Nine days done, twenty-one to go

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The panoramas are unbelievable. This is taken from Citerna toward Citta di Castello, tomorrow’s destination.

All year I’ve been gearing myself toward thirty critical days, the four weeks plus two days in which I would actually walk the route that is the subject of my upcoming guidebook. It’s hard to believe that I’m nearly one-third of the way through. I’ve learned a lot about a wonderful and quirky GPS device, about a great camera on loan to me, about myself, and about the difficult and beautiful way I’m walking from Florence to Assisi to Rome.

I should say first of all that I’m fine, my health is fine, all my gear is intact, I’m not lost (at the moment) and I’m having a good time. I should also say that in the last few days I have been dealing with very hot temperatures, long days of walking and some poor way marking that has meant I’ve sometimes had to invent my own way to get from one stop to another. And let me say too that there has been some good company along the way. Dear Jacqueline has been with me since La Verna, three days ago, but unfortunately her knee has given out and she’ll be taking the bus or train to Gubbio and then on to Assisi, skipping ahead about five days and then heading back to Vienna. I’ve met other pilgrim friends — three Italians, a Frenchman, an older German couple and three fun mental health professionals from Lübeck, Germany.

But this walk is different than any other walk I’ve done. What makes it most different is that I’m working as I walk. I walk with the GPS in my right hand, with my iPhone in my left hand, and with my camera strapped around my neck. Every step I’m looking for a good photograph, making sure I don’t miss a turn in the way for the GPX way marks I’m creating, and describing it all into a dictation program on my iPhone.

Every day I learn more about the GPS device. I learned yesterday that if I stop the stopwatch function I also stop the track recording. This is bad. In my futile attempt to save battery I just erased the steps I’d walked (though I later found a way to recover them).

As I walk, though, I find that I’m thinking not about myself but am thinking about how best to describe what I’m going through for future pilgrims who will read The Way of St. Francis.   I’m taking the sights of this walk and trying to explain it in words that will go on a page, along with a few maps and photos. How do I condense all this experience into a book small enough that pilgrims will be willing to toss it into their backpack with them? How do I make sure they don’t get lost (like I have 3-4 times in 9 days)? How can I be certain I haven’t missed a turn or a landmark that will be explain where they’re at and where they should go? How also do I represent the amazing sights along the way, like the serene Santuario della Verna, nestled atop a mountain in the Central Apennines?

So many questions, and as I walk ahead and blindly speak into my iPhone I recognize I won’t have the answers until I finally sit down with all the material at the end of my walk and begin to flesh out what can and can’t go into the guidebook. At that point I will probably be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the trails that are the source material for the book, and I will just have my recordings, my photos, a pile of receipts and some random memories of hot, long, beautiful days in Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.

Oh, and I’m using my Italian every day. I wish I’d listened better to Flora, David and Maria of Comitato Linguistico in Perugia. But even though I wasn’t the best student I’m putting their helpful lessons to work all the time, and my Italian is getting better.

Some Goodbye Thoughts about Beautiful Perugia

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Last night’s goodbye celebration with this wave of language students (from left: Esther, Anna, Jonna, Ibrahim, Roxanna e io).

It’s time to say goodbye to Perugia. Like standing on the beach with the waves pulling sand away from my feet I’m feeling the current that is about to carry me away. Four weeks ago I arrived in a wave of new students. Over the next weeks I watched as other students came and went in each week’s flowing tide. I’m catching tomorrow’s wave, so it’s time to say goodbye to this place I’ve come to call home. Tomorrow I leave for Rome, then I’m off to Vienna to visit friends, and then I return to Florence to begin my walk over 30 days to Assisi and on to Rome. I’m grateful, but also very sad.

Don Paolo Giulietti, fellow pilgrim and priest

Don Paolo Giulietti, fellow pilgrim and priest

Goodbye to the teachers and staff at Comitato Linguistico (Frederica, Flora, David, Luca, Ugo, Floriana, Giulia), goodbye to the friends I’ve made who live here in Perugia (Gigi, Chiara, Don Paolo), goodbye to my new friends among the waves of students from other countries (Flavia, Thomas, David, Anna, Roxanna, Ibrahim, Jose, Renate, Esther, Jonna, Yagmur, Christopher, Tamila, Patricia), goodbye to my Italian family (Graziella, Luigi and Alessandro).

And goodbye to this beautiful city. Perugia is a special place, a old and gentle city with a lively student population from all over the world, an earth colored town, set on a hill with farmland on one side and green hills on the other. It parties hard when the hot sun goes down, and it cocoons quietly when the weather is cool and wet. Its many hills test the feet and legs, but all exhaustion is smoothed away by its chocolate, its gelati and its wide rivers of Umbrian wine. Perugia taught me how to enjoy Italian food and how to drink like an Italian — from aperitivo to digestivo and beyond. When I get home, Theresa and I will have to do our very best to recreate the Limey served at Dempsey’s on Corso Vanucci.

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We got the colors backward, but this photo with Patricia and Roxanna warmed hearts and raised eyebrows.

I learned to drink like an Italian, but did I learn to speak like an Italian? Four weeks is not nearly enough time to cram a beautiful and complicated language into my 56-year old brain, but I can have simple conversations now and I do understand a fair amount of what I hear. As is usual for me with a new language, I read much better than I speak or write. My four weeks have been worth every penny, and as I calculate the dollars I realize it’s been much cheaper to spend this four weeks here in Perugia than to spend it at hotels and restaurants in a typical vacation. My tuition, room and board for four weeks was under €1,600 (about $2,200). The friendships were free.

Some people — Italians even — asked me why I would study Italian before writing my guidebook. It was out of respect. Respect for this country, respect for this culture, respect for this people. I feel that after a month of language study I’m more than a tourist in Italy. I’m a student of Italy. As I walk the pathways between Florence, Assisi, and Rome I will walk with a greater appreciation and a growing love for this beautiful place and a more practiced eye to help me understand and learn.

Teacher Flora schools us in correct preparation of tortellini.

Teacher Flora show us what a tortellini should look like.

I found teachers at Comitato Linguistico to be impressively intuitive and extremely helpful in the process of immersing us in the Italian language. When I was puzzled in class, like the strong, happy, young mother she is, Flora would cock her head, look at me with a smile and loudly say, “Sandy! Capisce?” After a few questions and answers I would nod and she would smile and say, “Okaye,” the Italian version of our American word. I would then correct her and say, “Solo in Italiano per favore.” “Va bene,” she’d then say, with another big smile.

I had fun with “OK.” In feigned frustration over dinner one night I took a few minutes to teach people from various countries how to say “OK” in correct, American English. Today, my teacher David came to class with a big smile on his face. He called me over and in pen wrote this word on his palm: “Okè.” He looked at me to see if he had found a way to spell it to help in its correct pronunciation. “Va bene,” I replied, with all the pride of a first-time language teacher.

My teacher David, who mastered the correct pronunciation of a helpful English word.

My teacher David, who mastered the correct pronunciation of a difficult, but helpful English word.

I would love to come back to Perugia one day — to see these amazing people and to enjoy their beautiful city for at least a few weeks more. These people know how to enjoy life. People who come here, if they are open to it, may be taught as much about happiness as they will be taught about Italian. Every piece of chocolate (or Nutella®) seems to be eaten with a particular delight. Every bit of pasta is the best pasta ever. Every glass of wine has the bouquet of rural Italy. Things seem deeper and more connected here. More sensual. Even the people. I was a stranger a few weeks ago, and thanks to the warmth and hospitality of many, I’ve been made to feel at home.

However, this home is like a beach. The tide is coming in tomorrow morning and it will wash me away, the sands shifting under my feet until the current carries me onward. Here, on Monday, another group of students will arrive in the next wave, and then the next, and on. They will find joy and heart and laughter mixed with pasta and pizza and passato prossimo. They will come to learn Italian. They will leave with an appreciation for this place, like all of us this month who found a happy home for a brief time on a beautiful beach in central Italy.

New Italian Words: “Apperitivo,” “Digestivo”

Wine tasting with (clockwise from left) Maria, io, Tamila, Patricia, Chris.

Working hard with (clockwise from left) Maria, io, Tamila, Patricia, Chris.

My daily life has a new normal. When the sun bathes my bed with yellow light I wake up, usually at around 6:00. I check my email in bed and perhaps write a blog post while I wait for others to awaken. When I hear them stir I either get up for my shower or head out to the dining room for breakfast. This involves Corn Flakes, Nutella®, a piece of Italian pound cake, a cafe latte, and conversation with Thomas and Flavia. Once I’ve eaten and showered, it’s back to my room to prepare for class.

At about 10:30 I walk down, down, down from the Centro Historico to Comitato Linguistico, my language school, which is in a pleasant part of town near the modern bus station. There I have a class with my teacher, Maria*, and this week just one other student, Patricia of Holland. The class is exclusively in Italian, though both Patricia and I often slip into Spanish to help us figure out vocabulary or to compare verb conjugations. We begin with review of homework, then work through the study book, then have some vocabulary lessons and conversation. Maria ends the class with a homework assignment, and then students from all the classes often head out to lunch somewhere nearby or at the Centro Historico. After lunch, it’s individual study time or blogging time or time to tour this interesting city.

Three arches lead the way to a so far unexplored part of town.

Three arches lead the way to a so far unexplored part of town.

Yesterday I really got down to studying. I went to the bookstore and bought some sticky tabs so I could mark the reference sections of my book, and then for a couple of hours I sat down with my numbers and with verb conjugations to make sure I have a good foundation in Italian.

Almost every afternoon or evening Comitato has an optional excursion for the students. Yesterday a group of us gathered at 19:00 — military time is standard here — and walked to a section of town I’d never seen before, very near a prominent set of three arches, similar to a gate in a city wall. Maria** was our leader, and I and three others sat down to taste Umbrian wines — a prosecco, a white and a red. We must’ve still looked thirsty after only three bottles, so the proprietor had pity on us and brought out some of his artisanal limoncello to help us out. This is hard work, being an Italian student.

Always another fascinating neighborhood to visit.

Always another fascinating neighborhood to visit.

I have a standing date back at Graziella’s each night at 21:00 for dinner, so I excused myself from our wine tasting and walked back to Piazza Republica, admittedly with my head spinning a little bit from the wines. Back in the apartment, Luigi, Graziella’s son, who has dinner with us each night, must’ve noticed things weren’t quite normal. “Apperitivo? Si?” he asked. “Digestivo. Si,” I responded.

Until I looked them up just now I didn’t realize that I got the vocabulary just a little bit wrong. “Apperitivo” is the Italian word for a small taste of low-sugar liquor that gets your stomach ready for dinner. “Digestivo,” it turns out, is not the word for “wine-tasting extravaganza with fellow Italian students,” but simply means the kind of liquor you drink just after dinner to help your digestive tract enjoy the food you’ve just eaten.

As I think about it, all this common sense gastronomic wisdom seems to have succeeded in making Italy quite the relaxed and stylish country. It reminds me of a video Maria shared in class yesterday.

In spite of my misuse of the words, Luigi seemed to make sense of my vocabulary, perhaps due to the somewhat flushed look on my face. Soon, he, Thomas and I were talking to each other in French, Luigi’s second language and a strong language as well for Thomas. It was an interesting exercise to pull out my high school French, which I last studied in 1974. Still, my French is a little better than my Spanish, and both are much better than my Italian. The little exercise over dinner is a reminder of what it is like to live in modern Europe, where it is assumed that a well-educated person will be competent in slipping in and out of a few languages over dinner.

As much as I was enjoying the conversation in French, I excused myself immediately after dinner to head to my room. I begged off the dessert Graziella had prepared and climbed right into bed, where I fell asleep almost instantly — the result of a busy day of studying Italian here in Perugia.

Italy, brought to you by Nutella®.

Italy, brought to you by Nutella®.

*Maria insists that I correct an earlier entry in which I note incorrectly that she is 38 years old. She is only 31, as should be obvious.

**Not the 38-year old, but the 31-year old Maria.