Sunday, July 10, 2016

Week 4 in Firenze/ Insalata

Being back in a classroom for six weeks gives me a chance to re-live the student experience. This week I had a chance to think extensively about student engagement and correcting mistakes. The first time we ever had class with the lecturer on Italian music he asked me in front of the whole class why I was studying Italian. I don’t think he asked anyone else that question, which seemed (and seems) strange to me. It seemed like, “Explain yourself,” which I don’t generally feel compelled to do about just about anything. My answer, “Because I like the language,” probably didn’t qualify me as a sufficiently serious student for him, because since that day, he has never engaged me visually in the class while he is lecturing. It’s not like he’s reading from notes or something. He visually engages the other students, but he seems to be intentional in avoiding looking at me. I think I'll change seats to the middle of the class and ask some questions and see if that changes anything. And the next time someone asks me why I’m here studying Italian, I'll say, “I’ve always wanted to read the Divina Commedia in the original language.” 

Another aspect I had an opportunity to review was the correction of mistakes, which is crucial in language learning. I realized that my grammar prof, the guy I have for most of the school day, does a good job of correcting my mistakes in class. He will generally not interrupt me (unless I use a Spanish word thinking it's Italian), but will let me finish and then say something like, “Be careful in using this phrase” and he will sometimes write out the correct construction on the board. And tone of voice and facial expression is everything here. This is a critical point because the professor can’t just let students make grammatical or semantic mistakes and think they’re getting it right, but you don’t want to damage the student’s willingness to speak in class. It’s more than worrying about others’ feelings. It’s establishing an environment for effective learning, which may be the same thing.

Obviously, learning environments extend beyond the classroom. The bus stop, the grocery store, and the sidewalk café are all places to listen, watch and learn. One of those place here is the Bar/Tabachi, where you can buy everything from bus tickets to cigarettes to coffee.

They seem to be open about 20 hours a day with the same people working behind the counter. When I get to my bus stop, if the little marquee sign that shows arrival times tells me my bus is more than 6 minutes away, I sometimes walk three doors down to the nearest bar/tabachi for a coffee. If you just order “un caffè” in Tuscany (maybe anywhere in Italy) it will be espresso, which seems like a thimbleful of very concentrated coffee. My espresso is set before me and I open the little sugar package that it comes with and put in about 1/3 of the sugar. For the remaining five minutes until my bus comes, I stir and sip my espresso and look around at what my professor calls “La fauna,” the Italian people. Everyone is standing around the bar or possibly sitting on a stool if there is room, which there may not be since these places seem to be about eleven feet wide and 40 feet long. The place will be loud if there are more than two people in there. It seems like a lot of people in there know each other, and at least one Fiorentino will be accompanied by her/his leashed dog. I can catch stray words and broad subjects while conversation pours back and forth across the bar, but the words are too thick and fast for me to make out more than general meaning. The conversations between Italians seem to have a certain musicality that I always enjoy, and in class this week I found out why. Some differences in words are based on whether they have two consonants or one. Take “belo” and “bello,” for example. “Belo” is a real word in Italian, it’s the equivalent of the “bleat” that a sheep or goat makes. “Bello,” you probably already know, is some beautiful thing with a masculine gender. “Dona” is the 3rd person singular of the verb “donare” (to donate), but a woman is a “donna,” so when an Italian says “donna” it seems like they’re saying, “She’s some kinda woman” because in Italian, you have to linger on those two consonants, which for me, seems to exaggerate and dramatize the whole word. All the standard Italian gestures are employed to full effect in the social hotbox of the bar / tabachi. 


The barista’s hands will fly out and back to punctuate a sentence between cleaning and filling the small metal basket on the expresso machine. At least in Tuscany, Italians really do use the standard greetings we’re taught from the first day in Italian: “Salve,” “Ciao,” “Arrivederci,” and “Buongiorno” and friends will effusively greet and kiss each other on the street. They are also gracious, freely using the “Grazie” and “Prego” that you learn when you take your first steps into the language.   

Margaret and I did some serious touristing this week since this is her last weekend in Firenze. Saturday we toured a small museum with some works of Masaccio, an Italian painter who lived at the beginning of the 1400’s. He died at age 26, but is credited for helping to usher in the Renaissance with his perspectivism and realism. 
We later went to a beautiful castle near Poppi designed in the 1100’s by Arnolfo di Cambio, the same architect credited with designing the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. It was a great daytrip that required about 3 hours on a small bus/large van, but it pretty much wore us out. For a while I thought that driving in Italy just seemed dangerous to me but that Italians somehow just manage it safely, but I now think I’m wrong. Italians have a lot of wrecks on the narrow, twisting roads in the Tuscan hills, and you’ll see many, many cars with wrinkled fenders and dimpled doors. We had a couple of close calls in the van, and we even witnessed an incident of road rage between our driver and the driver of a sedan who cut us off and then totally stopped in front of us. I would rate an 8/10 for intensity and expressiveness.   

Earlier in the week, on Thursday, we went to the opera at a local church near the Arno River. The opera was kind of a small-scale, intimate production of Verdi’s La Traviata. We were all right up close to the performers, which was really special. These opera singers are like vocal athletes, and you get a real appreciation for their talent when you see and hear them up close. It was a hot day, though, and it continued to be hot in the evening. At the risk of sounding like a big spoiled gringo, I’ll tell you it was oppressively hot in this beautiful historic church where there’s no A/C and they’re not just going to set out a bunch of fans. I thought we would cool off after sitting there for a while, but nothing doing. Just out of curiosity I took off my Suunto watch and set it in the chair back in front of me for about ten minutes to get an accurate reading of the temperature. Midway through the second act it was still 84 degrees Fahrenheit . . . no air moving . . . all of us mashed into this church together. I really felt bad for the singers, who were dressed in period costumes. The baritone mopped his brow like a country preacher but the soprano, who was really physically expressive and sang more than anybody, never got beyond a kind of glow. Women really are the stronger gender. Some of my fellow opera-goers appeared to be from somewhere in Southeast Asia and even they were fanning themselves and looking at each other like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I half-expected that IV’s would be administered during the intermission. Margaret and I bought a cold bottle of water and took turns holding it against our foreheads. Well, nobody said that culture was easy. The opera was still great and I will go again, but I might pack myself in ice first.