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.

More snapshots of Perugia, and tomorrow on foot to Assisi

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Yes, the dressing is pink and yes that is popcorn on my salad.

Some days ago Patricia of Holland had said, “Since we’re both in town on Sunday, let’s go to the Steve McCurry exhibit that day.” I said, “Sure,” then completely forgot about it until she texted me this morning as I sat in the sunshine at a café on Corso Garibaldi. I was there, waiting for my clothes to finish drying at the Bolle Blu, a nearby coin-operated laundromat.

When I packed for Perugia I was in something of a quandary about what to bring. I knew I’d bring my hiking clothes for my July/August walking adventures, but I didn’t want to wear hiking clothes for a month of language study in Perugia. I also didn’t want to have a big suitcase I’d have to park somewhere while on camino. Theresa offered a modest sized — though flamboyantly Hawaiian — L.L. Bean duffel bag with wheels and it seemed just right for a modest amount of street clothes to wear while in Perugia. I realize now that having just two pairs of jeans, four t-shirts, three pairs of socks and six undershorts means I need to do wash about every 5-6 days.

Graziella, my Perugian mom, is happy to do my wash, but on the Sunday of a three-day weekend I just couldn’t bring myself to ask. So I loaded up my clothes and wandered off to the Bolle Blu, where it took just an hour (and €8) to have the machines wash my clothes.

With Patricia’s text I now had a somewhat more grand way to fill the day. After dropping off my clean clothes I met Patricia for a rather elegant lunch (see pic), and then headed down the hill with her to see the beautiful photographs of Steve McCurry. We all remember him as the photographer who captured the startlingly purple/blue eyes of the beautiful Afghan girl some years ago. I think the Umbrian Tourist Office commissioned him to take photos of Umbria for use in publicity since, though they were gorgeous, they did have a somewhat Chamber of Commerce quality to them. Still, I’d recommend the exhibit as a celebration of the art of photography and the beauty of Umbria.

After gelato I dropped off Patricia with Esther of Holland and Ibrahim of Canada and headed out on my own to complete the Porta Sant’Angelo Itinerary from the Perugia walking guidebook.

I walked toward the tall tower at Porta Sant’Angelo, noticed the familiar blue/yellow Via di Francesco way marks along the way, and as I walked I began to think ahead to my new plan for the rest of the weekend. Since tomorrow is my last free day in Perugia, and since I promised my editor I’d have a sample chapter to her by the end of June, this is my last chance to research a day’s walk. If I walk from Perugia to Assisi tomorrow I can get the info I need to create a sample chapter on this stage. This means 25.2 km (about 15.6 miles) on foot. I’ll walk there, take notes and photos — especially of Santa Maria Degli Angeli and the Basilica of St. Francis — and then find some way back.

As I returned home late this afternoon I stopped at a tiny store and bought some crackers and fruit for the journey. This evening I’ll pack for tomorrow’s day of walking to the city of St. Francis. I feel a sense of satisfaction and joy that tomorrow, at least, I’ll be a pilgrim again, with the road under my feet.

Below: photos from today’s walk through the medieval market, to the Steve McCurry exhibit, and off to Porta Sant’Angelo.

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.

Amici in Bici and Amici con Gigi

Biking near the shores of Lago Trasimeno

Biking near the shores of Lago Trasimeno

Yesterday began with a puzzle — could I get to school on my own without getting lost? My class is now starting at 10:00, while Thomas heads to school for a 9:00 class, so without my guide today I would have to figure out the serpentine roads from Via dell Streghe down the hill to Comitato Linguistico, near the bus station. Google Maps was little help — it doesn’t know any of the side alleys and most of the stairways that shorten the trip. Still, I managed to make it in under 20 minutes, only about twice as long as it took with Thomas the day before.

When I arrived I learned from Frederica, who runs the school, that my class would be shortened since there are only two students. That means we’ll start now at 11:00. Once our teacher, Maria, arrived, Patricia and I went to work on some very basic but helpful material — what letters make what sounds, conjugation of the verb “avere” (to have), and some basic descriptors about people — work, education, marital status, etc.

Our biker gang outside the Touro train station.

Our biker gang outside the Touro train station.

When class finished at 1:00 I was starving, so I decided to head across the street for a quick slice of pizza before our bike excursion would leave at the prearranged time of 1:30. After two quick slices I returned to the school at 1:25, only to find that our bike group had already left. Frederica showed me to the bus so I could catch up to them at the train station, but when I arrived at the train station none of my schoolmates were there. To me this didn’t seem like too much of a problem, since it was raining hard and I now had two good excuses to go home and get some anti-jet lag sleep. I gave it one last try by calling Frederica and, while on the phone to her, Hugo, our guide for the trip, miraculously appeared in front of me. The other students had disappeared across the street for their own slices of pizza. Hugo apologized for leaving without me and I apologized for stepping out for an early lunch. Soon all 10 of us were gathered at the now sun-drenched train station, ready to head to Touro Sul Trasimeno, about 20 minutes away, for our bike trip.

I took on a hitchhiker.

I took on a hitchhiker.

After walking from the station to a bike rental shop we headed out along a dirt road near the lake in bright sunshine. I think we all enjoyed the combination of natural beauty and exercise. We did have a couple of accidents, the worst being a spill by Tamila that resulted in a few scrapes and, I’m certain, some bruises too. Roxanna’s bike pedal fell off, so I traded her bikes, and then Delia became exhausted and hitched a ride on the back of my bike for the last kilometer. This all contributed to helping me feel useful. We enjoyed a beer and gelato near the end of the trip, then jumped on the train back to Perugia.

A photo of Thomas taking a photo of the MiniMetro.

A photo of Thomas taking a photo of the MiniMetro.

Back in town we explored one of the amazing features of the Umbrian capital — the MiniMetro. It’s a light rail system with tiny cars that transport passengers up and down Perugia’s big hill — from the train station nearly to the top of the old city. It has its own tracks and tunnels and is a gleaming, modern example of how to enhance the pedestrian experience and keep people off the roads.

After marveling at the MiniMetro I made it back home at about 8:00 along with a bag of soap, shampoo and other supplies from the Farmacia. Graziella had prepared heaping plates of “bow-tie” pasta in red sauce followed by some tasty cod as a second act. I cleaned my plates and then headed out at 10:00 p.m. to meet with Gigi.

As I had researched the Via di San Francesco I came to understand that there are three main tracks, the most well-funded one being sponsored by the Umbrian Office of Tourism. It’s well-marked by the familiar blue/yellow signs and has an excellent website, full of helpful information. After posting about my trip on my blog and others places I somehow soon was making Facebook friends with people in the Tourism office. I was told I had to meet Gigi (Gianluigi) Bettin, who has taken on the Via di San Francesco as his primary work. He had been following my blog and texted me just after I arrived in town, inviting me to meet and discuss all things cammino. Earlier today I’d set up a meeting for us at 10:00 p.m., the earliest my busy social calendar would allow.

Gigi (left), me, and Ciso, talking serious pilgrim talk.

Gigi (left), me, and Ciso, talking serious pilgrim talk. Gigi’s book is in the foreground.

We met at the fountain in the main piazza and Gigi had with him a gentleman named Ciso B_______, a government official who supervises the Tourism Department and other offices for Umbria. He’d run into Gigi on the street just before our meeting and Gigi invited him along to meet me. It was great to know Ciso, since it had been his decision that in 2008 set in motion the creation of the Via di San Francesco. Gigi was hired as a result, and he was responsible for commissioning the way marks and setting in place the website and infrastructure that created this cammino. I felt honored to spend time with these two gentlemen who’ve pulled together what I believe is a truly excellent pilgrimage walk.

As we talked, Gigi and Ciso showed a lot of interest in the post-Florence and pre-Rome stages I’ve included in my itinerary. They agreed that walking from Florence to the start of their itinerary at Santuario della Verna could be challenging. They also agreed that the walk into Rome needs more signage and infrastructure. I encouraged them to recognize that their Franciscan pilgrimage presents an attractive option for the 250,000 people each year who’ve walked the Camino de Santiago and are looking for their next great adventure.

Gigi also shared an interesting detail about his book, La Via di Francesco. His co-author is Paolo Giulietti, a local Catholic bishop who also serves as chaplain for the Italian Santiago confraternity. Don Paolo’s partnership closely connects the pilgrimage to the Catholic Church, which is a real plus for religious pilgrims. Gigi clearly has a great appreciation for the genuine spirituality of this man and I hope to meet him while I’m here. In addition to encouraging me to meet Don Paolo, Gigi invited me to several upcoming meetings — one with the Italian Santiago confraternity in a couple of weeks, and one with Italian pilgrims who’ve completed the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena and/or the Via di Francesco. One is here in Perugia and the other is in Florence in a couple of weeks — I’ll have to see if it can fit either onto my crowded calendar.

The subject of the Italian confraternity reminded me of my experience at the Albergue San Nicolas at Puntetitero, run by the Italian confraternity, on the Meseta in Spain. I’d walked there almost exactly three years ago, arriving in the evening after a long and somewhat waterless walk that had begun 37 km (23 miles) earlier that day. Gigi’s eyes sparkled as I told him the story. The place is now my favorite albergue, infused as it is by the joy of the Italian hospitaleros who put on purple capes and wash the feet of each weary pilgrim before serving them a meal of tasty pasta and wine. Their attitude is very Christlike, spiritual, and loving — and their attention makes San Nicolas one of the highlights of the Santiago pilgrimage, brought to you by Italy. I see this same love of pilgrimage in Gigi and Ciso and I look forward to a partnership with them in helping others discover their creation, the Via di San Francesco.

The busy-ness of the day is keeping me from being homesick, I know. I’m missing Theresa, missing the church, missing Seattle. But today was a day of new friends — “amici” — on “bici” (bikes) and with Gigi.

Exploring new territory in the Art of the Selfie

Exploring new territory in the Art of the Selfie