Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Immerse:  to dip, plunge into or as if into a liquid, especially so as to cover completely.

Italian immersion weekend:  what your blogger just did.  Immersion, as in covered completely, inundated, drowning, going under for the third time.  Glub.

And yet, I seem to have survived.  Nay, more than survived - I loved it!  (In my distant youth, we would have said "I had a blast!")

Brief background:   I read a fair bit of Italian in the course of doing research, but my speaking ability lags behind my reading and my oral comprehension, so a couple of years ago I started taking evening classes at the Italian Workingmen's Club here in my town, in what used to be a neighborhood of Italian immigrants.  We meet in the not-very-fancy upstairs room over a lively, noisy Italian restaurant with great pizza:  a small group of people who have in common a deep, almost irrational love for this glorious language.

There are four different levels.  My teacher is the extraordinary Antonella, a native of Lecce, whose graduate training was in Russian literature but who spends her days as an employee of the university, persuading people's computers to work.  She is brilliant, in more different ways than I could possibly explain in a blog post.  The classes are coordinated by Giovanna, who's Sicilian.  Giovanna has taught Italian and Italian literature at the university for many years. She's brilliant too.  A generation apart (Giovanna is a grandmother, and Antonella has a young son), they are both tiny dynamos who could run circles around the Energizer Bunny.

And so it came to pass that Antonella and Giovanna decided to have an Italian immersion weekend at Giovanna's lovely country house, which is about a 40-minute drive out of town.  She has gardens and vineyards and prairie and oak forests and bike trails and plenty of room for a dozen or so guests to come and chatter in Italian at each other for an entire weekend. 

I arrived early Friday evening with two friends who have just completed a semester of Italian at the beginner level.  Others soon arrived, and we began to get ourselves organized, speaking entirely in Italian (or at least trying to).  Donato (aka Doug) noticed that Giovanna had put Italian labels on various items of furniture and kitchen appliances, so he made a few more, and pretty soon everything was proudly wearing its Italian name.  The microwave was "forno microonde," the refrigerator was "frigorifero," and so on.  It felt a little bit like being in a Dick Tracy comic strip.  (For those of you who don't remember those, they tended to have lots of arrows pointing to things, with labels like "two-way wrist radio".)  The window even had a sign with arrows pointing outside, to "la natura."  We had Italian music playing in the background (and the CD that Giovanna didn't care much for got labelled "la musica che non piace a Giovanna"). 

We had conversations involving the whole group, as well as dividing into upper and lower levels for grammar work.  We went on excursions into the countryside, we had a picnic, we visited the store run by the local Amish community, we watched an Italian film, we played games, and we all took part in cooking and cleaning up. Imagine eleven people pottering around in a smallish kitchen, trying to get a meal together while speaking a language some of us had only studied for a single semester.  It's amazing that we actually got meals on the table, but we did, though admittedly Giovanna and Antonella did most of the work. 

And the food!   Si mangia bene when Giovanna and Antonella plan the menus.  We had chicken cacciatore, pasta with zucchini and pancetta, and insalata caprese, all seasoned with herbs we picked from Giovanna's lavish garden.  And we had a tiramisu to die for (and possibly from).  Antonella described that last as "una bomba calorica.")  All of this was accompanied by Campari and other before-dinner drinks, wine with meals, and plenty of good old Wisconsin beer in the frigorifero.  Biscotti and fruit and cheese were always available, so even when a meal made it to the table two hours later than planned (which did happen), no one starved.

La Bomba Calorica

Donato and Antonella, cooking

For the most part, all of us took part in the conversation, at whatever level we could manage - and we had everything from beginners to people who are quite competent, though I wouldn't call any of us completely fluent yet - but every once in a while Giovanna and Antonella would start talking about something, just the two of them, and the rest of us sat back and listened.  It was as if you had been meandering along the back roads between a couple of dusty little Italian hill towns, and all of a sudden you found yourself on the autostrada going way more kilometers per hour than you want to think about.  When those two get going, they are truly impressive.

A few of the high points:
  • Giacomo (aka Jim), put on the spot at our picnic, trying to explain nuclear physics in Italian after taking just one semester.  He did remarkably well, and should be proud.  
  • All of us crowded onto the balcony at night, watching the space station pass overhead, while Antonella leaned over the railing and waved at it, calling "Ciao!  Ciao!"  
  • A game where we paired off and told each other five things about ourselves, one of which had to be a lie, and then we tried to identify the lies.  (My favorite was Antonella's claim that she worked for the KGB while she was in Russia.) 
  • Taking turns speculating on why one of the students wasn't going to arrive until Saturday morning, including everything from "She won the lottery and bought a villa in Italy" to "She got lost" to "She had problems driving her elephant" - all, of course, said in Italian.  

  • Wandering through the aisles of the Amish furniture store, commenting on the merchandise in pidgin Italian.

  • Getting creatively lost twice on the way back to the house after our excursion - the entire caravan of us.  It was a lovely drive, actually.
Did I have a great time?  You bet.  Did I learn a lot?  I did.  Would I recommend the experience?  Absolutely - especially if Antonella and Giovanna are in charge!

I'm reminded of a second definition of "immersed":  in botany, growing under water.  We may have been under water a lot of the time, but we did indeed grow.


Dorothy said...

Nice! Thank you for sharing. :)

Dylan said...

Your prose is always so ... immersive.

Tinney Heath said...

Um - thanks, Dylan. (Should I worry??)