Post-Program Reflection

1. Language learning and acculturation

When I was thinking of my goals for my language learning during this program, I think that I set my expectations too high. I thought that I could become fluent, or nearly fluent, during these five weeks, but in reality I’ve only become proficiently conversational. I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself fluent in Italian, but I also know that it is possible and I know how to do it. My obstacle during this experience was that I let myself speak English too much. All my friends spoke English, and it was much easier to get my point across in English, so that’s what I did. If I were to do this again, I would choose to live in a home without another American student (at least not in the same room) and I would try to take advantage of more of the lectures and activities offered by the school that were solely in Italian. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel engaged in the Italian culture. I felt very immersed and accepted into the Italian culture, which encourages me to continue working toward fluency.

2. Overall SLA experience

If I had to name the one thing that changed the most about me due to this experience, I would say that it was my confidence. If any of my friends and family are reading this, they’re probably laughing right now–I’ve always seemed like an extremely confident person, but in reality I am only confident in situations that I am familiar with. This summer, I was in a foreign country trying to speak a language that I knew only through grammar exercises and 3-minute oral exams. Going into this experience, I was terrified to be so out of my comfort zone, but I assumed that if SLA was willing to invest in me, I could do it. Writing the application was the first step in my growing confidence, and that is my advice to any prospective applicants. Be confident in yourself, and the rest will follow. The Italians would default to speaking English with me until I spoke Italian with enough confidence to convince them that I knew what I was doing.

3. Moving forward

This experience has only solidified my desire to live and work in Italy post-graduation. To do this, I need to improve my language skills even more. So, I am planning on meeting with my fellow Notre Dame students from this SLA program weekly to practice our Italian. Also, I am looking into internships in Italy for next summer in my desired career field. While I did not form any relationships in Siena that I believe will provide me a job, I now have a familiarity with the country and contacts that can help me do the work of finding the correct place for me in Italy. Additionally, I know now that I want to study in Italy for a semester, so during that time I can do research and make connections with potential employers and friends then. This summer has pushed me to continue my studies in Italian because I have fallen in love with the culture, the people, and the country.

My Return to Venice, and a Not So Nice Airport Surprise

I am writing this from the Venice airport as I wait for the check-in desk to open and pray that my bag, which is definitely over 23 kilograms, is under 32 kilograms. A word of advice–Venice is not a city that you want to be lugging an insanely large suitcase through. But I did, and as I was struggling and wondering why I didn’t just hire a porter service, I remembered the promise I made when I left Venice at the beginning of my trip: when I get back to Venice, I’m going to show them that I can speak Italian.

It turns out that all you have to do is tell the people here that you know a little bit of the language and are in Italy to learn more. Then the Italians are much more sympathetic. The first time around, I could see them roll their eyes at my first ciao. They definitely thought, “Here’s another tourist who has a book of Italian phrases trying to show off.” But once I explained my purpose, they were much more willing to help me. The woman at my hotel was very excited to help me learn, and when another group of English speakers came in, she asked me for help with a couple of words. The waiters, too, were very willing to help out. No matter how hard I try, I look and sound American, even when I speak Italian, so they initially speak in English. Some continue to speak English even when I only respond in Italian, but some would switch to Italian without me having to say anything. Then I would share my situation, and everyone would immediately compliment me and only speak Italian. I felt so validated every time someone would tell me that, and now I know that, even though I’m not fluent yet, I’ve come so far.

Now to the reason I am at the airport 5 hours before my flight: the country-wide transportation strike. When I got a notification about this a few days ago from Alert Traveler, I thought nothing of it. They said the same thing would happen during my weekend in Rome in the city’s public transportation, but I didn’t notice any delays. I wasn’t worried until the woman at my hotel said something. I asked her why they were striking, and she said that it’s jsut something that the transportation industry does fairly often that no one in Italy really pays attention to unless it affects their travel plans. She told me to make sure that my flight wasn’t cancelled and to get to the airport early. Now that I’m here, it doesn’t seem to be a problem, and my airline’s desk doesn’t open for another hour, so I have time to ask around. I spoke to the help desk about the strike, and she said that any delays or cancellations due to yesterday’s demonstration, so my flight shouldn’t be affected. She also didn’t seem very phased by this–just a normal strike like any other day.

This seems so strange to me. Yes, there are strikes and walkouts in the US, but nothing country-wide, and it’s never actually affected me. And I’m lucky here… no trains will be running today, so my friends back in Siena who were planning on leaving today are in trouble. I’m starting to really appreciate the American air transportation service. Europe wins with the trains (when they run), but I would really rather not have this stress hanging over my head. Oh well. I’ll have plenty of time to contemplate these different systems in the air and when I’m home.

I guess this is my goodbye to Italy. Not the farewell it deserves, but I know I’ll be back someday, if my flight isn’t disrupted by another strike.

Thoughts on Thoughts

This is a very specific experience, but I think that it is significant enough to share with you all. This week, my school offered an after-class wine tasting at a local restaurant. Because it was one of the few afternoon activities that I could attend (my Italian culture class tends to interfere with the offered activities), I decided to sign up. This wasn’t for the wine, but instead because a woman in my class was nervous to speak in Italian with other people from the school she didn’t know. So I agreed to go with her, and I was excited to experience such an important part of Italian culture while getting more practice with my conversational Italian.

As we walked from the school to the restaurant, I observed that I was the youngest one on this excursion by at least 25 years. That meant that I was going to be grasping at straws for conversation topics. So after a quiet walk over only conversing with the woman from my class, we took our seats and began the program.

The man teaching us about the wines we would be tasting was a Sienese native who knew exactly zero words in English. He also had an extremely strong Tuscan accent, which made some sentences completely impossible to understand. But I buckled down and concentrated so that I could follow as much as possible and actually learn something about the wines. And we also learned that it is a very bad idea to make a joke about the Palio with a member of the Contrada that came in second place, that is, Oca, the home of the wine expert. Luckily, it wasn’t me who made the comment, and it gave us an opportunity to learn about what makes a person in Siena tick.

But all of this revelation was in Italian! Obviously, I’m no wine expert (like the gentleman sitting next to me), but that meant that the vocabulary I learned from the restaurant man was imprinted into my brain in Italian. For example, I know to look at the lacrime that the wine leaves on the glass to assess how thick the red wine is. I also learned some quirks of the Tuscan dialect, such as that in Tuscany it is acceptable to call a puppy a canino instead of a cagnolino. 

After three hours of tasting wine and speaking completely in Italian, I had to return home for dinner with my host family. I thought it was the wine, even though I only had a few sips from each different type, because my mind felt weird. My thoughts seemed to flow more than be clear individual ideas in my head. Then I realized–I was starting to think in Italian! This was the first time it had happened to me, and I didn’t want to waste it. I had about 10 minutes at home before family dinner, and I made sure to listen to instrumental music rather than speak with my roommate in our standard English.

That dinner was one of the best conversations we’ve had with our family, also. We were swapping stories about food, family, what we’ve done so far in Italy. The news was on as always, and I was following stories much better than usual and contributing to discussion of current events. Because I wasn’t wrestling with my thoughts as much, the language came much more naturally for me.

This experience has made me very hopeful for my chances of achieving fluency. With my departure just around the corner, I have to accept that this isn’t going to happen on this trip, but I’ve gotten a taste of the language in its natural habitat, and I am definitely farther along in my speaking skills than I ever imagined. While this way of thinking slowly changed back to what I now recognize as my English thought process, I know that my capabilities are there. It’s just up to me to unlock them.

Rome, Florence, Lucca, and a Tower

Since my last entry, the city of Siena has gone back to normal after the hustle and bustle of the Palio. But don’t be fooled–my quest to become as Italian as possible has been far from quiet. Mainly because I have been speaking so much. I’ve gotten to the point where most day-to-day interactions with locals can be done completely in Italian. Ordering food, buying a bus ticket, asking for directions, all done in Italian (for the most part). Evidently, I am exuding much more confidence in my speaking skills, so the Sienese people are responding in Italian.

My speaking during class has also gotten much stronger. When I first started, there were 11 people in my class, so even if I tried to speak, I always had to share the time with 10 other people. This week, there were only 4 students. This meant that I had to speak a lot more. I can see the difference that this makes. Now I’m speaking Italian with my American classmates outside of class much more as well because that is how we are used to communicating. It’s been awesome.

I also see my improved speaking skills when I attend Mass. The first Mass I attended in Italian, as much as I tried to follow along, I just couldn’t recite the responses with the native speakers, even with the words in front of me. Now, I can make it through the Gloria, Creed, Our Father, every response with only a couple stumbles. It seems like I at least look like I know what I’m doing, too, because I have been asked to read the petitions twice. Sorry to say, I’m not ready to publically speak in front of a chapel full of native Italian speakers, but I appreciated being asked, and I was able to explain my discomfort with the sacristan in Italian, so I still took advantage of an opportunity to use my speaking skills.

I have also been taking advantage of easy transportation in the past few weeks to travel around Italy. I have been to Florence twice in the past two weeks with my class to visit the Accademia and Uffizi Museums, and I took advantage of my time to visit the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens with a friend. The amount of culture in Florence is overwhelming.

I spent a long weekend in Rome, and we did all the classic tourist things we could. Our day at the Vatican catologed 13.6 miles walked, 31,288 steps, and 47 flights of stairs climbed. Safe to say, it was a long day. But totally worth it. I had been to the Vatican before, but I hadn’t climbed the Cupola until now(hence the 47 flights). The crowds weren’t too distracting (besides the American lady I heard in the museum, “All these statues look the same. And I hate them.”)

Can you tell I love all things (ancient) Roman?

Our second day, we did the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (my all-time favorite place to visit in the world), Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, etc. with all the other people in Rome. Yes, the crowds were frustrating, but there’s something about Rome that I can’t help but love. I could see myself living in Rome someday if I play my cards right. Step one: master the language.


Thanks to the lovely Lucca native who offered to take this for me!

I also took a day to travel around Tuscany by myself. I went to Lucca, a little Tuscan town famous for its walls, and Pisa. In Lucca, I rented a bike and rode around the path on top of the city walls, and it was so adorable. Every couple hundred meters is a pocket park, restaurant, or tiny museum. There are a lot of locals going for runs or walking their dogs, and a good amount of tourists riding rented bikes. It was so relaxing. And since its a smaller town, all the residents prefer to speak in Italian, so it was great practice for me. Lucca is a town I would like to come back to. I don’t necessarily need to spend days there, but I wish I had taken more than a morning to drink in the beautiful views of the mountains and relaxed on those walls. Especially compared to Pisa. How my host nonna described Pisa

I’m sorry, but you have to take a picture like this at the Leaning Tower.

is extremely accurate: C’è il torre, e basta. There’s the tower, and enough. And it’s true, the tower is definitely worth seeing for the novelty of it (and it really leans a lot–I was surprised), but after you see the tower it’s time to head back to the train station. But be sure to take the time to watch all the tourists take the classic “holding up the tower” picture. It’s really funny.

I’ve had a couple frustrating interactions when I couldn’t communicate my thoughts in Italian and I was forced to use Italian, and they only make me want to master the language that much more. The first time was when I was traveling by train, and the ticket validators were all broken. I was freaking out trying to find someone to get help from, and when I finally did, I couldn’t figure out how to tell them what was wrong in Italian. Luckily, they understood, and the ticket checker never came by. So much unnecessary stress. I’ve also had trouble because I just haven’t learned the vocabulary for certain situations. For example, I was in an art gallery inquiring about how my mother could order a painting, but the woman had to ask me to speak in English because I couldn’t articulate what I wanted clearly in Italian. Embarassing, yes, but a learning experience.

With a week left, I’m putting in that final push to absorb as much Italian as possible. Wish me luck!

10 Helpful Tip and Tricks for Surviving the Palio

The Palio. The reason for the season. The culmination of weeks of preparation, bribery, collusion, and dumb luck. The 700-year-old tradition that only comes around twice every year and gives Sienese citizens an excuse to drink more wine than should be possible, brawl with their neighbors, and spend hundreds of Euro to sit in the blazing Tuscan sun for hours. Yes, the Palio is the life force for this small city, and it is daunting for the non-Sienese to understand the meaning behind the four-day event or the best way to become a part of it. Here is my personal guide for how to conquer the Palio.

1. Live in a Contrada with members of the Contrada. This will ensure that you get all the dirt on the other Contrade and have an idea of what is actually going on. Living with Flora, the most passionate member of the Giraffa (Giraffe) Contrada that I have seen so far, has instilled in me a loyalty to the Contrada after only two weeks here, and it also gives me something to root for. I was able to feel the emotion both in the house as the race got closer and in the streets when the citizens made their way to the Campo for the event. A crucial feeling if you want to make the most of your experience.

2. Do your research. This is important. The tradition of the Palio goes back to the 14th century, so there are a lot of customs that just seem weird if you don’t understand why they are happening. There are parades of people in funny costumes, they bring the horses inside their churches, and the cheers are just strange. Luckily for me, my school offered a lecture on the history, customs, and Do’s and Don’t’s of the event. His information was fairly biased, but what do you expect from a member of Torre (Tower), the natural enemy of the Oca (Goose), this year’s favorite. But knowing the general schedule of the festival days eliminated some of the confusion.

3. Go to a Prova, and be sure to get there early. There are six practice runs during the Palio days, so take advantage of this and get a good spot to watch at least one of them. These definitely aren’t as exciting as the actual even, but it gives you a chance to watch enemy Contrade sing/scream at each other and, for children under 10, this is the only opportunity to see the horses run. Not every jockey pushes their horses during the trials, but for the newer horses, these practices are critical for learning the tricky track. If you don’t want to wait in the Campo for an hour or two to get the best spot, try going to a morning Prova, which is generally less crowded, but there is much more sun.

4. Get yourself a ticket to a Contrada dinner in a racing Contrada. The night before the Palio, each Contrada puts on a huge dinner in the streets of the city. While the food isn’t great, there is unlimited wine (so be sure to keep your ears open at the end of the night to find out how the locals actually think their horse is going to do) and the atmosphere is incredible. The captain and jockey of the Contrada give speeches, so, if you understand Italian, you get a glimpse into the values of the Contrada. I ate with the Tartuca (Turtle) Contrada, and the locals were not optimistic. The energy was low and the crowd stayed fairly quiet. but it is still a must.

5. Get an uphill spot. This is important if you actually want to see the horses run. Assuming that you do not have the connections or the Euro to buy a seat in the bleachers encircling the track, you will have to go into the center of the Campo if you want to be at the race in person. This is an incredible experience, but beware. There are definite high points and low points, and if you are stuck in the pit of the Campo, there is no way you will see anything.

6. Listen to the locals. Whether you want to start a conversation with those around you during your hours long wait or you want to eavesdrop on those around you, the locals who choose to watch from inside the track often have interesting opinions about the race or funny comments about people of their enemy Contrada. They can guide you through the protocol for the parade and race if you can understand their words and body language. Also, the noises of the crowd as a whole are incredible to witness. The actual race isn’t like the practices. No one is singing, and there are times when the entire square goes quiet. Don’t be the one person who starts laughing at that time. Just don’t.

7. Be ready to wait. First, you have to get to the Campo hours early if you want a good spot and sit in the blazing sun. Next, a parade of the Contrade goes around the track. Very cool, but also very long. Don’t be afraid to sit down during this time for some sweet relief for your poor feet. Finally, the horses come out, but the race doesn’t actually start until the jockeys are done working their deals. the horses will line up, the jockeys will start gabbing, and the horses get so agitated that they have to exit the starting area and begin again. Then there are false starts. But you can’t take your eyes of the starting area lest you miss the start. For reference, it took an hour and a half for the race to start this time around after the jockeys entered the track.

8. Avoid fights. At all costs. Inevitably, one Contrada’s jockey will sabotage another’s. So, naturally, members of the two involved Contrade must engage in a fist fight to get payback for costing the race. Or, the star jockey on the star horse in the best starting position (Oca) will lose and will have to run away to avoid being killed by his own Contrada. So, stay away from that.

9. Put your phone down. This one is simple. Take one picture before the race to see the crowd and show how close you are to the track. Then put it away. The race is filmed by a camera way better than your phone, and it’s not worth the locals making fun of you in the background.

10. Speak Italian as much as possible, and ask locals about it. This is the best way to gauge what to do and who is slated to win. When getting a snack before entering the Campo, I asked the deli worker what Contrada she was part of. She was a member of Tartuca, and not optimistic of her chances. When I told her I lived in Giraffa, she told me about how good our jockey was and how we just had to get Oca out of the way and we were home free. Others in the Campo were explaining what each person in the parade was representing and coaching us through which Contrade were enemies. Very helpful.

Even though the mighty Giraffa fell to Drago (Dragon) this year, my experience with the Palio was incredible. It gave me a glimpse into the lives of a Sienese citizen and gave me an excuse to engage with the locals. Italian conversations at home and at school have gotten much more passionate, and I feel like I have hit my stride. All it took is 4 days of midieval mayhem.

The Highs and the Lows

So my first week of class has come and gone, and things are feeling a lot more comfortable. The first class I was placed in only had American students, so naturally a lot of English made its way into the classroom. The next day I moved to a higher level class, and this class was much more diverse. We had students from Austria, Mexico, Brazil, America, and Japan. Because of this diversity, everything in the class had to be explained in Italian. This made it much more difficult to explain my thoughts, but then the Italian conversation was much more intelligent. I’m very happy that I moved into a higher class because now I feel like I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone.

Taking my Italian skills outside of the classroom has been a lot harder for me, but I’m getting there. With my host family, I have trouble following everything they say at the dinner table, but I have also been trying to ask questions until I understand what they are saying. For the most part, I can hold a conversation, and they have been very gracious with me asking them to repeat themselves or talk more slowly. I’ve gotten very comfortable ordering from restaurants in Italian, and I am able to pick up much more from conversations I hear on the street. I still fall back into English when I’m not fully concentrating on my speaking, but I’ll get there. This is only week 1 of Italian bootcamp, and I know that I will only get stronger from here. The more I put myself out there, the more I’ll learn and be able use in my daily life.

On the culture side of things, Siena is a great place to be. As a part of one of my classes, we get tours of the many museums around Siena. Because of this class, I get to see the city from the eyes of a very informed local. Our professor, Luca, is a wonderful teacher, and it is obvious that he loves Siena. He teaches the class in English, so I get much more of the city’s history out of this class, but it would be a great test for myself to see how much I could understand, like the cooking class I took. From that experience, I learned how to make a four course meal, and all the instructions were in Italian.

Language and culture and food. What else could I want out of my summer in Italy?

Canals and Churches: Venice

As I took my first look at the first city on my Italian itinerary, Venice, my sleep-deprived eyes saw something very similar to what the famous glassblowers have been seeing for the past millenium. Sure, now the canals are filled with motorboats rather than rowboats, but there is the same armada of gondale powered only by the sheer willpower of the men in striped shirts. I reached the top of the belltower of San Giorgio with the help of an elevator whereas those medival monks had to climb stair after stair, but we both looked out over the same terracotta roofs.

My three days in Venice acted as a buffer for me in Italy before I started my classes in Siena. Realistically, I was able to see Venice because my parents used my studies as an excuse to finally travel to Italy. So, my time in the city of canals was spent with them hitting all the tourist spots and any church we could get into (of which there are dozens). We saw a glass blowing demonstration, toured San Marco Basilica, crossed the Rialto Bridge countless times, and visited Marco Polo’s house. They looked to me to translate any Italian when there was no English translation provided (which was hardly ever), and I realized that I may have been overly confident in my Italian skills coming into this experience.

First of all, I was embarrassed to even try my Italian with my parents looking over my shoulder. This isn’t because I was afraid of messing up (well, mostly not because of that), but moreso because my parents are so unapologetically, obviously, American. They are too friendly to not spew their English around and they seemed unable to subltly encourage me to speak Italian, so even if I tried, whomever I spoke to automatically deferred to English without giving me a chance.

A great example of this happened at the glass factory. The tour we went on was just walking us through the “secret” showrooms of the master artists, where everything was 40% off and the guides were working on commission, so they tried to buddy up to us. One greeted my mom and me, and I introduced myself with a simple handshake and “Ciao.” The salesman used this as an opportunity to joke around with his real customer, my mom, and responded, “My, what a lovely name for your daughter, ma’am! Ciao–so Italian!” Well, I wasn’t going to be practicing with him anymore.

The problem with this type of travel when it comes to learning the native language is that the places that tourists go have practically adopted English as their first language. Just seeing my family walk down the street, waiters pull out their English menus, and directions or informational signs have English as prominantly displayed as Italian. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t had to speak Italian, so I haven’t.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t learned anything yet. In the four days I have been in Italy, my ability to understand what Italian I do hear has definitely increased. I’ve been to Mass twice so far and I was able to sort of follow the message of the homily the second time around. Bits and pieces of conversations I hear on the streets are recognizable to me, especially children’s conversations.

I move in with my host family in Siena tomorrow and my parents fly home, so my buffer time is almost over. I am beyond scared to push myself to speak in mainly Italian, but I know that I have the capability to survive. I know the grammar, at least as much as I’ve learned so far, and I’ll continue learning that in the classroom. What I don’t have a strong grasp of is the vocabulary, which will only come from living in the language for an extended period of time. Lucky for me, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing for the next five weeks! Venice was a nice bridge between America and Italy, but the other side is going to be a challenge, but I know it will be rewarding. I will fly home out of Venice at the end of my trip, so my goal is to walk down the streets, grab a meal, and converse with a local without my American showing, at least not through my language.