Studying Italian in Italy: Bella. Grande. Favoloso.

Last fall, I spent six weeks at Saena Iulia Italian language school in Siena, Italy, deciding that I  wanted to get as close to fluency in Italian as I could. Six weeks, full immersion, Siena, Italy. What’s not to love?

How about the subjunctive tense of verbs? Or prepositions? I don’t love prepositions. Nor trying to keep straight the three uses of the hypothetical “se.” Did you know in Italian you say someone is bella, they feel bene, the food is buona, but the plate of pasta is bel, the day is bello, but you say Buon giorno. It’s a bella giornata today.

I love languages and I love Italian. Even with my conversational level of Italian, I found myself grasping sometimes for proper forms and usage. I think I even created a few words. My mission was to simply get better, and use subjunctive tense correctly!

But the grammar was just one part of the Saena Iulia experience. There were also weekly happy hours, where we would all relax over appetizers and wine. One day a week we learned about local traditions or cuisine in a seminar. Another day was for excursions, my favorite part, that took us out of Siena and into the beautiful Tuscan countryside and beyond. We visited an olive oil factory, a winery in Chianti, a historic monastery. Wherever we went, I was a sponge, soaking in every detail. Fridays meant lunch at the school with the staff and students. Good food and even better company.

“I loved that being at the school was like being with a family,” said my fellow student Bree, a budding opera singer from Australia. She enrolled for 11 weeks. “The teachers and students alike were all so friendly and down to earth.”

Bree’s right. The teachers — Mauro, the director of the school, Sabrina and Elettra – go out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable in all facets of the program.  All three teach at different levels for every student and you can tell they want everyone to reach their personal goals. It’s not a big school. Classes max out at six students and that makes all the difference, in my opinion.

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Mauro, Elettra and Sabrina remind us of one simple rule.

“We have a lot of respect for the people who come here,” Mauro said. “They leave their family, they take a trip and are gone for six, seven or eight weeks . . . to learn a language, without knowing if they made the right choice.”

I think the number of repeat students at the school is a testament that many do make the right choice. The one who holds the record is Heinz R. from Germany. He’s been going to Saena Iulia one or two times a year since 1999. Just in my six weeks, six other students had been there before.

“When students come here, they find more than just the Italian language,” Mauro said.  “I see the light in their eyes when they leave, when they say ‘ciao’ before they leave. They all say they found something more than what they were looking for.”

I still wondered though, about other students, who weren’t trying to do what I was doing, who weren’t connected to older generations living there. Why were they studying Italian? It’s not the language of global business. I think everybody wants a part of that Italian life, encompassing outstanding food, of course, outstanding wine, living around some of the world’s most prestigious art, architecture and natural landscapes. Or deep down, maybe everybody just wants to be Italian, just a little bit.

“The culture is loved the most, more than the language,” Elettra said. “Italian represents a dream, to change your life.”  She said every person that comes to the school “comes with a story. It’s kind of an amazing thing. They come here from all over the world, alone, this isn’t their environment and they don’t know the language. And yet, here they are.”

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Elettra, one of the instructors at Saena Iulia. She wrote, “I think the subjunctive is easy.” Sure it is.

Sabrina, who’s been at Saena Iulia for 20 years, called it a privilege to teach there. “To be among these people here is incredible,” she said.  She said when she sees students like me, who rave about how Italian is a beautiful language, it makes her study it and read it even more. “Seeing through the eyes of others helps you. You see things better in your own life.”

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Sabrina, who’s been teaching at Saena Iulia for 20 years.

I asked my newfound friend Paula, who worked at the school for two years, for her observations about the people who came to the school. “I understand very well why students return home happier than when they arrived and why they keep coming back,” she wrote in an email. “The school is a place to create memories, to make new friends. . . It’s not just a place to learn a language.”

Paula’s right. I have a new group of friends, thanks to my time at the school. I was in class with Daniela from Switzerland and Hilda from Slovakia. Our common link: Italian. You really improve your own ability to learn a language when you have to use it to converse with friends. In the middle of all those grammar drills with Sabrina, we did have some laughs, especially the day when Daniela’s dog, Sharik, a beautiful Samoyed, had some gastrointestinal issues. I dutifully remembered to use the subjunctive case.  “Credo che Sharik abbia un po’ di gas,” I said. Don’t worry about translating it. You get the idea.

I continue to study “la piu’ bella lingua in tutto il mondo” and I thank Mauro, Elettra and Sabrina for changing my life. I’m working on getting back to Italy, very soon. I simply belong there.

5 thoughts on “Studying Italian in Italy: Bella. Grande. Favoloso.

  1. Elena Cardigliano

    Carissima Jan, che bello vedere quanto entusiasmo metti in quello che fai.
    Leggere il tuo blog vuol dire farsi contagiare e farsi prendere dalla voglia di viaggiare e di scoprire nuovi posti e nuove persone.
    A quando il tuo prossimo viaggio?
    Elena

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  2. Fabrizio Mancini

    Your eyes and opinions are right on point. You definitely understood Siena, its traditions, history and culture.
    After all Tuscany is the land i too come from and it’s not an accident that people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo…and in modern times Roberto Benigni, Andrea Bocelli…have also been inspired by its landscapes and sun kissed hills.
    Maybe it is “la piu’ bella lingua del mondo”…maybe not… but it def. is the language of passion, art, music, wine and wonderful food.
    I know that if your life brings you for a longer time back to the place you came from, it will be wonderful to read your stories! You not only love this country but you also know how to describe the rituals and italian life style better than i ever could. 🙂

    Buona fortuna Jan!!!

    Un grande abbraccio

    Fabrizio

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  3. Carissima Jan, moltissime persone ogni anno arrivano a Siena per amore. Amore per l’Italia, per la cultura, per la gente, la musica, la moda, il gelato, il vino rosso … ma soprattutto amore per uno stile di vita, che tanto assomiglia alla felicità. Una vita senza stress, all’aria aperta, una vita che può gustare il piacere delle cose semplici e dello stare in compagnia. Uno stile di vita del sorriso, dell’ironia e dove la nostra identità si libera dalle prigioni quotidiane. Tutto questo non accade solo a Siena, naturalmente, anche a Roma o in un piccolo paesino della Sicilia sarebbe simile.
    E oggi le emozioni non sono ancora passate di moda, le persone cercano di provare emozioni di qualunque tipo per dimenticare la noia dei problemi della vita e per sognare…
    Noi qui a scuola, oltre a insegnare una lingua nel modo più semplice ed efficace possibile, facciamo da ponte fra il sogno e il resto del mondo.
    Anche noi naturalmente sogniamo e lo facciamo attraverso questi amici e le loro storie, i loro paesi lontani e viaggiamo qui, con voi a ritroso nel tempo e senza limiti nè confini, ma strettamente ancorati alle pietre di Siena o meglio, ad uno dei suoi famosi colonnini.
    Poichè anche io, Mauro e Sabrina ogni giorno probabilmente, scegliamo di rimanere a Siena e ci abbandoniamo al sogno dentro le mura medioevali, che promettono una via di fuga quando la realtà soffoca … e quando succede forse ritroviamo il senso della vita nel nostro lavoro e nelle emozioni che vediamo nascere su di un sorriso venuto da lontano, inizialmente timoroso e via via sempre più forte e sicuro.
    Auguro un 2016 pieno di viaggi e nuove vite per tutti, grazie.
    Elettra

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  4. Sabrina

    In verità Jan sei arrivata a Siena, alla Saena Iulia, non come una persona che arriva, ma come una persona che ritorna in un posto dove era già stata.
    La sensazione di familiarità è stata immediata, come il tuo amore per la lingua e la cultura italiana. Il tuo spirito era curioso di conoscere le sfumature delle tradizioni, le trappole della grammatica, le gustose ricette della cucina toscana e italiana, i panorami, i segreti del congiuntivo, la ricetta della ribollita!

    Abbiamo studiato insieme e ci siamo insieme emozionate, per ricordi, racconti, sorrisi, scambi di idee e … brindisi con dell’ottimo Morellino di Scansano!

    Fra congiuntivi, preposizioni, visite nei dintorni di Siena e cene insieme, ogni giorno con te Jan, era un piccolo regalo e una grande scoperta.
    Ascoltarti usare la lingua italiana in modo sempre più preciso e corretto era per me e per noi un grande piacere, e chiara la sensazione di essere con “una di famiglia”, come si dice in Italia.

    Grazie per tutte le tue belle parole per noi, e vogliamo vederti tornare a casa, qui in Italia, il più presto possibile…
    Come ha detto Elettra, auguro a te e ai tuoi lettori un 2016 pieno di tante belle cose …magari italiane!!!
    Bacioni!

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  5. Ahhhhh Siena, that beautiful city with its wonderful people eh?! Sounds like you had a great time and you brought back many happy memories for me too as I’ve studied several times at the Dante Alighieri Language School in the city centre! Thank you for sharing your adventures and jogging my mind – I must put Siena back on my travel wish list as its been too long! Fab photos too!! Grazie mille!!

    Like

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