Dowagiac resident uses quarantine to learn from Italian mother, daughter

DOWAGIAC — Dowagiac resident Susan Leach has visited Italy several times, and on each trip, she has made an effort to speak basic phrases and words in Italian as a sign of respect.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Leach planned a trip to Sicily with her sister, who is celebrating her 60th birthday this year. Although Leach is unsure her journey will still happen, the desire to brush up on her Italian helped her form a new connection during an uncertain time, she said.

While on Facebook, Leach came across a page, “Impariamo I’italiano, sharing our language during the lockdown.”

Jessica Poccia, from Formia, Italy, posted on the page asking if anybody wanted to learn Italian during the pandemic. Leach quickly jumped on the opportunity.

“I initially did a private lesson with her on Facebook Messenger Live,” Leach said. “We had a wonderful lesson, and she is a single parent, so it is her and her daughter [Chiara], who is 8 years old.”

Leach said the post garnered attention from about 400 people, which led Jessica and Chiara to record a Facebook Live session every day, teaching the audience three different words or three different expressions a day.

“One example she taught us is how to say, ‘today, tomorrow and yesterday,’” Leach said. “She has taught us how to introduce ourselves and other really basic expressions that would help us when you arrive there, such as the polite way of how to say, ‘I would like a table for two, please.’”

In return, Leach films daily videos of her reading a children’s book in English aloud for Chiara.

“I put out stuffed animals and introduce her to the audience and pretend those are her friends, and they are gathering,” Leach said. “I tell her things to help add to her vocabulary. That’s now her bedtime story every night, and it helps her mom out and Chiara gets some more exposure to English.”

Watching Jessica and Chiara’s Italian lessons has become a morning ritual of sorts for Leach and her husband, who even take notes and create poster boards to help remember the lessons.

“Hearing [Jessica and Chiara’s] local pronunciation is so helpful,” Leach said. “It has just made it really fun.”

The lessons have also offered insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life in Italy.

“They can leave the house once every three days, and one person per household [can] to go grocery shopping,” Leach said. “Only one person is allowed in the store at a time. They must wear a mask and gloves. The kids cannot go out to play, and no one can go outside to exercise. It’s tough. It’s very tough. I feel for them.”

Leach, who also speaks basic Portuguese after living in Brazil, wants to become more conversational in Italian.

“It’s a sign of respect to learn another language,” Leach said. “We, as Americans, sometimes believe we are superior since English is a universal language. If we try to learn phrases in other languages, we are showing people from different countries that we care, and we want to show them respect by speaking their language. They know you are trying, and they know you care enough to try, and I think that is important. If you just speak one or two words to a waiter in a restaurant, their faces brighten up.”

Through the daily Italian lessons, Leach said quarantine goes by faster for herself and her Italian teachers, Jessica and Chiara.

“It’s been almost like counseling for each of us,” Leach said. “Worlds apart but not.”

Come June, Leach hopes her trip will still end up happening, and with the tweak of an itinerary, she will be able to visit Jessica and Chiara.

“I feel like I have made a lifelong friend,” Leach said. “I used to be a single parent, and I can empathize with Jessica. We have this wonderful connection over Messenger outside of the class that I think is very special and touching.”

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