Sorrento: Individual Lessons and Slang (Week Three)

Written at the end of the third week:

I’ve reached the halfway point of my time in Sorrento–it feels like I’ll never have to leave, but just writing this reminds me to take advantage of every day here.
The individual class was extremely clarifying. I was able to stop at any point and ask a question, direct where the lessons went, and hone in on my weaknesses. On top of that, the instructor this week was a latinist like myself (well, student of Latin) so he was able to relate some of the trickiest parts of the grammar to Latin rather than English, which turned out to be immensely helpful. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to almost never ask for repetition even when discussing some complex words and topics.
Outside the classroom, I was able to get to know my host family much better this week because I was not always running around with my actual family. The three of them are incredibly sweet; the mom and daughter are actually both Russians who are, of course, fluent in Italian, while the father is full-blown Napoletano. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult to understand him at times, but I can still manage. I immediately recognized a ranking of ease of understanding with the daughter being the clearest, followed by the mother, and then the father. So, when the father speaks and I can’t understand, I’ll usually look to the mother then to the daughter for rescue. It can be frustrating at times when I can’t fully express myself or easily jump into a conversation when we’re all gathered, but the exposure alone to the language (and the vocabulary of the home) has been a huge help.
Speaking of Napoletano and some misunderstandings, I’ll fill you all in in some colloquialisms and some slang. First, there is a phrase said often by the youth, which is Napoletano (from the language of the Naples area). I don’t know how to write it, and neither do they as Napoletano is usually only spoken, not written, by locals anymore, nor have I found a sufficient way to translate it into English. It’s along the lines of “who is dead to you,” which does no justice to the phrase, but it carries the weight of: “____ you and your ancestors!” Intense! Although, it is used frequently among the youth (much like curse words in English)…I haven’t dared to use it in a real context, but I know it when I hear it! I asked my host parents about it (in a gentle manner) and they both said that it’s a heavy insult if meant with full force, but they recognize that it is most commonly used among friends. Some of the younger people in town have told me that they’ll use it when a scooter cuts them off while driving or jokingly when with friends–I think I’ll stay away from cursing people’s ancestors for now.
A few other colloquialisms that I’ve adopted, for better or worse are uè, mo, ragà, and the use of “voi”. Uè is a Napoletano greeting word, essentially a substitute for ciao. Mo means “now”, and takes the place of ora or adesso. Ragà is an abbreviation for ragazzi or ragazze, so it translates to “guys” (masculine or feminine) in English. Here in southern Italy, the use of “voi”, the informal plural you in standard Italian, encompasses the formal singular you, informal plural you, and formal plural you. While this is an error in “Standard Italian,” I have become fond of it because 1) it is a living trace of history in southern Italy and 2) it’s much easier than separating everything into Lei, voi and Loro…but mainly because of it’s historical significance.

Thursday of this week was a holiday here in Italy, so there was no class, and I decided to trek the Sentiero degli Dei, the Path of the Gods, along the Amalfi coast with some friends from the school. The scenery and panoramas were incredible. Here’s a peek:

Amalfi Coastline, Gulf of Salerno

Amalfi Coastline, Gulf of Salerno

A presto!

Sorrento: Surrounding Areas (Week Two)

A late week two post–I was waiting on receiving some photos. Written at the end of the second week:

I don’t want to believe it but week two has come and gone, and it included a brief visit from my parents. As far as the classroom goes, there were four of us students this week, and once again the other three outclassed me when it came to fluency. I definitely feel a small improvement in comprehension–I understand the sense of nearly everything said to me, whereas two weeks ago I would have to ask for repetition even in simple sentences or questions. I still struggle to get the words out when I speak, though. I find that starting a sentence is the most difficult part. Once I get going with a thought or story, I do quite well speaking, although I admit that it is hard to remember what I have said because I am always searching for the next word or the next phrase; because of this, I’ve definitely rambled while recounting something as well as omitted a significant detail–precision will come.

Outside the classroom, I divided my time between my parents and the couple of friends I have made in town. Fortunately, it worked out well because my friends usually work during the days and are free at night when my parents were exhausted from a day of tourism. The can’t-miss place for us was Salerno (my last name!), which is a fairly large city about an hour away from Sorrento. While my family does not hail from Salerno (Sicily, actually), it was still neat to see the city whose name I bear. Salerno is much more “Italian” than Sorrento. Sorrento is a grand touristy town that can feel a bit sleepy at times, while Salerno is a larger functioning Italian city. I didn’t see a single tourist there, and the locals spoke really only Italian so I was the translator for my parents when ordering food, shopping, reading political banners, asking for directions, reading inscriptions, etc. One funny occurrence: my mother bought a belt there for my older brother and the proprietor was taken aback when he saw the name on the card–that roused a laugh out of all of us and spurred him on to give us a mini history of the town. He finished by exhorting us to be proud of our last name, all in Italian. The man was so animated and captivating that I thought for a second I was listening to Coach Herb Brooks before the US beat the Russians. That man needs a coaching job ASAP.

The Salernos feel at home

The Salernos feel at home

As a classics major, the visit I took to Herculaneum, one of the ancient towns covered by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., was one of the most enriching days I could have asked for. Having just taken the Archaeology of Ancient Rome course, it was encouraging that I could look at a fresco, wall, window, or room of a house and remember the purpose of the style or engineering.

Classics major paradise

Classics major paradise

While being a tourist with my parents was fun, the best parts of my week were when I had the chance to further develop friendships with a couple local buddies in the evenings. Those interactions have greatly augmented my learning because I am constantly engaging with them and am called to respond to Italian in Italian about a much wider variety of topics–it’s without a doubt a different vocabulary with friends shooting the breeze from that of the classroom. I look forward to continuing to interact with these friends in the coming weeks.
I am very excited for next week in class because I will be one on one with the instructor–more demanding and more tailored to my weaknesses. A presto!

One piece of the gorgeous Sorrentine Peninsola...I guess I'm embracing the non smiling ways of the older generation here

One piece of the gorgeous Sorrentine Peninsola…I guess I’m embracing the non smiling ways of the older generation here

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.

First Impressions: Sorrento

After a week of Italian courses, I feel like I’m cheating by writing this in English…at the same time a small relief. The travel day went surprisingly well–I was excited that my flight from Chicago to Rome offered Italian newspapers (and that the predominant language spoken was Italian). After reading every article maybe four or five times on that nine-hour flight, I was ecstatic to step foot in the bel paese. A couple train rides and one wavy ferry ride later, I had made it to the imposing outer walls of Sorrento. Following a brief pause to catch my breath, I trudged up the scenic ramp to the upper city just to learn that my apartment for the first week was down in the lower city, but that walk was a nice orientation to the city of Sorrento before I had even unpacked.
I spent the opening weekend before classes walking through the entire city so many times that I knew it like the back of my hand (or so I thought–there is a plethora of hidden gems here). I was eager to start speaking to some locals, and the friendliest ones were usually old men killing time playing cards or watching the city go by. Most of these elders with whom I spoke would speak predominantly Napoletano (the Neapolitan language) and had to struggle to think of Italian “standard” to get me to understand. Despite this, I managed to have some good conversations with them. I met a 93-year-old and an 87-year-old who gave me the classic spiel that starts with, “You know, when I was a kid we didn’t have all these gadgets that you youngsters have nowadays…” I look forward to seeing these guys out and about, playing cards at the local spots or posted up on the benches in the main square.
The school day on Monday started at 08:30 with a brief orientation and final judgement on placement–I was happy to hear that I was placed in the highest level…until class started. Of course the class is completely in Italian which is great and was expected, but the other four students this week all seem to be right on the precipice of fluency. I find myself oftentimes clinging to words I recognize in the teacher’s sentence and then miss the rest of the thought. Each of the other students has been studying Italian for at least 20 years, about 19 more than me. Nevertheless, there are a couple things I cling on to for hope: I rarely err when speaking, although I go at s very slow pace right now, and I sound at least somewhat Italian with my cadence and pronunciation (as opposed to the other students while speaking Italian still sound French or British or Spanish). Now that it is Friday, there is a noticeable improvement in my comprehension and a bit of improvement in speaking. Three of the students are leaving this weekend while one remains for another week–it will be great to see the diversity of students who come and go over these six weeks. The teachers have been great so far and have been very accommodating to my small vocabulary and so-so comprehension skills at the moment. I can’t wait to see my improvements over these next five weeks.
As far as excursions go, I have not done much aside from becoming familiar with Sorrento and taking in the culture around me. In two days I move from my apartment into an apartment in the upper town with a family–slightly daunting but mostly exciting. I look forward to continuing the challenging lessons next week and to exploring some of the surrounding areas such as Capri, Napoli, and Pompeii, to name a few.
A presto, tutti!

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.