La Dolce Vita

So often school breaks become anything but, with non-stop activity and a list of things to fit in during the precious time off. The 11 students who joined Brooks School's March break trip to Italy, however, enjoyed a real change of pace this vacation.

"We didn't have a single meal that was shorter than an hour-and-a-half," said Sabrina Gribbel '19. "The value of always taking your time during meals and eating with your family and friends is something I noticed right away. Italians like to take breaks, whether it be for meals, espresso or gelato, and I really enjoyed that because I'm used to the fast-paced way of life in America."

Giving students the chance to get acquainted with a different way of life was a big part of the 11-day program in Tuscany. Based at Tenuta di Spannocchia — an 1,100-acre estate and organic farm southwest of Siena that hosts an education center offering workshops in art, architecture, ceramics, gardening, ecology, writing, yoga and more — the Brooks trip focused on learning about Italian culture, with sightseeing on the side.

"It isn't really a tour trip," said visual arts teacher and Robert Lehman Art Center director Amy Graham, who led this third annual getaway with her husband, English teacher Mel Graham. "Ours is a sort of in-depth cultural experience ... We operate on the philosophy that we're not going to see everything, but we'll take time to take in what we do see. So we choose our destinations carefully."

After jetting to Florence on March 6, the students, from the classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020, enjoyed some time in the city. A tour guide took them to see the Uffizi Gallery, where guests can view Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," among other treasures, and the Accademia Gallery Museum, which famously includes Michelangelo's "David."

"Seeing the Duomo anytime I walked down the street in Florence was the highlight of this trip for me," said Gribbel. "I studied this piece of architecture and the architect who built it in seventh grade, and it was surreal for me to actually see it in person. It really put things in perspective as to how detailed Italians were, and at a time where technology was limited. Art is such an important part of Italian culture, it was eye opening for me to be able to experience it all and see such beautiful pieces ... everywhere I went."

When the group departed Florence for the countryside, the experience got more hands-on.

At Spannocchia, students learned about gardening, cooking, animals, olive oil production and the history of the region through hikes around the property, lectures and activities. They were immersed in the area's culture, up close and personal, from seeing the indigenous pigs raised and slaughtered nearby, to checking out the olive groves, which are harvested and pressed on the property.

"I learned how to make a five-course meal," said Abby Zerbey '19. "Eventually, after two hours, we all enjoyed the yummy food we made. And I brought home all I learned so I will hopefully try to make the meal one day with my family!"

Local excursions to Siena, Montepulciano and San Gimignano, as well as a hot springs visit, let the students enjoy other activities in the region, too.

"Our visit to Siena, where we explored different shops, went to a chocolate festival and ate pizza in the evening, was my favorite part," said Grace Handy '19. "And I loved every minute of the evening meals, when we regrouped and shared different stories ... I had an amazing experience on this trip."

One outing included a hike to an abandoned castle. Another day, the group hired a tour guide who knew a lot of about the woods surrounding Spannocchia and vinter history. As they hiked down trails toward Torri, a small, walled town, the guide would stop every 20 minutes or so and tell the group about various parts of the forest, the vegetation, wild boars and anything living in the area.

"I went into this trip not knowing what to expect," said Ishaan George '18. "I knew it would be out of my comfort zone but that it something I wanted." Turns out, he said, "it was a perfect mix of a tourist's vacation and an insight to the Italian lifestyle and culture."

That balance between seeing well-known, important art and time in the country, to experience and think about how Italians' food is made, for example, "really gives students the opportunity to experience international travel in a different way," said Graham. "We want students to think about themselves really being in Italy, not just posing in a snapshot that a thousand other people have."

For that reason, she encouraged students to bring a sketchbook with them to write or draw as they explored — and a lot of them did.

Since the group returned on March 17, the group's cooking enthusiast, Zerbey, has indeed begun making recipes from a cookbook bought at Spannocchia. Perhaps she will cook up something for the reunion dinner that the group will enjoy this spring. "We'll have everyone over for a giant meal together," said Graham — a bit of la dolce vita back home in North Andover.

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