San Giovanni – I keep coming back!
When I started to look for Italian schools, what I wanted was a doorway into the real Italy, beyond the swarming mobs of tourists and the MacDonalds and Starbucks that you find in the big cities. But at the same time, I wanted to be close enough to famous cities —you can’t study all day. After much research, I decided on the school in San Giovanni Valdarno, a family-run school in Tuscany.
That was almost ten years ago and since then, I have been coming back to the little school in San Giovanni Valdarno every year. Why? Because I get a taste of what it’s like to live in Italy. The town is perfectly convenient to get around—everything is within walking distance, and an easy, flat walk at that. You can bike five minutes out of town and find yourself in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. By train, it’s 40 minutes to Florence and only thirty minutes to Arezzo.
Part of what makes staying in San Giovanni special is how the people have treated me, with a warmth and interest that I don’t think you could find in tourist-inundated areas of Tuscany. They have fed me fresh tomatoes, taught me how to cook porcini mushrooms, opened their homes to me and listened to my broken Italian. One year, in my apartment building, my computer picked up a wifi signal that was password protected. By process of elimination, I figured out which neighbors belonged, and when I knocked on their door, they ushered me and helped me configure my computer to their system. One of my first landladies has turned me into her Italian cousin, sent me panettone for Christmas and found me work as an English tutor!
Then there’s the school itself. The two ladies who are the Directors of the school have always done everything they could to make my stay comfortable. Over the years, I have seen them deal with broken-hearted eighteen year olds or older women in need of a quiet apartment, all with calmness, care and concern. Once the sink flooded in my apartment. When the Italian version of Drano didn’t work, they offered to have me stay in a different apartment until the problem was resolved.
When they take us on excursions, their guides know almost everything there is to know, from the history of the area, to the art, to the best places to get gelato or particular local delicacies. Now I can tell you where to get the best cantucci in Tuscany (it’s a toss up between Prato and a little town at the foot of Cortona) and the best cecina (a garbanzo bean pancake) in Lucca. The school in san Giovanni has not only taught me how to speak Italian but through the excursions and activities they organize have given me a real insight into Italian culture, the Italian way of life, as well as the incredible history of this area.
The teachers at the school are simply excellent, not just because they know how to teach foreign students, but because they have an exceptional depth of cultural knowledge: I have taken private lessons in Arab art, in contemporary literature and film, and in the legends of the local area. One teacher in particular really knows everything about modern Italian cinema, and another is passionate about classical Italian films. On many occasions, they have even bought and added to their wide collection a film that I was interested in seeing.
The teachers at the school have always made me feel as if my interests and concerns were important to them and their patience and kindness has helped me learn Italian, which is why I came to this school in the first place, and why I keep coming back year after year.