FACETIME- Speaking in tongues: <i>Ecco</i> Christina Ball!

Forget everything you think you know about learning a foreign language– trudging through memorizing declensions and conjugating verbs ad nauseum– Ecco Italy founder Christina Ball is out to make lingui-fying a little livelier and a lot more fun.

Case in point: her recent "Cinema Chat" course. Ball first showed Il Postino– in which exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda helps an Italian postman win his true love through verse– and then asked her intermediate-level students to write Italian poems about... an iPod. Yes, an iPod.

"Every week the poems got more personal, more exquisite, more perfect in the linguistic sense," Ball recalls. "It was a very inspired class– I had a brain surgeon writing an ode to the iPod."

Ball, 41, says her first exposure to Italian culture came via her Gaeta-born grandmother, but she only became passionate about Italy while studying art history in college. Upon graduation, she spent six months in Tuscany, hand-making paper and taking pinhole photographs to create books of Petrarch's poetry. ("Jimmy Carter bought one," she reports.)

"But I knew I wasn't cut out to be an artist," she says. "So that's when I started on the track to do a Ph.D." 

Told she was "too creative" while earning her doctorate at Yale, Ball began fantasizing about starting a different kind of program for studying language and culture: "Something called ‘Ecco,' my own school really." Nevertheless, she initially took a more conventional route, teaching at Wake Forest University. 

When her husband landed a tenure-track position at UVA, Ball began regularly visiting Charlottesville. "Every weekend we'd go to a winery or walk on the Downtown Mall," she says. "It just felt so Italian."

They decided to move here permanently. For fun in 2002, Ball began writing The Hook's "Dish" column, which is how she learned that Mark Cave was adding an Italian wing to Main Street Market. She remembers calling the Verity Blue owner, and "about an hour later, we were speaking Italian." 

Ball confided to Cave her dream of founding an Italian cultural center, and he offered Verity Blue's tower as a base. In January 2005, Ball officially launched Ecco Italy ("This is Italy."). Two years later, she says business is booming, with the center offering six language courses, providing travel consultation, and hosting Italian cultural events in the space shared with Verity Blue and coffee bar Milano.

"It's worked very well," says Cave. "We've become kind of a liberal arts facility."

This past January, Ball added "Spain on Main," where she herself is enrolled in an intermediate Spanish course. "That's just my personal love of language," she says. "I think it's great for me as a director to be a student in my own school."

Christina Ball