Tag Archives: travel fiction

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

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books that take me places

It’s National Reading Month (who knew?) so it seems a good time to share a collection of my favorite books set in Italy. I’m a big fan of historical fiction. And, as you can see, I have been going through a slightly obsessive Renaissance phase. I also like reading travel fiction because it provides me with an escape – especially since we haven’t traveled in a while – and gives me ideas for travel destinations.  I never would have visited the Dordogne Region of France if I didn’t read a book about a woman who moved and bought a house there.

The Dordogne River, France

Here are some of my favorites.

Pompeii by Robert Harris – A thriller, describing the events leading up to the volcanic explosion. If you’ve visited Pompeii, you’ll love reading this book.

Brunelleschi's Dome

 Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King – This is a painstakingly detailed account of the amazing design and engineering of Filippo Brunelleschi. A visit to the Duomo in Florence will never be the same (if you can get through the details).

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King – It’s hard to believe the work that goes into creating frescoes, let alone the two most important examples in the Sistine Chapel. The book also lets you in on the politics behind it all.

A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps – When I visited Sicily about 10 years ago, it felt undiscovered and untouched by too much tourism. I hope it still is. This book is set in Taormina near Mt. Etna, a gorgeous place worth visiting.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant – Set in Florence during the period of fanatical monk Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities, the main character pursues a young painter and his art.

 Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff – Not set entirely in Italy (although in the book Cleopatra does go to Rome), I’m including it because I just finished it and was fascinated to learn more about this period and one of history’s most important women leaders. I like that it makes a case for debunking many of the myths surrounding her.

The Secret Book of Grazia Dei Rossi by Jaqueline Park – One of the few books I know of about Italian Jews. And set in one of my favorite cities – Mantova.

 The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga – This is a story set in Florence in the 1960s when  “Mud Angels” – foreigners -came there to save the city’s art after the Arno flooded. Fantastic and an easy read. Some of my favorite quotes come from this book’s 29-year-old main character.

I, Claudius Novels by Robert Graves –  If you want to dive into the early years of the Roman Empire and those crazy emperors, these books provide the full picture and are delightful to read.

D. H Lawrence and Italy by D.H Lawrence – What I liked about this collection of stories is that he describes many of the places he visited in the 1920s much like they are today. His descriptions of Lake Garda where we lived and the lemon structures (limonaia) covering the mountain slopes are exactly as I remember.

Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck – Full of recipes and adventures from a chef cooking for a billionaire family aboard a yacht off the coast of Italy. The author is now based in San Francisco and can be hired for private culinary events.

Fortune is a River by Roger D. Masters – Describes Da Vinci and Machiavelli’s dreams and ambitions to build a system of canals that would extend the Arno River to the sea.

 The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – this isn’t a travel or historical fiction, but I’m including it because it’s a book about expats working at an English language newspaper in Rome. I met the author, a former journalist, when I attended a reading for his book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently – I personally enjoyed his writing and the themes he explores in the book.

So happy reading and enjoy the trip.