I am a Zen speaker of Italian after I had to study abroad in Italy . When I study abroad, Italian, is no past or future, only the present. Neither is there the conditional tense, possessive pronouns, or any real use of indirect objects. And though my linguistic abilities may impart a Buddhist sense of "living in the moment," it's a real pain to navigate the calle of Venice without a few other tenses available
So I signed up for a one-week crash course at the Istituto Venezia language school in Campo Santa Margherita. My goal: to graduate from "like gondolas"? to "I have taken a gondola ride, liked it, and would like to be a gondolier one day."
The Istituto Venezia is one of only two language schools in Venice to study abroad in Italy, and is medium-sized with over a dozen full and part-time instructors, up to 80 students wandering the halls in the summer, and adjunct teaching programs for both Colgate University and the International University of Venice. The main school is on the second floor of a faded red 16th-century palazzo just off my favorite campo, with dark oak beams and high ceilings, a bit of age showing like that of the city itself. Matteo Silva, the thirtyish, unassuming director of the school, seemed a little surprised when I asked for only one week of study and also that my Italian actually seemed decent. That's part of my talent and most of my problem: I'm very good at faking it. That's why I hoped one intense week would be enough to help me get to the next level. Later, Matteo explained that length of study is relative; Do you want to speak Italian to discuss philosophy, or buy shoes? Two months is good to get to a basic level of conversation if you're a beginner, but there are no miracles.?
The school is organized into five levels, plus individual intensive instruction. After a placement conversation, the director of teaching put me in level four with four Japanese students sporting electronic dictionaries, an uptight Frenchwoman, and a somewhat surly girl from Sweden. The beauty of such multicultural classrooms is that English is not the default language; study abroad with Italian ends up the best way to communicate, whether in the classroom or at the coffeehouse in the Campo.
I had hoped to dive right into more complicated sentence structures, and unfortunately, I got my wish.
From 9 a.m. until 11 a.m., we studied with Marianna, then switched to Susanna until 1 p.m., when Italians normally take lunch. On my first day, ten minutes into class we were working on the use of direct objects. It felt like trying to join a marathon at the 12th mile. I was stiff, runners passing me on all sides, and it took all my energy to keep the group's pace. The class itself was somewhat erratic, despite excellent instructors, due to the varying abilities of the students. The Frenchwoman grumbled that we didn't have thirty minutes of grammar, 30 minutes of listening comprehension, 30 minutes of conversation The Swedish girl slept through the first hour as we free-formed through daily topics: condizionale, futuro, possesivo, and, of course, politics.
One constant was the inevitable discussion of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, or a recent sciopero ("strike," a very useful word in Italy), Mideast peace, or political battles between Venice and Mestre, the city on the mainland. All discussion was in Italian, and yet somehow I learned more about Italian communists and the separatist movements of northern Italy than about verb conjugation. This is, of course, a long-respected and subtle technique of teachers tricking students into learning. When I asked why, if everyone hates Berlusconi (which seems pretty true), he is in power, I reverted into Zen Italian. Marianna kindly corrected me: "Jeff, it's not 'Why is he elected?' but 'How could he possibly have been elected?' And then: 'I just know I didn't vote for him.'"
Both Marianna and Susanna were excellent teachers, but with very different styles. It's important to remember that once you've picked a language school, there are other choices still to make. Class level, private versus individual lessons, and which teacher to study under are factors that greatly influence how much you will learn.
In my case, Matteo's advice rang true: One week wasn't much, and there were no miracles. Though I touched on many of the topics I wanted to improve, the class structure made it difficult to focus on what I needed, despite the teacher's clear explanations. I needed individual instruction tailored to my particular skills and deficiencies, especially if my time was unrealistically short.
As with any language study program, there's the institute classroom, and then there's the real classroom La Serenissima, the most serene republic, the city of 10,000 canals, 100,000 tourists, and 1 million cheesy postcards. Disclosure: I'm absolutely in love with Venice, and unabashedly biased despite the stagnant canals and the fact that everything closes at 11 p.m. Even on a gray, rainy day, the colors of the city blend beautifully, like a hand-tinted black-and-white photograph. Although the Venetian dialect is a somewhat brutal, bouncy bastardization of standard Italian, I can think of no better open-air school in which to study.
Every day at 11 a.m., all the students walked down the marble steps of the Istituto and chose one of at least six cafes ringing the campo. Over espresso at Cafe Rosso, we tried out new tense constructions and planned meetings in the evening for a spritz at local baccari. Leo, from England, told us he was going full language immersion by taking a job in an Italian bar called the Flying Dutchman. (As I said, it's a multicultural place.) Luke, an Australian student, was prepping for the ultimate test -meeting his Italian girlfriend's parents. He peppered me with questions on how tough Italian fathers are and what to make sure not to say, since I have experience on the same matter. (Alas, I can't elaborate. I must protect the innocent, and the guilty. Family code, and all that.)
Over gnocchi in raga and a carafe of red wine at lunch (another wonderful benefit of studying in Italy), Matteo spoke passionately to me in Italian about his home. "Venice isn't just Piazza San Marco and gondolas,"? he said. "There's a beauty and richness here beyond that: the islands, the Bucintoro, the lagoon. There's more than art history. Remember, we are of the sea, Venice is the sea."
Maybe it was the combination of vino rosso, an intense week of language classes, and the magic of Venice seeping into my bones like the frequent fog, but I sat back in my chair amazed. I had actually understood what he said. In Italian. And not only understood literally, but understood the poetry of the language and the truth of his words. Maybe, just maybe, I'm getting the hang of la bella vita and la bella lingua.
CONTACT: Istituto Venezia, Dorsoduro 3116/a, Venice, 30123, Italy; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.istitutovenezia.com
COSTS: Group instruction for one week runs 190 euros, but gets cheaper the longer you stay, so that one month costs 520 euros. Twelve students per class maximum. Housing in Venice is expensive, but the school can arrange a room for 560 euros per month with a Venetian resident (usually someone's grandmother), other Venetian college students (great way to make friends), or one of the teachers of the Istituto (bonus instruction time!). Transfer credits can be arranged through the College Consortium for International Studies (www.ccisabroad.org) and the City University of New York.
QUALITY OF INSTRUCTION: **** Don't be afraid to ask for focused instruction.
EXTRACURRICULAR CLASS ACTIVITIES: **** Class excursions around Venice are included in the price of the course, and are culturally relevant. There are political discussions, and plenty of drinking at Venetian bars.
LOCATION COOLNESS: ***** It's Venice. 'Nuff said.
GONDOLIER FACTOR: *** It's tough to break into their world, but it is possible to become friends with them if your Italian is good enough, and you can join the Bucintoro rowing club (www.bucintoro.org) to learn how to cruise the canals in true Venetian style.
Photos by Jeff Booth