Il Sasso, Issue 35

For as long years as I can remember, I have wanted to speak Italian. It was spring 2012 and our second time in Italy in two years. While walking through Montepulciano, my wife noticed a store selling exquisite children’s clothing, the kind more easily found in Europe.  As she window shopped, I found a little pamphlet box at a nondescript door beside the shop. The pamphlets advertised Il Sasso , a language school teaching Italian as a second language . Fast forward one year and we were back in Montepulciano for three weeks of introductory Italian. 

Residenza Stuart

This is the view from an apartment at Residenza Stuart
View from apartments at Residenza Stuart

Montepulciano is a walled city perched on top of a 600-metre limestone ridge. It has steep, narrow streets, which wind their way up from the lower gates to the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, about 75 metres outside of the upper gate. For the three weeks, we rented an apartment in the Politiano Apartments just outside the upper gate and 50 metres from Santa Maria dei Servi. More importantly, we could walk to Susanna Crociani  in three minutes to purchase a fine bottle of Nobile. 

The apartment is in a palazzo built by Sir William Stuart in the mid-1800’s as a family home. In the year 2000, Giacomo Stuart subdivided the residence into a small number of apartments available to tourists. Our apartment overlooked Val di Chiana. In the morning, the clouds and mist rise up from the vineyards and olive groves in the valley below. The Stuarts have painstakingly restored the gardens so there are beautiful shaded areas to relax and enjoy a glass of wine or a spritz. I remember watching Maria Stuart, Giacomo’s sister, lugging huge rocks up a steep slope as she worked on the restoration.

Maria and Giacomo are both charming hosts. Maria now manages the lower flats with the Residenza Stuart banner and Giacomo hosts the upper flats with the Stuart View Apartments banner.

Three weeks of introductory Italian

Il Sasso is fun

My wife and I wanted to learn Italian to better enjoy the culture and out of respect for a country we love. Il Sasso caters to students like us but also to professionals and diplomatic staff that need Italian language skills. Accordingly, the teachers take the class work seriously. There is a 09:00h start and the school day ends at about 15:00h. The instructors assign homework, nothing too strenuous but students are expected to be ready for class every morning. Despite the rigour, classes are fun and the lunch break is more than an hour. 

We loved our teachers, Roberta Tamagnini, Sara Chierchini, and Costanza Rossi. Very occasionally Alberto Quinti would teach a class. If you visit the web site, they are still there. So is Heike Wilms. Thinking that is not an Italian name? Well, you are right. She arrived in Montepulciano from Germany and never wanted to leave. She always succeeded in making me laugh. Almost single-handedly, Heike keeps the place together and makes sure that students are cared for. 

New Friendships

Friendships grow quickly at the school as everyone has a similar interest in the language and the culture. Fellow students included:

  • A young German woman improving her Italian for her summer job at Palazzo Ricci , college of music and art in Montepulciano
  • An hilarious Swiss bureaucrat looking to get third-official language certification. I still wonder if the suspension on his Alfa Romeo made it back to Zurich. His car was loaded with wine.  
  • The neurologist brother of a very  famous Broadway and Hollywood producer 
  • Teddy from Cologne, Germany who had survived a serious cancer. He loved Italy and speaking Italian.  The two weeks at Il Sasso was his reward for making it through treatment. Teddy is a charmer. 

A different kind of vacation

This kind of vacation may not appeal to everyone but I found it to be incredibly rewarding:

  • Practice is needed for me to have a quasi conversation, but I understand a lot.
  • I know enough to demonstrate that I have made an effort to be able to carry on in Italian
  • That effort brings rewards. Service improves everywhere and we gained engagement in casual conversations. Requests for directions turned into political discussions.
  • I gained a better understanding of local practices. Europeans and Italians in particular are miffed by the “How are you?” question when greeted. 
  • The local population gets to know you. With this, the small things such as sharing the shortened greetings used between the residents such as “sera” in the evening; not having to place an order for a caffe but it appears magically because the barista remembers me; enjoying conversations with the cittadini during which they forget I am a tourist
  • I love getting to really know a town.  In Montepulciano all the tourists make the walk along the Via Corso and into the town square. But, I know the side streets, the staircase shortcuts, and that there is a jewel box theatre hidden behind a grey exterior. 
  • And tongue in cheek, I now understand Italian-pop lyrics  – still not a big fan but it can be a guilty pleasure.  Listen to Laura Pausini  
Laura Pausini

We enjoyed our first three weeks so much, we went back the next year. I still need to go back to continue working on  Italian as a second language. 

The usual reminders:

  • Buy better, buy less, reduce, repair, reuse and recycle  
  • Shop local, support local businesses, buy from local farms, and support local artisans and manufacturers
  • Wear face masks where required, wash your hands, practice social distancing, hydrate, and exercise

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