The first time I went to Italy I knew I wanted to speak the language. The Italians were so lively, loud and always in full swing. The language was fast paced and musical. I loved watching the men and women talk, so after I returned home the search was on to learn Italian. I love learning and knew I could do a computer course. I could go at my own pace. I thought about Rosetta Stone. I did a trial course and although I learned many words I was frustrated that I did not know what I was saying, until several lessons in when it would dawn on me what the pictures were trying to teach me. There is no English in the course, just pictures that I could interpret several ways. I also didn’t learn how to put the words together into sentences. The program was just random words to me.
I looked up some folks on Slow Travel to see if they had any suggestions for learning the language. One man suggested Fluenz with Sonia Gil and I was off to the races. Fluenz Italian 1, started right in with Sonia, an American, teaching the basics that made sense to an American speaker. All the words were translated in both languages or you could turn then off altogether. You began day one speaking entire sentences. Fluenz offered tutorials so you knew why you were learning certain structures and how they added to what you had already learned from the previous lesson. There were writing skills, reading skills, listening skills, recorded speech practice and pictures too. At the end of each lesson was an Italian tip of something to read or something of interest in the Italian culture. I loved it and couldn’t wait each day to study. I spoke perfect Italian. In my living room.
Off to Italy I went with two years of Italian under my belt. My husband would say to me, “Now you get ready to speak to them.” That right there put me in a tailspin. I was at the ferry station buying tickets. I wanted two tickets to Menaggio on the hydrofoil. The woman behind the counter said something I did not understand. It was rapid Italian with an Italian accent to boot. Sonia was so much easier to understand! As I looked completely perplexed she asked in English did I want return tickets also? “Ah, what was the Italian word for that?” I asked her. She told me and I wrote it down. I would need that phrase again and again. As the vacation went on I realized for the most part I could get the jest of what people were saying. Still in my mind I had to take in the Italian words, translate them in English then convert them and speak the words back in Italian. By the time I had thought all that through the Italians were speaking about something else. I did better at the restaurants. I could order and read the menus. The young people waiting on the tables realized I was an American, so halfway through my sentence they would interrupt me and speak in English. Was I too slow or were they being helpful and wanted to let me know they spoke English? I think it was both. They wanted to practice English as much as I wanted to practice Italian. Finally, I would tell them, ”No, no let me speak Italian. I am practicing.” Only one waiter rolled his eyes, so I felt I was on to something. I learned very quickly to size up the people I thought I could speak to. Trying to talk to busy waiters and the ticket counter personnel with long waiting lines was not the place to practice Italian. The twenty minute bus ride from the mountain down to the harbor in Menaggio was perfect. One bus came all the way to the top twice a day, where we were staying . The bus came by very early in the morning to go down the mountain and there was a return trip up the mountain in the evening. If we were not up and at it for the early bus we had to walk down the mountain to the next little town and catch the bus there. That was a blessing. The Italians in the mountain village got up early and walked along the road. They were older and in no hurry, so I would Buon Giorno them all. It was a start. At first there wasn’t any eye contact and I would just get the nod. Riding the bus was even better. We were the only Americans on it and the elderly women who road the bus were nonne. (grandmothers) . Buon giorno, buon giorno I would say to everyone on that bus. We road that bus for a week before we had the weekend driver who asked us if we had a ticket. “No, we just paid the driver in euros at the end of the ride.” The driver had been so polite he never told us to go find the ticket office and buy a ticket. I think we became the novelty for the ride down to Menaggio. The women and the driver got used to us, we showed up every day, no ticket and all. On one occasion returning to the dock at the end of the day it was raining heavily and we had missed the bus back up the mountain. My husband went into the lake side resort hotel, Hotel D’ Lac, and asked the gentleman behind the counter if he could call a cab. That is another story entirely. (We weren’t even sure there was cab service. We had never seen a cab.) A Mercedes station wagon pulled up and was I in luck. The driver spoke no English! Wow I could really practice speaking with him. We took his card and called him everyday to come get us at the dock. Eventually we didn’t even have to call him, he would be waiting at the dock for us. And all the way up the mountain we talked! Then it dawned on me that the early morning walkers probably didn’t speak English and were just as nervous as I was that we could not communicate. So the next morning I just started a conversation in Italian with everybody on the road and on the morning bus. Just keep on talking and they would come around. By the end of our stay the taxi driver told me how much my Italian had improved. I just beamed!
Now I want to say here another great way I practiced speaking Italian. One of the first things we noticed going up the mountain were all the different colored trash bins along the tiny road. One for paper, one for glass, one for trash. They were everywhere. The bus stop, a little down the mountain where we would walk to, covered three things. The stop was at the corner of the mountain, beside a set of three trash bins and the hairpin curve. In order to go up the road further and make the curve you had to go slow, stop your vehicle, inch forward turning your wheels, back up and repeat about 30 times and then you were good to go the rest of the way up to where our apartamento was. This was why the bus only made two trips a day up to our place. So the rock mountain/trash bin area/bus stop was the meeting place for the locals. While you waited for the bus you read the beautiful obituaries, up-coming marriage banns and local festival plans that were plastered on the face of the rock. You could also talk with the women who waited in long lines in their small cars bringing trash to the bins. It was a regular hen peck. There was no trash picked up at the home they had to haul it to the roadside bins. Here they greeted their friends, caught up on the news of the day and spent a great deal of time taking care of business. It was their town hall. I could talk to the bin ladies while waiting for the bus. Awesome! No one was in a hurry and they didn’t speak English. Perfetto!!!
Now I am ready to make another trip to Italy. This year I started my third year of Italian with Fluenz. Right off the bat there was no Sonia. Now there was an Italian woman speaking like a bat out of hell. I knew the words, but was convinced she wasn’t saying them. I had to go over Lesson 1 many times, boy did I cuss and complain. I thought I would never get it!!!! But she sounded just like the Italians speaking. (Fast and just skimming over some of the little words) I plodded on. Eventually my ear was trained to their language. I am slowly not hearing Italian words, translating the words to English and then translating back. I am hearing the spoken Italian. So I decided to jump in the deep end of the pool. I will be attending a language school in Montepulciano, Tuscany. (Il Sasso) for almost a month.
No English. Italian only, complete immersion. It is a small town with locals, who don’t speak English. I have been there on vacation so I know the area. It’s really laid back. The administrator has answered a truck load of questions from me. She suggested lodging, was helpful with train schedules and found Verio Neri from the Cucina Povera cookbook for me. (earlier post about that) The students who have attended the school have raved about it. Bring it on. I am ready.
For more information look up Fluenz Learning Languages, I just think it is THE best! and………..the school
Scuola di Italiano il Sasso, Montepulciano Italy (a Tuscany hill town)
internet: http://www.ilsasso.com or Facebook: Il Sasso Italian Language School
The apartamento near Menaggio, Italy, Apartment Le Eriche, Villa per Barna, Plesio, Italy. It is Italian owned and our neighbors were Italian. They own a B&B also, but we stayed in the private apartment!