Spring Break with Dante, Machiavelli and the Rest of the Squad

As I may have mentioned, I am a fortunate guy. When I’m not writing books — a job I love — I get to take cool trips to places I love to recharge my creative batteries. For instance, my oldest son Haley and I have just returned from a fabulous week in Florence, where I took a week-long intensive course in Italian with the great folks at La Scuola Toscana! Now my Italian readers will be thinking: “You went there and you didn’t tell me???” Mi dispiace. I apologize, but this was an under-the-radar trip for vacation only. I didn’t do any public events while in Italy — just six hours a day of Italian language, which is my idea of a relaxing vacation! (Yes, I’m nuts. Thanks for asking). Above is a view of the Arno River at sunset — stunning.

Becky and Patrick decided to stay in Boston for this trip, since I was going to be out-of-pocket for most of each day while in Florence, but Haley had work of his own to do for graduate school, so he worked at the hotel during the day while I was taking class, and in the afternoons/evenings we explored the city. It worked out very well! (In case you’re wondering, Haley is getting a masters degree in higher education with a specialization in learning accommodations. My ADHD/dyslexic kiddo, who inspired Percy Jackson, is now devoting himself to helping others with learning differences, which I find awesome.)

This was my first time in Florence, birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, so I finally got see the place I’ve been reading about for years. This is the hometown of Dante, who wrote The Divine Comedy, and Machiavelli, who wrote The Prince. So many Italian artists also lived here: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Gentileschi, Donatello, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Petrarch . . . back in the day, you couldn’t swing a cat in this town without hitting an artistic genius. We visited the medieval Baptistery of Saint John, where Dante was baptized, the Leonardo Museum which features mock-ups of some of da Vinci’s greatest ideas like the diving suit, the armored tank, the hang-glider and the chariot with rotating knives (as featured in the movie Baahubali).  We saw the statue of David in the Accademia Museum, which was just as awesome as promised. It’s hard to appreciate how enormous and detailed the statue is until you’re standing next to it:

We also saw a whole slew of amazing masterpieces at the Uffizi Galleries, including the famous Birth of Venus:

I have seen this painting in reproduction numerous times but didn’t realize that the goddess on the right is Flora, the goddess of flowers, welcoming Venus to the shore with a lovely mantle. Flora is associated with Florence, “flowering.” Thus, Botticelli was writing the city of Florence into Greek myth, retroactively making it part of the story. One of my teachers from Scuola Toscana, Maria, gave Haley and me a guided tour. Maria is an expert on art history but doesn’t speak English, so I got to act as translator for Haley, which was really good practice! Hopefully I did not mangle everything she told me. Pretty sure she said something about the paintings being real good . . .

And the food in Florence . . . Did I mention the food? It’s incredible. We ate most of it. Let me just give special shout-outs to Ristorante Parione, where we had the best steak and cheesecake we have ever had. As Haley said, the cheesecake was so good it made us want to return to the US and burn down the nearest Cheesecake Factory. (That’s a joke. We do not actually endorse burning down Cheesecake Factories.) The gelato at La Carraia was also insanely good — so good we wanted to go around slapping non-La Carraia gelato cones out of tourists’ hands to save them from their bad choices. (That is a joke. We do not actually endorse slapping gelato cones out of tourists’ hands.)  We ate way too much and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

The weather was cool and rainy for the most part, but we did get some sunny hours where we could enjoy this view from our hotel room terrace:

As we were flying into the city, Haley looked out at the countryside and the red-tiled roofs of the city and said, “Are you sure you aren’t taking me to San Antonio?” He was right about the similarities. Tuscany does look a lot like certain parts of Texas, which explains why so many Texans are obsessed with Tuscan-style homes. Haley liked Florence a lot, but between the landscape, the building style, the great steaks, and the throngs of people speaking English in the streets, he’s still half-convinced Tuscany is secretly part of Texas. My favorite comment from him, as he surveyed the vista from our hotel room: “After the rain, everything is so green! Even the roofs!” He wasn’t wrong. A lot of moss grows on those terra-cotta tiles.

The Italian language classes were great for me. I have been studying Italian since 2014, and though I am still not fully fluent, I’m finally getting to the point where I feel like I can carry on a conversation pretty well.

This was the view from one of the classrooms:

Brunelleschi’s dome for the cathedral looms in the distance — the largest brick dome ever constructed. All my teachers were great and taught me a lot. The conversation practice was really helpful. The best lesson: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you are learning a new language, you will continually make mistakes, which is tough if you’re a perfectionist, but you just have to preserve. In this sense, acquiring a new language is a lot of like writing a book. Your first efforts, your first drafts will be trash, each and every time, but you can’t let that stop you. You can always go back later, revise and improve.

To illustrate that point, and maybe make you feel better about making errors, I thought I would share with you some of my own “greatest hits” of flubbing the Italian language since I began learning. When I say something wrong, I usually only realize it much later. Is it embarrassing? You bet. But I keep trying and I keep getting better.

  1. What I meant to say to the ticket-taker at the museum: 

My son is seventeen.

What I actually said:

My son is seventy.

No wonder she responded, He looks good for his age.

2. What I meant to ask the waiter:

May I have the check please?

What I actually said:

Can you give me a song, please?

The waiter did not oblige.

3. What I meant to tell the driver:

I am here to take an immersion course in Italian.

What I actually said:

I am here to teach a course in scuba diving.

No wonder he looked so confused.

And my all time favorite:

4. What I meant to tell the waiter:

May I have the spicy pizza, please?

What I actually said:

May I have the pizza that makes you fly?

I am still waiting for that pizza.

Now we are back home, and I am turning my attention to Spanish, which I am also in the process of learning, though I have a lot farther to go with my Spanish lessons. Hint: learning Spanish and Italian concurrently is a TERRIBLE idea. The languages are so similar and yet so different it is enormously confusing. But that’s kind of why I’m doing it. I enjoy a challenge. The main reason I am studying both languages is to work my mind. I genuinely love learning, and I believe the old Czech proverb: When you learn a new language, you gain a new soul. 

Whatever adventures you are having this spring, I hope they are enjoyable and nourish your soul, too!

Rick Riordan