When I first planned this trip to Siena, I had two main goals in mind: kickstart my learning of Italian, and experience living in Tuscany in a way that previous visits never allowed.
I accomplished both of those things, and so much more, in my five weeks there.
I certainly didn’t become a fluent speaker of Italian, but I developed some competence with the language, and the confidence to try some basic conversations. There were several points in my visit where I found myself speaking only in Italian — halting, pensive, probably butchered Italian, but Italian nonetheless. I even found myself occasionally responding in Italian without stopping to mentally translate from English, which felt like a huge milestone. (Particularly embarrassing was the morning that I reviewed very drunken late-night texts to my husband and found random Italian words here and there without having intended them… mortifying, but an encouraging sign!)
Moreover, it feels like this experience gave me the foundation that I need in order to continue learning. Sure, apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone and Mango are useful, but few things beat actual conversation with human speakers of the language. Having brief chats with shopkeepers, bartenders, and baristas in Italian was so helpful in getting a feel for the melody of the language, in ways that robotic recorded voices from an app just don’t accomplish. And the encouragement from others — whether they were native speakers or just more advanced students — was motivating. It makes me feel ready to dive in and continue learning when I get back home.
As for the lifestyle immersion, it was pretty much what I had anticipated it would be. Lots of walking (or, to be more accurate, hiking) up and down the Tuscan hills. Learning to navigate grocery stores, read labels, and understand the subtle differences in shopping. Doing laundry about every 2-3 days, because the washing machine was tiny, and having to hang clothes up to dry because there isn’t a dryer. I think the one aspect I just never got accustomed to was not having air conditioning; I will definitely be fighting against that if/when I move to Italy.
Another aspect of moving somewhere new is making new friends. I confess, the first week or two that I was here, I didn’t really make much progress on that front… but by the time I left town this morning, I had many people, both locals and students, that I cheerfully call my friend now. I had not one but two shopkeepers give me farewell gifts (and one is for my husband, because I had mentioned something that he likes, and the next time that I walked by and said hello, the shopkeeper gave me an inexpensive but thoughtful gift to take home to him). I got lots of hugs, and even a tear or two, from people who live here.
And then, there’s the school. I loved the way the classes were designed and run, with flexibility and kindness. There were terrific afternoon and weekend activities, field trips, and excursions. The staff was friendly, professional, helpful, and encouraging. But most of all, the students were wonderful people from all over the world, from teenagers to retirees, with stories to tell and adventures to share. And perhaps best of all, I was the only person from the United States in the school, for the entirety of my visit.
I’m sad to leave, certainly, but I’m coming home triumphant. I accomplished my goals, and then some. It was a good trip; the first major milestone in my scheme to relocate to Italy in a few years.