The author anticipates her first day at the Babilonia Language School.
Story by Venetia Sherson/Photos by John Sherson
We each have very different replies to Giusy’s question: “My boss figured I should learn the lingo since I’m gonna be doing business here,” says the uranium salesman from South Carolina. The secretary from Cheltenham already speaks fluent Russian and Dari (Afghan) from her time with the British Army, but wants to study a Romantic language. The Swiss psychologist loves opera and wants to be able to listen to Verdi, Bellini and Puccini with better understanding. The blonde German with the pierced bellybutton winks at the uranium salesman and says she wants to meet Italian men.
When it’s my turn, I hesitate. It is 45 years since I studied a language. I hated learning verbs by rote. “Because I’m sick of being limited to bellissimo and bravo and ciao. And I want to be able to roll my r’s,” I offer lamely.
The real reason I’m here is that I have decided to travel differently from this point on. In my twenties, the aim was to see as many places as possible. In one week I visited Vienna, Munich, Paris and Madrid, sending a postcard home from each. “Great/beautiful/charming city. Weather cold/warm/muggy. Wish you were here.”
Now I’m older, the plan is to slow down, read newspapers and have conversations with the woman selling artichokes; to shun monuments for backstreet trattoria (local eateries), and to order a meal without having to point at the menu.
Smoke from Mt Etna’s cone is a common but always dramatic sight from the language school windows.
I chose the Babilonia Language School because it was small and it wasn’t in Florence or Rome. I like those cities but I didn’t want to be holed up there for two months in mid-summer when temperatures and tourists were at their peak. Babilonia is in Taormina, (population 11,000) on Sicily’s east coast with the bonus of remnants of Greek and Roman habitation, a medieval quarter and castle ruins, and the ever-active Mt Etna volcano for a neighbor just 45 minutes drive away. All this was certainly enough to tempt my husband, John, to join me for a few weeks of exploration during my two-month stay.
Venetia and John at Taormina’s ancient Greek amphitheatre overlooking the Ionian Sea and Mt Etna.
Because the hilltop town is drop-dead gorgeous, it is also crowded in summer, but the sea is just a short corkscrew drive down the mountain. Every day after class, I boarded the beach bus with my book of Italian verbs, swimsuit and a tub of granita di fragola (a strawberry-flavored frozen ice) and headed for Letojanni, where locals hang out and play beach soccer. The private beach costs €6 (US$9) for a deckchair and a sun umbrella, but 50 meters away, the same sea beach is free.
My apartment, arranged by the school, was in a quiet residential area of Taormina overlooking the Ionian Sea. The studio-type suite had a nicely furnished double bedroom/living area with television, air conditioning and washing machine. The small kitchen had an oven and fridge and dining table. The apartment was a 15-minute walk from the school. A fresh food market and a small supermarket were five minutes from my accommodation.
Venetia diligently tackles Italian verbs in her Taormina apartment.
A native Sicilian himself, Alessandro Adorno founded Babilonia in 1992. He has a degree in interpretation and speaks four languages fluently, including Arabic. He is held in high esteem in educational circles but says the aim was never to get rich from linguistics. Babilonia is a small school compared to others in Italy. There are between 10 and 12 teachers and class sizes are limited to 10. In 2008 it was named the top Italian language school in Europe.
The school is housed in a narrow four-storied building overlooking the pretty public gardens where there is an unusual statue of two angels with a briefcase. On my first day I was early, of course, and to fill in time I had a coffee at the bar opposite, where the other new entrants hovered nervously. “Hi,” I said to a woman who looked my age. But she turned out to be the bar owner’s wife.
We had a written test on the first day to assess our ability. I understood only those questions that related to my name, nationality and date of birth. “Mi scusi,” I whispered to Alessandro’s beautiful sidekick, Anita Ventura, who handles the admissions, “Non capsico.” …. “Niente?” she said, eyebrows ever so slightly raised. “Zilch,” I said. She took pity on me and said in English, “There is a class that has been together only for a week. We will try you in there and if it is still too hard, we will move you to beginners.”
The charming angels with briefcase statue is in a park beside the school.
I entered the class and nine pairs of eyes took me in. “Ciao,” said the teacher. “Comè si chiama?” I knew this one. “Mi chiama è Venetia,” I said mashing my name into its Italian equivalent. While my name is the old name for Venice, there is no Italian blood coursing through my veins. The teacher threw a ball to the person sitting next to me and asked him a question. He responded without pausing. When she threw the ball to me I dropped it and asked her to repeat the question. The next week I changed classes and joined the uranium salesman, the psychologist, the secretary, the blond with the navel stud, a Welsh medical student and an Australian lawyer.
Piazza IX April, above and below, is Taormina’s elegant “parlor” where Sicilians and visitors enjoy an evening stroll.
At Babilonia language classes are divided into two segments. The first covers “language analyses” (grammar); the second “communicative tasks” (conversation). There are no text books; teaching resources include newspaper and magazine articles, tapes, music and short stories. The school subscribes to the view that 80 per cent of learning occurs subconsciously so classes are punctuated with role plays, spontaneous conversations and games.
I loved the games and, predictably, when I was having fun, the learning was easy. One game involved getting the class to guess a word on a card. The trick was you couldn’t use other words normally associated with the word. The uranium salesman’s word was rosetto (lipstick) but he wasn’t allowed to use the words rosso (red), bocca (mouth) or trucco make-up. He puckered his lips. “Sexy”, said the secretary from Cheltenham. “Mick Jagger,” said the Australian.
A school excursion includes walking on the moonscape of Mount Etna.
Some 66 million people speak Italian but it is not widely spoken outside Italy. Like the tutor in our first class, I was curious to know why so many people from different parts of the world spend weeks learning a language that is pretty but impractical. Alessandro believes it is as much about passion for the Italian way of life as it is about linguistics. Describing his students as “travelers and lovers”, he emphasizes the human need for social interaction and better understanding between people. I notice he rolls his “r’s” exquisitely. I need to practice more.
Babilonia Language School, www.babilonia.it, offers different types of accommodation for students ranging from home-stay (bed and breakfast €28 per day; full board €48) to independent apartments (€35 single per day; €17.50 double per person). If preferred, the school will also help find hotel accommodation in a variety of price ranges.
In addition to Babilonia’s longer language programs, the school offers a two-week Club 50+ program for travelers over 50 who want to study a language while learning more about the history, culture, society, cooking, food and wine of Sicily. Offered in Spring and Fall, language classes take place in the morning, with a range of cultural activities and excursions in the afternoons and evenings. A typical program might include a museum visit or show, classes in cooking, pottery or golf, and visits to nearby cities, beaches or picturesque countryside.
More Italy travel articles in our Travel Article Library:
A solo cycling holiday in Umbria.
A horseback riding holiday in Tuscany.
Venetia Sherson is a New Zealand-based former daily newspaper editor who now works as a freelance writer and media trainer. She has written for many New Zealand publications and has edited two books, Heritage Hamilton (2006) and Baches of Raglan (2008). In 2008, she spent four months in Italy, including two months as a WWOOFer (Willing Worker on Organic Farms). In October 2009 she returned to Italy to participate in a volunteer castle restoration project which may become the theme of her next article for us! Venetia is currently writing a book titled Up the Olive Tree.
Email: Venetia.S@xtra.co.nz, Website: www.jagmedia.co.nz.