A rainy and wintery Tuesday afternoon, right before dark, I find myself standing inside a sleek, post-modern, environmentally friendly house, nested in the thick woods; inside, in a brightly lit room behind large glass windows, a group of middle-aged and distinct-looking people sit in a circle sipping warm steamy drinks. A younger-looking woman with big curly hair, cup in hand, stands in front of a board. At first glance, we could very well be witnessing the meeting of some new age, yoga-channeling (or what have you) group, somewhere in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest.
But what in the eyes of an Italian urban dweller like myself looks like a thick northwestern forest is in reality the point where three of the most affluent Boston suburbs, Arlington, Winchester and Lexington, border each other. The elegant wooden structure is the home of Sabrina Amadei (the woman standing) and the group of “followers” have nothing new age about them – unless a common passion for Italian language and culture falls into such a category. Sure, there is soul searching going on here, not necessarily less deep, but definitely of a very different kind.
“I want people to have fun when they come here,” says Sabrina, a bright eyed, restless woman whose age is only given away by the two twenty-something sons hanging around the house. “At the end of the class some say: ‘When I came here I was sad and now I am happy.’ And when that happens I am happy too. And if they are happy and they have fun they also learn more.”
“They” are Sabrina’s students of Italian – over thirty of them, at the moment between group and individual tutoring classes; “here” is the house she basically transformed into a full-time Italian school after divorcing her husband of 27 years. “Happy,” is really the keyword of the entire operation she has been running here – first part-time, then basically full-time for the past four years, over the course of which, by her own admission, business has boomed, all the way to a fourfold revenue increase.
In fact the teaching “bug” has always been inside her, since her early teenage years, when she was giving modern dance lessons in her native Verona. After studying foreign languages at the university and spending time in Germany and England to perfect them, she kept tutoring to students of English and German while working as a guide, an interpreter and finally as a representative at the local public tourist office. One of her ‘clients’ was, in fact, Sabrina’s future husband — at the time an American tourist in the “city of love.” “I met him, knew him for three days, and immediately decided to follow him to the United States,” she recalls. “I bought the ticket while my parents were on vacation, and when they came back I presented it to them as a ‘done deal’.”
The teaching continued in the United States, in Houston – where the newlyweds first moved to —, then in Boston where they settled a few years later. “The fact that my father, in the meantime, became an important local politician helped me get started, through contacts at the consulate and Italian associations,” she admits. Yet what really drove Sabrina’s career from the start was an indomitable passion for Italian language and culture — a passion that almost 30 years later is anything but fading away.
“I do not only want to teach language but I also want to create a true Italian cultural environment,” she says while showing me pictures of the various activities that in the past four years have been taking place in her modern Italian-looking residence (most of which she actually designed herself, putting the interior design degree she earned in the United States to good use).
Thus, the kitchen became a classroom for cooking classes, the living room a home made movie theater where on weekend nights she would show the latest Italian movies, “the ones that my students cannot easily find here” as part of a teaching series on contemporary Italian cinema. And lately Sabrina’s residence also became a makeshift travel agency, from where together with some of her most faithful, returning, students she plans field trips to Italy where the term “full immersion” takes a whole different meaning altogether.
“It all began with night classes at Carlysle community college 21 years ago,” she points out, “a place where I still teach once a week and still use as an excellent starting point for the word-of-mouth recruiting of new students – mostly middle-aged, well-off, well-cultured Italy enthusiasts who do not necessarily come from Italian-American households,” explains Sabrina, a first-hand witness over the years of the ever-growing fascination for Italy in the United States.
“Then, at some point, when the reality of being a divorced mother of two college-age sons hit me, I made a virtue out of a necessity,” Sabrina recalls. “Now I teach all levels, from absolute beginners to advanced conversation; the preparation of classes is not too hard thanks to my 30 years of experience, however there is an enormous work of scheduling and planning behind it all.”
As a result, her business is booming and so is the perception of Italy among the many Bostonians who venture (some even more than once a week) to this part house, part school, part cultural center in the woods of suburban Boston to learn and practice the language of Opera, arts and good food.
“There is more than enough sad and worrisome news coming out of my country nowadays. I, on the other hand, try to downplay it to the point of ignoring reality, and fuel the idealized image many have of Italy,” she confesses, “and do my best, every day, to remind Americans how beautiful it is.”