Total Immersion: Learning Italian in Montepulciano

Back in November I posted about my goal to become fluent in Italian in the next year and a half.

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.

front door of Il Sasso Italian schoolAfter 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 no English.

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.

Enoteca Trattoria Porta

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).

Pici al cinghiale

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.

The various levels of the hill town of Montepulciano are connected by narrow passageways and stairs.

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?

Meeting Our Neighbors Across the Valley

Farmhouse in Le Marche

The last time we visited our house we noticed that there was one house almost directly across from ours on the other side of the valley, and we wondered whether they were bothered by the unsightly view of our construction.

A few weeks later, while looking for potential places to stay on our next visit, Ed happened to stumble on a website for an eco-friendly bed and breakfast in the vicinity of our house. When he put the B&B’s address into Google Earth up came a picture of that same house across the way. It’s called Le Foglie Ridenti, which translates roughly to Laughter in the Leaves. It’s owned by Graham and Saranne, who are originally from the Ireland and England, respectively, but have lived in Le Marche for over ten years.

Since we had their contact information from their website we decided to drop them a line to introduce ourselves…and also apologize for our construction noise and mess. They invited us to stop by on our upcoming trip, so we made a date.

The view of our house from Le Foglie Ridenti

When we arrived at Le Foglie Ridenti we found out that Saranne, who writes children’s science books, was on deadline from her publisher, so we spent most of our visit with Graham.  He showed us around the place and explained that they built their house using an innovative eco-friendly building process and sustainable materials.

Most of their power comes from passive solar energy and their entire home is heated by one wood stove, that they also use for cooking. The house is kept cool in the summer and warm in winter by an innovative insulation technique. They spend just a few hundred Euro per year on electricity, unheard of in a part of the world where energy costs are sky-high.  Graham said the construction technique he used had been pioneered in Germany and he had now started a business to bring it to Le Marche and help other like-minded people build their own eco-friendly homes.

Graham and Saranne had also built their own natural swimming pool. With water lilies and other plants it looked  more like a pond except for being rectangular. The pool uses no chlorine or any other chemicals, relying on plant life and and an aeration pump to keep the water oxygenated and algae free.

Natural swimming pool in Le Marche
This natural swimming pool uses no chemicals

Graham is quite the modern-day Renaissance man and there seems to be nothing he can’t do. In addition to working in eco-friendly construction and farming their olives, vegetables and fruit trees, he is an expert in local wines and leads wine tours for his guests and others, as well as olive tours. In addition, he does farm-to-table catering for local residents, cooking for them in their homes with locally-produced organic  ingredients.

We are so glad to have this warm and friendly couple as neighbors. I am sure they will also be a terrific resource for us when it comes to their knowledge of the area and their connections with local producers.

First and third images: Le Foglie Ridenti
Second image: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Setting Off to See the House A Trip to See the House First-Hand

Enough looking at pictures. It’s finally time for us to see the house for ourselves.


Last fall, we had penciled this first trip into March, but with some construction delays caused by bad weather in January and a chopped-up schedule on our end, we ended up with a trip in May.

Kevin had set up three full days of meetings and visits to suppliers, so we knew we’d be busy. Plus, we needed to meet with Giovanna, our lawyer, and to straighten out online access to our account at Banca Marche.

To be able to use miles to get to Ancona, we had to make two stops each way: London and Munich outbound, Munich and Frankfurt inbound. Early on the Sunday morning of our departure, I get a text from United saying our 6pm flight to London was cancelled and to rebook online. Of course, probably because we were using miles, online said I had to call. At this point, it looks like we may have problems getting to Ancona and that Kevin’s schedule will go up in smoke.

Text about flight cancellation

Fortunately, it only took an hour on the phone to get rebooked on a 9pm Lufthansa flight directly to Munich. It let us make the connection to Ancona on the same flight as before, so we arrived at the airport on time about 5pm Monday night.

So it all worked out well. Shorter trip, fewer stops, same arrival time. Plus, United, trying to recover from their PR disasters, gave me 7500 miles for the “trouble” caused by the cancellation.

We did have a longer trip to the hotel than I expected. For some reason, the phone gps led us away from the autostrada. Against my better judgement, I followed it, which turned a one hour easy highway drive into an hour and a half winding route through the Le Marche hills. Beautiful, but we were wanting a glass of wine more than a pretty view.

When we did get to the hotel, we had both: a room with a balcony looking out on the hills and a bottle of wine the hotel was kind enough to supply.

Next stop: Casa Avventura.

Calendar: Pixabay CC0 |

The Trip Home

At dinner last night, still trying to avoid a refueling charge from Hertz, I get my 20 changed for smaller bills. Then on the way to the airport, I’ll have another go at the pump.

Flight is at 6. Airport only about 15 minutes away, plus gas up time. Even though I know the airport is small, I figure I should arrive by 4:30 or so. Lufthansa makes you check any bag over 8kg, so I need to check mine. I don’t want some bureaucratic problem to make me miss the flight.

At the pump. I put in a 5. Only will take 1.25€, about a liter’s worth. So I was really close last night, even though the gas gauge didn’t show it.

I take the keys back into the building where I arrived. No one there, so I just put them on the drop box at Hertz.

After about 15 minutes, there’s still no one else in the building. Hmm. I don’t see check in desks, either. So I go exploring.

departures-153136_640Finally I discover another building, a couple of hundred yards away, not connected to the other except by an outside sidewalk. It’s for departures. Two buildings. No signs pointing from one to the other. Only 3 departure listed for the morning, maybe for all day. L’Aeroporto delle Marche.

I start the day with a croissant and espresso. 2.00€.

First stop is Munich. Nice airport, but it’s 7:30 and a two and a half hour layover. Too early for beer for me, even in Germany, but I see a couple of guys who disagree. I opt for scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Total: 8.50€. I love these airport prices.

Frankfurt next. It’s not as nice as Munich and has one very annoying practice. You’re told that your gate is in the Z concourse, but no gate number. Concourse Z is one big duty free mall. I assume they don’t tell you your gate right away so you mill around and buy stuff that’s no cheaper than at home. Now it’s time for that beer.

My flight is supposed to start boarding at 12:20. About 12:15 I check the monitor. Now it’s not just no gate number. No flight to Chicago listed. Did my watch stop?

I spot another United flight from gate Z20. I figure my only option is to go there and try to figure out what happened. On the way, I see a crowd at Z15. Chicago flight. Who knows why it wasn’t listed and how everyone else knew where to go.

Finally, off to home. Across the aisle from me are two women, a middle aged one and I assume her mother. They spend the entire flight mostly yelling at each other in a language I don’t recognize at first, but finally realize is some Italian dialect. I’m hearing capisc’ and be’ and a few standard Italian words.

On this flight, the economy section is packed. No empty seats. But the economy plus section is almost empty. But if you want to move there, it’s $129, but I’d bet some people were booked economy and “upgraded” there. No luck for me.

Once we land, I take advantage of Global Entry to go through passport control quickly. But then the bags take forever to come out.

Finally, about 6 on Halloween night, I arrive at home, about 22 hours after I woke up.

Overall, a good, but scary, trip.

Image source License: CC0 Public domain. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Prepare for Departure

The day before my return home was spent in Falconara Marittima, the town on the beach just north of Ancona, where the airport is.

Poster advertising chestnut sagraI’d planned to go to a sagra and to visit some furniture and home goods stores, but the big earthquake that morning changed my plans. I didn’t do much besides watch earthquake news on TV and have lunch and dinner.

I ended up having both at the same restaurant, Il Paradiso, about a half-mile walk from the hotel. You go down a steep hill to the beach, across, and then back up the hill. Good place. Lunch was a great spaghetti with clams and mussels, followed by a great lemon chicken scallopini. I was then treated to both a local amaro and a local coffee liqueur by my waiter.

The most fun time to go to a restaurant in Italy is Sunday lunch. Whole families go out together and eat and drink and laugh. It really makes you feel good.

Despite the quality and the hospitality, I didn’t intend to return for dinner, but I had a change of plans. I decided to go out and fill the car with gas, so I wouldn’t have to do it the next morning. Italian gas stations these days seem to be just gas pumps. No people there, no convenience store. :-). First station I stopped at had a sign that the card reader wasn’t working. At the next one, it wouldn’t take my credit card, since while we’ve started using chips in the cards in the US, I didn’t have the PIN number I needed.

pompa di benzinaWhat you do is insert euro notes to a machine, which then sets the pump to deliver the gas. That’s fine in general, but it makes it hard to use when you need to fill up a rental car before returning it. So I try a 20 euro bill. I return to the pump — and it won’t work. I ask a local who happens to be there, but he can’t figure it out either. Finally I try putting the nozzle back and removing it again. Bravo!

But 20 doesn’t fill it up. So I try 5 euro more. Close, but still not full. All I’ve got left is a 20 and I figure the penalty from Hertz will be less than that. So back to the hotel. But by now it’s dark. And even with Google maps, I can’t seem to get back to the hotel. Up the hill. Around. Down. Up.

At one point, I make an almost critical error. I pull over on a downhill to look at the map. Now I see what to do But I got too close to the next car downhill when I stopped. As soon as I put the clutch in to reverse, I go down the hill toward the car. After a couple of attempts and stalls, I figure I’m in a bad way. I’m a foot from the car and can’t back up.

Two choices I see: roll (gently) into the car, probably setting off an alarm, and then try to reverse, or put on the parking brake, rev in reverse, release the brake and hope to go uphill. I don’t like number one, so I try two.

Luckily, it worked, but the smell, from either the clutch or brake burning was really strong.

I was so glad to get to the hotel and out of the car that I decided to return to the restaurant I knew I could walk to. Pizza this time. And a half liter of wine to calm the nerves. Very good.

First image: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure
Second image Copyright: morenosoppelsa / 123RF Stock Photo