La Serenissima

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sono una Italiana … well, sort of … more straniera, really

I collected my gear from the Fortuna, and raced around the corner to move in and get started on “being in Perugia”.

Very quickly I discovered a homemade fresh pasta shop directly below, 3 floors down (I would come to know Maria and Cristian very well across the next month); a bar 3 doors up on the corner (many morning coffees to come and some hilarious encounters with the elderly male patrons who came in for a late afternoon aperitivo and conversation!).

Taking a left turn at the bar into via Bonazzi, I was greeted with a vast array of interesting shops – florist, travel agent (would come in handy later) Caffes, restaurants, a hip clothes shop; a free trade clothes and foods store specialising in goodies from all round the world, a gelati store, and pizzeria. And that was before I got to the main piazza!!

Via Bonazzi lead to the main street Corso  Vannucci. It contained lovely outdoor Caffes, countless shops, all flanked by wonderful medieval buildings (all in use, like all pieces of antiquity in Italy) and a main piazza called Piazza Matteotti.

There were in fact many streets off Corso Vannucci – the entrance to some marked by medieval archways, such as Via dei Priori off to the left, where my soon-to-become favourite deli/mini super was located. Off to the right, a short street with a Geox shoe store on the corner, lead to the ubiquitous COOP (pronounced co-op, not coop as I foolishly thought at first!). This supermarket chain is all over Tuscany and Umbria and is very good. COOP became a daily lifeline, selling a good range of groceries, wine and spirits, fresh fruit and vegetables, and an excellent deli.

Then, another block down Vannucci and you’re in the old medieval piazza. Piazza Danti, with a 14th century fountain, and the Duomo. Of course to anyone from young countries like Australia, medieval seems VERY old. Look a few feet further in Perugia, and you’ve got Etruscan wonders that pre-date the Romans!! Most bits still in use of course … such as the Etruscan arches joining buildings down Via Battisti, which leads to another Piazza – Fortebraccio – and the Università per Stranieri.

In the opposite direction, on the western side of Giardini Carducci, is Piazza Italiana and the well used system of commuter escalators (scale mobile) – three sets in all – which take you from the high position of centro storico down to the modern town, including the very efficient bus depot. The system is enclosed in Etruscan Towers, now subterranean!! Eee, Madonna Santa, che miracoli!!

Il bar – Caffé Bonazzi

The upside of being very close to a bar in Italy is that you have your coffee place sorted, and therefore you’re able to do take away (porta via) or drink there, either inside or out. They also do a good range of wine, mixers, panini, little pastries (cornetti) etc. And of course, the atmosphere is convivial; the staff get to know you and are always quick to see and greet you –“Bongiourno signora!” Lovely.

But, there are downsides of living 3 doors from a bar on a very narrow street too  – noise! Lots of it! Motor bikes – lots of them, especially Saturday night. They vroom from about 10pm to 3am, not usually a problem for me, but I had to get up early for university each day. Most nights there were lots of motorbikes, ridden by boys of about sixteen or so. Saturday nights especially were a big bike-get-together kind of nights! The riders seemed to have aspirations to be in the motorcycle grand prix!

Having survived this until the wee hours, there were then the l – o – n–g farewells from about one or two am from other patrons in il bar! I would hear the start of the fond farewells, “Buona notte cara. Ciao … ciao, ciao …” “Ma, mi dimenticate” (I forgot …) something, something … Then I’d hear the footsteps go back to the bar, the door shut. A while later, they’d emerge again … “va bene … okay, ciao, ciao … buona notte … a domaini” This could go on for up to four times. The thing was that because the narrow street had stone buildings on either side, three or four stories high, even whispers tended to echo (and people did try and whisper sometimes … well, as much as exuberant Italians can whisper, which of course doesn’t last too long!) But the overall effect was that the departing guests were standing talking at the foot of my bed.

It was pre-Ipod days for me, but at Juian’s suggestion, I had a Walkman with me. I would have my ears stuffed with the earbuds, or headphones on, listening to the radio. But I could still hear them. The thing was though, they were so entertaining, I couldn’t stay mad at them for long, so I used to lie there laughing in a kind of maniacal way until they finally did depart!!

One fine and sunny Sunday, when I came back from a visit to the Galleria Nazionale di Umbria (more about this later) I decided to stop and have a coffee outside at Café Bonazzi. I was in a bit of a café latte trance, when all of a sudden, a woman comes from the laneway to my left, running and shouting towards Caffé Bonazzi. On closer inspection, I realised it was one of the staff from the café, and she was not pleased at all with the boss, who was there doing bar service!! What ensued was a drama ready-made for television. Essentially, she was telling him in no uncertain terms what he could do with his job, and frankly, himself!!

In a spirit not dissimilar to the evening farewell, only a different mood altogether, he raced out of the bar, trying to calm her down (“Calma ti. Tranquille …”). Cut to scene 2. He’s made her a coffee (a very strong one I suspect) and they are seated at another table speaking in dulcet but indecipherable tones. She served me the next morning with my coffee and the usual greeting “Bongiorno cara!” …  Oh well, a major resignation averted, then!!

Italian classes at the Università per Stranieri

The first day of classes was Friday 1 September. That seemed odd at first, but of course was sensible, as people were still settling in. You had to go to the lovely Palazzo Gallenga building (pictured in the last posting on the blog) – to the Welcoming Office no less.

I duly donned my “eager student” disposition (I was representing my country after all!), and strolled purposefully down Via Bonazzi, through the piazza on Corso Vannucci, on past the Duomo, down Via Rocchi to Piazza Fortebraccio, where the Universita per Stranieri is located in the Palazzo Gallenga.

Once inside I found the Welcoming Office, which strongly resembled a bank with teller windows behind a counter. Eventually it was my turn and I presented my papers and a passport photo to be put on my student card.  The man behind the counter was determined to be helpful – everything was “no fa niente”, va benne” – so much so that I forgot completely what I had read in the pre enrolment literature. Namely that after the official “Welcoming”, student card etc, I had to go to the nearby police station with all the papers and get a permit to stay for a month which I must carry at all times!!! But when I asked Mr helpful for directions to where the class at noon was, he simply focussed on that – and it was quite a hike the long way – the way I was going!!

It wasn’t until 2 weeks later, when I was having a coffee with a wonderful friend, Margaret, who I met on the course, that I was reminded of this omission. She asked me something about it, and I replied casually, “Oh, that. Hmmm, I actually didn’t get one. Forgot.” Margaret looked at me dubiously, of course she had remembered to get her permit, and she said philosophically “Well, you’ve survived ok for 2 weeks; you can probably survive for another 2 weeks. It’ll just draw too much attention if you go and ask now”. Good advice I thought, and of course I hadn’t been asked to produce my permit by any passing policeman in the first 2 weeks … Eee, a law-breaker already!

First day of classes

Well, we actually had our first class on that Friday – a language lab session. I really like this way of learning a language. I first experienced it in 1974 when I did a 3 week intensive course at La Trobe University. I still actually remember much from that course, and often in Italy, the words for how to say something first come to me in Spanish and then – if I’m lucky – in Italian!!

Anyway, there were only 5 of us that turned up for this class and one of them was Margaret. In fact, Margaret and I were usually the first to arrive for class. Margaret was to become a great pal during the course. Better still, we have remained firm email friends – she lives in the USA – and we have seen each other “in person” once since the course and hope to meet up again this coming January.

The following Monday we had a much better turn out of students – we were about fourteen in all, ranging in age from 60 to 18, with a predominant young group of twenty somethings. We hailed from all round the globe –  the UK, USA, Poland, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Turkey and mio from Australia.

The teaching format was mainly based around written texts, with grammar a focus, each day for several hours; conversation practice classes twice a week (which I really liked) and the language lab (ditto) once a week. It’s just a personal thing, but I don’t learn languages well through the traditional “text” approach. Listening and repeating work much better for me, as in the language lab. I know it may be a measly justification, but the listen and repeat way is how we actually learn to speak our first language. When was the last time you saw a 6 month old sitting in their pram reading Introduction to Grammar??

Anyway, despite differences in preferred learning techniques, we all had a pretty good time of it. The teaching hours were quite long each – Thursdays being the heaviest, from 8am to 6pm. So, if you’re thinking of doing a language class in the country of the language, see if you can find out class times. It’s not generally just a bit of a chat and then off to the movies!

Big night out with Margaret!

Margaret and I were not in each other’s pockets at weekends. We usually went to different places and compared notes on Mondays. She came around one night to sample the fresh pasta from Maria and Cristian’s and we had dinner together at different places in Perugia.

One of these was on a Saturday night where we dined in complete style at Antica Trattoria San Lorenzo, opposite the Duomo San Lorenzo in Piazza Danti. It was a degustation menu, with wines matched to each course. This was our “towards end of course” celebration and we enjoyed it very much.

The dinner at my apartment is memorable to me because of a comment made by Margaret. I was interested to hear her comments about the place, as she too was renting an apartment. Opening line as we tour the rooms –
“Oh my, this is charming. And you even have art on the walls!”
“Um, you don’t have anything on your walls?”
“Only the places where someone’s hit them.”
What a scream!


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living in Perugia

About five years ago I had the great idea that I would like to learn Italian. Here’s the story.

Why learn Italian?

Well, why not really?

I’ve always loved the sound of the Italian language. When I was at primary school we had a couple of Italian boys, newly arrived in Australia. One was John, the other named Frank. I was a bit matey with Frank (I hasten to add we were about seven years old!) and one day I said to him “Frank, what’s your real name – it can’t possibly be just Frank?” I had to swear on a stack of then invisible bibles that I would not tell a soul … yes, cross my heart, I swear I won’t tell … “Hmm, ok, it’s Franco, right, but don’t tell anyone and keep calling me Frank!!”

Well, never one to just quietly accept things (ok, I’m a bit too fast on the trigger with answers!) I said, ‘But Frank, Franco is a nice name, why not let people call you that?” It was around then that Frank sighed and huffed, and stomped off, muttering something along the lines of “… just don’t tell anyone …” Well, I kept my word, but I still think that Franco is a nice name.

Then, many years later I married an Italian man who came to Australia when he was 2 years old, named Julian … well, not actually Julian of course (I knew about the name thing didn’t I?). He was really Giuliano. As with all families who come from somewhere else, they tend to speak “somewhere else’s language” when at home together. Except of course they didn’t because Julian, his sisters and parents – and me – spoke English. But they, especially Julian’s Mum, often lapsed into Italian when searching for a particular word. This often lead to some hilarious Italo-English sentences, like “Voi un altro piece of chicken?” “La via fa some little turns, giro and then you get there”. Well, that cleared that up …

Why Perugia?

I wanted to learn some Italian and looked at a lot of courses run locally. But then I thought, well if I’m going to do this, why not go there instead of to school here? Go to the source!! I researched lots of potential places, getting great help from the Italian Cultural Society. I also spoke with colleague of Julian’s/Giuliano’s, an Italian guy named Bruno. He was tremendously helpful, went through the various options with me, and asked good questions, like “Do you want to be in a small town, with a ‘retreat’ kind of feel, or do you prefer somewhere that offers lots of choice, amenities, transport– a larger place? Maybe you would be a bit lonely in a small place.” He suggested Perugia. 

It has the Università per Stranieri  (university for foreigners, specialising in Italian language and culture programs) and was a place that was definitely on my list. 

I came to a decision that Perugia was the place – central for travelling to other parts of Italy, a university geared up for foreigners, and a good sized town in its own right, rich with history and scenery, not to mention cafes, shops, delicatessens etc. Decision made – now I think I’d like an apartment of my own in the centro storico – historical centre.

An apartment of one’s own

The Università per Stranieri was very helpful with not only booking me into a 1 month course, but also in finding accommodation. They have a special section that does that called Atena. (Why not Minerva, I hear you ask?). 

Long story short (and let me assure you, that whilst people are tremendously helpful, arranging things in Italy does take a long-ish time!), I found a great sounding apartment with Atena’s help. “Mini apartment with living room, kitchen corner, and 2 armchairs, TV; bedroom with 2 beds, window and desk; bathroom with shower and washing machine. The apartment is on Via Cesare Caporali, on the second floor.” Checking the map, I established that my mini apartment was indeed in a top spot!

When I got to Italy in late August 2006, I spent a couple of days in Rome (perche no?) and then stayed 2 days in a lovely hotel (Albergo Fortuna) before I was due to move into my apartment. 

I wanted to check out the town, where the uni was, and where my apartment was. I was amazed and excited to discover the apartment and hotel were 2 minutes walking distance from one another, and that the apartment building looked great. Of course when I went inside the building I was stunned because it had the biggest lift – huge that I had ever seen in Italy – 3 times the size of the ones you get in hotels in Rome!  Having reached the second floor, my attempts to figure out which one was THE place because all of the doors were discreetly anonymous. Still, I found myself imagining swanning up to any of the doors and opening one of them onto a new, even if short, life in Italy.

I might mention that I had already phoned la signora – the owner – whilst in Rome. It was a funny phone call – me speaking my pre-course Italian and she with no English at all! Nevertheless, we had agreed to meet “a la due Venerdi” (2 o’clock Friday) and after much laughing, we hung up our phones and waited to meet.

I was charmed to meet la signora, an attractive woman and beautifully dressed in a casual style. Lots of smiles and hand shaking, she opened the door with a flourish …

… Gorgeous buttery light streamed onto the foyer tiles. Then we stepped inside. I had to pinch myself as I stood in a compact and modern kitchen with gleaming new 2 pack paint on the cupboards; full stove and oven; more pots, pans and utensils that I would probably need.

There was also an under bench fridge; a wooden dining table and chairs to seat 4; a couple of tub chairs, tiny TV and bookcase; a full bathroom with modern fixtures, including bidet; new washing machine; good sized bedroom with desk – and of course, that window! – in fact 2 lovely casement windows with obligatory green shutters to let in the warm, yellow light; and lots of storage, including an Ikea shoe cupboard.

So what was there not to like about this then, eh? But there was more – and yes, I’d already seen the steak knives in the drawer!!

La signora, took me out through the door to look at my very own, personal storeroom across the foyer. Giving me the special key to get in, she swept the door open to reveal a broom, mop, bucket, clothes horse, and spare toilet paper and mineral water) to get me started. She had also very thoughtfully already put a cool mineral water in the fridge. What a fabulous and welcoming start; I really appreciated the great kindness of the signora.