La Scuola Part Two: Students, Activities, Cooking

It was the second day of my very first week at Lucca Italian School (LIS). One of my classmates, an Englishman, invited me to join a group of students for lunch and to meet his friend from Denmark who he thought I would like. “Plus," he said, “at lunch we’ll get to hear your story.” I asked him what made him think I had “a story." "Oh," he replied, “everyone at LIS has a story."  And so it is.

 Lucca Italian School

Lucca Italian School

I often think of us, the students at LIS, as a cast of characters in a novel or play. The Englishman bought a house in the country outside of Pisa on a whim; cistern for water and no electricity or heat. The most important language skill for him was learning the words that would allow him to order furniture from a local IKEA over the phone. The Danish woman, now a good friend, is fluent in more languages than I can count, rides her bike everywhere, and knows the back stories of some of the most interesting characters in Lucca. A student from Germany, also now a good friend, is an adventurer - recently she posted photos of herself skydiving. How I envy her ability to jump in her car and drive to Lucca as she did last January when we met for dinner. I’ve met teachers, businessmen, nurses, violin makers, young “techies” with jobs at Google, American expats who’ve retired to Lucca, a charming south American couple now living in the U.S., a young divorcee looking for her “lui” (him), widows making their first solo trip abroad, young Belgians traveling through Italy for a year in a camper, a young Australian taking six months to figure out his work/life balance, a psychologist, flight attendants, retirees, and lively Italian Americans looking for their roots.  No shortage of stories there!

 Pausa on the terrace at LIS                   Photo courtesy of Lucca Italian School, used with permission

Pausa on the terrace at LIS                   Photo courtesy of Lucca Italian School, used with permission

With such diverse and interesting students, the time spent outside of the classroom is just as fascinating as the time spent in class. One of my favorite non-class activities is pausa, the LIS mid-morning break, when students from the various classes congregate and either head to a nearby bar for coffee or sit together on the school’s beautiful terrace. They swap stories, recount adventures, plan after school meet-ups, and, frequently, talk about when they might return to Lucca and LIS. Some of these students have become dear friends; all have enriched my life and I am thankful for Lucca Italian School for bringing us together.

At the very top of my list of favorite activities is the class called Speak and Cook Italian. This is a week-long course with language classes in the morning and culinary activities in the afternoons, including two days of meal preparation each followed by a big dinner. Eva is the cooking teacher at the school. How to describe Eva? She is a bundle of energy, fun, friendly, quirky in the best of ways, and a very, very good cook. With Eva at the helm you can count on hands-on participation in cooking, delicious flavors, and a wonderful meal.

In cooking classes at LIS I’ve learned to make a rolled breast of tacchino (turkey) stuffed with carrot, prosciutto, and frittata; a fragrant lemon-scented chicken; ravioli fatto a mano (handmade) stuffed with ricotta and spinach and another with asparagus and shallots; panna cotta with frutti del bosco (are you getting hungry yet?); and biscotti (almond cantuccini and a chocolate chip cookie flavored with vin santo), among other delicious foods. All were created alongside congenial classmates in a fun, relaxed atmosphere.

And then there is the lasagna. Eva’s lasagna is nothing like the Italian–American lasagna with tomato sauce that I grew up eating. Her lasagna starts with fresh sheets of thin, silky pasta, a béchamel sauce, and a filling of chopped fresh artichokes sautéed with leeks. Picture our group of about 12 students, all in aprons, working around a large table in a farmhouse kitchen. Some are rolling sheets of pasta, others cleaning and chopping artichokes, one is stirring a thickening béchamel at the stove. Bottles of wine are opened. There is laughter, the sound of musical Italian mixed with the click of knives and mezzalunas. For me, this is foodie heaven. We socialize while the lasagna bakes and we continue making appetizers, salads, desserts. Then we eat – around a big table, delicious food, more laughter, a mix of Italian and other languages. A perfect evening, in a perfect place, with fabulous companions and wonderful food. What could be more Italian?

One last word about the lasagna – after this big, long, multicourse dinner we realized that all the men in the group had disappeared. We found every single one of them in the kitchen, forks in hand, polishing off the leftover lasagna. It was that good.                -post by JMB