Ciao! It’s been just over two months since I arrived in Viterbo, Italy, and moved in with an Italian host family for nine months. I’m taking language, art, and ancient history classes at School Year Abroad, the same American high school program that I was on in China last year. Settling in has been full of both good and bad moments, and as the region celebrates the beginning of the olive harvest season with roasted chestnuts and homemade olive oil, I’ve been looking back over my first season in Italy.
On one of my first days in town, my host family took me to see what my dad had described in French (the only language we had in common) as “volcanic sulfur water.” Not sure I had understood him correctly, I got in the car feeling a little nervous and looked out of the window as we drove into the countryside. We finally arrived at a grassy field, where my host father parked the car and ordered everyone out. A strong smell of rotten eggs confirmed that there was “sulfur water” in the area. Pulling a bright orange beach towel from the trunk, my dad pointed to what looked like a large rock enclosed by a wire fence. Since this seemed to be the source of the smell, I wasn’t particularly interested in investigating it too closely, but he waved me over nonetheless.
Approaching, I saw that it was a bubbling basin of water. Yellow and black signs on the fence appeared to warn that the water was dangerously hot (although I hadn’t gotten much further than “ciao” and “grazie” at that point, so I was guessing on that one). A channel ran from the basin to a series of pools set into the hillside, where groups of people relaxed in bathing suits, some sitting on the grass with their feet in the water, others half-submerged, seated on benches beneath the surface.
My host mother walked from one pool to the other, dipping her toes in the water to find the spot with the perfect temperature. After she had found the right place and I had tried out the water myself, my host father took me back to the car and drove to another location where the spring water was even hotter. We passed by a similar network of pools and reached a tall stone monument set back from the dirt road. It bore an inscription from Dante’s Divine Comedy that mentioned the “Bullicame”—the system of hot springs we had just seen. “You see,” my dad said triumphantly, “Viterbo is an important place. You chose the right city to come and study in.” I was nodding and smiling (my main methods of communication during the first week) when I realized what he was saying next. “If you speak only Italian at home, you’ll be able to read Dante by Christmas,” he announced. “So starting on the first day of school next Monday, no more French at home.”
The drive back to the first hot spring gave me time to consider this alarming prospect. We found my mom comfortably installed in one of the smaller pools and unwilling to leave, so my dad pointed out to me the various dormant volcanoes around Viterbo and taught me their names, which I could hardly pronounce and promptly forgot.
Back at home hours later, I noticed a copy of the Divine Comedy on a shelf in my room. Although I didn’t believe that my Italian would be anywhere close to good enough by Christmas to read it, now, two months later, it’s become my goal to get through at least some of it by the end of the school year. I feel completely at home in Viterbo, and if Dante considered one of the city’s landmarks important enough to include a reference to it in his work, I would be proud to be able to read it.