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.
“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.”
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.”
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.