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 :’)

Sorrento – Week 6

I’ve just gotten back home from an absolutely wonderful week traveling through Italy! While it’s nice to have reliable internet connections and reasonable humidity forecasts, it was certainly a bittersweet goodbye as I already miss the country I have grown to feel a part of. While talking about Italy’s performance in the last game of the Euro Cup, I found myself using the word “noi” which means we in Italian to discuss the team. I didn’t realize it until my Italian friend pointed it out, and I was a little embarrassed at first considering that I was including myself in a group of people I technically didn’t belong to, but he was quick to tell me that it was heartwarming to him that I consider myself such a part of Italy, and that I should continue to use “noi” when discussing Italy. It was one of the many little exchanges I had with native Italians that really made me feel like I was leaving a new home. It was very difficult to leave Sorrento especially knowing how far away it is from the US, but I hope that I can return someday in the future and visit my host family and friends, hopefully fluent in Italian.

Over the next week I visited Rome (Roma), Florence (Firenze), Verona, and Venice (Venezia). Before traveling, I knew that Italy was very separated into its regions by dialect and overall culture. In Italian class back at Notre Dame, we would touch on these differences watching satirical youtube videos or listening to the professors tease each other based on where they are from in Italy. It was so interesting to be able to see those changes in such a fast pace as I traveled from the southwest coast to the northeast coast of Italy. Rome is the largest city of Italy, the capital of the nation, and the home of the Vatican City. This was my second time visiting Rome on this trip, and I was still in awe of the history around every corner. There is really a sense of greatness you feel when walking around the city as you pass the Roman Forum on the way to the Pantheon, stumbling upon the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum along the way. There is a harmony between the ancient and the modern that I haven’t seen replicated anywhere else. The people of Rome are generally very nice, and seem relieved whenever I would speak Italian to them. I think that in the hustle and bustle of the day, speaking their native language gave them a bit of a breather from the communication barriers they have with the hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. It was a pleasure to return to my favorite sites and restaurants, but also to explore new areas. We went to the Vatican City to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. It was almost a game for my friend and I to ask questions in Italian to the guides and people working to see what I could pick up and if they would notice that I’m not a native speaker.

My friend, Mackenzie, and I at the Colosseum

My friend, Mackenzie, and I at the Colosseum in Rome. 

We took a quick trip to Florence just for the day to see the David and the Duomo. Florence was absolutely beautiful, and I really regret not spending more time there. The shop owners were so helpful to me because I struggled a bit more here than in Rome with my Italian, but they would try not to resort to English and instead rephrase the questions and statements to help me out. While there were still plenty of tourists, it was a refreshing escape from the “big city” atmosphere of Rome. I struck up a conversation with our waiter when we were having dinner, and he told me how he actually just bought the restaurant with a few of his friends and about how important it was to them because they grew up eating there, and by the end of the night they had given us free tiramisù! I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to have that opportunity had I not been speaking Italian.

Next, we visited Verona to see Carmen at the Arena Di Verona, a functioning ancient colosseum famous for its operas and concerts. Verona was by far my favorite part of Italy as it had a hometown kind of feeling. It wasn’t very touristy compared to the bigger cities, and by the second day we were there we had thrown out the map because we already felt like we knew the place. We stayed at a b&b owned by a young man named Matteo, and we had the opportunity to meet his 4 year old son as we checked in. He didn’t speak much English at all, so I could tell it was a big relief to speak Italian. He was impressed that I knew the language and even more impressed that I was able to keep up with him. He gave us dinner recommendations and gave us a few tips about going to the opera. He was extremely helpful and really made our experience in Verona that much better because we felt like we had a friend to help us if we needed it.

Finally, we went to Venice to top off the week. We had heard wonderful things about Venice from friends at home and at school, so we were eager to arrive. We stayed in Mestre on the mainland, and would take the bus into the Island in the morning and home at night. It was a nice system that saved us a ton of money in the long run. The Veneto dialect was a little hard to understand as it deviates the farthest from the Italian language taught in school. Most people would switch to Italian when they heard me speaking it, but a few of the waiters and shop owners weren’t able to speak Italian, so we just communicated in broken Veneto and Italian until we had an arrangement. It was like a little puzzle and it was fun to have more of a challenge. I didn’t realize how different Veneto is from Italian, and I’m glad that I was able to study in Sorrento where Italian is widely used on a daily basis, and I still got to learn a little bit of the Neapolitan dialect. While in Venice, we went to a concert in Stra on the mainland at Villa Pisani, one of the Villas owned by the government that used to be run by the wealthiest of Italy. It was truly grand and to see my favorite pianist and composer, Ludovico Einaudi, perform on the courtyard was a truly unforgettable experience. I think that my friend was the only attendant of the concert that didn’t speak Italian, because I didn’t hear a single word of English during my time there and that was rare. The signs were only in Italian, and the security men and guides wouldn’t offer any English. I could tell my friend was a little out of her comfort zone, but I was glad that I picked up on everything and was able to maneuver around the Villa to find the concert with the Italian instructions.


This last week of travel, while not technically a part of the SLA, was a true culmination and test of the Italian I learned in Sorrento. I really do feel more confident speaking Italian, and I find myself thinking in Italian some of the time. It has been really interesting to see the shift between learning a language as in school, and learning to become bilingual from being around native speakers. While I’m certainly not fluent, I think that I’ve really come a long way in being able to respond quickly in Italian and process what I’m hearing as though it were English. I can’t wait to finish the language sequence at Notre Dame, and hopefully return to Italy for a semester abroad next year and be able to confidently say that I am a fluent Italian speaker. I think that I have laid a good groundwork for fluency in Sorrento, and I’m really eager to continue my studies at Notre Dame.

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 :).

Sorrento – Week 5

My last week in Sorrento has just come to a bittersweet end, and yesterday I took the Circumvesuviana to Napoli and began a week long tour of Italy with a friend. It is going to be an interesting adventure to move through the biggest and most well known cities in Italy while trying out my Italian skills as I move farther and farther north. We began our journey in Sorrento, and will end in Venice at the end of the week. It’s going to be a cultural and linguistic whirlwind, and I hope that I can really make the most of it before burning out!

My finals went well this week, and I was glad to receive As in both of my classes. I had really learned a lot from both of my professors, and it was a little difficult to walk out of the door on that last Thursday. We had a farewell luncheon at a Trattoria on the Marina Grande the next day with the students and faculty of the Summer One program, and it was another of many heartfelt goodbyes. The group of kids unaffiliated with specific university programs like myself and the Italian friends we had made during our five weeks here had our own unofficial farewell dinner to say goodbye to everyone. It was a Mexican themed potluck, and everyone brought the food they missed the most from America if they could make it.

We had an Italians v. Americans game of soccer the day of Italy’s final Euro Cup game, and needless to say there was a lack of competition. With equal effort on both sides of the field, the Italians had managed to shut out the Americans 14-0. It was interesting to see that some of the phrases I would yell out on the field would be spoken in a mix between Italian and English. I’d scream “vai vai vai” at our players as they ran across the field, and a few other phrases I had picked up from our opponents. When we all watched the game together later that night, I noticed that everyone was cheering on the Italian team in their native language. Cheers of “forza azzuri” and “forza Italia” rung through the living room of a friends home as Italy contested the Germans for the majority of the game.

During each of these events, I had realized that I had really made a home of Sorrento. Speaking to my host mother in Italian was effortless, I had friends who had grown up down the street from me who were so helpful in teaching me and helping me with my Italian, and I was asked to come back and say goodbye from some of my favorite store owners and workers. I really feel that I have made myself a part of the community in Sorrento and the surrounding areas. I learned that it was so much easier to grow and learn if I really gave myself the opportunity to fail. The native speakers were almost always supportive and helpful, and they would make sure that I really grasped what I was saying, even if it was incorrect.

With a heavy heart I leave Sorrento, but I know that my five weeks spent there and on the Amalfi Coast have had such a tremendous impact on not only my Italian, but also my cultural awareness, curiosity, and overall language learning and competency skills that I cannot even begin to fathom at this point and time. I am so eager and excited to begin my journey through Europe without a life jacket. I’ve challenged myself to only speak English to my friend that’s coming with me, so each restaurant, tour guide, and store owner must be spoken to in Italian. I’m a little nervous to travel speaking my second language, but all the more excited to see how my Italian is received outside of Sorrento with complete strangers and native speakers.

Arrivederci, Sorrento! It was an incredible five weeks. Onward to a new challenge!

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!

Sorrento – Week 4

As my fourth week of class ends here in Sorrento, my final examinations are just around the corner. It’s incredible how quickly these past weeks have passed, and how integrated I feel in the daily life of Sorrento. Just the other day I was complaining about the rather sudden arrival of mostly British tourists in Sorrento to some Italian friends of mine, and how the sudden spike in tourism has affected my time spent around town, and they had to remind me that I am technically a tourist despite having lived here for a month. It was a playful reminder of how much I feel a part of the community here, and yet how much room I still have for growth.

This week I traveled much less so I would have some quality time with my friends and host family in preparation for final exams and really hunkering down on my schoolwork. I’ve noticed that there is very little stress in Italy, a very different feeling than in the States. If I’m a few minutes late for my early class of the day, I receive a pat on the back for sleeping in and we continue with the lessons. There is no such thing as a set schedule for anything here. Buses, trains, and appointments all tend to run late and there is no pressure to do much of anything on a tight schedule. Time should be spent with those who make you happy doing what makes you happy, and for this reason I am already dreading my return to the hustle and bustle of life in America.

The view of Positano from about halfway up the mountain.

The view of Positano from about halfway up the mountain.

My friends and I went to Positano over the weekend to visit the beaches and the incredible views of the Amalfi coast. I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the city, but my sense of awe was quickly muffled by the long and winding walk down to the beach on such a hot and humid day.  Positano is a well-known tourist destination for the rich and famous of America, and for that reason it was difficult to communicate in Italian with any of the store owners. It seemed that every tourist was from America, and I found it a little troubling to be in such a beautiful Italian city that seemed to be overrun by American tourists. After some time at the beach, my friends and I were eager to return to Sorrento and to our friends.

My host family held a birthday party for the young girl upstairs who had just turned nine yesterday. I walked in the kitchen to find five pizzas, a chocolate mousse cake, and homemade tiramisu. Needless to say, I was elated. My roommate was in Florence for the weekend, so the party consisted of myself and five Neapolitan women ranging in age from 9 to 70. It was so interesting to see the family dynamic of neighbors, and how age has created very few barriers for these women. They were so comfortable with each other and immediately adopted me into the group, taking photos with me and making fun of my “american appetite”. Hands were flying in every direction as they were so fond of the hand gestures Italians are famous for. Sometimes I find myself using them as well, and it will be interesting to see if my family picks up on it when I see them in two weeks. My friends from home had jokingly given me a book of swear words and slang in Italian claiming that it held “everything I really needed to know”, and I was so glad they did. That nine year old girl had the mouth of a sailor, and it was funny to know precisely what she felt comfortable saying around her mother and elders. I was surprised at how much I understood at the dinner table, and how much I was willing to participate in conversation. Carla, the birthday girl, was eager to get to know me as her interest in American culture could be validated by my knowledge of pop culture.

Carla's birthday cake was made by a family friend, Maria, who owns a pasticceria.

Carla’s birthday cake was made by a family friend, Maria, who owns a pasticceria.

As final tests approach I feel bittersweet about leaving Sorrento. I have forged so many great bonds here with people from all over the world. I am sincerely going to miss being able to speak Italian with virtually anyone I meet and the carefree nature of summer life on the Amalfi coast.

Sorrento: Pompeii, Brutal Classmates, and more (Week Four)

Ciao a tutti!
Sorrento has been home for a whole month now. As the summer ramps up, the streets in town have become more and more packed with tourists, so I’ve been spending more time further off the beaten path when meeting up with local friends. Class this week went somewhat well, I’ll say. This week I had two classmates who were both over sixty, and they were very sweet people just just awful in class, I must say. One spoke fluidly but butchered just about every word, and the other spoke well but always would forget one word in a sentence and stop the whole world while she thought of it. Worst of all, they constantly interrupted the teacher and themselves, even when the teacher would try to explain something…ridiculous. By Wednesday, I knew what I had to do: join the yelling match. The rest of the week I guess I practiced my quick Italian. when I spoke, it had to be quick and fluid or else I would be interrupted by the other two, so I was able to practice jumping in to conversations. When life gives you two lemons in class…

After classes, I tried to catch up on some frequent vocabulary and brush up on what I did in the first week, which I realized I need to do a bit more of. A couple friends in town had a lot of free time this week, so I was able to hang out while speaking and hearing heaps of Italian. I can see a dramatic improvement in listening comprehension, especially when I have context and hand gestures as aids. Speaking is definitely lagging in comparison to comprehension, but I think that’s normal; it just makes me want to continue expanding my vocabulary so I can quickly call to mind what I’d like to say.

I was also able to talk with a few locals this week about their thoughts on the U.S. Of course, it was impossible to steer clear of talking about Trump, but we covered a good range of topics. Everyone I talked to alluded to Trump being a spectacle and the ultimate unknown. They were most concerned with foreign relations if Trump wins, as again it’s a complete toss-up. I tried to drive the conversations away from politics in general. I tried to focus on perspective of the U.S. as an idea, and here’s some paraphrasing of the responses:
Young man (20 years old): America is open and fertile. You can do anything there. Success is so available, not easy but there for the taking. Imagine if I had been born in Texas: Hi, I’m Mario and I come from Texas–go Cowboys. (He’s a character without a doubt).
Middle-aged woman: People tell me that Italians and Americans are different, but when I talk to Americans I don’t see all the differences. When it comes down to it, I think we face essentially the same challenges and reach for the same goals.
Older gentleman: I could be American. I could have left as a youngster and made myself in America. I could have a beautiful estate in New York right now. The truth is, though, I could have just as easily failed, been the poorest guy around, unable to provide for a wife and kids. (He said this while surrounded by his lovely big family at his farm…I think me made the right choice).

Initially I thought that talking with the older gentleman was more of a story than a perspective, but after sitting with it for a while, I realized that his account in fact was his view of the States. The U.S. to this gentleman, more than anything, represents a chance he had back in the fifties and a hypothetical unravelling of his own life from there–it was incredible to see him dream ever so slightly while speaking of what might have been…and even better to see him finish the story by kissing his wife.

Hearing these thoughts gave me a good sense of the local sentiment, and the variety of responses was refreshing.

It’s hard to believe, but visiting the great Pompeii was a side note to this weeks happenings. Another astounding sight on the Bay of Naples, especially for a student of classics.

Pompeii's amphitheater written about by Tacitus

Pompeii’s amphitheater written about by Tacitus


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!