Prokop, Mary

Name: Mary Prokop
Location of Study: Siena, Italy
Program of Study: Siena Italian Studies
Sponsors: Mimi Ravarino & Patrick Keough


A brief personal bio:

I entered my freshman year at Notre Dame knowing I wanted to study English literature, and found myself captivated by Italian language, literature, and culture as well.  I have thoroughly enjoyed Professor Moevs’ class on Dante’s Commedia, as well as my coursework in Italian grammar and culture. Having studied Italian in the classroom and on my own, I am eager to form my own impressions of Italy. I am more than willing to make some mistakes and to feel out of my element for a time as I seek to achieve greater fluency in the Italian language and a greater understanding of Italian culture.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I am pursuing a major in English and a supplementary major in Italian (literature and culture concentration) with the intent of going on to graduate study in comparative literature. According to the American Comparative Literature Association, this field “promotes the intercultural relations that cross national boundaries . . . and the interactions between literature and other forms of human activity.” It is of great importance to me that I study Italian not only during class-time, but also by forming relationships with those who live there and understanding the city of Siena through daily life.   I believe becoming a college professor of literature would allow me to develop my talents and use them to fulfill my own unique mission in this world.  I agree with Sir Francis Bacon’s statement that “knowledge itself is power,” but I would hope to show my students that it is not enough to seek knowledge for the power and prestige it brings, but because possessing it will empower them to use their God-given gifts.  At this moment in my life, I believe I am called to further develop the gift that is my desire to immerse myself in Italian culture in order to better understand how cultures connect and what we can learn from one another.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

After completing four semesters of college-level Italian, I have acquired a fair amount of declarative linguistic knowledge.  I have successfully completed a number of written exams over grammar and vocabulary, for example.  This summer, I hope to progress in the domain of procedural linguistic knowledge.  I want to be able to communicate effectively, and to speak without having to pause as I search for the correct tense of a verb I could easily write out on an exam.  Literacy development is another goal, as I hope to study Italian literature in graduate school.  Finally, in my interactions with my host family, my “partner linguistici” from an Italian university and the other Sienese citizens I will meet, I hope to gain a greater understanding of Italian culture and to come away with a better understanding of what Italians value.  This cultural awareness will serve me well next spring, when I will be spending the semester in Bologna.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. At the end of the summer, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at a level of proficiency equal to two semesters beyond my current Italian coursework placement at Notre Dame.  This will allow me to engage fully with my fall coursework in Italian at Notre Dame and prepare me to enroll in classes at L’Università di Bologna next spring.
  2. I will be able to communicate effectively in Italian with native speakers about current events in Italy, especially the state of the Italian government.
  3. I will have the confidence needed to navigate a variety of social situations during my spring semester abroad in Bologna.  Specifically, I will have confidence in my ability to find and secure living arrangements with an Italian student during my first week in the city.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I will take full advantage of my program’s commitment to facilitating growth through an approach they have developed called Full-Immersion: Culture, Content, & Service.  I specifically searched for a program that would guarantee home stay with an Italian family, as I believe in the importance of adopting the Sienese lifestyle and experiencing Italy as its citizens do. Siena Italian Studies will also allow me to perform service in conjunction with the Ulisse Cultural Association. I will dedicate several hours each week to service with Le Bollicine, an organization dedicated to providing meaningful activities for the disabled through sports and rehabilitation. I plan to spend some time working with the elderly at the nursing home Casa di Riposo Poggio al Vento, as well.  I am also eager to participate in the activities surrounding the Palio, an “event” of sorts that I researched in my Intermediate I Italian class.  One could define the Sienese version of the Palio as a bi-annual horse race, but the festivities which surround the two minute “corsa” mark it as a unique and vibrant celebration of Sienese culture and history.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

June 12th
My adventures in Italy are about to begin, and I’m not without a bit of nervous anticipation to accompany my excitement. I expect to feel somewhat befuddled and out of my element at times, and I’m ready for the realization that, after four semesters of Italian at Notre Dame, I still have a lot to learn about the Italian language and culture. I’m confident that I’ve been given the tools I need to succeed (and to communicate), but I’ll have to remember that even if I’m feeling a little over my head or at a loss for words. I’ll need to concentrate on what’s being said much more intensely than what I’m used to, and that could drain me of energy, if I’m not careful. If the language is being spoken more rapidly than I’m used to hearing, if there are words I’ve never heard before, or if the Sienese habit of “swallowing” the hard c sound throws me off, I will have to refuse to let what I don’t know freeze up the knowledge I do have. I know I need to stay committed to writing about my challenges and successes in navigating the language and culture and to evaluate what worked and what did not, so I have a feeling these blog posts will get longer very soon!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

June 14th
Any worries that enrolling in a school for American students would hinder my language gains were dismissed when I met my host parents, Roberto and Luciana. Although most of my fellow students are hesitant to use Italian unless necessary, my host parents know very little English. Our communication is entirely in Italian, and they tell me I speak very well. Although I’m aware that this is not true by a long stretch, it does show that we’re communicating well. I’ve been able to understand most of what they say – or at least the general idea – and to respond well enough to get my point across. They’re very patient, though, and I know this won’t always be the case in my interactions with other Italians. So far, they’ve told me a bit about their kids, Roberta and Fabrizio. I’ve also learned that they’re rooting for Ireland over Spain in the Euro cup – but only because it’ll give Italy a better chance at victory later on. I had more difficulty understanding questions about when my plane departed and arrived, and about the bus pass and the fact that they’ll be driving me tomorrow.
After spending three weeks in Ireland, I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit homesick for the first time. Even so, I’m actually quite happy with how much I’ve been able to understand and communicate on day one.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

June 15th
Today I embarked on my unsophisticated and unapologetic strategy for improving my Italian: to speak as much as possible with whomever will have a conversation with me. At the welcome banquet given by my language school, I began speaking with one of SIS’s high school interns. Despite his apparent shyness, my new friend was quite talkative as long as I more or less directed the conversation with a plethora of questions. I asked him to tell me more about the Sienese Palio (more on that later), and about himself. Later that evening, I asked Luciana about her kids, and she spoke about them for quite a while. She’s not a particularly loquacious person, but she’s more than willing to talk with me.
My first gelato was a delicious fragola (strawberry), and my first sight of the Piazza del Campo was like something out of a dream. La Torre di Mangia, outlined against the blue, blue sky. I’ll have to remember that moment when I’m skirting past the crowds of tourists snapping pictures on my way to class.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

June 17th
Our program director’s husband took us on a four hour walking tour of the city, and I became well acquainted with Siena’s numerous hills and its seventeen districts. Called “contrade,” these divisions of modern Siena date back to the Middle Ages – although there were originally fifty-nine. At first, the city was divided in order to provide troops to the mercenaries hired to aid the city in its battles. Although the contrade have lost their military function, Sienese citizens are fiercely loyal to the contrada into which they are born. Each one is named after an animal or a symbol, and each has its own long history and traditions. While walking around the city, I was witness to the fact that each contrada has its own church, museum, and fountain. Although it’s less apparent at first, most also have one or two enemy contrade. Ten of the seventeen contrade also compete in the world famous Sienese Palio twice each year (this is decided by lot).
The easy answer to, “What exactly is the Sienese Palio?” is: “it’s a horse race that takes place on July 2nd and August 16th in the Piazza del Campo.” Having researched the Palio for Professoressa Blad’s class at Notre Dame, however, I was already aware of how inadequate an explanation this is. Official events include la Tratta, in which a horse is assigned by lot to each participating contrada, six prove or trial races (the final one is called the Prova Generale), the “corsa” (race) itself in which the horses race around the Campo three times, and prayers of thanksgiving at Santa Maria della Provenzano (in July) or at the Duomo (in August). For an idea of what the corsa looks like, take a look at the youtube video “The Palio – Siena, Italy
The more I learn about the Palio, the more I am intrigued by it. Bribery of jockeys and deals between those in positions of power within the contrada are not only common – they’re expected. There will likely be a few false starts at each of the trial races and on the day of the actual corsa, so that the jockeys will have a chance to make deals as they direct their horses back to the starting line. I’m told, though, that none of this information will prepare me for the actual experience. We’ll be standing in an enclosed and tightly packed Piazza del Campo for several hours before the race begins. The ninety-some seconds of the actual race will be accompanied by powerfully expressed emotion from the Sienese: tears will be shed by the losers, wild celebration will ensue for the victors, and a few fights might even break out.
When I asked Roberto about his contrada and its “nemico,” I discovered that La Lupa was disqualified from this July’s Palio for a particularly nasty fight with its enemy last year. Luciana’s Selva, on the other hand, wins all the time. I thought at first that Roberto’s exclamations and lamentations over his contrada’s lack of recent victory contained more humor than real disappointment. After speaking about it with him a bit more, it became obvious that, for the Sienese, the Palio is no laughing matter Perhaps because I asked so many questions about his contrada, or possibly because he wanted to gain another ally in the house, Roberto presented me with the flag of La Lupa later that night.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

June 21st
Dinner with Luciana and Roberto continues to be a wonderful opportunity for speaking practice. Yesterday, we talked about siblings. I told Luciana and Roberto about being the oldest of four kids, and we had fun throwing around the Italian and English versions of my siblings’ names. During our dinner conversation today, I realized that although I’m sometimes frustrated with being able to understand yet not always being able to articulate my own thoughts well, I’m doing something right. My family talked about past students who would eat and go straight to their rooms and close the door, and about how I should give Italian lessons to other students. I know that they greatly exaggerate, but it’s comforting to know that they consider me to be a capable Italian speaker. When I took a cab home last night, the driver didn’t know I was American at first! Of course, the woman at the bus ticket office spoke back to me in English when I asked for confirmation that the ticket could be used at any time of the day. I can communicate with my wonderfully patient host parents, though, who don’t seem to feel like they have to be patient with me at all. While we talked and laughed at dinner today, I felt the happiest I have since I arrived – and the whole experience has been fantastic. I’ve earned their trust, and I’m comfortable speaking at dinner. Now, if only I could speak without translating in my head the way I understand what’s being said without directly translating . . .

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

June 25th
After the blissful feeling that came with the realization that communication with my host family is going well, I realized once again how much I still have to learn. I went to serve at La Mensa dei Poveri (a soup kitchen), where I was the only English speaker in the building. I’ve been looking for opportunities to challenge myself, and this was definitely one of the learning experiences I’ve been looking for. Now that I’m comfortable speaking with my host family, I need to push myself to incorporate a bigger vocabulary and less hesitation into conversations. Serving at the Mensa was much like starting a new job where it’s necessary to learn all the routines that everyone else already knows, or like speaking with a group of friends who have known each other for years. Add to that the difficulties that came with a new set of vocabulary and very rapid speech, and I was definitely struggling. I felt my Italian to be inadequate fairly often during those few hours. There was also a twenty-something volunteer who heavily employed the use of sarcasm whenever he spoke to me, and I realized that responding to sarcasm is more difficult when you’re trying to express your witty responses in another language.
During lunch with the other volunteers, I encountered another challenge. Most of the Americans who trickle in to help serve a meal or two know very little Italian. From the way conversation went, I gather that the volunteers speak to each other and not as much to the Americans who can’t communicate effectively. They expect that they’ll need to speak extremely slowly in order for Americans to understand them. After I had interjected a few comments and they realized I understood what they were discussing, they began to speak to me. The challenge then was that I would be concentrating intently on following the conversation and understanding a lot of what was being said, but then the conversation would take a turn I didn’t follow. It was then, of course, that a question would be directed my way and I would need to have it repeated. It was also harder to come up with interjectory comments, as they were discussing people they know and subjects they were familiar with. I hope to return to the Mensa soon, as I can tell that it’s an excellent opportunity for speaking practice as well as for getting involved in the community.

Reflective Journal Entry 7:

June 27th
Today, I spent some time with the elderly at the Casa di Cura – Poggio al Vento, a nearby nursing home. I was able to follow instructions given in Italian, and to ask each resident what they wanted for an afternoon snack. All of the residents are in their 90s and most weren’t up to speaking, but there were a few very memorable exceptions. I spent quite a while in conversation with a ninety-three year old woman named Frasina, who told me all about her brother who had died serving in the military.
Another woman was fairly quiet and said she couldn’t hear well, but she was very alert.
“It is sad,” she said. “To be old is sad.”
I found myself struggling to respond, and it wasn’t because of the necessity of speaking in Italian. I said something cheery, mentioning that she must have many friends there among the residents and workers. Even as I spoke, I knew my words weren’t true – and so did she. She, who is so perceptive, could hardly fail to notice that almost everyone around her was unable to speak coherently or even to communicate with anything but gestures and sounds. They were all together in one room, but most of them seemed unable to take pleasure in one another’s company.
As the afternoon went on, though, I was reminded that even a gesture or an expression can communicate much. As one ninety-nine year old woman was wheeled in and I began to help her eat yogurt, her eyes met those of a friend. The woman in the wheel chair sighed, and a hint of a smile tugged at her lips. The friend inclined her head in greeting, and looked at her with encouragement, concern, and something else – pain, maybe. Or resignation.
I am here to learn the Italian language, but today was a lesson in a grammar of an entirely different sort – a language composed of arched eyebrows, of smiles, and of sighs.

Reflective Journal Entry 8:

July 2nd
Usually, I avoid heat and large crowds at all costs. Having been here to learn about the importance of the Palio and everything surrounding it, however, I was willing and excited to enter the tightly packed Piazza del Campo to wait several hours for a ninety second race. I watched as the Campo was transformed into a racetrack overnight and witnessed hundreds of tourists pour into the city in the days before July 2nd. I visited Civetta’s contrada museum, attended several of the trial races and the dinner following the Prova Generale of the Nobile Contrade del Nicchio, was present at one contrada’s Blessing of the Horse, and watched the Corteo Storico (a parade celebrating the Sienese Republic of the past). Through all of this, I learned about the history of a city united, yet divided. Each citizen is proud to be Sienese, but perhaps equally proud to be a member of his or her particular contrada.
Sandwiched between Onda fans cheering their horse on to victory, soon-to-be-disappointed Brucco fans and many tourists, I experienced the Sienese Palio. Not even the student section at ND football games could rival the enthusiasm with which the Sienese cheered on their respective one-man, one-horse “teams.” No fights broke out this year, and no particular interactions stand out in my mind. Instead, I’ll remember the experience of being swept up in that flood of emotion and in watching the battle for honor and glory. As the poet Mario Luzi put it, “The Palio is the Palio.” It is a “burning bonfire of the essence of being Sienese and in every way its incomparable affirmation.”

Reflective Journal Entry 9:

July 6th
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of bread in Sienese cooking. Breakfast at my host family’s home involves bread (with Solidal, which they claim is far superior to Nutella) and biscotti. The packed lunch they are kind enough to provide me with always includes a sandwich. At dinner, there is a pasta dish followed by a meat/vegetable dish followed by fruit and sometimes a pastry. The meat dish is always accompanied by a slice of bread, and I noticed within the first two days that one is expected to use it to sop up any oil or sauce remaining on the plate. To leave anything on a plate would be considered very strange. Good Tuscan bread is not at all salty, and it is no insubstantial, airy roll. It is firm the first day out of the oven, and, especially in the summer heat, it becomes quite hard. On occasion, my jaw has cracked while biting into a sandwich. If there’s anything I’ve noticed about eating in Italy, though, it is that food is not to be wasted. Hard though the bread may become, it must be used! In the summer, then, it is unsurprising that several of the most popular dishes call for “pane toscano raffermo” – firm Tuscan bread.
One is called Pappa col Pomodoro, and I was fortunate enough to participate in a cooking lesson in which we helped prepare it. After reading the opening page of the small recipe booklet we were given at the beginning of the lesson, I knew I was dealing with someone convinced of the importance of good food: “Eating and drinking well is more than just a pleasure, it is an unbroken link with the traditions of the past, and serves as a vivid reminder of the Italian way of life: staying healthy, eating home grown food, and taking pleasure in simple, everyday things like food and wine.” We prepared several dishes – and even got to roll our own pici noodles – but Pappa col Pomodoro was likely the most unique, as well as the most typical of Tuscany. First, add olive oil, garlic, and minced dried red pepper to a deep pot. (Our cooking instructor, Lella, would like to remind everyone that only extra virgin olive oil is acceptable). Basil leaves are added to “perfume” the oil. Then comes that “firm Tuscan bread,” which toasts and absorbs the oil. Tomatoes and a lot of pre-prepared beef broth are added next, and then more basil. It must cook for at least an hour, and then it should be put through a food mill. Simple though it might sound, I have been assured by staff members from my language school that the dish is just not the same when prepared in America. Without that saltless, firm Tuscan bread, the consistency becomes mush.
Although there was a translator for the two American couples present, the instructor, Lella, spoke to my classmates and me in Italian. If you’ve ever been in a room where a few people understand a joke a few seconds before the rest of the group, you’ll understand the atmosphere of the lesson. My classmates and I would laugh as we listened to Lella’s instructions and warnings while the two couples looked on with some confusion, and they would join in after the joke was conveyed through the translator. When the dish was finally ready and everyone was enjoying it, however, it was an excellent reminder that good food can bring people of all languages and cultures to one table.

Reflective Journal Entry 10:

July 8th
My host parents and I watched “Una Voce per Padre Pio” over dinner today, and I learned the extent to which Roberto dislikes the Church. “Una Voce” is a benefit concert that celebrates the life of Padre Pio, an Italian priest who was canonized in 2001. He is said to have performed many miracles, and it was this idea that got Roberto started on his tirade against the Catholic Church. He spoke about how he believes that the Church fabricates such ideas only to satisfy the people – people whom he believes follow the Church because they fear death and want to believe there’s something that comes after.

“And you,” I asked him. “Do you believe that there’s something after death?”
“Morte e niente.” He said. “Finito.”
Death . . . and then nothing. He went on to speak about the “grandiose” descriptions of heaven and hell offered by Dante, about how people don’t want to end up in Hell and so obey the Church. Then, he briefly mentioned the Inquisition and other ways in which he believes the Church did more harm than good.
Today wasn’t the first time the subject of religion has come up during my stay in Italy, and I am certain it won’t be the last. One of SIS’s high school interns told me that she was baptized into a contrada, but that she’s never been inside a Church. Upon hearing that we were going to Sunday Mass, a friend’s host dad expressed incredulity. “The Church is inside you,” he said. “Why go inside a building?”
Here in this country dotted by Churches, to which millions come to marvel at religious icons and frescoes preserved within medieval monasteries, there are barely enough churchgoers to fill four pews at Sunday Masses in many parishes. Participation in the Church by children and young adults is rare. Yet, the Catholic faith is embedded in the culture. Why is it that Italy’s churches remain empty, yet there was firm resistance when a law suit sought to have crucifixes removed from public schools (see

Reflective Journal Entry 11:

July 10th
In general dinner conversation with my host family, the subject of the US comes up in some form or another nearly every day. Usually, it’s because of something on TV. During my first dinner with my host family, I was a bit surprised that the television was kept on during dinner. Although televisions in the kitchen are perhaps fairly common in the US, I think it’s fair to say that watching television during family dinner time is generally frowned upon. I know that in my house, dinner is a time for our family to be together and to converse without the TV as a distraction. After experiencing how TV affects the dinner table dynamic and speaking with other students and our Reflective Writing teacher, however, I’ve come to understand why it stays on.
On a historical level, television was instrumental in promoting the use of “standard” Italian. Italy has been a much divided country, and its political unification in 1861 did little to convince the population to abandon their dialects in favor of standard Italian. Only in the 1900s was linguistic unification achieved, and the gradual diffusion of methods of communication such as cinema, radio, and television were largely responsible. Dialects, differences in pronunciation and regionally unique words still exist, of course, but knowledge of standard Italian is much more common and even expected.
In the US, I’d say the fear is that television will create a bubble of silence and encourage everyone to shovel food into their mouths with eyes glued to the television. In my experience in Italy, however, this has never been the case. For one thing, food is far too important to Italians to allow anything to detract from its enjoyment. The changing of plates from course to course takes up a pretty significant amount of time, as does my host dad’s determination that I learn how to twirl spaghetti like a true Italian. For another, the TV provides topics to discuss. I’ve enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the dramatic Italian version of Deal or No Deal, in which the boxes have the names of Italian regions rather than numbers and there is a “pacco x” that is nearly always bad news. There is always a news story about something going on in America, an American song in a commercial, or an American TV show (let me tell you, it’s pretty strange to hear Italian coming out of Betty White’s mouth). I’ve learned that Obama turns up on the news fairly often, and that my host parents think he seems “nice” even if they don’t have any particular knowledge about his policies. They know more American actors of past decades than I do, and know all the gossip about the Italian actress who dated Frank Sinatra.
I’ve picked up many other opinions on America from casual conversations in and out of class. My Reflective Writing teacher said that American students, and Americans in general, have a reputation of always been stressed out. I’ve also spoken with two of the university interns at my language school about their opinions on the US. Valentina told me that she’s been to New York, and especially liked the people she met there. New Yorkers may have a reputation of being hurried and sometimes even unpleasant in the US, but Valentina told me she found them to be very open, and much more willing to speak with strangers than Italians. Italians dislike and are confused by the American healthcare system, however, and believe it is unjust. On the subject of Obama, her views seemed to be similar to my host parents. She could say that he is viewed well in Italy, but admitted that she really doesn’t know enough about him or his policies to judge.
The other university student, Francesco, had much more to say on the subject of politics. Like the others, he told me that Obama is well liked by Italians and Europeans in general. He was honest enough to admit that more conservative Italians would probably disagree, but maintained that most Italians look more favorably upon Obama’s administration than the Bush administration. He said that Obama, as the first African American president, has symbolic importance for the world. His democratic position, Francesco said, is closer to the ideas Europeans support. I asked for clarification on his use of the Italian word for “democratic,” wondering if he was referring to the Democratic Party as well as to the idea of social equality. This question led him to a long explanation of Italians’ views on social equality, and on how and why the Democratic Party is generally looked upon more favorably than the Republican Party. Like Valentina, Francesco said that Italians find America’s health care system extremely strange. He spoke about the Italian belief that the state exists to help its citizens by providing public schools and health care. In general, he said, Obama and the Democrats are seen as being more open in their ideas and policies. He added that the Bush administration’s method of dealing with the Middle East seemed strange, and that America shouldn’t try to resolve other nations’ problems.
The most entertaining perspective on America, though, came from my Art History professor. When one of my classmates asked if we could have the topic for the eight page papers we have due in two weeks, my professor laughed, said we would talk about it next week, and added that it was a very American question. He compared it to asking, “What are we doing tomorrow? A week from now? Three weeks from now? For the rest of our lives?”

Reflective Journal Entry 12:

July 12th
Allow me to make a brief digression from talk of language gains to describe my enthusiasm for gelato. Usually, I find myself avoiding counting out coins in favor of using cash or debit. Here in Italy, however, I save up my 50 and 20 euro-cent pieces for the very specific purpose of eating as much gelato as possible. Although I’m no gelato snob (I can’t say I’ve ever left a gelateria dissatisfied), I can’t help but smirk just a little when I see a tourist walk by with a 2.50 euro cone from the bright, modern looking gelateria on the street that crosses through the center of town. I, who have called this city home for four and a half wonderful weeks, know that I can take a few turns in the opposite direction and return with a 1.80 euro Kopakabana cone containing at least twice as much gooey goodness. I have a definite weakness for Tiramisu, especially when I get tiny pieces of the actual dessert folded in. I’ve also taken a liking to Nocciola, Opera, and other nutty flavors. As far as “coppa” or “cono,” I find that I enjoy my treat more when I can lengthen the time it takes me to devour it. In the hot Tuscan sun, this means that I forgo the satisfying crunch of a cone in favor of a cup and the tiny spoon that makes it possible to savor each accordingly small bite. The best way to find a gelateria, of course, is to wander away from the touristy areas and turn down a few side streets. At least, this is the strategy my classmates and I have employed with some success. Inevitably, however, the gelateria you know must be near is nowhere to be found when you’re walking up and down the many steep Sienese hills with gelato as sole goal. When you’re walking with a purpose towards class or some other opportunity to be productive, though, you can bet your last euro-cent that you’ll happen upon just such an oasis, and find yourself veering off the path and moving towards fragola, stracciatella, fior di latte, and that charmingly tiny gelato spoon.

Reflective Journal Entry 13:

July 15th
There have been many chance moments of language learning in the past few days. My favorite occurred while my roommate and I sat on a ledge eating lunch before going to help serve lunch at the soup kitchen. An eighty-seven year old man zoomed past us on his Vespa, and then parked it near us. He ambled over, and chatted with us for quite a while. He wanted us to guess his age, to know that he is well acquainted with the city because he’s been around so long, and especially wanted us to know that he’s still very physically fit. He went so far as to tell us we should feel his bicep, just to prove his point.
While serving at the soup kitchen, I was able to serve as translator for two Americans who stopped in hoping to help serve dinner later that night. I was also much more successful responding to the soup kitchen volunteer who specializes in sarcasm.
It’s much more common for me to understand conversations I’m passively hearing rather than actively focusing on. While waiting at the bus stop the first few weeks, only certain words would register in my mind. Now, I hear conversations between elderly women discussing the pros and cons of owning a car, of teenagers daring each other to run across busy streets, and one end of the conversation businessmen have over the phone.

Reflective Journal Entry 14:

July 22nd
I’ve always said that I enjoy reading because I love stories – tales of adventure, of King Arthur’s knights, and of modern day heroes. I’m beginning to see that I love stories because they make tangible the elusive truths about what makes life beautiful. I love hearing people speak about their favorite memories – watching their eyes light up as they tell me about their successful matchmaking efforts or the trouble their three year old has been getting into. There is significance, too, in listening to people recount a painful time in their life. In being willing to share those parts of life, they often acknowledge that there was something meaningful about that moment that they’ve carried with them, and they believe you might think so too.
Today, my roommate and I asked Roberto and Luciana to share their stories with us through photos. In our third-to-last dinner with our wonderful host parents, it didn’t seem strange to ask. At first, they claimed they didn’t have any. When they opened a cabinet to look, however, it turned out they had quite a few. We looked at photos of the two of them at a costume party in Egypt, on holiday in Sardegna, laughing in New York, with their children in the mountains, and (of course) on their wedding day. We pored over the pages of this last album with many exclamations, and our host parents just laughed. There they were, forty-some years younger – Roberto, with the same self-confident and endearing smile, Luciana smiling more hesitantly for the camera but clearly very happy.
Pictures, like stories, bring back all the details and colors and emotions of the moments that have always been somewhere in your memory. Somewhat faded, they remind you that those moments are in the past. Instead, you’ll have to provide the fresh and vibrant colors of new experiences. The look of love Luciana and Roberto exchanged on their wedding day has grown into something more mature – even allowing for the arguing over whether a later photo was taken in Positano or Corsica. My roommate and I agree, though, that we hope our marriages will be like Roberto and Luciana’s: full of teasing and even some real frustration, but brimming with genuine affection and love, and a shared history that includes many moments worth remembering.

Reflective Journal Entry 15:

July 25th
I walked down the hall to my room this afternoon, inhaling the now familiar scent of soap. I remember how, on my first night here, the unfamiliarity of that smell and of being in someone else’s home made me feel queasy and a little homesick. Now, it’s just one of the many sights, sounds, and smells that make up my Italian home. Of course, Roberto and Luciana are really what make this house a home. I’ll miss hearing Luciana describe what happens if she has more than a fourth of a glass of wine (la testa – va giù, giù, giù!), Roberto slapping the table in mock frustration that I haven’t heard of an actor from the 50s. I’ll miss seeing Luciana puffing up her cheeks when describing someone as chubby, and Roberto’s confident and endearing smile.
My roommate and I scoured the shops near the Campo and Piazza Gramsci in search of a vase and some fresh flowers as a parting gift. We found a beautiful terra cotta vase and picked out tiny white roses and baby’s breath to fill it. I carried it carefully while wending my way through hilly streets with even more tourists than usual, and kept it safe on the always crowded and jerky bus. I was expecting Roberto to smirk just a little, but instead he exclaimed “Bellino, davvero,” kissed both my cheeks, and protested that he was about to cry. It made me realize again how much I’ll miss them. I’ve been truly blessed to have two such wonderful people in my life for these six fleeting weeks.
As far as language learning goes, I’ve still got a lot to learn. Every time I’m feeling really comfortable communicating my thoughts and feel I’m being understood, another challenge comes in the way of an elderly florist who slurs every word, a sarcastic soup kitchen volunteer, or even a few vocabulary words that context can’t help me define. There’s no denying, though, that my Italian has improved significantly. I am now confident in my ability to communicate effectively if not always eloquently, and I am comfortable discussing a variety of topics. This will be invaluable when I return to Italy in the spring, this time to spend six months studying in Bologna! I’ve also gained a great appreciation and affection for Italian culture, and look forward to spending much more time getting to know its intricacies and idiosyncrasies.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

For one thing, I learned that the method I used during the first few days – to speak as much as possible to anyone willing to speak with me – needed some tweaking.  If I was not careful, I would begin communicating a thought before I was confident I could express it in Italian.  Granted, this did help me to think quickly in searching for different ways of expressing thoughts. It often made my sentences sound choppy and took me a long time to get the words out, though.  Living with a host family was extremely helpful when trying to understand cultural differences.  My host parents were happy to tell me about the contrade and Sienese traditions involving the Palio, and were always curious to hear about traditions in my family or in the US.  For the most part, I was successful in meeting my language goals.  I had much practice navigating social interactions, and I am confident I can communicate effectively if not always eloquently.  I believe I was able to meet my goals because I was intentional in choosing where and with whom I spent my time: conversing with my host parents, participating in class, serving at the soup kitchen and at the nursing home (I regret that I was unable to go more often), and entering into the experience of the events surrounding the Palio, among others.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

“It’s one thing to read about a culture, it’s another to be immersed in it.”  As many times as I heard those words before I left for Italy, I certainly did not understand them fully until I found myself studying, eating, talking, and living in Siena.  I hope my journal entries document all the small details I noticed and insights I will carry with me from my time in Siena. When trying to put into words my more broad, overall thoughts about the experience, I simply find myself overwhelmed with gratitude.  My host family, the wonderful staff at Siena Italian Studies, and the many other people I met during those six weeks invited me to become part of their community.    My advice to anyone who is considering applying for an SLA Grant is, first of all, to apply.  I cannot imagine that anyone with a genuine interest in learning a language and gaining a genuine appreciation for a culture would regret the decision.  If you are truly motivated to live and learn in another country and to seek out opportunities to grow, you will have a memorable and rich experience.  We as Notre Dame students are so blessed to have opportunities like this one.Many thanks to my parents, to my wonderful Italian professors at Notre Dame (Profs. Yocum, Sbordoni, Blad, Keyes, and Moevs), to my generous sponsors Ms. Mimi Ravarino and Mr. Patrick Keough, and to Mr. Lance Askildsdon and those at the CSLC, for making my summer language abroad experience possible!

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

This semester, I am enrolled in Passage to Italy and the one-credit class Let’s Talk Italian II, as well as a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Outside of class, I listen to Italian radio and plan to watch Italian films or even films dubbed in Italian (the majority of tv shows and films I watched with my host family were the latter).  I am very much looking forward to my spring semester in Bologna, where I will have another opportunity to immerse myself in Italian culture! Perhaps the paper I wrote on the Bulgnaiṡ dialect for my Sociolinguistics class while in Siena will even come in handy.  Post-graduation, I hope to go on to graduate study in Comparative Literature and to spend time researching and studying in Italy.  Having confidence that I can communicate effectively in Italian will serve me well!  As I mentioned before, I have also gained a great appreciation and affection for Italian culture, and look forward to spending much more time getting to know its intricacies and idiosyncracies.