6-Alla prossima, Roma

Il Patria, Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Venezia

The last week! I’ve had a wonderful time here in Italy. I can definitely say that I learned a plethora of grammatical rules and tenses in Rome with ItaliaIdea. I am so very grateful to the donors who were generous enough to give me this opportunity, and I will undoubtedly be back in Italy, if not Rome.

This past week, there was the national holiday Ferragosto on Tuesday. Ferragosto was originally a pagan holiday, but because Catholicism is the national religion of Italy, it has been transformed to celebrate the Assumption of Mary. That day, the whole of Rome seemed void of Italians. This is because most Italians leave the city to flock to the beaches and have lunch or dinner and party with their friends and family. Since I didn’t have class, however, Huda and I had an American breakfast at a bar called Meccanismo in Trastevere and then right after, we went to the Borghese Gardens. We got refreshments and sat in the park and talked, watching Italians and tourists alike pass the holiday out in nature.

Breakfast with Huda at Meccanismo

 

 

 

 

American breakfast
From breakfast to the Borghese gardens
Cafe shakerato at Villa Borghese
Huda and I at Borghese Gardens
View to Piazza del Popolo from the Pincio

Later that evening, we met one of Huda’s friends, Jurgita, at the Spanish steps. Coming from Lithuania, she had just finished an internship in Florence and was living in Rome. She had just returned to Rome from a vacation at home and it was her birthday, so we celebrated by getting gelato and then sitting on the spanish steps to talk.

Sunset at Piazza di Spagna

Friday, my last day, I ended up having lunch with Huda before class and we went to this Sicilian bakery we knew near Via Arenula. Later that night, we had our last dinner tonight at a well-known restaurant, Nonna Betta, in the Jewish Quarter.

Canestrino at the Sicilian bakery
Mixed desserts at Nonna Betta
Last view into the building courtyard from my apartment

The English Language

The most surprising thing about Italy was the pervasiveness of the English language. In most restaurants, shops, and the streets of even small cities, the locals speak to tourists in English – some with excitement at the opportunity to practice, and others with grudging distain.

I discovered that as a result, perhaps, Italians are generally excited, impressed, and grateful when an American replies to them in Italian – no matter how poor the pronunciation or syntax.

Perhaps the pervasiveness of English is an aggregate good for commerce, the sharing of ideas, and the creation of a global culture – in which people across the world consume and appreciate the same literature, film, and other media – but sometimes it makes me feel like a downright imposition. The Italians and other Europeans I interacted and conversed with on a daily basis were forced to meet me more than half way when comprehension was lacking on either side.

Most obvious were the embarrassing encounters at stores where the busy clerk, upon seeing that I hadn’t comprehend his blur of Italian slang, laboriously and disdainfully spat: “vould you like a baaag?”

More poignant an example is what transpired when my Italian friend introduced me to his French friend from Erasmus, the European equivalent of study abroad. Eddy (Edoardo) speaks his regional dialect, Italian, passable French, and very good English. Yana speaks her native French, less Italian than I (and that is a meaningful distinction), and English. As a result, most of our conversations – excepting the moments in which Eddy tried to impress and flatter Yana with declarations in French – were in English.

As the native speaker in this scenario, I found myself explaining the idioms, pointing them in the right direction as they searched for the English words to express themselves, and occasionally giving a small grammar lesson. I felt their micro-frustrations when they struggled to get a point across in my vulgar tongue.

I learned that Americans are exceptionally privileged – even compared to the more international British – because their language is spoken globally, yet also sheltered and disconnected. I hope that next time I go to Italy the natives I converse with will only have to meet me a little more than half way linguistically.

Interactions

Near closing time at my local supermercato, I found myself alone in the checkout line. I have no idea how they do it, but the clerks there usually guess that I am an American and ask in English if I would like a bag. Perhaps it’s my way of dressing, the food I toss in my basket, or the way I carry myself, but they always seem to know. In this instance, whether from fatigue, indifference, or ignorance, the clerk asked me – in Italian – if I would like una busta. I replied excitedly, in Italian, that I would indeed. When it came time for the customary transaction of the credit card for the pen to sign, she noticed that the one she presented to me was out of ink. In frustration, she threw it in the trash and stomped over to the next till – muttering exasperatedly about her long, boring, and tiring day – to find a functional one. As she walked, I said after her, “posso firmare in sangue” “I can sign in blood”. She returned chuckling with the pen, and when I left with my busta, she wished me a good day with a smile on her face.

To have the words immediately available to respond with empathy and effect the timing of comedy is a testament to my small degree of linguistic achievement.

Art

Before visiting the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence, our culture class professor asked us to read an essay by Walter Benjamin titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). It made me consider the notion that viewing art in person is a superior experience than viewing a reproduction. Until reading Benjamin’s essay, I had accepted the former as true with little consideration. I had visited art galleries in America from a young age and been taught to marvel at the presence of something original. More so during my time in Italy than ever in my life, however, I was confronted by art in its original form, if not in its original condition of presentation, and I began to consider why our society values originality and why I had never bothered to consider the questions Benjamin raises. While I don’t, perhaps, understand his underlying commentary on Fascism, Capitalism, and Marxism, I do have these reflections in light of one trip to Florence:

Despite the advent of exact reproducibility, art suffers from a secondhand experience. Whether the casual observer appreciates what Walter Benjamin called the unique condition of its presence in time and space, or they are merely drawn to famous works such as Michelangelo’s David by their rarity and popularity, most people today recognize the value of viewing art in person. The advent of modern technology including reproducibility does, however, provide new and profound ways to experience art.

There are two main reasons for which modern observers journey and pay to see art. One is to appreciate the work’s unique presence in time and space, and the other is to participate in the ritual of observing something rare – and in the modern style, share this experience with others through social media. Though one reason might be seen as more valid or noble than the other, the necessity of a first hand experience and an understanding of the work’s historical and artistic significance underlies both rationales.

The masses that Benjamin references desire “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). The masses of his time desired to overcome the privileged uniqueness of art by participating in an exciting and new estimation of it, namely photographical reproduction. The masses of the current time, however, are familiar with reproduction to the point of disillusionment; they seek out authenticity because today it is something rare (there are, of course, people of Benjamin’s and the current time who would view the firsthand experience of art as an unnecessary privilege). Anyone with Internet access can see any work of art, but only the privileged few are able to see the same in person. In a culture that values the portrayal of only the grandest moments in one’s life, through social media, viewing The David in Florence is much akin to having court side seats at Wimbledon; it is the rarity that counts more than the content.

In Benjamin’s framework, The David can be thought of as created with explicit exhibition value rather than ritual value. Though David is an important Christian figure from the Old Testament, the statue was not meant to be reverenced, but rather admired as he gazed out over the Florentine skyline (possibly aiming his sling at Siena). Today, the statue has gained something of a ritual value. Tourists stream into the Academia, rush past the Prisoners, and make a lap around The David to photograph him from every angle.

The other main reason for viewing art in person is to appreciate its unique condition of presentation. Benjamin writes that with a mechanical reproduction of art, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated”. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).  Benjamin elaborates that the unique condition of art includes its changes in physical appearance and changes in ownership – both create a “testimony to the history which it has experienced”. Each great work of art has an aura constituted by and exists in the domain of tradition. Michelangelo’s David provides an interesting case because it was originally meant to be displayed atop the Duomo and was subsequently displayed in Palazzo della Signora. Today, its aura has evolved and its placement under a skylight in a well-lit room, flanked by the Prisoner sculptures, has become authentic. For this reason, the same tourists who flock to Florence to see The David are less likely to stop and photograph the replica in Palazzo della Signora.

While the firsthand experience of art is vital, modern technology – including reproduction – offers some viewing benefits. When discussing mechanical reproduction, specifically photography, Benjamin writes, “process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens”. Later in his discussion of film, Benjamin observes, “the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). For this reason, art is able to be experienced in new and profound ways with the amplification of technical reproduction.

In the example of The David, a wise professor was able to show me the details of the veins on his right hand and explain the reason for his distinct proportions before I ever set foot in the Academia. Similarly, I saw close up images of David’s hair and learned Michelangelo’s reason for leaving it relatively unfinished; had I seen the statue only in the Academia, I would not have fully appreciated the contrast between David’s detailed sideburns and stony hair – due to his height. While modern technology cannot replace the human experience, its conscientious use can enhance the latter.

 

Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Schocken/Random House. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

Un Sogno della Puntualità 

On my morning walk from Casa di Alfredo to the Dante Alighieri School, I pass through five unique zones of the city, discernible by my five senses. I observe different activities in various parts of the city by tasting, touching, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

First, I wake up in the residential neighborhood outside the city’s north gate. I become aware of nonna and Antonella chatting excitedly in their thick Sienese accents. Outside my window, I hear the other guests conversing in rapid Korean. Already, I am immersed in a foreign sea of sound (for an American, most any European city offers greater diversity than at home. In the Bed and Breakfast alone, I have met people from Japan and Mexico, and at school, I have met people from Australia, England, Switzerland, France, Canada, and Austria). As I walk into the dining room, my nose is all but overwhelmed with the aroma of fresh sausage, espresso, Parmesan, warm milk, Nutella torte, and poorly made Americano coffee. The familiar tastes of nonna’s fresh bruschetta, plums, and salami excite my taste buds and draw from me the last visages of sleep.

I can tell I have left the residential quarter as soon as I step out of the wrought iron gate of Casa di Alfredo. Busses, cars, and Vespas roar up and down the hill traversed by Viale Don Giovanni Minzoni as the drivers honk their horns and make some of the rude gesticulations I have learned about in class. As I timidly stand on the curb waiting for a traversable gap in traffic, I inhale the exhaust from cars and feel the heat from their tail pipes. Alternatively, in situations where I am late for school, I sprint wildly across the congested street as eager tourists in busses and yawning, suited Italians on Vespas alike watch with respective horror and approval. In either case, when I reach Via Camollia, I know immediately I have reached the third stage of my journey.

I pass a shop that sells bikes, one with fresh wild boar in the window, one with overflowing boxes of fruit stacked outside, and one that sells swords, maces, and armor. The proprietor of the tobacco store wearing – what I have observed over the past five weeks to be – his favorite white dress shirt and cargo shorts sits sipping a café across the street from his shop. In this zone, life seems more naturally organized: the pedestrians, Vespas, and few cars weave in between each other in an unregulated but sensible pattern, without silly contrivances like traffic lights and stop signs. A car rolls around a corner then gently inches forward to avoid a woman crossing the intersection – but just barley. Vespas, garbage trucks, street cleaners, and all manner of automobiles and mounted police somehow navigate a street built for less activity. I comprehend snatches of conversation and odd words spoken by the Italians opening their shops or rushing to work while chattering on the phone, and easily recognize the tourists already blindfolded by their maps, weighed down by backpacks, and speaking in their vulgar, grating American English. As I enter Piazza Salimbeni, to my left I hear the jangle of the beggar’s first or last few coins as he twirls them back and forth with his calloused hands and sits on a ledge outside a shop. To my right, I see the newest street art edition: a rather emotive rendition of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

Suddenly, a shop owner throws a bucket of water into the street that nearly misses my shoes. As she begins to sweep the street clean I realize that I have now begun the fourth more metropolitan segment of my journey. It is almost a surprise, still, that as a truck rumbles behind me waiting to pass a large crowd of pedestrians, I look to the left and above the arches of the Palazzo soars the iconic tower. My calves strain and my shirt becomes damp with sweat as I climb the hill with Accademia Musicale Chigiana on my left. An owl hoots as I recall the baroque theater in the Chigiana in which I heard string quartets from France, Japan, and Italy play a concert the other night.

Finally, walking under the Virgin Mary enthroned next to the street sign above the Trattorias and tourist traps in Pantera territory, I reach the fifth and final leg of my journey. This residential quarter is quiet at all hours of the day and the parked cars and Vespas look almost out of place between the narrow medieval walls. A family sits smoking on their steps and I greet them with a friendly “buona giornata”.

As I approach the School, I think of the heated debate Christophero and I have carried on since the first day of class about the fastest route from Casa di Alfredo to Dante Alighieri. Perhaps my route following Via di Città is longer than his that snakes behind the Duomo. I take my path everyday, however, not because it’s familiar and straightforward, but because it is never exactly the same. The shopkeepers I recognize will always have different expressions and the students and professionals on their way to work (some of whom pass and greet me in the street everyday) will never be dressed in the same way or thinking the same thoughts. The fruit store will never have the same selection of fruit it does today, and the water the shopkeepers use to clean the street in front of their businesses will never run down the street and dry in the same pattern. When one follows the same path everyday, he begins to see Siena as more than a compilation of buildings, museums, and churches, but rather as a living body – of citizens, tourists, and students – constantly growing, changing, and thriving.

Arrivo alla scuola presto e poi, mi sveglio nella Casa di Alfredo.

Palio

On Tuesday when Rebecca, the teaching assistant in my language class, returned after an absence of a few days and I asked her where she had been, she replied simply: “il Palio”. For the Sienese, it is obvious that the four days of the Palio are a culmination of year long preparation and something never to be missed. For a foreigner, it is impossible to understand the exuberance of victory, the crushing pain of defeat, and the centrality of the Palio to the lives of those deeply involved in contrada life.

The two horse races per year are the pinnacle of excitement and surrounded by parades, passionate (inebriated) singing, and festive meals, but there is much more to contrada life than these spectacles. Originally created by the guilds and for military purposes, the contrade are social and family units. Children grow up and learn together, young adults socialize, and adults share a profound connection with their contrada brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.

While visiting the Torre (the best contrada), a wise Professor told us that the contrada organizes programming for the children whose parents work during the Palio. During a visit to Pantera with Professore Andrea, I learned that it is not just during the quattro giorni, but all year long that adults in the contrada care for and pass down knowledge and traditions to the younger members.

My host brother, Alfredo, told me about the special bond that forms between young adults of the same contrada. They form very tightly knit social groups which, in his opinion, create negative social divisions. From his perspective, heavily participating in contrada life limits one’s social circle and experiences. For example, his ragazza is of the rival contrada to his own and they both choose to limit their participation in their respective contrade. The youth who decide to participate in this lifestyle, however, have an unparalleled community.

The Palio and the contrade are examples of living history. From the centuries old costumes worn during parades with drumming and flag twirling to the communal dinners that fill the narrow medieval streets to their capacity with tables of revelers, those who participate in contrade life embody tradition and create a family.

Briccone

One morning in the dinning room at Casa di Alfredo, I was was attempting to transport a rather large piece of mille foglie from the buffet table to my already brimming plate. As it slipped from the tongs, landing in a poof of powdered sugar and leaving a chocolate blob on the pristine

Playing chess outside Casa di Alfredo

table cloth, my host grandmother (nonna) tottered into the kitchen and quipped “tu sei un briccone!” Thus I learned my new favorite Italian word.

As my friend Alex – who spent the last 6 months attending classes at the University of Bologna – told me, it is when we are mortified or hilarified, or both, when memories and bits of the language stick in our minds.

In this context and with her voice inflection, briccone was a light hearted admonition from an elder to a younger – “tu sei un briccone” roughly meant “oh you knave, you” . When I got to school that same morning and asked Giuseppe, a native Sienese and the student assistant in my class, what kind of word briccone is, he told me it would be a bad idea to call our professor, Enzo, a briccone.

Later when my roommate here in Siena, Alex, forked my king and rook and I exclaimed “tu sei un proprio briccone”, the Italian students watching our game laughed and nodded in agreement.

The next morning, I asked nonna if she would kindly indulge my crippling espresso addiction and make me un café per favore. When she asked if I would like any milk – or maybe even a macchiato, I replied that perhaps a café corretto – espresso and rum or grappa combined in a 1:1 ratio – would be appropriate at this hour. When she slapped my arm in mock horror and replied “no, no è sbagliato nella mattina,” I told her that all bricconi drink café corretto in the morning. She chuckled, and complimented my small, but important, linguistic achievement.