Conquering Your Duolingo Tree

On 12th April after 97 days I completed my tree on Duolingo and my owl got his Italian scarf. But this is just the beginning and you can’t learn in isolation. I don’t believe in learning one lesson by heart and then moving on to the next one. I can’t learn by rote and certainly you can’t make sense of one set of words without understanding their context. In Italian many words change not one, depending on the context.

And so I ploughed through the whole lot with a basic understanding, memorising as I went. I’ve managed to implement a lot of it and I can now read basic Italian across social media, understand most of the articles I read and I can get most of my own basic sentence construction right. Italian is now a part of every day life.

But the tree doesn’t end there. You constantly need to update and refresh. Italian is far more complicated than English. And there are far more words to learn because each word has singulars, plurals, are gender sensitive, and have various past, present and future tenses. Quite simply you need to combine Duolingo with a whole bunch of other learning techniques if you’re to master it.

There are a multitude of things you can do. If you want to get good you’ll have to spend a lot longer than a few months. In fact, unless you have a photographic memory, language learning takes a lifetime. But it’s been liberating and I intend to press on.

What I have noticed is how much more advanced my reading and writing is compared to my spoken skills. Talking to an app is one thing, doing it in the real world and with native speakers is quite another and I don’t have many opportunities for that here in Manchester.

And so I joined some language exchange groups on Facebook. I am going to be meeting Italian people. Also, I get randomly messaged by Italians hoping to improve their English so I am constantly having to think on my feet.

I am using a range of elements to improve my language and make sure every day is a new learning and practicing experience. To sum up here’s what I use every day:

  • Facebook and Twitter articles and status updates – I read, write and respond
  • Read a book – someone lent me an Italian book. It’s hard work but handy for dipping in
  • Meet Up – I’ve just joined a language exchange group which meets in Manchester
  • Whatsapp – I have Italian friends in Manchester and Venice I chat to.
  • Duolingo – lesson plans are still set to ‘insane’, you never truly finish your tree
  •  – spoken lessons only, handy for not using the written word as a prompt
  • Italiano Automatico – Facebook and Youtube – Alberto specialises in teaching Italian. He has slow podcasts – I drop them on to my player for the car.
  • Weila Tom – Youtube – easy explanations about all aspects of the Italian language. This has been my saving grace on so many occasions when I’m struggling to understand structure and variables
  • I back everything up with the app for checking individual words or checking my sentences before I post to social media
  • I converted all my gadgets to Italian
  • Post it notes – I put them up in strategic places I look every day like my bathroom mirror – I use this mostly for words I struggle to remember – subliminal learning does work
  • – advanced but just hearing the language is beneficial – I drop them on to my player for the car
  • RadioVenezia – or any Italian radio station. Again, just hearing the language is beneficial and that this station is based in my favourite city encourages me
  • Try and think in Italian, I talk to myself a lot. I try to do it in Italian and practice imaginary conversations that I would use regularly such as talking about what I do, or where I am going. It becomes second nature, believe me.
  • Films with or without subtitles – my favourite is ‘Venezia, la luna e tu’ – if you watch it you’ll understand why

In a nutshell SURROUND yourself with it.


A Venice UK Price Comparison

Out of curiosity I Googled the cost of living in Venice. Everything tells us it’s expensive, but I found a particular website that made me think again. You see, I live in the UK. If you live in the UK you will know things can be expensive. But things can also be cheap. And it’s largely dependant on your location and how you live. It’s the same everywhere.

As if by way of some kind of nod towards our economic problems I have slowly since the late 1990s been crawling my way further up the country. I lived and worked in London until 2000, when I relocated to Buckinghamshire. 8 years later and I’d gravitated to Lincoln. I’ve now been in Manchester for over two years. By comparison it’s ‘cheap as chips’ up here. But you have to shop around and make a lot of sacrifices.

Like a lot of Northern towns and cities, Manchester is on the up. The south has realised it exists and therefore plans to connect us via the white elephant of HS2. With that suggestion comes the prospect of rapidly rising living expenses. I don’t want to move any further North. I’m not sure where I could go next. My home county of Kent is already well beyond my reaches.

The thing is, I live on a tight budget for reasons which are fairly clear. I am single and I run my own business. I have no hidden extras in my life. Because of this, most things in the UK are already out of my reach. Whilst living in Manchester has its plus points, it means that the rest of the country, and particularly further south, has become a frightingly expensive prospect that I don’t want to have to consider.

So let’s do a few comparisons. I have based my findings on this website. Please put me right on any inaccuracies. I don’t doubt there will be a few.

A pint in Manchester will still only set you back £2.60. The last time I was in London I paid £6.00 for a half pint and nearly fell off my bar stool. A bottled beer in Venice is just under £4. Lunch and a pint in a cheap faceless chain pub in Manchester city centre might set you back £7.50 (I dread to think what that is in London). For £12 in Venice you get a canal side cicchetti lunch with Prosecco. No, it’s not as cheap, but it’s also not straight out of a microwave.

Now let’s look at rent. I can’t afford to live on my own. I live in a houseshare. For those of you that have yet to experience this delight – it’s basically renting a spare room in the house of someone who can’t afford to pay their mortgage anymore, or living with a bunch of random strangers so that a landlord can have his nest egg retirement fund. Hint – it won’t be you.

Currently I live in a family home. I share it with a single woman and her two relatively grown up nephews. There is also a dog and two cats. I am lucky because I have an ensuite (rare I promise you). It’s like still living at home without the rules. This is as good as it’s ever likely to get for me but I’ve finally after 9 years found one that feels like home. And for £350 per month I get it all inclusive. It’s a bargain compared to the other options.

A year ago I rented a two bed house an hour’s drive from Manchester with one of other person which was costing us £500. With bills it came to about the same each per month as I’m paying now for a houseshare. If you live in London you can easily kiss goodbye to anything upwards of £400 a month for a houseshare without bills. Private rents will probably start at over £1000 and your bills are on top of that.

Now compare that to living in Venice where you can rent a city centre 1 bed apartment for roughly £630 a month. Bills will set you back an additional £180 ish per month. But these are private rents. Houseshares and shared space aren’t included in the options. Now, I don’t think there is a housesharing culture in mainland Europe. But I can’t believe noone (at least not the expats) have ever thought of it. At my AirBNB in Venice next month I’ll be sharing with two friends. So I suppose it exists to some degree which means it is possible to split costs.

Supermarket food and alcohol prices aren’t shockingly dissimilar to the UK. That said, you get what you pay for. We have driven businesses into the ground here in the UK by cheapening the price of our food and drink at the customer end of the deal, and by pricing small and artesan businesses off the high street with cheap faceless poor quality brands.

Venice attempts to defend itself against these things as best it can but they still have a presence in the city. And why shouldn’t it, if it has the backbone to do it. Everything that I see on Facebook and Twitter tells me that though Venice’s residential population is dwindling, it fights and it fights hard. And it is patriotic in a way I haven’t seen in this country in years.

Here in the UK, as in most places, we have succumbed to big brand greed. Enterpreneurs exist in small pockets. And whilst they may never be rich I think they are in many ways happier than their bigger brethren. I know I am. So is Venice more expensive? It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t say it is exceedingly so and it certainly isn’t more expensive than London, a city which curiously keeps attracting more and more new residents at an alarming rate.

I am going to look into some more day to day expenses on my trip to Venice next month. And I will post my findings.


On this day in 1824 Lord Byron died at Missolonghi, Greece. Canto 17 of Don Juan was left unfinished – our hero left stranded between past and future. The opening Stanza is poignant. It’s author left a household of orphans. Some flourished, most failed. But all are now consigned to history where they are all immortalised in their own way. To quote:

The World is full of Orphans firstly those
Who are so in the strict sense of the phrase;
But many a lonely tree the loftier grows
Than others, crowded in the Forest’s maze;
The next are such as are not doomed to lose
Their tender parents in their budding days,
But merely their parental tenderness,
Which leaves them Orphans of the Heart no less.
8th May 1823

The Dead Don’t Talk

Since I began revising my book last November, so much has happened. I spotted this post on Advice to Writers on Twitter not so many weeks ago. It come from Brenda Wineapple. And it really does sum up my experience of writing a biography.

‘As a biographer you’re in a strange relationship with a person
who can’t answer back, but is always answering back.’

And this is the crux of it. They are not there. You are writing intimately about someone you have never met. And if you are fortunate enough to be able to climb right inside their lives and their minds, they never stop talking to you.

A new piece of information, a slant on a fact, visiting somewhere they went. Every experience rounds their character and their life just a little bit more. And no matter how small that piece of information might be, it is fundamental to your understanding of them.

So many things which made no sense to me when I wrote my first edition are now as clear as the basic facts I’ve always known. Understanding Tita’s culture in Venice, and reading the multitudes of letters by his protectorates through out his life, have filled in gaps so distinctly and so vividly that it was almost as if he was telling me the story himself. Learning Italian has been a corner stone of my understanding of him, belated though it has been.

It’s invigorating to be in tune with someone who was once so real and is now little more than a name in a book. But it is a name in the books of so many other names in books – Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli. Because whatever he was, his DNA is still here and I suppose that is a hingepin and what makes it so real.


If something lives, it can die. If it was built, it can fall down. In that respect Venice is like anywhere else.

But our perception of Venice’s fragility is largely down to its uniqueness and the passion its people has for preserving it. Where else can you walk amongst 900 year old buildings that are still in daily use. Here in the UK, we just knock them down and build ugly ghosts in their place or they house museum collections. We have no passion for preserving cities or towns in this way.

Venice, being bordered as it is by water, has an insular community which makes it ripe for preservation. The community is hardened to the problems, it isn’t complacent. It’s had to stand up to itself for centuries. Why should now be any different.

The population of Manchester, where I currently live, is 9 times that of Venice. Just think about that for one moment.

If Venice Dies is not just about Venice, although in this instance, it is. It applies to all our historical cities – those which have anything left to show as historical. Venice’s design is it’s biggest ally and also it’s biggest downfall – depending on how you look at it. As someone who has always lived in the UK, I have observed the slow erosion of our architectural and cultural history. Venice represents a paradise. I can go here and walk quite literally in the footsteps of my ancestors and know that they would probably recognise a large proportion of what Venice is now.

But I can appreciate it is not for everyone, and for those that live and have to make a living there it must be hard. Tourism is eating away at solid jobs, at tradition, at artesan crafts, at inherited trades. But Venice has a friend and that is the inhabitants. Venice has survived and it’s down to Venice to pull itself through. And it can do it because it makes a passionate stand. 54,000 people afterall, isn’t nothing.


The more I read about artisans, true crafters, trying to survive in a world of imports and ‘tat’, the more passionate I become about it. I have always been unwavering in my defence of home grown and traditional crafts and how paying more for something hand made is an investment.

Never was I more passionate than when I saw the artisans of Venice working and trying to survive in our modern economy. You see, I am also an artisan. I am a writer, I am a published author. I am a Venicephile. BUT….

In England, in Manchester I also run my own business as a clothing designer. My name is my Venetian ancestry. I carry it proudly as the banner that shapes my life. My business is Falcieri Designs. I am part of a small and proud revolution. All my designs are one offs. Everything is made by me, in my studio, handmade only by me, handfinished, hand sold. It is me. It is only me. I am an artisan.

I truly understand what handmade means. I get the ethos. I realise the impact of buying something from a real artist and how important every sale is to that artist. It means keeping someone in business, keeping a craft alive, keeping people and tradition alive. It is an investment.

Charika red (9)-horz
The sort of thing I make

In my dream world, this is the business I would move to Venice. I cannot imagine anything more incredible than being able to transfer my little empire, that was born from a passion for artistan crafts and handmade and fabrics, and inspired by my Venetian ancestry, to the city where my family history began, the city that I love so much.

I am always impressed at how many artisan shops exist in Venice. It is a beautiful thing to behold and whilst a strong tourist trade should help keep it alive, the tourist mentality is for cheap. When hear how Venetian artisans are struggling to survive I know what they are going through. It is the same everywhere, but in Venice it is so keenly felt. The people who live there seem so very passionate about everything that affects them. And this is a good thing. Because without that passion, things cannot change, things do not happen.

I have been inspired by Monica Cesarato’s recent post and the Twitter hashtag #bethechange. I follow and adore some of the Venetian artisans I have found thanks to social media and I am constantly adding to the list. Plum Plum Creations, the work of Venezia Autentica to highlight authentic Venice, Piero Dri, to name just a few. And I want them to survive. I want them to be there every time I visit Venice. I want them to be able to pay their bills and keep running their studios and their shops and keep exercising their skills.

But however much we harp on about buying from local artisans, if we do not BUY from local artistans they will not survivie. If you advocate local artists but are always looking for the cheapest bargain you are invalidating your message.

Buying handcrafted is a way of life, not a tourist trap.