Sorrento – Week 6

I’ve just gotten back home from an absolutely wonderful week traveling through Italy! While it’s nice to have reliable internet connections and reasonable humidity forecasts, it was certainly a bittersweet goodbye as I already miss the country I have grown to feel a part of. While talking about Italy’s performance in the last game of the Euro Cup, I found myself using the word “noi” which means we in Italian to discuss the team. I didn’t realize it until my Italian friend pointed it out, and I was a little embarrassed at first considering that I was including myself in a group of people I technically didn’t belong to, but he was quick to tell me that it was heartwarming to him that I consider myself such a part of Italy, and that I should continue to use “noi” when discussing Italy. It was one of the many little exchanges I had with native Italians that really made me feel like I was leaving a new home. It was very difficult to leave Sorrento especially knowing how far away it is from the US, but I hope that I can return someday in the future and visit my host family and friends, hopefully fluent in Italian.

Over the next week I visited Rome (Roma), Florence (Firenze), Verona, and Venice (Venezia). Before traveling, I knew that Italy was very separated into its regions by dialect and overall culture. In Italian class back at Notre Dame, we would touch on these differences watching satirical youtube videos or listening to the professors tease each other based on where they are from in Italy. It was so interesting to be able to see those changes in such a fast pace as I traveled from the southwest coast to the northeast coast of Italy. Rome is the largest city of Italy, the capital of the nation, and the home of the Vatican City. This was my second time visiting Rome on this trip, and I was still in awe of the history around every corner. There is really a sense of greatness you feel when walking around the city as you pass the Roman Forum on the way to the Pantheon, stumbling upon the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum along the way. There is a harmony between the ancient and the modern that I haven’t seen replicated anywhere else. The people of Rome are generally very nice, and seem relieved whenever I would speak Italian to them. I think that in the hustle and bustle of the day, speaking their native language gave them a bit of a breather from the communication barriers they have with the hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. It was a pleasure to return to my favorite sites and restaurants, but also to explore new areas. We went to the Vatican City to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. It was almost a game for my friend and I to ask questions in Italian to the guides and people working to see what I could pick up and if they would notice that I’m not a native speaker.

My friend, Mackenzie, and I at the Colosseum

My friend, Mackenzie, and I at the Colosseum in Rome. 

We took a quick trip to Florence just for the day to see the David and the Duomo. Florence was absolutely beautiful, and I really regret not spending more time there. The shop owners were so helpful to me because I struggled a bit more here than in Rome with my Italian, but they would try not to resort to English and instead rephrase the questions and statements to help me out. While there were still plenty of tourists, it was a refreshing escape from the “big city” atmosphere of Rome. I struck up a conversation with our waiter when we were having dinner, and he told me how he actually just bought the restaurant with a few of his friends and about how important it was to them because they grew up eating there, and by the end of the night they had given us free tiramisù! I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to have that opportunity had I not been speaking Italian.

Next, we visited Verona to see Carmen at the Arena Di Verona, a functioning ancient colosseum famous for its operas and concerts. Verona was by far my favorite part of Italy as it had a hometown kind of feeling. It wasn’t very touristy compared to the bigger cities, and by the second day we were there we had thrown out the map because we already felt like we knew the place. We stayed at a b&b owned by a young man named Matteo, and we had the opportunity to meet his 4 year old son as we checked in. He didn’t speak much English at all, so I could tell it was a big relief to speak Italian. He was impressed that I knew the language and even more impressed that I was able to keep up with him. He gave us dinner recommendations and gave us a few tips about going to the opera. He was extremely helpful and really made our experience in Verona that much better because we felt like we had a friend to help us if we needed it.

Finally, we went to Venice to top off the week. We had heard wonderful things about Venice from friends at home and at school, so we were eager to arrive. We stayed in Mestre on the mainland, and would take the bus into the Island in the morning and home at night. It was a nice system that saved us a ton of money in the long run. The Veneto dialect was a little hard to understand as it deviates the farthest from the Italian language taught in school. Most people would switch to Italian when they heard me speaking it, but a few of the waiters and shop owners weren’t able to speak Italian, so we just communicated in broken Veneto and Italian until we had an arrangement. It was like a little puzzle and it was fun to have more of a challenge. I didn’t realize how different Veneto is from Italian, and I’m glad that I was able to study in Sorrento where Italian is widely used on a daily basis, and I still got to learn a little bit of the Neapolitan dialect. While in Venice, we went to a concert in Stra on the mainland at Villa Pisani, one of the Villas owned by the government that used to be run by the wealthiest of Italy. It was truly grand and to see my favorite pianist and composer, Ludovico Einaudi, perform on the courtyard was a truly unforgettable experience. I think that my friend was the only attendant of the concert that didn’t speak Italian, because I didn’t hear a single word of English during my time there and that was rare. The signs were only in Italian, and the security men and guides wouldn’t offer any English. I could tell my friend was a little out of her comfort zone, but I was glad that I picked up on everything and was able to maneuver around the Villa to find the concert with the Italian instructions.


This last week of travel, while not technically a part of the SLA, was a true culmination and test of the Italian I learned in Sorrento. I really do feel more confident speaking Italian, and I find myself thinking in Italian some of the time. It has been really interesting to see the shift between learning a language as in school, and learning to become bilingual from being around native speakers. While I’m certainly not fluent, I think that I’ve really come a long way in being able to respond quickly in Italian and process what I’m hearing as though it were English. I can’t wait to finish the language sequence at Notre Dame, and hopefully return to Italy for a semester abroad next year and be able to confidently say that I am a fluent Italian speaker. I think that I have laid a good groundwork for fluency in Sorrento, and I’m really eager to continue my studies at Notre Dame.

Sorrento – Week 5

My last week in Sorrento has just come to a bittersweet end, and yesterday I took the Circumvesuviana to Napoli and began a week long tour of Italy with a friend. It is going to be an interesting adventure to move through the biggest and most well known cities in Italy while trying out my Italian skills as I move farther and farther north. We began our journey in Sorrento, and will end in Venice at the end of the week. It’s going to be a cultural and linguistic whirlwind, and I hope that I can really make the most of it before burning out!

My finals went well this week, and I was glad to receive As in both of my classes. I had really learned a lot from both of my professors, and it was a little difficult to walk out of the door on that last Thursday. We had a farewell luncheon at a Trattoria on the Marina Grande the next day with the students and faculty of the Summer One program, and it was another of many heartfelt goodbyes. The group of kids unaffiliated with specific university programs like myself and the Italian friends we had made during our five weeks here had our own unofficial farewell dinner to say goodbye to everyone. It was a Mexican themed potluck, and everyone brought the food they missed the most from America if they could make it.

We had an Italians v. Americans game of soccer the day of Italy’s final Euro Cup game, and needless to say there was a lack of competition. With equal effort on both sides of the field, the Italians had managed to shut out the Americans 14-0. It was interesting to see that some of the phrases I would yell out on the field would be spoken in a mix between Italian and English. I’d scream “vai vai vai” at our players as they ran across the field, and a few other phrases I had picked up from our opponents. When we all watched the game together later that night, I noticed that everyone was cheering on the Italian team in their native language. Cheers of “forza azzuri” and “forza Italia” rung through the living room of a friends home as Italy contested the Germans for the majority of the game.

During each of these events, I had realized that I had really made a home of Sorrento. Speaking to my host mother in Italian was effortless, I had friends who had grown up down the street from me who were so helpful in teaching me and helping me with my Italian, and I was asked to come back and say goodbye from some of my favorite store owners and workers. I really feel that I have made myself a part of the community in Sorrento and the surrounding areas. I learned that it was so much easier to grow and learn if I really gave myself the opportunity to fail. The native speakers were almost always supportive and helpful, and they would make sure that I really grasped what I was saying, even if it was incorrect.

With a heavy heart I leave Sorrento, but I know that my five weeks spent there and on the Amalfi Coast have had such a tremendous impact on not only my Italian, but also my cultural awareness, curiosity, and overall language learning and competency skills that I cannot even begin to fathom at this point and time. I am so eager and excited to begin my journey through Europe without a life jacket. I’ve challenged myself to only speak English to my friend that’s coming with me, so each restaurant, tour guide, and store owner must be spoken to in Italian. I’m a little nervous to travel speaking my second language, but all the more excited to see how my Italian is received outside of Sorrento with complete strangers and native speakers.

Arrivederci, Sorrento! It was an incredible five weeks. Onward to a new challenge!

Sorrento – Week 4

As my fourth week of class ends here in Sorrento, my final examinations are just around the corner. It’s incredible how quickly these past weeks have passed, and how integrated I feel in the daily life of Sorrento. Just the other day I was complaining about the rather sudden arrival of mostly British tourists in Sorrento to some Italian friends of mine, and how the sudden spike in tourism has affected my time spent around town, and they had to remind me that I am technically a tourist despite having lived here for a month. It was a playful reminder of how much I feel a part of the community here, and yet how much room I still have for growth.

This week I traveled much less so I would have some quality time with my friends and host family in preparation for final exams and really hunkering down on my schoolwork. I’ve noticed that there is very little stress in Italy, a very different feeling than in the States. If I’m a few minutes late for my early class of the day, I receive a pat on the back for sleeping in and we continue with the lessons. There is no such thing as a set schedule for anything here. Buses, trains, and appointments all tend to run late and there is no pressure to do much of anything on a tight schedule. Time should be spent with those who make you happy doing what makes you happy, and for this reason I am already dreading my return to the hustle and bustle of life in America.

The view of Positano from about halfway up the mountain.

The view of Positano from about halfway up the mountain.

My friends and I went to Positano over the weekend to visit the beaches and the incredible views of the Amalfi coast. I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the city, but my sense of awe was quickly muffled by the long and winding walk down to the beach on such a hot and humid day.  Positano is a well-known tourist destination for the rich and famous of America, and for that reason it was difficult to communicate in Italian with any of the store owners. It seemed that every tourist was from America, and I found it a little troubling to be in such a beautiful Italian city that seemed to be overrun by American tourists. After some time at the beach, my friends and I were eager to return to Sorrento and to our friends.

My host family held a birthday party for the young girl upstairs who had just turned nine yesterday. I walked in the kitchen to find five pizzas, a chocolate mousse cake, and homemade tiramisu. Needless to say, I was elated. My roommate was in Florence for the weekend, so the party consisted of myself and five Neapolitan women ranging in age from 9 to 70. It was so interesting to see the family dynamic of neighbors, and how age has created very few barriers for these women. They were so comfortable with each other and immediately adopted me into the group, taking photos with me and making fun of my “american appetite”. Hands were flying in every direction as they were so fond of the hand gestures Italians are famous for. Sometimes I find myself using them as well, and it will be interesting to see if my family picks up on it when I see them in two weeks. My friends from home had jokingly given me a book of swear words and slang in Italian claiming that it held “everything I really needed to know”, and I was so glad they did. That nine year old girl had the mouth of a sailor, and it was funny to know precisely what she felt comfortable saying around her mother and elders. I was surprised at how much I understood at the dinner table, and how much I was willing to participate in conversation. Carla, the birthday girl, was eager to get to know me as her interest in American culture could be validated by my knowledge of pop culture.

Carla's birthday cake was made by a family friend, Maria, who owns a pasticceria.

Carla’s birthday cake was made by a family friend, Maria, who owns a pasticceria.

As final tests approach I feel bittersweet about leaving Sorrento. I have forged so many great bonds here with people from all over the world. I am sincerely going to miss being able to speak Italian with virtually anyone I meet and the carefree nature of summer life on the Amalfi coast.

Sorrento – Week 3

I write this post from a café in the hub of Sorrento on my third espresso of the morning. This has by far been the busiest week thus far in my time here, and also the most enriching. Since Monday, I have taken my midterm examinations, traveled to Rome for two days, and then made my way to the island of Capri and the surrounding grottos and landmarks. I’m so lucky to be able to seize these opportunities, for every single day in Sorrento feels like a lifetime’s worth of experiences and memories.

My midterms went very well this week and I feel that my scores on the tests reflect the knowledge that I’ve acquired in both courses already. Not only my daily classes in Italian, but also my daily interactions with native speakers have prepared me for the wide breadth of material covered in such a short time. Studying is hardly a concern because I am able to take what I learn in class each day directly to my friends and host family and practice until it becomes natural to me. I’ve found that I can get a good grip on each new tense and irregular verb after one dinner with Mamma than I can with studying from the book. It’s such a unique and pleasant experience to be able to immediately put my lessons into practice as soon as I step foot outside of the classroom. For the most part, the locals have been so helpful in waiting for me to put together my responses and correcting me when I am wrong. They have never looked down upon me for using incorrect Italian, because they see that I am trying and have so much pride in their heritage that any appreciation for it is well received.

The light bursting through the dome of the Pantheon.

The light bursting through the dome of the Pantheon.

Rome was incredible. I was able to meet a friend who I hadn’t seen in over a year, and it was so nice to catch up over authentic pizze and pasta. He had become fluent in Swedish in the time that i had been learning Italian, so it was so fun to see the progress that both of us had made in a year’s time. It was so interesting to be in a new environment and a bigger city because the native speakers in Rome were so much more appreciative if that was even possible. I could tell that with all of the inflow of tourists from all over the world, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to speak their native language, and I was getting some practice out of it along the way. From the Trevi Fountain to the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, in 24 hours I managed to do it all. I can’t express how incredible it is in Rome that behind every corner is thousands of years of history, ruins, and pride. Before I left for Italy, I remember my dad saying that Italy is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and sad cities in the world because in every inch of land there is evidence of centuries of accomplishment and achievement, but the current state of Italy lacks industry and ingenuity. I really felt that walking around Rome with my friend.

Capri was another incredible experience among many. Some of my friends from the school rented two boats with our Italian friends who grew up in the city and we toured Capri and the surrounding areas. It was a full day trip, so we had plenty of time to talk about the strange differences between Italian and American culture, and I had one of my friends teach me the dialect from Napoli. That was really exciting because I had been wondering why it was a little difficult to understand some of the locals, and I realized that in this region of Italy, it’s normal to shorten words to just one syllable or even call it something completely different. For example, some native speakers will call the television “the man in the box” instead of the regularly accepted word. While my sunburn is a less exciting souvenir of the days festivities, it was one of the best days in my weeks here.

Another week of studying and learning through experience has come to an end in Sorrento, and it’s bittersweet. I really love every minute here, but it is going to be nice to see my family and share with them each of these experiences and hopefully encourage them to go out and learn more about the world we live in and where we come from.

Sorrento – Week 2

After a week of having class everyday, meals at home, and exploring Sorrento, I feel that I’ve finally established a routine and that I am becoming a part of the community. It’s rather difficult to meet and establish relationships with native Italian speakers in Sorrento because so many people my age have moved away for university or travel, or prefer to speak in English with me. I have found a way around this by frequenting the same restaurants, cafes, and bars between and after my classes, so the people that work there have gotten to know me quite well! I explained to them that I’m a student at Sorrento Lingue, and they immediately offered to speak Italian with me, correct me when I’m struggling, and try to talk to me about topics outside of ordering food or coffee. This has been a total game changer as I now feel that I have established companionships with people my age who are willing to help me grow on a daily basis. They have been so supportive of me, and my conversational skills have become much stronger. Admitting that my Italian isn’t perfect has allowed me to strive for growth in just trying to get my point across without being technically correct, and going back to review and fix my mistakes.

I haven’t explored much of the regions outside of Sorrento like I did last week. I used my free time this week to plant my feet in the ground and make the city feel like home. Now when I walk to class I say hi to some people around town and chat along the way. Sorrento feels like less of a city and more of a small town because I see so many familiar and friendly faces each day. My host mother has invited her friends over a few days this week, so I have been able to get to know them while I’m studying in the apartment, and entertain Carla, the young girl upstairs.

Yesterday, I joined my friend’s host family and went to the festival of Sant’Antonio in Seiano, a small fishing village outside of Sorrento. They drove us there with their two small children, Camilla who is four and Giuseppe who is 5. We had some drinks as we watched the procession along the river, watched the fireworks, and enjoyed the food and music of the festival. It was the most authentically Italian experience I have had thus far in Sorrento as I didn’t meet a single person who hadn’t grown up in that very town. The area, much like all of Italy, is rich with history and tradition. Sant’Antonio was the saint that sailors from the town prayed to when they went out on their fishing trips, and even though the industry isn’t as lively as it once was, the tradition is just as vibrant as it was hundreds of years ago. Domenico, the father, had grown up right in Seiano so we met some of his childhood friends and chatted about what it was like growing up in Italy. They were more than happy to speak Italian to me and English to my friend so we both benefitted from the storytelling. We compared slang words and words that are adopted from American media, and got home around midnight.

We watched the sunset from a country club restaurant in Seiano with three generations of the Savarese family as a statue of Sant'Antonio was paraded across the water in a religious and traditional procession.

We watched the sunset from a country club restaurant in Seiano with three generations of the Savarese family as a statue of Sant’Antonio was paraded across the water in a religious and traditional procession.

Week 1 – Sorrento

Ciao from Sorrento!

I arrived safely in Naples last Friday, and slowly made my way to Sorrento, or rather Sant’Angello, where my host family lives. The arrival in Naples was daunting to say the least. Each person in the airport seemed to speak a different language, hold a different passport, and be in a massive hurry. After looking for a few minutes, I found the driver that the Sant’Anna Institute sent for me so that I could travel safely to Sorrento without anything being stolen from me, which is a danger I haven’t had to worry about much in the US. We drove through the slums of Naples onto the highway, and finally to my apartment where my host mother and sister were waiting for me.

My host mother, Teresa, doesn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t be happier. It is fun to communicate with her in my broken Italian, and she helps me along the way. Teresa used to be a teacher before she retired, so she is very patient with me and corrects me along the way. She loves to talk for hours at the dinner table, so I am lucky enough to be exposed to her excellent cooking and her passion for walking me through Italian language, culture, and customs. She really loves Italy, and I love to learn, so having her as a host mother is mutually rewarding. I have a host sister, Viviana, who is 26 and interested in American culture, and a host brother, Michelangelo, who is on the older side and likes to joke with me in Italian. He says the best way to learn a language is through humor and I couldn’t agree more. I also have a roommate who also studies at the Sant’Anna institute who is two semesters ahead of me in Italian. She is able to help me with the words I don’t know at the dinner table, and helps me with the words I don’t understand while trying to define them in a simpler Italian. I really hit the jackpot with my host family, and I couldn’t be happier.

Italy, and the Naples area specifically, suffers a tremendous amount of stress and instability after the Eurozone crisis in 2009. The rising debt in Italy has led to a lack of jobs for young people, a lack of national industry, and a lack of hope. This is a constant topic at the dinner table and on the news, and one that I am looking forward to learning more about. As an international economics major with a specific interest in Italy, I have begun seeing firsthand the effects of the Eurozone crisis and the EU in a smaller Italian city and observed the many different reactions of Sorrento’s inhabitants. At some point this week I would like to talk to the different members of my host family to gather their thoughts on the topic, and see where they think the future of Italy is headed.

I only had two days of school this week in addition to a long orientation session on Monday. There are currently only 19 other students in the Summer 1 group, so we’ve become a very close knit group going on excursions and to restaurants as much as possible. Unfortunately, we don’t all speak Italian or take Italian classes, so I am not speaking Italian as much as I wished with the other students. On the bright side, I’ve found a way to incorporate Italian into that aspect of my time here by teaching them Italian words and phrases that they can use in Sorrento to feel more at home in Italian culture, and I think that my lessons are paying off. They have a stronger hunger to learn the Italian language that I am able to satiate.

My classes are spectacular. I am taking Intermediate Italian which would translate to Notre Dame’s Intermediate Italian I class, and a Contemporary Literature class, both taught completely in Italian. The class sizes are small, five and two students respectively, so I feel that I am getting a rather individual lesson each day that is tailored to my level of Italian and my ability and desire to learn. My Italian class is a full immersion class which means that we are only able to speak and listen in Italian. At first this was challenging because I have “stage fright” and really struggle participating in class, but after a short while and with such a small class, I was able to come out of my shell a bit and participate. I feel comfortable asking for clarification in Italian, and my listening comprehension has noticeably improved. This is also a result of my Contemporary Literature class which is taught exclusively in Italian with only one other student. In all honesty, I was really dreading this class and tried to switch it before the first day of classes, but I am incredibly glad I didn’t. The literature course is already one of the most formative and influential classes I’ve taken thus far in my short lifetime. It’s very informal which means that we dictate the direction of the class. The poems and literary works are chosen for us, but what we do with them is entirely up to us as students. We studied two poems by Alda Merini, a female poet from Milan, that completely took my breath away. I had never been interested in poetry, let alone poetry in another language, but I immediately went online after class and started scouring through her works. The next day we studied the Futurismo which is a little experimental for my taste, but my professor explained it in such a way that I was able to let my guard down and appreciate the poems for what they stood for rather than the strange structure and vague meaning. I’ve already learned so much in such a short period of time.

We visited the ruins of Pompeii on Saturday and the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) on Thursday. The hike was difficult and long, but offered by far the most intense and inimitable beauty I’ve experienced. We hiked a trail from a small town near Amalfi to Positano which took about 4 hours, and rested afterwords with some well-earned gelato. The ruins of Pompeii were magnificent. Italy is so rich with ancient history and culture around every corner and Pompeii is a true example of this. The city is much larger than I expected and marvelously well-preserved. I could’ve stayed in the ruins for days if the school would’ve let me. Just a few weeks ago, the Italian President unveiled an exhibit of Polish sculptures by the late Igor Mitoraj that are beautifully scattered around the ancient city. They seem to fit perfectly among the ruins and give a sense of the achievement of the city before the catastrophic eruption. The Polish President was touring the ruins on that same day, and I was lucky enough to briefly meet him as I walked through the thermal baths.

Being in Italy has already afforded me a lifetime of knowledge, growth, and culture. I have learned so much about the nuances of Italian conversation and speech while attempting to improve my comprehension and speaking abilities. I hope that in this coming week I am able meet some native speakers outside of the school and my host family with whom I can form friendships valuable in both their learning opportunities and their companionship.