I miss Italy already.

I’ve grown to love Italy over the weeks I spent there, and it was so so hard to say goodbye (or “Arrivederci”) to all the people at the school, to the cheap but fresh gelato and pasta, to the beautiful streets and art, to speaking Italian. 

From the Facciatone, at the Museum of Duomo

One of the things I’ll remember fondly is the school- my fun and lively teacher Alessia, my lovely classmates (especially those who have been around for most if not all of my time there), the kind and helpful ladies at the reception who had tolerated my stunted Italian in the first few days, another teacher– who is also my personal medieval art guide–Andrea, and other students who I’ve gotten to know really well.

my lovely classmates and Demetria the teaching assistant

picnic at the fortezza with my most diverse friendgroup ever 🙂

I’ll miss these lovely people from UIC and Portland State!

I always had tons of fun in class, which was jam packed with different activities. One of my favorites was learning about the lively gestures Italians use to express themselves, whether it’s to tell someone that the food is really good, to say that someone is crazy, or to gesture that “the party is boring, let’s leave.” I also really enjoyed learning about the colloquial expressions that are used in spoken and informal speech, and the abbreviations young people use in SMS or chats. I cracked up when my Italian friend told me that they say “Top!” to say that “they’re doing really great.” But most of all, I’ll miss playing the games at the last hour of class, whether it’s the dreaded game of Categories, the fun Taboo or Scarabeo (Italian scrabble, whoop!), or the interesting Cultural card game.

playing Scarabeo, the Italian scrabble with my two friends

Looking back to the weeks I spent in school and reflecting on my level in Italian, I’ve definitely improved a lot- especially in listening and speaking. I remember the first day I was in Italy, when I struggled to ask for directions or to order my food in Italian. It’s crazy to realize that after 5 weeks, I was able to have conversations comfortably with the many Italians I met in Krakow for World Youth Day last week, talking about the places I’ve been in Italy, our studies, our favorite food, and many other things. On the week I spent in Krakow, I met Italians from Lombardia, from Napoli, from Parma, and from Padua (my favorite city, and my favorite group of Italians!). My favorite part was seeing their expressions when they realized that I speak Italian. They would have this mix of happy and surprised look on their faces, and then conversation would start from there. When we traded things, one of the girls from Padua gave me an Italian flag! It’s such a perfect “souvenir” to remember both Italy and also the lovely people I met in the World Youth Day.

World Youth Day selfie with the group from Padua!

I remember learning about Italian proverbs and idiomatic expressions in one of the classes that are related to time. One of the expressions was very similar to English: “il tempo vola.” It is basically the Italian version of the saying, “time flies.” It definitely applies for this summer- it went by so fast! It felt like I just left home for Italy yesterday. I can’t believe that classes start in about two weeks from now!

I will definitely cherish the memories I had in Siena, and I will embrace every opportunity to keep practicing and speaking Italian even when I come back to the US. I have lists of Italian movies and books I want to get my hands on, and I’m excited to go through them. But most of all, I hope that I could return to Italy in the near future!

oh Siena, mi mancherai :’)

Oh, Italian Food.

Other than the people and the beautiful views, one thing I would definitely miss is the food. From the €1.50 piece of pizza, the freshly made and customized panino (fun fact, it’s actually “panino” for one sandwich, and “panini” is the plural word!) the cheap but also fresh pasta from the bottega, the full four or five course Italian dinner that takes 3 hours, to the scrumptious but cheap gelato, the food here is just heavenly. It might be the fresh ingredients, or the time, dedication, and passion the locals pour onto preparing them.

(Before reading the post, I’d like to apologize in advance for te lack of photos- I always got too busy enjoying the meals/the conversations or cooking to take photos! But hopefully my writing would suffice.)

Let me tell you something. Even the things that I don’t like (or would rather not eat) back home, somehow taste 100 times better here in this country. I’ll list a couple of them as examples: red pepper, mushroom, chicken liver (I would gag if I had to eat them back home or in the US!), eggplants. But here, they taste oh-my-goodness so delicious you don’t even care what you’re eating! The chicken liver here is processed and seasoned so so well, and then put on top of the crostini/bread like a spread. It’s actually become one of my favorite antipasti! Another unique food that I tried here, which I have tried before but am not really passionate about, is tripe. It’s the inner muscle walls of a cow, and is a regional specialty here in Tuscany. I tried this dish, which is called “la trippa”, in one of the restaurants that had been recommended by a local, and I really liked it!

clockwise from the bottom left: penne arrabbiata, bistecca, pici boscaiola, and la trippa!

While staying here in Siena, I’ve also had the opportunity to attend a cooking class with the other Notre Dame kids here at the school! It was so much fun, and we learnt to cook a full Italian dinner, which consists of the antipasto or appetizer, primo piatto (first course, normally pasta or rice), secondo piatto (second course, which would be meat, chicken, or other protein), and dolce (dessert, yum!). We all worked as a team with the chefs who helped to teach and supervise us while we prepare the food. For the antipasto, we made some bruschetta and crostini with vegetables on top. For the primo piatto, we made a thin pasta called “stracci.” We all got to make the pasta from scratch! It was my first time making pasta from flour and eggs, and using the pasta machine. It was so much fun, kneading the dough and rolling the pasta machine. And then for the secondo piatto, we prepared rolled turkey breast with spinach filling. I also had the privilege of whipping the cream for the dolce, and stirring it all together with the gelatine, milk, lemon zest mixture. The dessert was a scrumptious creamy concoction with berries and a cookie on top, called the Bavarese alla Crema.

my proud face upon seeing that the bavarese alla crema turned out well!

But I think that what I enjoy the most about my meals in Italy is how much they brought the people together. The dinners I had with my friends take at least 1.5-2 hours (sometimes more). Whether it was at a full meal in a restaurant, an aperitivo (a pre-dinner warm up, yum!), a picnic, or a homemade dinner in my own kitchen, we had really good conversations during those meals. There were dinners when we talked about the Brexit issue, politics in Spain and the US, about life in Siena, about the meaning of friendship, about the places we had gone to, about our faith and beliefs, about our home and family, or just about life in general. Friendships were started and built through inviting people to have meals together. During those conversations, you got to know the person’s perspectives on things, their cultural and family background, their values and identity. It was beautiful, as I look back now, how much the power of food could really bring people together. It’s definitely something that I would miss as I leave Italy, but it’s also something that I want to keep doing as I go back to Notre Dame.
Here’s to all the good meals in the future! :).

“Facciamo una passeggiata!”

The title, in Italian, means “Let’s take a walk.” It’s definitely something that I’ve been doing a lot since I got here. Taking a walk isn’t something that I do a lot back home, not something I’d do to get to places- but here in Siena (and other cities in Italy that I’ve visited so far), it has become my favorite means of transportation. One main reason is that it’s super economical, AKA free. But another reason is the things you see, or bump into, along your way: the interesting stores and alleys, unexpected opening between the buildings with a beautiful view, random artworks on the streets, a parade of people from the contrada marching in medieval costumes, vibrant markets, etc etc.

A beautiful chalk painting on a street in Siena!

A beautiful chalk painting on a street in Siena

A parade of young people from the contrada Bruco

I bumped into a parade of young people from the contrada Bruco!

A vibrant fruit market in Venice that I found as I walked from the station

A vibrant fruit market in Venice that I found as I walked from the station

Siena is particularly fun to walk around, with little “vicolo” or small streets, random openings in between the buildings with amazing views, and very interesting buildings with medieval architecture all over the town. The town is located on a series of hills, which sometimes makes it more like an exercise than a casual walk. But these so-called “struggles” make it even more worth it when you discover something beautiful!

One of my favorite views is on a hill near the Basilica of San Domenico. I was just wandering around a small alley next to the church after attending mass, when I saw that there was a pizzeria that my friend had recommended to me the day before. I decided to walk up the alley to check out the menu of the pizzeria, and as I walked along the street, I reached an open area with three restaurants on the right side, and a beautiful view on my left! I could see the black and white stripes of the Duomo, the tower at the main piazza, and basically most of the historic center of Siena!

what a view!

what a view!

Other than Siena, I’ve also had the opportunities to travel to a couple other cities in Italy, like Florence, Venice, Padua, Rome, and San Gimignano. I did visit some museums and saw a lot of beautiful art–especially in Florence and Rome! I was overwhelmed with joy as I saw the works of the Renaissance masters like Michelangelo’s Pieta, Raphael’s School of Athens, Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation; and also the magnificent Baroque sculptures and monuments by Bernini all over Rome! Being an art history nerd, I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked through the Piazza San Pietro in Vatican, and also the galleries at the Uffizi and the Vatican Museum. These artworks–and my weekend in each cities–need another separate blog post, as they were just so amazing.

The beautiful piazza and Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican

The beautiful piazza and Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican

One of my favorite artworks of all time: Michelangelo's Pieta

One of my favorite artworks of all time: Michelangelo’s Pieta

But other than the beautiful artworks in the museum, I also enjoyed walking around the cities, where I was able to people watch, wander around the streets and shops, marvel at the buildings with medieval, venetian, or classical architecture. In Padua (one of my favorite cities so far!), for example, the vibrant energy of the young people and modern shops blend well with the renaissance buildings, the charming roman porticoes, the spacious piazzas, canals and bridges around the city.

The famous clock tower in Padova, at the Piazza dei Signori

The famous clock tower in Padova, at the Piazza dei Signori

Another beautiful piazza in Padua, Piazza delle Erbe

Another beautiful piazza in Padua, Piazza delle Erbe

One of the canals in Padua!

One of the canals in Padua!

Walking around, I discover a little bit more about each of the cities. In some ways, the cities are like artworks themselves, the works of urbanization from many years ago which are well-preserved, beautiful piazzas and green parks with buildings carved surrounding it, cobble-stone streets lining around it, with blocks of sunlight going in between the trees and buildings.  These “passeggiate” that I took around each cities reminded me of my art history class last semester, where my professor talked about the urbanization in Rome and other cities in Italy in the past- he more or else said that the process of urbanization is like carving a space with the buildings and monuments, creating a livable area for the people. I could truly understand and appreciate what he was talking about, as I walked through the colonnades, along the rivers and canals, or sat down at a piazza.

An early morning walk along the Arno River in Florence, on our way to the Uffizi!

A peaceful and beautiful early morning walk along the Arno River in Florence, on our way to the Uffizi!

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, after climbing what felt like hundreds of steps of staircase

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, after climbing what felt like hundreds of steps of staircase

The lovely Venice :)

The lovely Venice 🙂

A panoramic view that I found when I walked at San Gimignano

A panoramic view that I found when I walked at San Gimignano




Siena: Churches and Artworks

Two things that one has to explore in Siena are definitely the churches and the artworks. This charming Tuscan town proudly houses beautiful churches with really impressive collections of artworks. Siena has such a rich history dated way back to the Medieval age, and I love love love exploring and learning about the town through its art and architecture.

So far, I have visited the Duomo complex (the Cathedral here in Siena), which includes the Cathedral building, the Baptistery, the Crypt, and the Museum (Museo dell’Opera). I’ve also explored the Sanctuary of St Catherine, the Church of San Domenico, the Oratory of San Bernardino and the Palazzo Pubblico (which used to be the main building for the communal government).

The facade of the Duomo in Siena

The facade of the Duomo in Siena, a must-visit! The architecture features a really cool mix of the Gothic and Romanesque style

The interior of the Duomo in Siena: black and white is the color of Siena!

The interior of the Duomo in Siena: black and white is the color of Siena!

I personally really like the Palazzo Pubblico, which is located at the main piazza, the Piazza del Campo. In the past, the building used to function as the administrative and justice building for the city, and the walls of the palazzo is full of really beautiful and intricate frescoes and other artworks. One of the most popular artworks from this building is probably Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which fills the entire walls of one of the rooms in the palazzo. It portrays the effects of a good and bad government, with the values associated to each kind of government–justice or injustice, balance or chaos, etc. But one of my favorites was the Maesta, a fresco from the Medieval age painted by a Sienese artist called Simone Martini, which depicts the Madonna sitting on a throne with baby Jesus, surrounded by saints and angels. Siena is a town who worships the Madonna, and this painting is a perfect portrayal of the town and their devotion. The fresco is very elaborately done, with some gold to add to its richness.

the Maesta by Simone Martini

the Maesta by Simone Martini

Our visit to the Palazzo ended with a nice surprise. At the back of the Palazzo, there’s a wide terrace that opens up with a really beautiful panoramic view of the hills surrounding Siena. The view was just overwhelmingly pretty, and combined with the slight breeze blowing in such a hot afternoon, it made me want to stay at that terrace forever!

The beautiful view from the terrace!

The beautiful view from the terrace at the back of the Palazzo Pubblico

My other favorite is the Baptistery of the Duomo, or in Italian “il Battistero di San Giovanni.” It’s much smaller compared to the main cathedral, but it is just as beautiful! The entire room is filled with paintings, frescoes, and sculptures from the early Renaissance period (in the years of 1300-1400), from the floor to the ceiling. My neck felt a little bit stiff after that visit, as I spent so much time looking up to look at the painted ceiling (it was so worth it, though!). But the main star of the entire room is the Baptismal Font, which is a very interesting art piece done by multiple talented Italian Renaissance sculptors. I went with a group of other students and one of the teachers from the school, Andrea, who helped to explain to us the different artworks. He told us that many years ago, almost all of the locals were baptised here at the font! He himself was an art history student, and you can tell his excitement in sharing his knowledge of the artworks as he told us about the different sculptors who did the marble reliefs and statuettes on the Baptismal Font. Some of the artists are Jacopo della Quercia, Giovanni di Turino, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and (the most famous of all) Donatello. The reliefs depicted different scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, whom this Baptistery is dedicated to. Walking around the font, I felt really awed with the intricacies and the moving scenes portrayed by the reliefs, which tell the story of the Saint in a very expressive manner.

The Baptismal Font

The Baptismal Font at the Baptistery

Two other places I visited, which I would definitely recommend to those who wish to come to Siena, are related to Saint Catherine of Siena, the most famous saint who was born and raised in this lovely town. One of them is the Sanctuary of St Catherine, which used to be her house. It was a really peaceful and beautiful building, and a nice place to just pray and meditate. I went to daily mass there, and it was a really interesting experience, attending mass in Italian with a group of locals. Listening to the Homily was quite a challenge, as the priest spoke really fast and passionately. However, I was able to get some of the gist from the preaching and the readings, and my listening comprehension skills have (thankfully) improved since my first day here in Siena. My first mass was something of a mess, where I wasn’t able to understand much, and I had such a hard time following the responses in Italian and listening to the Homily. But now I’m more used to it, and I can focus better to listen and understand what’s happening!

The Sanctuary of St Catherine from the outside

The Sanctuary of St Catherine from the outside

Anyway, the other place associated with Saint Catherine is the church of San Domenico, where there are precious relics like her severed head and one of her fingers venerated. Located on top of a hill, the church has a humble and austere medieval style architecture.

Church of San Domenico on top of a hill

Church of San Domenico on top of a hill


Reading this post, you probably sense how many times I’ve used the word “beautiful” to describe the places and artworks I’ve seen. Apologies for that, it’s just that this town is full of rich and beautiful things, they kind of drive me speechless. It’s crazy that there are still some beautiful churches and artworks that I haven’t seen yet, despite the fact that I have been here for three weeks. I only have two more weeks here, time flies so fast!

Till next time :).

il Palio: more than just a horse race!

My apologies for not writing last week! It was a busy week here in Siena, more tourists came to the town and the locals were bustling with excitement and anxiety, all because of the Palio–the biggest event in the town. I consider myself very lucky that I was able to be in the city while this great event unfolded. I got the opportunity to not only watch the race from the middle of the piazza, but also take part in the events leading to the race. The school of Dante Alighieri organized a group led by one of the instructors to go to the various events.

A little bit about the Palio: it’s an annual horse race unique to the town of Siena, which happens twice a year (one on 2 July, and another one on 16 August). If you ask a Sienese person, whether he or she is young or old, they’ll tell you that the Palio is more than just a race, it’s a huge part of their lives here in Siena. It’s been around for about 400 years, and it involves the entire town. The town of Siena is divided into 17 “contrada” or neighbourhoods, and everyone would grow up with their contrada. When asking a local if they were from Siena, most, if not all of them, would answer proudly that they were born and raised in their contrada. Every Palio, 10 contrada would take part in the race. They race to win the “drappellone”, or the Palio banner, which is made by a local artist, and depicts an image of the Madonna. (And also pride and bragging rights, I suppose). The race itself is only one day long, but the ceremonies and events leading to the race start three days before that, and the preparations for the race is all year long. The race takes place in the main piazza of the town, Piazza del Campo.

The first event that I attended was the assignation of the horses for each contrada at the Piazza del Campo. Earlier that day, 30 horses ran around the piazza, and the captains of the 10 contrada picked 10 horses. Then those 10 horses were assigned randomly to each contrada. That afternoon, thousands of Sienese people gathered in the piazza to see which of the ten horses would be their horse for the Palio. They marched in as a group, and left proudly chanting their contrada song with their horse. It was fascinating watching the reaction of the people from the contrada upon hearing which horses they got, whether it was one of the better horses, or one of the inexperienced ones.

The next event I attended was one of the trial runs for the race. It was held on a Thursday evening at the piazza. The horses and their jockeys got the chance to try out the “track” for a couple times from Wednesday to Sunday, doing the full three laps around the piazza. These trial runs were almost as well-attended as the Palio race itself. About an hour before the start of the trial run, the people of the contrada would march into the piazza while chanting their contrada song, with their horse leading the “procession.” The horse is the star of the weekend–they get the best treatment, and are guarded by a “barbaresco”, a man who was assigned by the contrada to take care of the horse. This man would stay with the horse the entire time, even sleeping with the horse, to prevent it from being “sabotaged” or harmed by anyone or anything. Watching the trial run was like watching a sneak peak of the Palio, although a lot of the horses and jockeys did not run as fast, merely trying out the course of the race.

The crowd at the Palazzo Comune, waiting for the trial run to start

On Friday afternoon, I went with a group of students to the Blessing of the drappellone at the Basilica della Santa Maria in Provenzano. The whole Palio race is dedicated to the Madonna, who is the patron of Siena. In July, the whole celebration of Palio is done at the Basilica in Provenzano, while in August, it’s done in the Duomo. So that afternoon, hundreds of people went down to Provenzano to get a closer look at the drappellone, which depicts the Virgin Mary, the emblem of the contradas, and interesting creatures which look like a mix of horses and men. At the top of the drappellone, the words “Divinae Misericordiae” was inscribed, as this Palio is dedicated to the Jubilee year of Mercy. (For a peak of the banner, go to this link: http://www.ilpalio.org/drappellone2.7.2016.htm)

Basilica in Provenzano, during the Blessing of the drappellone/Palio Banner!

Basilica in Provenzano, during the Blessing of the drappellone/Palio Banner!

The most interesting event, however, was the contrada dinner that Friday evening. I got the chance to join the contrada of Tartuca (tortoise!) for their huge dinner on the evening before the day of the Palio. There were hundreds of people (or maybe close to a thousand!) from young to old, attending the dinner, and the night was filled with camaraderie. The food itself was really great, a full five course Italian dinner from antipasto to dessert, cooked by the women of the contrada. During the dinner, the captain, the jockey, and the head of the contrada gave a speech for the people. It was amazing, the community spirit and pride they have as a contrada.

The Tartuca contrada dinner!

Saturday was the day of the Palio! In the afternoon before the race, all the contrada people flocked down to their contrada church for the Blessing of the Horse event. It was a solemn event led by the contrada priest. I attended the blessing of the horse of the Draco contrada, which was held at a garden in front of the church of San Domenico. The people of the contrada arrived together as a group, led by young men of the contrada marching with drums and flags wearing medieval costumes. They entered their church and said some prayers, and then moved into the garden forming a circle around the center of the garden. Their horse then marched in with the jockey. The priest said a short blessing for the jockey and the horse, and then the horse was taken back to the stable to wait for the race. It was a relatively short event, but the atmosphere was full of tension. You can sense the anxiety of the people from the contrada, their determination to win the Palio.

After the blessing of the horse, it was finally time for the race. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the piazza to watch the race. An hour before the race, the young men of the contradas entered the piazza in a very fascinating procession with drums and their contrada flags, waving and throwing the flags up in the air as they marched with pride representing their contrada. Then the Palio banner arrived in the piazza, carried in a giant carriage around the piazza. Soon after that, the horses and the jockeys entered the course. The crowd went completely and eerily silent as the official of the city read out the order of the horses at the starting line (again, the orders are determined randomly) from the inner side of the course, to the outermost side. It took awhile from the announcement to the start of the race, as some of the horses grew anxious with the crowd. Finally, a bang was sounded to announce the start of the race. The crowd went crazy, yelling and cheering loudly for their contrada. One of the contrada, Nicchio (the Shell contrada) was leading for the first two laps, but at the last lap, suddenly the horse from the Lupa contrada (the Wolf contrada) caught up and took over the lead to the finish line. As the horses went past the finish line, the people from Lupa started pouring out into the race course, running towards the horse and the jockey. I watched on TV a glimpse of their celebration at the Basilica in Provenzano after the Palio race, where they gave thanks and chanted the Tedeum to the Virgin Mary.

The people from the Bruco contrada (caterpillar!) marching with their flags, drums and medieval costume

The people from the Bruco contrada (caterpillar!) marching with their flags, drums and medieval costume

The whole weekend was so eventful and exciting, and I learnt a lot of things about the people of Siena as I went to the series of events leading up to the Palio on Saturday. I was a little overwhelmed by the big crowds that flooded the town, but the experience of being in the town during the Palio was one that I will always cherish and remember. I was able to witness the people’s passion, their sense of belonging and pride to their contrada, their fierce determination, and their strong ties to their traditions.

It was a really great week!

Week 1: Ciao from Siena!

I landed in Florence last Sunday, and it was quite an interesting trip getting from Florence to Siena. From the airport, I had to take a bus to the train station at the city centre, and then take a local bus that takes me to the bus station in Siena. The train station in Florence was a huge hub of transportation, with very limited signs and staff. It turned out to be my first opportunity to speak Italian, as I tried to find my way to the bus to Siena. I was rather rusty, after not speaking in Italian for about a month, but I managed to find my way to the bus. On the bus, I sat with a very nice lady who lives in Florence. She doesn’t speak English, but we managed to converse with my limited Italian. She told me that she was visiting her son who is studying in Siena. She also gave me a lot of recommendations for places to go in Florence–museums and churches to visit, food I should try, and many other things. We talked for almost the entire trip, and I was so happy when she told me that “tu parli italiano bene!” (you speak Italian well!).

After about one and a half hour of travel, I finally arrived in Siena! I’m living in an apartment with five other students who come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world to learn Italian. Even though I don’t get to speak as much Italian as some of my friends who live with a host family, I love listening to my house-mates’ stories on why they chose to learn Italian, and how they fell in love with the language and the culture. It helps to remind me of my own motivations: my love of Italian art and history, and (of course) Italian food.

Anyway, today is my second day here at Società Dante Alighieri. I’m in a class which consists of 9 students, and my teacher is a proud and lively Senese who is really approachable and patient, and the past two days of classes have been very fun. The first day was a little bit draining, as it started early with an oral placement test, and I felt like I learnt a week’s worth of Italian language in just 4 hours. However, the lesson was really engaging, and I learnt a little bit of Grammar, listening, and speaking at the same time. The class is fully and completely in Italian, which means that every difficult or new words that we did not know is explained in Italian, by either giving a synonym, a phrase, an example, or a drawing on the whiteboard. This is something that I didn’t do in my Italian class at Notre Dame, and it definitely helps to improve my vocabulary. We also did fun activities which required a lot of speaking and working together as a group. I felt like I was definitely pushed out of my comfort zone, and encouraged to learn as much as possible.

After class yesterday, we went on a quick tour around the city. We were also given a schedule of activities organized by the school for us: a visit to the Duomo, Museo dell’Opera, Pinacoteca art museum, and some other places around the city. What I’m really looking forward to, however, is the events leading to the Palio! The Palio is a horse race that takes place twice a year in Siena, and has been around since the 14th century. The first Palio of the year is happening on July 2, which is just a week away. The whole city is buzzing, and I’m really excited that I would be able to watch the race and the days of preparation up to the race! There will be dinners, selection of horses, blessing of the horses (in the church!) and some other events.
I will talk more about the Palio on my next post.

A dopo!

Piazza del Campo: where the Palio takes place!

Piazza del Campo: where the Palio takes place, and also my favorite spot (so far) in the city for people watching!