I am both happy and sad to be home. It feels great to see my family and escape the intense heat, but I miss the lifestyle I became accustomed to and the friends I met in Italy. It truly was an amazing two months traveling around Europe. One of the things I am most proud of is how much I improved in my Italian language skills. At the beginning of this program, I was able to speak in Italian, but it would take me a while to form sentences and I didn’t know all of the verb tenses. By the end of this experience, I was speaking fast and able to clearly say what I wanted to. I started having longer conversations with the people I met and I started receiving compliments on my speaking skills. Being able to speak in Italian made all of my hard work worthwhile. Looking back now, those conversations were some of my favorite moments from the entire summer.
I am so grateful for this grant and the opportunity it gave me to explore Italy and learn more about Italian culture. I traveled to many different places across Europe: Paris, London, Siena, Florence, Pisa, the southern coast of Sicily, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi coast, Rome, Punta Ala, Colle di Val d’Elsa, and Naples. I met a ton of amazing people from many different countries and have made lasting friendships.
Yesterday was my last day in Siena and I got to cross off the final thing on my bucket list, a cooking class. We made a couple of different Tuscan dishes, and one that is specifically unique to Siena, pici pasta. Pici pasta is hand rolled, imperfect pasta. Pici is often referred to as ‘pici Senesi’ because of its origins in Siena. From a brief google search, I found that this pasta dates back to Etruscan times. There is a tomb in ancient Tarquinia that has a fresco showing a servant carrying a bowl containing a long, irregular pasta. This tomb is from the 5th century B.C. and the pasta is thought to be the ancestor of pici. This pasta is fairly easy to make. To make the dough, one combines eggs and flour. Next, one must knead the dough until it is the right consistency. We then cut it into little pieces and rolled out each little piece into thin imperfect noodles. We paired this pasta with a homemade garlic tomato sauce. The instructor of our cooking class showed us how to make a fluffy garlic sauce. She blended cloves of garlic in a food processor at a specific speed that made it turn into a fluffy cloud of garlic. She then added a bit of water and blended again. We paired this with fresh tomatoes, lots of olive oil, and different seasonings. It was delicious. The pici pasta was our first dish.
For our appetizer, we made pomodori con riso (tomatoes with rice). We cut the tops off of whole tomatoes, scooped out the inside, and filled them with day-old rice which was mixed with tomato sauce. We then put bread crumbs and the tomato tops back on top and put them into the oven to bake. For our second dish, we had veil with tuna sauce and tomatoes with a herb glaze that was fully prepared by our instructors. For dessert, we prepared a type of flan dish that was delicious. I really enjoyed doing this cooking class and learning about the origins of these dishes.
I am just getting home from a weekend trip to the Cinque Terre as I write this blog post. It was one of the coolest places I have ever been. Our Airbnb was in La Spezia, the port city near the Cinque Terre. We then took the train everyday to the 5 cities which was super easy. We met up with other Notre Dame students there who are currently studying in Rome. We went kayaking, hiking, swimming, cliff jumping, and we tried a bunch of different foods. On Sunday, we went to the train station to go back to Siena, and we learned that there was a train strike going on. All trains and buses to Siena were canceled that night, so we were forced to spend another night in La Spezia. We got a quick Airbnb and ended up having a super fun night, getting all you can eat Sushi and then going to a salsa dancing party. We are just now finally making it back to Siena.
For this blog post, I would like to write about something my class discussed last week. We discussed the vaccine and how Covid has impacted the different countries around the world. We all shared our opinions and I explained how there has been a divide in the United States about getting the vaccine. We discussed the various reasons why people do not get the vaccine and what we believe is right. We also talked about whether it should be allowed to mandate the vaccine at schools and companies. I shared how I was personally thankful for the vaccine mandate at Notre Dame, as it allowed us to return to a more normal learning environment.
Italy was hit extremely hard by Covid and was one of the first countries to go into lockdown. Because of this, the general public attitude is very positive towards the vaccine. The vaccination rate is higher in Italy than it is in the United States, with almost 81% of the entire Italian population being fully vaccinated, whereas only 67% of all Americans are vaccinated. The discussions I had with different Italians across the country reflected these numbers. Italy has a partial mask mandate on public transportation, which will end in September.
Discussions about controversial topics such as the vaccine are conversations I have honestly tried to avoid in the past. I often find it difficult to voice my opinion in a way that is not offensive. Finding the perfect words to say is hard in English, and much, much harder in Italian. I am glad I did have these hard conversions though, because I learned a lot about Italian culture and it was a great way to practice voicing my opinions in another language.
Last weekend was Siena’s most important tradition, the Palio horse race. This is a tradition that started in 1482. It occurs twice a year, once in July and once in August. In class, we learned all about this tradition and the contrada system in Siena.
In Siena, there are 17 contradas that are basically like 17 different neighborhoods. Each one has its own small territory in Siena and is its own small community. They have their own governments, community celebrations, and events that occur throughout the year. Every contrada also has its own chapel, museum and unique history. Some of the contradas are allies and some are enemies, which is an important part of the Palio. Each contrada also has its own flag and is represented by a different animal or symbol. I live in the Lupa contrada, which means she-wolf in English.
The Palio is a horse race between 10 of the 17 contradas. Each year, the 7 contradas that didn’t get to race last year automatically get to race, and 3 more contradas are randomly chosen. The race happens in the large Piazza del Campo. The outside of the Piazza is turned into a track and the inside is where people watch the race. There are a number of different events that happen during the week leading up to the race. There are practice trials each morning and an initial race where 10 horses are picked from 35 to be the racing horses. There is also a large event where everyone in the city comes to the piazza to see which horse is assigned to each contrada. We went as a school to go watch this event on Wednesday. There were two horses that were considered “better” than the other horses as they had already raced in the Palio in the past. When the Istrice contrada heard that they got one of these horses, they all screamed and were extremely happy. They then ran to their horse and chanted their fight song as they left the piazza. Each contrada also has a big feast the night before the race. We were able to go to the feast of the Istrice contrada, which had more than 2,400 people in attendance. The food was really delicious. The next day, we watched the Palio race on TV in a restaurant. It was 95 degrees that day and we didn’t want to stand in the intense heat for 4 hours. The Drago contrada won the Palio, which lasted much longer than usual as there were many false starts. Everyone ran to the Drago contrada right after the race to celebrate with the community. It was a really amazing thing to be a part of and see.
The winner of the Palio has to pay all of the other contradas. The winner also gets the banner that is painted for that year. The contrada that wins is considered reborn and the “new baby,” while the contrada that has won least recently is considered the “grandmother.” The Palio is extremely intense and emotional. It is normal to see the losers crying immediately after the race and in the days following the race. My professor told me a story about a man he saw praying in the streets to God, asking why his contrada did not win. The man was balling and begging God for a victory. The contradas are extremely competitive. If two people are married and from different contradas, they won’t see each other for a couple of days before the race. Another interesting thing I learned is that the “worst” loss is not the contrada that gets last place, but the one that gets second place. This is because they were so close to winning, but did not win.
I am now two weeks into my study abroad program in Siena and I am truly loving it here. I really enjoy my classes, meeting new people, and exploring this culture. In my first week of class, I met two Swiss people who are my age. I hung out with them outside of class and went to one of their beach houses on the Italian coast over the weekend. This was so fun and one of the best ways to see the Tuscan countryside. We drove through the rolling hills and listened to different Swiss, American, and Italian songs on the way. We went to a public beach and it felt like we were the only tourists there. We were surrounded by Italian families and friend groups as we took naps on the beach and swam in the ocean. I enjoyed observing how relaxed everyone was and how they chose to spend their free time.
Since being here, I have noticed some differences in the cultural behavior of the people I have met. The difference I have most appreciated is that many Italians seem to care less about punctuality. After being a couple minutes late to class a few times, I realized that my teacher never seemed to mind my tardiness. We ended up having a class discussion about punctuality across the world. I learned that in Italian and Spanish cultures, it is less important to always be strictly on time, whereas in the United States and Switzerland, punctuality is very important. I have found that I really enjoy this change in how time is viewed. I have a hard time keeping track of time and I often find myself running late. After having this class discussion, it was refreshing to do the one mile walk to school everyday, knowing that if I were to be a bit late, I would not get in trouble. Because of this, I spend my time on my morning walk to school really appreciating the scenery around me. I have watched the people I walk by and have noticed that they are generally in less of a rush to get to their destination as well. It is a stark contrast from my walk to class at Notre Dame, where I am normally speed walking as fast I can to get to class on time, not really picking up on anything.
Another cultural difference I have noticed is the different slang that is used. One difference between Siena and the rest of Italy is that in Siena, the children say Babbo instead of Papa when they are addressing their fathers. I do not ever see myself using this slang as I will always just call my father Dad.
I am incredibly excited to arrive in Siena, meet everyone in my program and start classes at the Dante Alighieri school. I believe this immersive study abroad experience will be vastly different from my studies so far and I have many goals for myself this summer. The biggest difference I expect is that I will have so much more time to explore places I am passionate about inside and outside of the classroom. While it was fun to tour around South Bend when I first started at Notre Dame, in Italy, I plan to go see something new everyday. Whether it is a new museum, view, walking trail, or even restaurant, I hope to discover new information about Italian culture and life every single day. On the weekends, I am excited to take adventures to other Italian cities. My top three cities on my bucket list right now are Cinque Terre, Milan, and Como.
During this exploration, I expect to use my Italian language skills and intercultural competences at almost all times. My main goal of this experience is to meet as many people as I possibly can and to speak to them in Italian. I look forward to forming new friendships and truly learning about life in Italy by conversing with the Italians I meet. I am specifically fascinated by Italian food and would be thrilled to take a cooking class or two while abroad. Another goal of mine is to learn more about Italian business, as I may be working either in Italy or with Italians after graduation.
I hope that after this experience I will be more confident in my Italian skills, better culturally versed, more independent, and better at adapting to what life may throw my way. After being in Europe for two weeks already, I believe I am already growing in these areas. I spent a week in Sicily with my family and have been in Paris for the last 5 days with my siblings. Staying in Sicily has already provided me with the opportunity to practice Italian as many Sicilians do not speak English. Talking with the people at the grocery store, restaurants, and rental shops was honestly one of my favorite things I have done so far. Traveling around Paris made me extremely appreciative of the Italian language skills I have as it was frustrating to not be able to converse with the Parisians. Sicily and Paris were extremely different, yet, I learned so much from both. Now I am on to London for a few days and will finally arrive in Siena. I cannot wait for this adventure to continue.