"I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
And sounds as if it should be writ on satin."
Lord Byron said that about Italian, and I couldn't agree more. I puttered around with this most romantic of Romance languages for years. Finally, last spring, I went to Florence for a week of intensive Italian classes the way amateurs who yearn to do better than just hit the ball over the net go to tennis camp.
An indisputable justification for learning to speak Italian in Italy is that the whole population is on your side. The most mangled attempt at conversation elicits praise of your mastery. Read your menu selections to a waiter, and he'll shower you with encouragement. Ask for a bit of cheese at the local latteria, and the clerk, trying to place the accent, may ask if you come from England. When you admit you're American, the assumption then is that your parents are Italian.
If you say no, the next question, delivered with deep admiration, is "Allora, come mai ha imparato italiano cosi bene?" ("Then how did you ever learn Italian so well?"). The feeling you get of being special, of having achieved something extraordinary, is enough to keep you plugging away at those irregular verbs.
I chose Florence mainly for sentimental reasons: The human scale of the city has always appealed to me and the people have an indomitable way about them -- a sense of humor that has survived medieval politics and modern disasters, war and flood. A stranger feels at home surrounded by a landscape seen reproduced in art books since childhood.
I would be my teacher's only pupil in daily six-hour sessions, including a two-hour lunch in a different trattoria in another part of town every day. I mailed my registration form to Fiorenza, the name of the school, which used to be the name of the city in Dante's time.
He was born in Florence in 1265, when Latin was the only official written form. Florentine dialect was the plain vernacular in which "even females communicate," Dante noted; and he set the Tuscan dialect above all other currency. Florence still claims that the purest Italian is spoken in Dante's home town.
I arrived in Florence on Friday afternoon, with classes scheduled to begin on Monday, and spent the weekend daydreaming about who my teacher might turn out to be. After all, we'd be spending a lot of time alone together. I figured a Marcello Mastroianni-type would easily command my attention.
I had chosen a hotel at the end of Via Tornabuoni for its advertised quiet and economical rates. But I needed "to see the lights dancing in the Arno and the cypresses of San Miniato, and the foothills of the Apennines," just like Lucy in E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View." I moved to the Excelsior, throwing lire to the winds -- and the winds were considerable.
The chill of Italy's coldest winter in more than a decade now lingered into spring with icy gales. I was grateful for my warm and cozy window seat at the daily spectacle of sunset over the Arno.
There is always a sunset no matter the weather. The phenomenon is known locally as l'ora dei pastori, the shepherds' hour, the time of a rainy day just before the sun goes down. The gray clouds open, a piece of apricot sky shows through above the horizon, and the rain stops. The shepherd, who has spent the miserable, dark day sheltered in his little hut in a corner of the pasture, now is graced with clearer skies for the slow walk home with his sheep to the fold.
Saturday morning I crossed the bridge to the other side of the river to see how long it would take to get to school. Ten minutes was all. Continuing on to the Pitti Palace, I paused in the Piazza San Felice, just outside the Casa Guidi. A bronze tablet "placed by a grateful Florence, 1861" says that this is the house where "Elisabetta Barrett Browning wrote and died and made of her verse a golden link between Italy and England."
Meanwhile, her husband Robert was longing "to be in England now that April's there." I couldn't blame him. I hurried back across the Ponte Vecchio in search of a shop selling flannel pajamas.
At 9 o'clock sharp on Monday morning, I climbed to the second floor of the Palazzo Guicciardini on the Via S. Spirito and opened the door that said "Fiorenza, Centro di Lingua e Cultura Italiana per Stranieri." The woman at the reception desk was surprised to see me so early. She explained that 9 a.m. really meant 9:10 a.m. and that's when class begins. She gave me a fill-in-the-blanks test that I couldn't fail. It was just to see what I didn't know. I didn't know plenty.
At exactly 9:10 Enrica Duranti arrived and was introduced as my own private professoressa. (So much for Marcello Mastroianni.) Enrica was young, energetic, good-natured, smart and patient. I tried not to hold it against her that she was also female.
We began with a reading exercise, using for our text a two-page newspaper article from La Repubblica of Rome about shopping for quality in Florence -- not just what to buy but the history of some of the merchants still in business who began years ago catering to English-speaking expatriates.
The article discussed the "Old England Store" on Via Vecchietti, which was founded in 1924. At the time Florence had been "invaded" by foreign art students, creating a market for their own products. The store still "smells of oriental spices, the perfume of the colonies. The walls are lined, as they were in the '20s, with shelves made of sweet-scented woods. In the first aisle off the entrances are 'cookies,' jams, soaps, tea and champagne with reliable labels. Nearby are English porcelain teapots, difficult to find in the Italian market."
Enrica and I broke for tea and biscuits. She taught me the word "strass" that cropped up later in the article. (The word is spoken with a very broad "a," emphasis on the final "s," and fingers wiggling in the air.) It means "flash," like rhinestones on sweat shirts.
Eating is the cultural part of Fiorenza's "Individual Course: 30 hours/week -- lunch included." Understand the importance of Italian food and you understand family, tradition, work, art, history and geography. Reservations are made every day by the school, so the proprietor of each trattoria has a vested interest in putting his best food forward in order to stay on the school's "A" list. The chefs also seem genuinely interested in meeting the student and doing a little instruction of their own, at least as far as la cucina is concerned.
Thus did I learn from Fabio and Benedetta Picchi of "Il Cibreo" (the most brilliant star in a weeklong gastronomic galaxy) how they had prepared our exquisite meal. For openers there was a taste of everything from the top of the menu.
The main course for Enrica was cervello di agnello served in a sacchetto d' argento. Fabio made it this way: "Take the lamb's brain, a walnut-size piece of butter, a small squeeze of lemon and 'un non niente di noce moscata' (literally, a not nothing -- a pinch -- of nutmeg). Then close it all up in aluminum foil (which becomes the sacchetto d'argento, the silver pouch). Put it for an instant in a pot of boiling water, and 'Zack!' the butter melts and the brains steep in the melted butter."
I ordered the sole. Fabio was quick to point out that this wasn't going to be something I was familiar with -- not any old sole from the Atlantic -- but fish that he would have us believe he had caught himself in Porto Santo Stefano near Monte Argentario, "that point between Tuscany and Lazio (the region where Rome is the capital)." It was love at first bite.
Conscience forced me to walk a couple of miles every day after lunch. Most of the time I window-shopped, until I succumbed to temptation. I bought a silk dress at Diavolo Rosa in Via Tozzi and they agreed to make the hem overnight. But wouldn't I also like to see one of the new wool suits that had just arrived? It was red, with a skirt that wrapped to the side, leaving a wide slit. The short tight jacket had a neckline that plunged to the waist and a peplum that stood out above the hips.
I tried it on, and told the saleswoman that I didn't think I'd have the nerve to wear it, knowing full well that by next year that style will very likely be an American trend.
She smiled at me, and nodded understandingly. "Ci vuole coraggio, signora," she said, "per essere di moda." ("It takes courage, madame, to be in fashion.") Here I was talking philosophy in Italian!
By Day Three I was speaking in compound sentences and had made friends with all the complicated tenses. From then on it was a matter of increasing my vocabulary and putting pronouns in their proper places.
I was determined, however, not to take the final exam. I want my record to remain "Incomplete." More than throwing three coins in the fountain, my unfinished education, and the joy in the attempt, will take me back to Italy.