Tuscany, with its distinctive food and wine, gregarious people, ancient landscape and history forged by fact and fable, is a compelling attraction. And while package tours largely eliminate apprehension, they don’t necessarily ensure intimate connection with the culture. After a time, a bus window can become the frame in which the still life of the land is viewed with diminishing passion, and a day here or there soon dissolves into a week of misted memories. Inherent in routine is the danger of detachment. One method of avoiding this danger and enriching the Tuscan experience is to combine touring with learning the language. To do so, I recently spent a month in Florence at the Eurocentre School, located near the Palazzo Pitti and the Ponte Vecchio.
Having learned some phrases before leaving Australia, on enrolment day I entered with tentative confidence. It rapidly waned as all conversation, enrolment instructions and classroom directions were in Italian.
`Total immersion', they said.
`Drowning', I thought.
Panic then set in when the school's director, Massimo Reale, cordially enquired, "Quanto parole, Marco?" I thought he'd asked how long I'd been out of prison, and on seeing my bemusement, he smiled and said in English, "Parole... words... how many words do you know?"
An hour later I found myself in the front desk of what could only be called the `linguistically challenged' group, and a quick survey amongst my multi-national classmates revealed that we had a common pool of about four words; `ciao', `si', `grazie' and `non capisco'. But we were almost fluent compared with the student from Moscow. She knew no Italian or English and nobody in the school spoke Russian. By 8 o'clock that evening she was back on board a rivet-rusted Aeroflot.
One enjoyable activity during the first week involved each student describing a fictional husband and wife team. I muddled through with the help of a dictionary and several ambiguous gestures, but Erik, a Danish food importer, was definitely up the Arno without a paddle. He described the husband as `grasso e brutto' (fat and ugly) and sat back, exhausted. Maria, our teacher, then said, "E la donna, Erik?" meaning "The woman?" Thanks to a wit quicker than a Vespa on the Via Cavour, Erik replied, "Lei e morte!" The wife was dead. End of exercise. We all laughed and Erik grinned broadly, his white `denti' shining like the waterproof Tissot I'd bought from a Tuscan tout in the Piazza del Duomo. When the watch stopped during a light shower the next day, I wondered if the word `sucker' had an Italian equivalent.