Some Goodbye Thoughts about Beautiful Perugia


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.


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.

Which Way to Witch Way?

To find the Via delle Streghe (Way of the Witches), just go behind the  freestanding sign, then under the Ristorante La Taverna sign. Look for #13.

My Perugia room is on the Way of the Witches. Just go behind the freestanding sign, then under the Ristorante La Taverna sign. Look for the unluckiest number you can think of if you’d like to find the apartment where I’m staying. Ring the bell and you may find me here. (The black line in the middle is a sign that the photographer was too lazy to stand up and move around the narrow rope holding down the sun umbrella adjacent to his lunch table.)

I was sad to say goodbye to my gracious host, Alec, and his lovely guest house this morning, but it was time to head to Perugia and find my new abode. Months ago when I chose to study at Comitato Linguistico in Perugia, I knew I’d want to live with an Italian family rather than find a simple (i.e. lonely) studio apartment. The goal was to get as complete an immersion into Italy as possible, and everyone seemed to agree that living with a family is the best means to that end.

After driving to the Perugia Airport to drop off my rental car I took another €30 cab, this time into the heart of Perugia. The day was very sunny, and as the cab driver zipped through the Perugia suburbs I knew right away I would enjoy this town. He drove me to the top of the hill, just a few blocks from the cathedral, at the foot of the pedestrian mall, dropping me at the start of Via Luigi Bonazzi, the pedestrian mall at the center of the old city.

First impression of central Perugia: sweet. The city is mouldering in a charming way, like most Italian towns. The buildings are of stone or plaster-covered stone and where the plaster is painted it is stained, faded or peeling. The pedestrian mall has a Sunday flea market on one end and in the length going to the cathedral is dotted with the shaded, outdoor eating areas of a dozen or so restaurants. Waiters (no waitresses) stand at the doors of their establishments, ready to help anyone who’d like some food to accompany their people-watching. It’s afternoon, so many of the stores are closed, but clearly the gelato emporiums are open since motorcyclists, carabinieri and grandmothers have cones of the chilly delight in their hands as they walk by.

The cab driver pointed me to the Via delle Streghe, location of my room. I’d looked up the meaning of the street name back in Seattle and had to chuckle when I learned it meant, “The Way of the Witches.” I’ve come a long way from being a Methodist pastor one week to living on Witch Street the next. After finding the street and the doorbell I was to ring at 3:00, I settled down for a noon lunch at a restaurant across the street.

The Way of Witches -- Is it a narrow street or wide stairway?

The Way of Witches — Is it a narrow street or wide stairway? Either way I plan to follow the sage advice of the graffiti artist.

Four twenty-something students from the U.S. sat at the table next to me and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation — “got drunk last night . . .  woke up with a hangover . . . couldn’t find my cigarettes this morning . . .  that boy’s cute.” While I’m in Perugia will I miss conversation in English? Maybe not.

A little later a group of 30 or so English-speaking students strolled by, with a teacher or tour guide pointing out helpful stores — Vodaphone, the bookstore, etc. Obviously Perugia is earning its reputation as a university town that specializes in teaching foreigners the secrets of the Italian language.

The waiter at the restaurant is nice enough to let me chill out at one of his tables for the 3 hours I’ll need until my room is ready. I enjoy a meal of mixed salad and Margherita pizza as I wait, watching the crowds. Theresa Elliott will be interested to know that there was not one local woman with grey hair who passed by in three hours. Apparently the hair of Italian women comes only in black, brunette and blonde whether they are 18 or 80 years old. They are also smartly dressed on this Sunday-take-a-walk afternoon.

Because they notice a photo I’ve posted of my arrival, I connect on Facebook over lunch with some of the local Italians who work for the Umbrian Tourist Office on the St. Francis camino. Gigi, a young fellow who lives in Assisi looks forward to a meeting later. Chiara, a woman closer to my age, asks if I have plans today. An American pilgrim, Kenneth, is in Assisi now, but we’ll meet while he’s here, preparing for his Franciscan walk.

A comfy room for the next 4 weeks.

A comfy room for the next 4 weeks.

The time to walk the Way of Witches finally arrives, so I ask for the bill and head down the wide stairway to find the house number. It turns out “my” building on the Way of Witches is a mid-1960’s, brick, multi-story apartment house, hidden from view by the much more quaint 16th and 17th century buildings on the pedestrian mall. A modern apartment has some advantages and I ring the bell to the gate with a sense of excitement.

Soon I hear a voice from a balcony above. “Sandy! Four!” and I see a woman I’ll soon know to be Graziella, my hostess, waving four fingers at me. I go through the building door, up a tiny elevator, and find a smiling and gracious Graziella and her former tenant, Katia, awaiting me at the door of a spacious and airy fourth floor apartment.

Graziella shows me to my place, a large bedroom on the back side of the apartment. She then tours me through the bathroom (tub with handheld shower in the Italian style) and describes in detail everything I should know. Sadly, she speaks only Italian so I don’t understand a word she is saying. I respond in Spanish and pretty soon we’re having a rudimentary conversation about me not eating meat and how I like eggs, croissants, coffee and Nutella® for breakfast. I go to the living room and reintroduce myself to Katia, who’s from Finland and speaks very good English. We go through the same details all over again, this time and with Katia’s words I start to understand. Here’s the key, always double lock the front door. Here’s the cat, keep your bedroom door closed. Breakfast is whatever time you want it. Dinner is 8:00ish.

Graziella, left, and Katia.

Graziella, left, and Katia. Witch Way is not named after either of these kind ladies.

We have a few moments for pictures and I take one of Graziella and Katia in the living room. I adjourn to the bedroom and begin to unpack my few possessions into the closet and bureau. I brought several books, but as I unpack I realize how few pants I have, plus just a few t-shirts. Today is Sunday and the stores are closed, but maybe I’ll get a pair of shorts tomorrow. I have a tiny bag of laundry and I make a mental note to learn the Italian word so I can ask Graziella about it later.

I can already tell that this adventure is going to be, well, an adventure. Tomorrow I’ll go to Italian school for the first time and hopefully meet some people. I’ve scoped out the comfortable side chairs near my bed where presumably I’ll do my reading. I spread out my electronics on the desk to start recharging my various batteries. I logged onto the WiFi and, all these things accomplished, I begin to relax, feeling instantly sleepy. These 4:00 mornings can’t last much longer. I need a good night’s sleep and an end to this jet lagginess of the last days.

Later on I’m sure I’ll meet my Facebook friends Gigi, Chiara and perhaps Kenneth. I’m sure other surprises await, but for now I’m glad to have found my new, temporary home so I can dig into this work of studying Italian here on Witch Way.

View from my window, above which street?

View from my window, above which way?