Italian Studies

On a gorgeous morning following a good sleep after last night’s cooking lesson I woke up at about 6 am and stepped out on the balcony of my hotel room. The sun was just coming up, and the sky was filled with shades of purple and pink. Far away I could see the outline of a strip of land: the Italian mainland, more precisely the Region of Calabria, was visible on this clear day for the first time. The aerial distance between Taormina and the southern tip of Italy is about 40 kilometres, and this sunrise view across the Ionian Sea was simply gorgeous.

I decided to get up early and take a stroll through beautiful Taormina, before the hustle and bustle of the day would kick in. My hotel, Hotel Villa Nettuno, is located on the north side of town on Via Pirandello, outside of the city’s gates. I really enjoyed the location since it was quieter and yet just steps away from the amazingly busy Corso Humberto, Taormina’s main street in a pedestrian area.

Having strolled through the northeastern Porta di Messina I reached a still quiet piazza in front of the Palazzo Corvaja, seat of the first Sicilian Parliament and today the location of Taormina’s tourist office. A few of the locals were already up, taxi drivers were getting ready for their first fares, while the pedestrian street of Corso Humberto was still almost completely devoid of people. I reached Taormina’s main square: Piazza IX Aprile which features a large panoramic terrace facing the Mediterranean and Mount Etna. Two churches, San Giorgio and San Giuseppe, adorn this square, and the famous Torre dell’ Orologio (“clock tower”), featuring the Porta di Mezzo gate, and the famous Wünderbar Café anchor this public space on its western side. I could even see most of the volcano today on this relatively clear day. There are not many views that compare with the beautiful vista that spread out in front of me from this lookout point.

My walk on the Corso Umberto continued to the western edge of town where I passed through the Porta di Catania, the western city gate featuring the coat of arms of the Municipality of Taormina. From there I walked to a small park which features another beautiful lookout point that faces straight towards Mount Etna. After absorbing this gorgeous picture and trying to burn it permanently into my retina I started to make my way back, this time along the Via Roma, the picturesque road on the southern edge of town high above the coastline of the Ionian Sea. No wonder Taormina is such a popular tourist destination, the physical beauty of this town and the surrounding area is stunning.

Well, after this hour long walk I definitely deserved my breakfast and reviewed a bit of Italian grammar on the gorgeous terrace of the Hotel Villa Nettuno before I made my way to the Babilonia Language School. Punctually at 9:30 our lesson started and our grammar teacher Carlo familiarized us with the “preposizioni semplici” – the contracted Italian prepositions that are formed from a combination of the actual preposition together with the article. Prepositions are always complicated topics in any language, and Carlo patiently and succinctly explained to us the usage of “in” or “per” to express time in different contexts. We continued with a variety of games to help us remember the use of Italian prepositions, a fun and effective way to learn and retain complicated linguistic concepts.

Just before noon I had an opportunity to complete another interview: Alessandro, Babilonia’s director, connected me with Donatella Rapisardi, a local Taormina based artist, who provides some of the Pottery Decorating Classes for Babilonia students. For millennia, Sicily has been at the confluence of cultures: the Phonecians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swebians, Spanish and French have all left their imprint in this culturally rich area, and pottery has been an important craft in Sicily for many centuries.

I met Donatella at the local Hotel del Corso, right on Corso Umberto, where she offers pottery decorating classes on the rooftop terrace with a perfect view of the Palazzo del Duca Santo Stefano with Mount Etna as a backdrop. The weather was gorgeous, the sky was blue: I cannot imagine a more scenic location for pottery painting than Donatella’s rooftop retreat.

Donatella Rapisardi is a gifted local artists who works in a variety of media. She also heads an organization called the “Grupo Artistico de Perseo” which organizes various exhibitions and art projects throughout town and the entire region. The group consists of five permanent artist members and a number of other affiliated artists that are coordinated by Donatella and her team. In addition to ceramics, Donatella also creates mosaics using marble and different types of stone) and handles wood restoration.

She explained that the pottery decorating lesson starts with plain terracotta pieces such as vases or tiles on which students apply the design they wish to paint. Two different types of processes are used for pottery painting, Donatella explained in her machine gun Italian: “lavorare a freddo” means that the pieces are painted without firing them, and “lavorare a caldo” refers to painted pottery pieces that are fired in a kiln to preserve the painting.

Traditional Sicilian colours such as blue, yellow and green are often used in the ceramics decorating process, although the students are completely free to create their own design and colour choices. Donatella guides them, makes suggestions and gives the students advice when they need it. She also explained that the tiles offer an advantage since they are easy to handle and transport and they offer a great surface for landscape images.

The course includes three lessons per week, and is particularly popular with Babilonia language students from Japan and the United States. Donatella added that Japanese students in particular are extremely precise and detail-oriented and very gifted when it comes to applying decorative painting to pottery. This may have something today with their exposure to the popular Japanese tradition of calligraphy.

Often Donatella’s students become her friends and she invites them into her home and does a culinary exchange: Donatella will create a variety of Sicilian specialties while her students prepare various tasty treats from their home country. She indicated that to this day she receives emails from some of her Japanese students from years ago, and she enjoys it every time when she receives international correspondence from her previous students.

After having lived in Umbria, another beautiful region of Italy, Donatella moved back to Taormina several years ago which she really enjoys and which inspires her creativity. She also teaches children’s art courses and volunteers for some local schools. She showed me a couple of pieces that had been completed by students and three of her own works of art. I mentioned I would have loved to see her studio to see more of her own art. Maybe next time.

Following this interesting side trip another excursion was waiting for me: punctually at 2:30 pm eleven people were assembled in front of the Babilonia Language School, ready to go hiking on Mount Etna whose summit is located at an altitude of over 3200 m. Peppe Celano, Babilonia’s social activities coordinator and one of the language teachers, was ready to introduce us first-hand to Sicily’s highest mountain and an active volcano.

As a matter of fact, Mount Etna had just erupted a few days ago on April 30, but unfortunately I did not see it. The eruption was only a few hours long, and one of my co-students saw the red lava stream at night! So today we would see Europe’s largest volcano up close.

Peppe had rented a small van and a small passenger car to carry all the participants. Our drive to the parking lot on the southern flanks of Mount Etna took about an hour and twenty minutes. We drove through local towns such as Giarre and Zafferana Etna where Peppe explained that near this area the Arabs used to cultivate saffron, hence the name.

The day was overcast and rather cool, a windproof jacket and a nice sweater were definitely in order. We parked our vehicles on a rather isolated parking lot and got ready for our climb. The lower part of our climb took us through a forested area where the leafs were just starting to come out. Not surprisingly, at almost 2000 m of altitude, the plant growing cycle is a little slower, even on a subtropical island such as Sicily.

Peppe explained that the local fauna includes chestnut, oak and birch trees which have all existed here since before the last ice age. We walked single file along a steep narrow path that was punctuated with many roots and stones, right along a precipice with many lookouts towards the famous “Valle del Bove” (Valley of the Ox), site of layers upon layers of lava flows.

Our steep hike continued for about an hour and took us from 2000 m in altitude to 2400 m to an area with a perfect view, facing the recent lava flows in the Valle del Bove. The summit area of the volcano stretched out right in front of us. Our area was a side summit designated by a cross and a broad natural ledge that our group used as a perfect posing area for our group shots of our conquest of Mount Etna. We spent about half an hour at the top of this side summit, chatting, snapping pictures and generally enjoying our mountain adventure.

On the way down three ladies, one from Switzerland, one from Germany and one from Austria (me) raced down the mountain in about 20 minutes. Coming down was a heck of a lot easier than going up, and almost sprinting down this steep mountainous pathway was rather exhilarating in itself. Once all the other mountaineers arrived we set off to visit a local winery. The “Murgo” vineyards were just about 15 minutes away, located in the fertile foothills of Mount Etna and many people in our group bought red, white and sparkling wines. An animated discussion followed in the van and by 7 pm we had arrived back in the school.

After a brief refreshment back at the hotel, a group of us met at a local pizzeria called “Trocadero”, right next to the Porta di Messina, where we were going to have a nice dinner. For some of us this Thursday evening was our last night in Taormina; I was going to leave tomorrow night to go to Milazzo while another person was going on an excursion to the Eolian Islands. Most of our group members were leaving Taormina this weekend, and we were all commenting how much we have been enjoying our experience.

Everyone around the table was a German speaker: we had three folks from Germany, two from Switzerland and myself, originally from Austria. Given the linguistic differences throughout the German-speaking countries, we all mentioned that each one of us has to speak “Hochdeutsch” (Standard German) in order to be understood by the rest of the group. All of us speak fairly strong dialects that would essentially be incomprehensible to German-speakers from other regions, so we get by, speaking the standard version of our language. For me this exposure to other Europeans was really enjoyable. Having lived more than 20 years in Canada, I hardly ever come in contact with German speakers, so this experience of enjoying a nice meal, speaking in my mother tongue, was a definite treat.

By 9:30 pm I started to get really tired since I had already gone on a one-hour walk through Taormina before breakfast, followed by another walk through town to meet Donatella, the pottery decoration artist, capped off by a short yet strenuous hike up Mount Etna. And tomorrow was after all going to be my last day in Taormina, so it was time to rest.

One thing is for sure, when you come to Taormina for language studies you definitely don’t get bored.