Reflections on language learning and acculturation:

Upon my arrival in Italy in June, I was hesitant to speak with my first taxi driver. I was embarrassed about making mistakes and scared that I would get stuck halfway through a sentence searching for vocabulary. However, over the course of my time in Siena these inhibitions slowly diminished. I learned that Italian are, in general, happy to humor a language learner. Although sometimes restaurant workers or cashiers would address me using English, if I explained that I was in Italy to study Italian, they would happily switch back to Italian, and sometimes even give me mini grammar lessons. Once I got over my fear of speaking to locals, I also realized that I was much more easily able to correct grammatical mistakes or remember vocabulary when it was pointed out to me during a conversation than when I learned it in class. In terms my pre-departure goals, I wanted to be able to blend in well enough to not be pegged as an American immediately. I think I was successful here. By the end of 7 weeks in Italy, waiters often asked me what country I was from. A few times in Siena, visiting Italians even asked me for directions!

Reflections on my SLA experience overall:

SLA gave me my first opportunity to live/travel outside of the United States. I didn’t anticipate how difficult the first couple weeks in a new country would be. Going to the grocery store, eating at a restaurant, or even buying a slice of pizza all showed me how much the little differences matter. For example, trying to buy a 1 euro coffee with a 50 euro bill is a no-go. Over time, though, I learned to set aside my pride and be more open and comfortable with embarrassment. I realized that although locals might get frustrated with tourists, if they notice you sincerely striving to adapt to the culture, they are happy to help. I also learned to sit back and observe before jumping into an unfamiliar situation. By simply watching people in restaurants, train stations, or bars, I gained valuable insight into the little difficult-to-define cultural habits.

Plans for the future:

My time in Italy has given my language skills a huge boost that I will carry through my last year of Italian classes as I fulfill the requirements for the minor. I also feel that the insights I have gained from living in Italy will make my Italian cultural classes much more interesting and fulfilling. In a more general sense, I have developed a desire to live/work abroad after graduation. I know that many American engineering companies have offices in Europe, and my new goal is to get one of these jobs. The skills that I have gained through living abroad this summer will definitely help me whether I end up in Italy or any other country.

Arrivaderci Siena

Friday was my last day of classes and the official end of my SLA grant, but since I am staying in Italy for 2 weeks to travel independently, I decided to continue my blog posts. My computer is still broken, so I am writing this on my phone.

For the last week of lessons my class only had 3 students for the first time since the first week. I like these smaller class sizes better because there is more opportunity to speak. The difference in my abilities between the first and last week were amazing! I could even express myself using the periodo ipotetico without stumbling too much! For the last day of class we watched “La Mafia uccide solo d’estate,” which is a historical fiction movie set in Palermo during the height of the Mafia killings. Afterwards we discussed the themes and historical context. Having this type of discussion class instead of a grammar lesson was a great way to end the program.

Sunday morning at 4 am I set out on the Via Francigena, which is a historical pilgrim route that leads from southern England to Rome and passes through Siena. I have a trekking backpack as my only luggage, so I thought it would be cool to walk at least part of the way to Rome. After packing all my belongings though, my backpack was heavier than I expected, and after about 20 miles of walking I was dead tired. I ended up in a town called Buonconvento. Little did I know that small Tuscan towns virtually shut down on Sundays. The tourist office, bus station, and most restaurants were closed. On top of that, my phone charger had stopped working.I had a hard time even finding an open restaurant, so I didn’t think there would be a place to buy a new charger. Physically exhausted and cut off from the world. I decided to take a nap in a park before I decided what to do. At this point it was only about 2:00 in the afternoon. I woke up at about 3:00 and figured my best option was to take a train to the next large town (I had learned that no buses run on Sundays, so having no way to get to it, I had to cancel the airbnb that I had booked a couple days before.) I bought a ticket at the self-service kiosk, but the next train to Grosseto didn’t leave for about 3 hours. While waiting at the train station, the town really got quite. The only noise I could hear was the occasional car driving by a few roads away. It was a bit eerie. After a while a well dressed but obviously mentally handicapped man walked up to me and started talking. I had a pretty long conversation with him in Italian. Apparently, he had just clocked out of his job at the museum up the road and liked to come to the train station to talk to travelers. Eventually, the train came and I got on. Luckily, there was a hotel in Grosseto right next to the train station. I got a room, showered, and slept for about 12 hours.

Although I only did a part of the trail, walking through Tuscany was really special. Eventually, I would like to come back and do the whole trek from Siena to Rome, but with a lighter backpack and when it’s not so hot. Now, I am in Rome and will be here until Saturday.

I will update with pictures when I get access to a computer.

One More Week

This post is a little late, but my laptop charger decided to stop working, so I have had a hard time finding access to a computer. Last weekend a bunch of the other Notre Dame students and I went to the Cinque Terre. It was beautiful! While I have really been enjoying all the museums and churches, it was nice to have a weekend of hiking and relaxing on the beach. The picture bellow was taken as we were hiking between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza at around 2 pm. It was extremely hot, so as soon as we reached Vernazza we went straight into the ocean for a swim.

In terms of language progress the last week has been great. We transitioned to speaking mostly Italian in my culture class. Being able to spend the whole day speaking Italian instead of having to transition back to English has really helped. Over the past few days we took two field trips to Florence, visiting the Accademia and the Uffizi, but it was too crowded to get any good pictures. We have now moved on to more modern history. From the end of last week and all through this week we are discussing fascism. On Friday we watched the movie “Una Giornata Particolare.” Granted there were subtitles in Italian, but it was still really cool to be able to understand all the dialoge.

Because it was my last weekend, I decided to stay here in Siena. It was the first non-Palio weekend that I have spent here, and it is amzing how at home i felt. I am really going to miss living in Siena and the Senese people. Anyway, I am going to keep this short today because I don’t have much time on the school computers. A Dopo!

Pre-Palio Festivities

Last Tuesday was Il Palio, the biannual horse race and festival that takes place on the main square Piazza del Campo. Although the race itself was fun, the best part was the lead-up to it. This week in my cultural class, we focused on the cultural significance of both the Palio and the Contrade, or neighborhoods, that compete in the race. I learned that both of these are much more than they appear on the surface. From the mutually sustaining relationship that the Palio and Contrade have, to the intriguing and complex strategy and bribery that goes on in the race itself, the system is at the very basis of Sienese culture.

What I’ve found most interesting about the system is the deep connection that people feel with it, even though it really doesn’t matter in any way other than symbolically. The winning Contrada, for example, doesn’t get any reward other than a banner. The Contrade themselves, in fact, are very similar to each other in terms of organization and activities. The only difference between them being the artificial boundaries. Still, rivalries between Contrade exist that are so heated that “mixed” couples have to live in separate houses during the 4 days of the event. Altogether, the allegiance to Contrade and importance of the Palio rises to a level beyond even the most intense professional sports rivals. Interestingly, though, this rivalry only exists during the Palio (and maybe during the few weeks leading up to it.) For most of the year, the rivalries don’t really exist.

Last Saturday my Neapolitan roommate, Michele, invited me to go with him to the first Prova, or trial, of the horses after they had been selected and assigned to the Contrade. Having watched the pre-selection runs of the horses and the assignment lottery with my Notre Dame friends, I was excited to get the perspective of a non-Sienese Italian on the Palio. Although he has lived here for a year and a half, he didn’t grow up with the Contrada system. The differences between how he and my cultural class instructor (who is a prominent member of the Torre Contrada) view the Palio is striking. While Michele was quite knowledgeable about the details of the horses and jockeys, he seemed to view the race as just a sporting event, a view that any “real” Sienese would disparage.

On Monday night we had the opportunity to go to the Contrada dinner  for Torre, which is a massive event where about two-thousand people dine on the street. The cooks and servers are all volunteers from the Contrada. I ended up sitting by some people from Rimini, who had family in Siena. We talked a lot about sports, especially basketball and baseball. I feel like I’m making a lot of progress with my Italian, especially after talking so much with Italians during the Palio events.

Arrival, Settling in, and Assisi

(Apparently I failed to actually hit the publish button on this post last week.)

It has been one week since I arrived here in Siena. After over 26 hours of traveling, it was with great relief that I finally stepped out of the taxi in front of the door to my apartment last Sunday. Lucca, one of the teachers at Dante, had been conducting a class in Rome and was nice enough to pick me up at the airport. Together James (one of the other ND students here), Lucca, and myself took a taxi from the airport to the Tiburtina bus station, then a bus to Siena, and then finally another taxi to our apartments. Lucca made sure I got in the building door alright, and then left in the taxi. Now alone for the first time, I was confronted with an issue. There were two staircases Infront of me, Scala A and Scala B. Not knowing where exactly my apartment was, I chose Scala A and started up. After reaching the top without encountering any open doors, I turned around and tried the other staircase, with similar results.

Now a little concerned, I luckily remembered that I had received an email with my landlady’s phone number. I called the number, and Paula answered, “Pronto?” After using mostly English with Lucca, this was the first time that I had to use Italian, so I was a little rusty. With some effort, I succeeded in explaining that I was actually inside the building but just didn’t know which door my apartment was. Once we reached an understanding, Paula came down to collect me and take me up to my room (which ended up being near the top of Scala A).

Paula showed me the “need to knows” of the apartment and introduced me to some of my apartment mates, including one native Italian who is studying at the University of Siena. After this point I was exhausted and went to bed as soon as possible but was quickly woken up by a Contrada parade in the street bellow my window.

First day in Siena

The rest of the week involved getting settled in at my apartment and at the school. I am taking two classes here. Every weekday, I have 4 hours of language classes. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I have about three hours of Italian History through the Arts, which involves field trips to museums. This week, we went to the Archaeological Museum, focusing our study on Etruscan funerary statues, as well as the Duomo museum and “so called” crypt. (It is “so called” because there actually aren’t any bodies buried there.)

On the Porta del Cielo above the Duomo

In terms of language use outside of class, I have been running into an issue. When I am talking to a shop owner, for example, I use Italian. However, when the owner responds in Italian, I take a couple seconds to understand the question and think of a response. Most of the time at this point, my conversation partner just switches to English. Hopefully in a week or two I’ll be able to respond quickly enough to avoid this problem.

Eating a panino

Oh yeah. Yesterday a bunch of the ND students here decided to take a trip to Assisi. Here are some of the pictures.

Basilica di San Francesco
Overlooking the Umbrian countryside