Reflections on Alumni Trip to Umbria, Italy

By JoLynne Bremmer | August 13, 2012

By Georgene Pilling ’04M, Director of Alumni Programs

While Arcadia students take advantage of study abroad opportunities every day, all over the world, our alumni don’t always have the same opportunities, so Dr. Richard Wertime, Professor of English, and I collaborated to offer English and Humanities graduate alumni a study abroad experience of their own—a fiction writing workshop held in Montefalco, Italy, situated in the heart of the Umbrian Valley.

Ten alumni and friends jumped at the offer and what followed was a week of excursions to the medieval hill towns of Bevagna, Montefalco, Assisi, Spello and Orvieto, of fabulous food and wine, of amicable conversations in English, Italian and French, and of journeys through a countryside blanketed with vineyards, olive trees and sunflowers. Carla, our Italian proprietor, her French husband Philippe, and their son Nicola, welcomed us with open arms to their Bed and Breakfast and made us feel a part of their family, eating our meals together under a grape arbor of vines late into the evening hours. In between our excursions, Dr. Wertime presented his fiction-writing workshop where we read short works, discussed what made them so, and tried our hand with a few exercises of our own.

Edie Bissell ’09M reflects, “To say my latest trip to Italy was life changing is a major understatement, yet I am not sure there are sufficient words to describe the experience accurately. Carla and Philippe provided us with a truly authentic flavor of life in the Umbrian countryside. They pampered us with lavish meals full of fresh vegetables, fruit, pasta, and of course vino—vino rosso and bianco! We spent hours after dinner, drinking wine and limoncello at the picnic table under a sky full of stars. Sharing stories and meeting neighbors, friends, and other guests, we found a way to communicate across language barriers. Days spent wandering through medieval villages, feasting on brightly-colored frescos painted hundreds of years ago, protected by medieval and Roman churches, the trip’s itinerary offered us the humbling opportunity to contemplate an historical perspective reaching far beyond our young American experience. Walking through the vineyard under the moonlight, guided by Begara, the four-legged ambassador, provided the perfect ending to each day.”

“What an absolutely amazing, life affirming experience!” says Jenn Bissell. “From our daily excursions to beautiful hillside towns to our fabulous meals and conversations at the B&B San Marco, the week proved to be a wonderful introduction to the Umbrian countryside. Our tour guide, with her deep knowledge for telling the stories of the medieval frescos, along with Dr. Wertime’s knowledge of the area and fluent Italian, gave me a new appreciation for the art of this time period.”

Beth Petitjean ’09M writes, “Not only did we visit lovely Italian towns and see stunning artwork, but everywhere we looked, we gazed out upon vast stretches of vines and olives dotting the hills of Umbria. The landscape was beautiful, but by far the best part of the trip were the people who went—fellow alumni and friends. Dr. Wertime and Georgene went to great lengths to organize the trip and take care of every detail, while Carla and Philippe made us feel like family.”

“Visiting Italy was always on my bucket list and when the opportunity to join this Arcadia trip to journey through the Umbrian region arrived, I made it happen,” says Regina Hastings ’04M. “Though rustic, the amenities at the B&B San Marco surpassed any five-star hotel. Fresh and delicious meals set outside alongside a vineyard, company whose conversations involved the region’s history coupled with the graduate programs through which we had all gone, and daylong trips into the surrounding hill towns all made for a trip I will not forget.”

Dr. Wertime prepared for each of us a fiction writing workbook and we met in the seminar room to read and discuss several short works. Edie adds, “Despite earning a Master’s degree in English, my first fiction writing class took place in Umbria this summer, under the expertise of Dr. Richard Wertime, or Riccardo, as we affectionately called him. I thought I knew how to write effective dialogue. I mean, after all, I do speak quite a bit and have been told that I possess a keen imagination. What I learned in the two afternoon writing workshops was that as important as these core components are to successful fiction writing, possessing the knowledge and awareness of how to craft my dialogue effectively provides me with the power to truly bring characters alive and to maintain control over the direction of my story.  I have often heard, ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it.’  Dr. Wertime’s fiction-writing workshop showed me how true this cliché is in writing as well. I left Italy with a new sense of inspiration and the tools to take my writing to a whole new level.”

Dr. Wertime sums up our Umbrian adventure in the following way. “To say that we had a good time—an enriching time—during our week together in Umbria would be an understatement! As the faculty member who, in collaboration with Georgene Pilling, did the planning for this trip, I couldn’t have been more gratified by the geniality and coherency of our alumni group. They all were great guests and travelers! And I know (having stayed for several days beyond your departure) how thoroughly pleased Carla and the others in her family, her husband Philippe, their son Nicola, and Nicola’s girlfriend Marica, were to have had them in residency there. Our cultural excursions to the wonderful hill towns; our festive dinners outdoors underneath the leafy canopy (wow, what dinners!); our viewing of the films to be shown in Nicola’s Short Film Festival in Montefalco; the visiting troupe of fire-swallowers; our fiction-writing workshops; our wine-tasting experience at the Sagrantino estate—the feast of experiences, like the food, was sumptuous and varied. Fun, too, the side-excursions a number of us made in smaller groups: into Montefalco for a gelati or glass of wine; the trips to Deruta in search of beautiful pottery . . . So I thank each one of them, a wonderful alumni group and friends, for having made this first-ever Umbrian Adventure such a resounding success!”

The alumni group included Scott Leoffler ’12M, Tina Bridgers ’00M, David Rivoire ’09M, Edie Bissell ’09M, Jennifer Bissell, Regina Hastings ’04M, Beth Petitjean ’09M, Gretchen McTavish ’03M, Kate McTavish, Jennifer Whinney ’04M, Dr. Richard Wertime and Georgene Pilling ’04M, Director of Alumni Programs.