplace was in the corner of the living room. That actually works well because it means we can see it from the kitchen and dining area as well as the living room. Here’s the design we came up with.
However, the corner location restricted its size and we found we couldn’t make it as big as we wanted. Not the end of the world.
Since we wanted the fireplace to fit with the rustic character of the house, we decided to build it out of brick and stone using an old wood beam for a mantel and a space to store wood below the firebox.
Here’s the stone we found for the front of the firebox:
Here it is in place:
Here’s the old beam we found for the mantel:
The chimney pipe is covered in plaster:
Ta-dah! Here’s the finished fireplace:
Now all we need to do is test to see if it draws properly and then we’ll be ready for a cozy fire.
Once I put it out there, I began studying feverishly to make it happen, using all the tools and courses available on the internet. I’ve found that you can make pretty good progress learning a language this way, if you are really committed.
By early January I had a couple thousand words under my belt, had learned three verb tenses and some other basic grammar, and could even understand a fair amount of spoken Italian.
However, I couldn’t speak Italian at all.
And I knew that to get to the next level, I was going to have to put myself in a situation where I was forced to speak. I needed to study in Italy.
With work commitments and kids at home, the most time I could get away was a week. With Ed’s blessing I started planning a trip.
After researching language schools I chose to spend five days studying at Il Sasso Scuola di Italiano in Montepulciano, a lovely Tuscan town best known for its red wine.
To make the immersion complete, I also opted to stay with an Italian woman who speaks noEnglish.
Fiorella is a widow in her 60s, has lived in Montepulciano all her life and hosts Il Sasso students for the very reasonable fee of 40 Euro/night, which includes breakfast and dinner.
If you study at Il Sasso you can also choose to stay in a furnished apartment (which the school will arrange) or a hotel. The hotel option was tempting, but I decided to go all in and make it a full immersion.
I flew into Florence via Munich and had the next morning to walk around Florence before catching the train to Chiusi. I’ve been to Florence a couple of times and seen all the must-see sights, so there wasn’t anything I needed to see or do. I just wanted to walk around and soak it all up. I was lucky enough to have a beautiful day. Sunny and clear, with very few tourists.
I arrived at the train station early, to make sure I didn’t screw up and end up on a train to Rome. To be on the safe side, I had bought my ticket online ahead of time, so all I had to do was board the train and go.
Just as the train was about to depart I heard an announcement that all passengers needed to have their tickets validated by the obliteratrice (validating machine) on the platform, or be fined 100 Euro. Afraid to get off and risk missing the train, I decided to stay put and plead ignorance when the conductor came around.
As it turns out, e-tickets are exempt from the validating requirement, so I was safe. I made a mental note to remember the obliteratrice when I bought my return ticket.
From Chiusi I had to take a 45 minute bus ride to Montepulciano. I was dropped at the bottom of the hill just before 5:00 pm. The town of Montepulciano is charming any time of day but in the twilight it was positively magical. The warm glow of lights in the clear crisp January air made me glad this was home for the next week.
I plugged Fiorella’s address into my phone and started the slog straight uphill into town, dragging my suitcase behind me and wishing I’d left my laptop at home. I finally found her house and was greeted by her dog, Gnauf (Nee-owf) as I hauled my stuff up the stairs.
Exhausted, jet-lagged and hungry, all I wanted was to have a nice lie-down, but my immersion wouldn’t wait. Fiorella welcomed me enthusiastically (in Italian) and peppered me with questions about my trip, my family and why I wanted to study Italian.
There was no avoiding it. I had to start speaking Italian, since Fiorella speaks no English (or if she does, she didn’t let on). I sipped some of the local vino nobile and watched her throw together a delicious meal of homemade pici with ragu, followed by roast chicken and salad. Pici (pronounced peechee) is the typical pasta of that part of Tuscany. It’s made by rolling pieces of dough into long worms (like we used to do with Play-doh in kindergarten).
Fiorella has had lots of students stay with her, so she was patient with me as I bumbled along telling her about myself and asking her questions in Italian. Finally, sensing I needed a break, she turned on the TV to an Italian game show with a bizarre format that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out. By the end of the week, though, I started to get the gist.
Next morning I had to be at school by 8:30 to take a written and oral “placement test” to see what level I should be at. The written test started out with very basic questions and got progressively more difficult. I was only able to complete about two thirds of it.
The school day went from 9:00 -1:00 and was divided up into two parts, with Costanza teaching one part and Alberto teaching the other and a cappuccino break at a nearby bar.
Based on my evaluation they decided that I needed to work on the conditional tense followed by the present subjunctive and double pronouns.
There is no English spoken at the school…everything is explained in basic Italian and using a white board. They keep things moving along with various types of written and oral exercises, with heaviest emphasis on speaking and conversation.
We also spent time learning about the history, culture and cuisine of the region, which I found fascinating. For example, I learned that the reason the Tuscan landscape looks the way it does now is because of La Mezzadria. La Mezzadria was a medieval sharecropping system dating back to the 14th century and lasting until the 1960s.
The way the system worked was that a landowner (padrone) would divide up his property into numerous farms (podere) of 10-30 acres, to be worked by a farmer (contadino) and his family. Each farm was self-sufficient, with the contadino raising vegetables, wheat, chickens cows, olives and grapes on his plot of land. Each year he paid the landowner 50% of what he grew.
I had my afternoons free, which started with a relaxing lunch at one of the restaurants in town. My favorite was La Pentolaccia, a small place owned and run by two friendly sisters. The food was great and it was always full at lunchtime.
After lunch I spent a lot of time exploring the town. Given the time of year many of the shops were closed for the winter or only open limited hours. While I was disappointed not to have more opportunities to interact with the local merchants, the plus side was that I saved a lot of money I might otherwise have spent on leather goods.
I did attend a wine-tasting one afternoon and ended up buying a case of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to ship home to Ed. I spent another afternoon at the movies (no subtitles) where the plot was lost on me. Apparently my Italian has not progressed far enough that I can understand it spoken at normal speed.
Once home I tried to assess how much the week in Montepulciano helped me in my quest to become fluent and whether it was worth it to travel all the way to Italy to study for a week. I learned some new grammar, to be sure, and Costanza and Alberto were VERY good teachers. But the big benefit was that I got an opportunity to speak…a lot, which is what I wanted and needed. I had extensive conversations on a whole range of subjects, both with my teachers and with Fiorella. This is something you normally don’t get to do as a tourist because your interactions tend to be limited to ordering in a restaurant or buying something in a shop.
So I’d say my immersion week was definitely worthwhile. I only wish I could have stayed longer and I hope I can do it again because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a week of class. Whether I will go back to Il Sasso or try a different school (maybe closer to our home in Le Marche) is something to ponder.
I’m curious. Who else has studied at an Italian language school in Italy? How did it go? Would you recommend it?