For the past five years or so, Louise Lore, a producer in Ottowa, has enjoyed a warm friendship with a native of Italy. On her previous visits to this country, she attended painful dinner parties with his numerous and sophisticated family. Good food and wine abounded -- and so did spirited conversation, from which Lore was excluded by the language barrier.
"I've always considered myself a fairly interesting person," she recalled ruefully. "But all I could do was nod and smile."
So last summer, like hundreds of other North Americans, Lore decided to take a unique one-month vacation -- a course in the Italian language at the University for Foreigners in Perugia. She became one of 12,000 students from almost every country in the world who this year will attend this unusual institution, Italy's most important vendor of its most important export -- the Italian language and culture.
Most of these students are college-age young people who plan to apply their language training by attending Italian universities. But many are Americans who have come simply to deepen their love affairs with the people and culture of Italy, and to combine first-class language training with a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Umbria, a fertile region of valleys and hill towns north of Rome, which was the laboratory for some of the Renaissance's most important artistic experiments.
Students pay 50,000 lire a month (at today's exchange rate, about $42) for 15 hours of class a week. In one month, a student will learn enough vocabulary and grammar to carry him through most ordinary situations. For the more ambitious, the university offers an intensive course at twice the price, which will march them through most basics of grammar in four gruelling 27-hour weeks. For those who have already studied some Italian, there are intermediate courses and lectures in literature, history, art or business.
The beginning courses follow a special linguistic technique developed over the past three decades by the university's faculty. Designed for the polyglot classes, the method begins with a simple sentence ("The pen is yellow") and proceeds smoothly through basic grammar and a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words.
Even those who have found studying languages dreary labor in the past often flock eagerly to their classes at the "Stranieri" ("Foreigners"). The professors have developed a manner of teaching which combines the skills of a grammarian, a mime and a stand-up comedian. They need these skills to get their message across and to dominate and interest classes which may exceed 200 students.
"I can't fault the instruction," said Michael Caputo, a 34-year-old public schoolteacher from Pittston, Pa. Caputo took the intensive course to learn to speak with the branch of his family that still lives in Naples. "I now have what I consider a survival Italian. I'm satisfied with it and I may come back again."
Most students agree that it is the setting as much as the instruction that makes Perugia a memorable experience.
It is a proud and ancient hilltop capital of 150,000 inhabitants, tracing its history to the Etruscan confederation before the days of Roman upstarts. Its people have been dealing with foreign students since the 14th century, and it boasts a fine set of art museums, archeological sites, smart clothing stores and international discotheques.
It is also a convenient base for expeditions to Rome (100 miles away, or three hours by bus), Florence and the Adriatic beaches (both less than 90 miles away).
And the spectacular walled cities of Umbria -- Assisi, the home of St. Francis and of world-famous frescoes by Giotto; Spoleto, site every summer of the artistic and musical Festival of Two Worlds -- are only minutes away by train (the university also organizes special bus tours for a nominal fee).
But for many, the most unusual sight is found less than half a mile from the university's baroque palace. This is the unique multinational "passegiata" which unfolds every summer night on the Corso Vannucci, the majestic main street of Perugia, now closed to motor traffic. Italians and foreigners of all ages gather there after sundown to eat ice cream, gaze into shop windows and lounge on the steps of the 15th-century cathedral.
American college girls may be intrigued or annoyed by the extravagant attentions of romantic young Italian men (known to the locals as "Corsari," or "Corso pirates"). Street musicians, mountebanks, beggars and mendicant friars compete for loose lire. At a sidewalk table in the fashionable Bar Ferrari, an Israeli student may be deep in an Italian conversation with an Arab, while at the next table a Korean infantry officer, a Polish seminarian and an American artist hold a spirited three-way debate about world affairs.
This international scene, of course, has a seamy underside which troubles the local government. City police recently expelled a young Arab whom they described as head of the local branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Pro- and anti-Khomeini Iranians have exchanged curses and blows.
University officials are particularly pained that their university has only made news once in recent years: when Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist enrolled at the university under a false name, severely wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square last May.
"This Turk was only in Perugia for two days," insists Ottavio Prosciutti, rector of the university. Officials say that incidents like the arrest of Agca are part of the price they pay for their policy of open enrollment for students from any nation. Agca, they suggest, came to the university only to get a visa to remain in Italy while he planned his attempt.
"In fact, what we have here is the dream of Walt Whitman," Prosciutti adds, "the city of friends."
And Marcello Silvestrini, a university professor who is also an official of the local tourism agency, adds, "Americans should not take too seriously what they read about terrorism and other problems here. Life in Perugia is tranquil."
In fact, despite the background of intrigue, Perugia is an uncommonly comfortable place to live, with little of the crime, noise and crowding which disfigure some of Italy's great cities. And for Americans backed by favorable exchange rates, life here is also reasonably priced.
At today's rates, a small but clean apartment can be rented for $150 to $300 a month. Rooms with an Italian family are cheaper, and the university maintains a listing of approved landlords (if possible, it is a good idea to arrive in town a few days early, both to find a place to live before the rush begins and to avoid long waits in the registration lines).
A sumptuous dinner at Rosetta, the city's best restaurant, may run as high as $16 a person, with wine. But a surprisingly good three-course meal in a student cafeteria costs a mere 75 cents.
Those who wish to finesse the search for shelter can enroll in a group organized by an American university. Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., for example, runs a yearly one-month program which includes lodging, one or more special trips, individual instruction, and optional college credit. Last summer's program cost $395, excluding air fares, or $595 with three meals a day. The universities of Oregon and California also sponsor similar groups.
The university is also planning to offer an alternative to the private housing market for those who enroll in special courses. Ten years ago it bought the Villa Colombella outside of town, a sumptuous hilltop residence which for centuries was the retreat of an ancient and wealthy family whose members included Popes Pius II and III. After extensive restoration, the Villa will open next summer as a combined dormitory and class building, housing special two- and three-week courses for teachers and for businessmen who must travel or work in Italy.
This year's VCU group included Diana Davis, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia who lives in McLean, Va. At the end of her summer session, she looked back over her experience, both in class and in the international social life, with satisfaction. "I liked my teacher -- she was very animated and worked hard to get the class' attention," Davis said. "For me, it's been a success, and I've learned so little Italian I've decided to stay another month." y Garret Epps, Special to The Washington Post; Epps, a novelist, is now attending the University for Foreigners.