In Spring 2013, I landed in one of the most intriguing and beautiful Tuscan cities to pursue an Italian language course. I have been learning la bella lingua for a few years now and the best way to advance a language is to be in its native-speaking country.
Some people wondered why I like Italy so much, to the extent of studying the language, which is hardly used in the world besides its native country, let alone in Malaysia! But I’m deeply innamorata (in love) with this nation that’s so steep in history and heritage, so grandeur in relics and architecture, so breathtaking in nature and landscapes, so splendid in arts, music and culture and so delectable in cuisine. I also like the passionate and open characters of the Italians, somehow I could identify with them!
Continue reading: This was my second study-stay. The first plunge was in September 2011 when I studied in Università per Stranieri di Perugia, for one month, where I visited the hilltowns of Tuscany and Umbria. I fell deeply in love with Tuscany so it was not by coincidence that I chose Lucca Italian School (LIS), a small private language school which has had rave reviews from foreign students who had studied there.
This charming city has often been overshadowed by nearby Pisa but it has so much more to offer. This is a place that you may think you can cover in a day trip, but stay a little longer, you know you need a lifetime to see it. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with it and after five weeks in Lucca and I still hadn’t had enough.
For accommodation, the school arranged their foreign students to be housed in home stays with local Italian families so that we could experience the Italian family lifestyle and get to speak Italian more frequently. My landlady Miriam is the eldest sister of one of Daniella, one of LIS’ founders. She was around 60, with curly grey hair and speaks little English. I liked her the moment she came down to welcome me with a bright smile when I arrived at her doorstep. And because she would only speak Italian with me, I got to practise speaking more Italian daily.
Miriam lives in a spacious three-bed-room apartment that has a terrace on the rooftop. I stayed in her daughter’s room (she’s married with kids) and could use Miriam’s fully-equipped kitchen to prepare my own meals. Sometimes we also ate together – she whipped up traditional Italian meals and I cooked simple Chinese food with the limited condiments and ingredients that I had. Miriam loved it!
Every morning, I walked about seven minutes to the school. I was placed an intermediate class after an assessment and my classmates came from different parts of the world and of different age and background. We all shared one thing in common, the love for Italy and Italian language. Our teacher Eva was brilliant and made the class always fun. During the pausa (break), a few of us students would come down to a cosy corner café where I grabbed my daily dose of cappuccino and a cornetto (pastry). In Italy, cafes are known as bars – which serves breakfast and also aperitivo in the evening, and a place for friends to casually meet up and chat.
We had lessons for half a day, leaving the afternoons and evenings free to do what we liked. LIS organised optional activities in the afternoons and evenings, such as guided walks in the old town or on the Walls, Italian cooking and wine appreciation sessions, Italian films and at least once a week, an excursion to a place nearby. One of the earliest outings was on Labour Day, where LIS principal Angelo took some of us to a live concert of the famous veteran artiste Francesco Di Gregori. It was my first Italian pop concert ever and although I was not familiar with his songs, I thoroughly enjoyed it as well as the atmosphere. Since then I have been an avid listener to contemporary Italian music!
Lucca is a haven for music, in particular classical music, with streams of recitals and concerts held every week. After all, this is the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, hailed as Italy’s greatest opera composer after Verdi. There was the `Puccini e la sua Lucca’ (Puccini and his Lucca) festival dedicated to the composer and concerts featuring renowned singers and pianists is staged all year round at the Church of San Giovanni in the old town. I caught three of these beautiful concerts.
In fact, many of the concerts and recitals were held in old churches, which interiors provide a wonderful natural acoustic. It was mind-boggling to imagine that at one time in history, there were no less than a hundred churches in Lucca. Today, many of them have either been demolished, closed, or radically altered for other purposes. Some famous churches include Cathedral of San Martino, San Frediano, San Giovanni, San Michele and Santa Maria Corteorlandini. I lost count how many and which I stumbled into and always awed by their ornate and elaborate décor.
Like the typical centro storico of many Italian cities, Lucca’s old town is characterised with a web of lanes and alleys. lts cobbled streets, beautiful piazzas and shady promenades make the old town a perfect destination to explore by foot and just wander around. Every few paces, there would be a piazza, or a palazzo with a story behind it, or another church, or rows of interesting cafes and shops. As I wandered many times aimlessly around the maze-like streets, I had discovered unexpected precious findings in nooks and corners.
What makes Lucca fascinating, at least to me, is that you find magnificent historical architecture and vast green parks existing side by side, thanks to the astounding Walls (Le Mura) that completely surround the old town of Lucca. Built between 16th and the early 18th centuries in stages, the walls are a system of fortification that are still in tact today. On top of the walls are a 4.2km pedestrian walk lined with large shady trees and flanked by green parks, frequented by joggers and cyclists.
Sometimes, rather than zig-zagging through the narrow alleys in the old town to get from one place to another, I would take the route sulle mura (on the walls) which is more pleasant and leisurely. And when the weather was good, I joined the locals to jog on the wall. Sometimes I would sit on a bench under a huge tree and listened to Italian music on my iPod, enjoying the breeze of spring. My heart was overwhelmed with thankfulness that I am able to live my dream of la dolce vita (the sweet life) in a country I so love.
Lucca is a great base for visiting places in Central and West Tuscany. I have followed the school as well as traveled on my own by train or bus to nearby towns and cities such as Torre de Lago, Viareggio, Montecatini Terme, Livorno, Barga, and the Garfagnana Valley – each of these destinations is worth a separate travel story to introduce.
The classes at LIS were always lively and interesting, and practical. I could sense my Italian improving so much more than when I was at home (even with lessons). But who wouldn’t if there’s daily lesson and you’re surrounded by Italians! On the third week, I found out there was a programme that LIS offers called `Parla e cucina Italiano’ (Speak and cook Italian). As a lover of Italian cuisine, of course I didn’t let this opportunity slip by. On a clear day, Angelo drove a group of us for a gastronomic and culture excursion to the Garfagnana valley. We visited a cheese factory and observed how different types of cheeses were made, then had a huge but delicious typical Tuscan meal in an Agriturismo farm followed by a visit to two small villages with breathtaking mountainous views.
The next day after class, we gathered at a beautiful hilltop villa at the outskirts of Lucca where we joined Italian teacher Eva, who is also a great cook, for a big cook out! The mouth-watering menu include typical Tuscan dishes such as tagliatelle con zucchini, porro e zafferano (Tagliatelle with corgette, leek and saffron), rotolo di tacchino ripieno con salsa di rosmarino, salvia e olive (turkey rolls with rosemary, sage and olive sauce) and Cantuccini col vin santo (a typical Lucchese dessert with sweet wine). We were each given the chances to try our hands in doing various tasks from cutting and arranging to the more challenging like dough forming and kneading. After three hours of hard work, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour – an authentic and sumptuous meal with good wine and company. One thought went through my mind as I tugged into my ripieno, sipped my glass of red wine in this villa with a view: the Italians certainly know how to enjoy life!
Italy is a heaven for wine and coffee lover like me. Everyday, I drank at least two to three cups of caffè (dark-roasted and strong Espresso is the norm) and savoured a glass of wine to accompany each meal. Then, there is gelato, which Lucca is famous for and the town has more gelateria (ice-cream parlours) I know than in most cities in Italy.
As they say, time flies when you are having fun. Just as I was settling into the Italian rhythm and pace, and as I was feeling more confident conversing in Italian with the locals, it was time to leave. By then, I have more or less adopted Lucca as my Italian home, I have built up friendships with Miriam, my teachers, course mates and even the operators of some bars and restaurants I frequented.
It felt like I had only begun to really know the city, and I longed to know her more intimately. But I know I am blessed to have lived and absorbed what this wonderful city has to offer, and not just see or visit it.
Thank you Lucca and LIS, for all the beautiful memories!
Grazie Ee-Tan! Sono molto contenta che Lucca ci abbia portate insieme! To return to the blog post and learn more about Ee-Tan click here.