There are a lot of people who will give you language advice that sounds like this, “You have to live in a country to learn the language.”
I would disagree with them. I 100% don’t believe you need to live full-time in Italy to learn Italian to a point where you can be understood, have conversations, and make friends.
However, I do believe that you need to visit a country to not just learn the mechanics of the language but to live the language.
I had this thought as I watched Gino patiently hand Hannah each bus ticket while repeating the verb timbrare (to stamp) after each action in front of the yellow machine.
Suddenly, timbrare wasn’t just a verb, it was an action; one that started with the grainy feel of paper against her fingers and ended with a satisfying punch from the yellow machine in front of her.
Gino is the tour guide / Italian instructor / wine connoisseur / all around awesome person that Rachel and I had hired to do a walking tour of Florence for the first day of the Not Your Typical Tourist Retreat.
Throughout the day, he plucked words from the world around him and pushed them into the direction of the students. This is a via, but that is a viale. What does periferia sound like in English? Lungarno — that’s where we are.
This retreat is six nights and seven days of immersive Italian language practice and application.
Unlike other language intensives, you don’t test into your level and sit in a classroom for 4-6 hours a day. Instead, you’re required to walk away from the standard foreign language learning format and weave yourself throughout the language with activities, ones that give textbook illustrations some air to breathe.
It’s sliding a brush across a ceramic plate as the wheel spins beneath it, the squish of the dough between your fingers as you gently knead your pizza, the sound of bags rustling as you shop for fresh, seasonal ingredients in the market.
If it’s sounding to you like we ate our way through the language, it’s true. That’s a lot of what we did. And along the way — with their stomachs full — the participants made connections with native Italians who clued them in on the culture and unfamiliar phrases and words.
I know this all sounds great now, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I was never a fan of Florence. It always felt too big, too crowded with tourists taking photos with selfie sticks, and too far away from the “real” Italy that had always charmed me.
But seeing as it was Rachel’s home base, it made sense to take advantage of the relationships she had built over the past ten years to create something beautiful, useful, and fun.
And I gotta’ tell you, this trip opened my eyes to a different side of Florence — a city with enclaves that still feel, taste, and smell like authentic Italy.
It introduced me to artisans devoted to their craft and people that treat you like you belong there no matter how different you look or how strange your accent sounds.
Plus, I was reminded of how stupid crazy in love I am with the language. This was pivotal because what I also haven’t told you is that I went through a six-month stretch where I couldn’t have cared less about Italian.
The slumps happen to me, too. I still wrote weekly, bite-sized lessons and put together articles, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I needed this trip for so many reasons, and it over delivered every single day.
In the words of one of the participants, Mary, “I would do it again next September. It is a great way to experience Italy by “being in the culture.” The food, the wine, the cooking, the ceramics, all of it! I told others that there was tutoring, free time, great lunches, cooking, and not a focus on tourist attractions. This is a great way to experience the “other side” of Firenze!”
So, no, you don’t have to live full-time, become an Italian citizen, or even have Italian heritage to learn Italian, but spending any amount of time in Italy tips the scale in your favor. It adds flavor to every word that rolls uncomfortably off of your tongue. It stretches what you thought you were capable of. It shifts your understanding of what’s comfortable, normal, or acceptable.
It changes you.
Throughout the year, study the flashcards, attend your weekly lessons, and read the grammar books. And then? Come to Italy with me and Rachel so you can experience Italy without being a typical tourist.
Applications open on a rolling basis. See what dates are available, and apply here.