Here is the danger of those “junior year abroad” programs in a nutshell: First you fall in love with the language, next you fall in love with the country, then you fall in love with a person in that country and pretty soon it’s been 40 years and you know more about slaughtering pigs and how to avoid (and dispense) the mal’occhio than is normal for a nice American girl from Wisconsin. But that’s the story for Anne Robichaud (the only American licensed regional tour guide in Umbria) who lives in a restored farmhouse in Assisi with her Sicilian husband, Pino.
I met Anne in person for the first time this spring, although I’ve read her blog posts on Italian Notebook for a while. The occasion was the final cooking class of what has been — for the past 14 years — Anne’s two-month tour of the U.S., during which time she delivers lectures and cooking classes in a variety of venues from San Francisco and Seattle to Chicago and Boston to Denver and D.C., to name just a few. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it all began . . .
“I was in Rome from 1968-69 through the University of Santa Clara with 280 young people from all over the U.S., and it was a life-changing experience,” says Anne. “It made me eager to get back to Italy. I studied for three months of my senior year at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, finished at Santa Clara, did graduate work at Berkeley and was trying to get around the world in 1972 with about $900 and I ran out of money.”
With a double major in English and Italian, Anne got a job teaching in Rome and, while on holiday, met Pino on a train trip from Sicily. They married and, in 1975, moved to Umbria to work the land because friends of Anne’s, who had taught with her in Rome, had fallen in love with Assisi and rented a rundown farmhouse. When the friends were transferred back to New York, Anne and Pino took over the rent. They’ve been there ever since, learning about raising pigs, chickens and sheep, raising three children and falling in love with their neighbors, the Umbrian lifestyle and the region’s cucina povera.
Her career as the Umbrian Pied Piper happened quite by accident, and Anne pegs the date it began as September 26, 1997 — the day the earthquake hit Assisi. At that time, she was director of Assisi’s Elderhostel program and, as it turns out, the Elderhostelers were the only people who stayed in Assisi. “We gave them the opportunity to go,” says Anne. “One of them, aged 70, came up to me and said, ‘Go? Are you kidding? We didn’t expect to have this nice extra surprise put into our package.’ And another one said, ‘Oh God, at our age what happens, happens.’”
The media overreacted: the news went around the world that the Basilica of Assisi had collapsed and that you wouldn’t be able to see it for years to come. Her Elderhostelers from prior trips were writing to make sure that she and her family were alright. Anne said yes, but to please get the word out that we’re fine. Several couples who knew her as a lecturer told her to put together a slide show and they would arrange for venues so that she could come and tell Americans that Assisi was still standing. Then the magic began.
She was allowed into many restricted sites to photograph because the Umbrian officials learned that Anne was going to the States to bring back tourism. Alitalia and the Commerce Board of Assisi paid all her flights. Her lecture circuit included Vassar, Smith, American University, Portland Fine Arts Museum, University of Texas/Austin, NYU, UCLA, St. Louis University, Loyola Chicago — 26 lectures in very prestigious venues. She was even televised in Ohio. And after the lecture, people said come back next year and lecture on something else.
In 1999 a woman in a tour with Anne asked if she knew of any cooking schools in Assisi. Anne replied, “No, but you can come home and cook with me on my wood stove.” After they finished cooking she said, “You’re coming to my house to cook next year.” And that’s how the U.S. cooking classes started.
Her lectures include Folklores and Festivals in Umbria, Italian, Hands On!, Rural Life and Architecture in Umbria and The Italian Woman, For a full description, see her website.
Anne is obviously a dynamo, and has been very busy since moving to Assisi. Among her activities were the founding of an English Language Institute, which she ran for 18 years; being on-site coordinator and principal lecturer for the Assisi Elderhostel programs; and creating and delivering the “Umbrian Countrysides” tour for the Smithsonian.
After she closed her language school in 1992, Anne focused on studying for the exams to become a licensed tour guide. She so enjoyed hearing the local guides speak about Italian art and history and culture when she took her Elderhostel groups around, that — despite hearing nightmarish stories about how brutal the test was — she set aside time to study. Two years, in fact.
Now, being a tour guide in Umbria means being prepared to speak about it all: Assisi, Perugia, Spello, Orvieto, Deruta, Gubbio, Narni, Spoleto — even places that few tourists ever go, like Trevi or Gualdo Tadino. When she finally went for the test, she was one of 500 applicants.
When the six-hour essay question was presented, half the students left. Three months later, Anne learned that she was one of only 35 students to pass the written part of the test; next came the oral exam. Another four months of study and then you sit before four examiners, art and history professors all. She passed, and has been bringing people around Umbria and helping them become immersed in Umbrian culture and cooking ever since.
At the cooking class I attended, about 18 people met at the home of one of her fellow junior year abroad student’s homes in Bethesda, Maryland. Two other former students were in attendance, as well. She assigned people to cooking stations and, together, they cooked a feast fit for a king: two antipasti (Melanzane al Funghetto and La Bandiera), a cold salad (Fagiolini e Patate), an unbelievable Leek Frittata, a Pasta agli Asparagi, Savory Sage Pork Chops and Insalata di Rucola e Pomodoro and, to finish us off (almost literally!), a tiramisu.
I cannot say enough about the camaraderie of the group and the quality of the food and the evening. If you want to book a tour, you’d better contact her soon, as spots fill quickly.
— Linda Deni Jenkins
Linda Dini Jenkins, who last wrote for Dream of Italy about La Tavola Marche, is the author of Up at the Villa: Travels with My Husband and blogs about travel and travel writing at www.travelthewriteway.com.