I’m a little behind for sending this post but January was such a busy month. Since I started studying Italian a few years ago I’ve always wanted to go to one of the many immersion schools in Italy that offer a month long program. We thought January would be a good month for school since the weather would be at its worst, traveling could be more difficult and since it was almost in the middle of our travels we thought it might be nice reprieve from life on the road. So I dragged Janet kicking and screaming and off to Recanati we went! Now make yourself a cappuccino and get comfortable as this is a long post, the highs and lows of our month in immersion.
When we first signed up the school was based out of Camerino, Italy but in October they were hit by a massive earthquake that decimated the town. Fortunately, no one was killed in this quake unlike the one that hit Amatrice a few months previous and killed over 300 people but it did destroy and shut down the town center. We heard the bad news through a friend of mine from my Italian school in Calgary. She was there when it happened and was quickly evacuated back home just a few days before her program was to end. She praised the school and how they had handled everything but since it was closed they weren’t sending any information on what was happening. We just had to wait and see if they would have a program for us in January or we’d have to make other plans for the month. Later in November (we had already been on the road for two months) we started to get some emails and learned that the school was being moved about 60 km away to the town of Recanati and we started making plans to get there.
We arrived on a Sunday morning by train and the school had seamlessly arranged for someone to pick us up at the train station and drove us to the school where we had a quick sign in and picked up our apartment keys. He then drove us to our apartment, a 20 minute drive around the town that initially worried us because it seemed so far from the school and up some steep one-way cobblestoned streets. We thought we would have a long hike to school every morning but it turned out we were perfectly situated in the middle of the historic center and only 5 minutes to the school.
We quickly dumped our bags, freshened up and went on the hunt for a grocery store and to get acquainted with the town. The town made a great first impression, it was a typical Italian ancient walled city but quite grand with a large piazza, stunning municipal buildings, a theatre, churches and of coarse a great café that became our regular haunt. When we arrived, they were playing DJ’d music in the square where there was a large skating rink that seemed to be a staple for every Italian city we were in over the holidays. Families were gathered and wondering in the piazza, or dropping in and out of the coffee shops but the rest of the center was very quiet and the only grocery store had closed at 1pm. We were out of luck for groceries but there were many restaurants and pizzerias we hoped would open that night or at the very least we could grab something at the café.
On the way back to our apartment we fortuitously saw a sign on one of the churches for a presepe display. These are the nativity scenes or crèche displays called presepe or presepio in Italian the bring to life the story of the Nativity and go up over the holiday season. This one was incredible, we watched like children mesmerized by the ever-changing scenery that took us almost an hour to wonder through. There was a display of an entire village with animatronic scenes that brought the nativity to life. The scenes would change from evening to the sun rising in the morning with the roosters crow and a whole new day unfolding. It was in incredible detail such as the bakery where you’d watch them busy making bread early in the morning then the scene would change to a busy shop selling the produce made the night before. In the evening pubs were busy with drunken revellers that would disappear when the town became busy with daily life, in such detail that there was even a clothes line with miniature laundry hung out to dry that would drip with real water. It was amazing and we felt so blessed to have tripped upon this truly Italian experience. Below is a video of the live presepe, enjoy!
We headed back to the apartment and started to unpack when we got a knock on the door, the owner had come down to great us as he lives in the top apartment and we were the first students he was letting his apartment out for the school. He spoke great English having lived in Ireland for a year, it made things a little easier and he was the nicest fellow. His girlfriend joined us, we opened up a bottle of wine and had a nice chat getting to know each other. He even felt bad that we were out of luck for groceries so he whipped us up a light dinner and brought down some basics from his apartment, so kind.
In the evening, he left to pick up our roommates from the school and we anxiously awaited his return to see how we did in the roommate lotto. Would they be another couple our age or some tweenie kids, would they speak any English, would we have anything in common, would they be messy or hate our cooking? About an hour later they returned, about 7:30 in the evening and Juan Carlos walked in and introduced us to two lovely ladies from Argentina. Luckily, he was there to act as translator while we broke the ice, they spoke a little English but truly our only common language was going to be Italian. Lord this wasn’t going to be easy, we figured the school purposely matched us with other non-English students to force us to use the language, difficult but effective. We invited them out to the pub as they’d need dinner and we could have a nibble and some cocktails with them. It was a bit awkward at first but we hit it off and managed to have great conversions with our limited Italian, a bit of English, Spanish and lots of charades- we called it AngloSpanitaliano! We ended the night not to late as we were all exhausted from the travel day and anxious to start school the next morning and so our month began.
We set the alarm for 7am which came so quickly although it seemed like a long night. It was a rough first night on two single beds that couldn’t even be called singles as they were made for bambini, just a mattress on an slatted frame which I was scared my 240 Lbs would snap in half while my feet dangled over the edge. The sheets fit the beds perfectly though, the size of a large beach towel that barely covered. It could work for someone smaller as long as you didn’t move in the night but a problem since I have sleep apnea and am the worlds most restless sleeper. In the morning searching out of frustration I managed to find a bigger blanket in one of the closets, although it looked older than Jesus and I imaged someone’s grandmother was wrapped in it on her deathbed it kept me from freezing. Another problem was the heat, we didn’t have any! January being the coldest month and in a stone building hundreds of years old with an equally old radiant heating system that only came on for a half hour three times a day required us to dress for the outdoors-indoors.
So now arisen from my luxurious sleep it was time to test the plumbing! We had many issues throughout Italy with a lack of heat and hot water but with 4 of us sharing one bathroom this could be a real problem. We agreed with the girls that they would shower in the evenings and we’d have the mornings so I was first to give it a try. If climbing out of my flannel pajamas (and coat) into the naked cold didn’t wake me up, the touch of my feet on the frozen enamel of the tub did! Quick….need heat, the water slowly warming to the touch as I shivered waiting for it to come on and then I discovered the shower hose didn’t reach the holder above. Trying to hold the hand shower with one hand while shampooing with the other and frantically waving the trickling water over my body so I didn’t die of hypothermia was a comical ordeal. From there on I took a bath every morning, getting up early as it took a half hour for the water to trickle out and half fill the tub. At least the water was somewhat hot but it would be a quick bath so the girls had their time to get ready, we made it work. Every morning after my polar plunge though I’d walk out into the kitchen and the girls would have the table set for breakfast, fresh coffee from the moka waiting for me and our Italian toast and a yogurt. The Italians don’t use a toaster (or a kettle), a popular item you find in all the groceries stores is a thin slice of pre-toasted bread that comes in a package like melba toast. The first time I tried it I was swearing ‘who the hell wants to eat this old dried up piece of cardboard’ but it grew on us and we started to enjoy it with some jam and brie, we had it every morning.
Now off to our first day of school! It began with a presentation of some speeches and basic orientation that ended with a written placement exam. I didn’t find it too difficult but used the full time to complete it, Janet being brand new to Italian basically signed her name and left. The next day we were placed into classes by the levels dictated on the placement exams and we met our teacher and classmates. The day started with an introduction of ourselves; your name, where are you from, your work or studies, why are you studying Italian… all in Italian off coarse as the class is full immersion. Most of the students (80% of 130 attending) were from Brazil, with the rest from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay…all Latin America. Only one girl from Europe (Spain) a few Aussies and we were the only North Americans. It made the school intimidating as the Latin Americans easily understood the language, there were a few Aussies all with Italian names and heritage and us two dumb Canadians. We felt like we were stuck on an Island. Janet’s first few days were torture, 4 hours feeling totally lost and not understanding a word the teacher was saying she was ready to make a run for the hills and I wasn’t far behind her. We thought her class would be a beginner’s class but it turned out fairly advanced. They were already conjugating verbs right off the bat and into various tenses as the other Latin students already had a comprehension- something that took a few years for me to get too. She was the only English speaker in her class, the teacher only knew a little but could speak Spanish well so she had no one to really explain or ask for help. I really felt for her, I was thinking about what we’d do for the month if we had to drop out after paying for it and what I had gotten us into. Luckily by the end of the week a fellow from Australia, also somewhat new to the language joined her class. Although having studied for a year at the University in Australia he had no Italian background, found the level above too difficult and dropped down into her class. Now she had an English-speaking buddy (with some knowledge) to ask questions, explain and share in the confusion. They were a life line for each other.
A few days into school we had a pub night in the evening that was the first real icebreaker where we got to meet the other students and started to form some friendships. The social aspect was one of the highlights of the month and we so enjoyed making friends from all over the world. Our roommates were like family for the month we spent together and the best we could have asked for. The school provided many social events; some dinners, lunches, pub nights, karaoke night, international food festival, as well as the many excursions and outings to other sites and cities throughout Italy. It was great value for all that was included with the program and although it was hard work, it was so rewarding.
Over the month we worked hard with four hours of school each morning, then an afternoon trip, back to make a late dinner, a few hours of homework, studying and off to bed, repeat. On the weekends there were excursions both Saturday and Sunday, usually leaving at 6am and returning about 11pm. We skipped a few of these as we had already spent some time in many of the places like Rome, Sienna or Florence and we were tired. It was an exhausting schedule that made it easy for some cold and flu bugs to rip through the school and we all got sick.
During our month in Recanati we had a day of earthquakes (three that shock us but apparently hundreds of tremors), the worst snow storm to hit the town in 10 years, we won first place in the international cooking competition, saw many incredible places, had a few great dinner parties with new friends, expanded our language skills, bonded with our roommates, lived like locals and began to feel like this part of Italy was home.
We made a strong connection with Recanati and hope to return to experience it in the summer months. The town is enchanting and was the perfect spot for our month-long sojourn. Hope I haven’t scared you off from trying one of the month long schools as it is a great way to experience Italy and exceptional value but I would recommend having some knowledge before you go, at least for this school. Below is a video of our month in Recanati and here is a link to the Photo Gallery.