I’ll Be Right Back Siena

While I was excited to come home to see my family, I was incredibly sad to have to say goodbye to all those who I consider now to be my new family from Siena. Siena will forever have a special spot in my heart for the incredible memories that were made there. 

I came into this trip expecting to improve my Italian language skills; however, those expectations were significantly surpassed. After only five weeks of spending roughly six hours in the classroom every day and speaking in Italian with locals and foreigners wherever I went, I have drastically improved my language skills. Through this experience I have come to realize that, in order to really learn a language, it is necessary to practice speaking, reading, and listening to the language constantly and to engage with those who use it as their primary language. I believe that I was able to improve my language skills because I was determined to use Italian in all my daily activities. Looking back on how I approached my learning experience I am glad I attempted to simply speak the language without relying on a mental translator. By doing so, I was able to quickly apprehend phrases and words that do not have direct, exact translations.

Having gone to Sicily many times in the past and even living there during the summers, I thought that I had already understood the Italian culture. However, for me, going to Siena was like traveling to a completely different country. The natural geography of the land, the architecture of homes and buildings, the different dialects and accents of the Tuscan region, and the way people dress were completely different from anything I had experienced in Sicily. I already knew my first day in Siena that the 

My favorite part of the trip was becoming friends with local university students. Not only was I required to practice speaking Italian, but I also was able to learn the slang, jokes, and manners in informal conversation that I would not have been able to learn in the classroom. Although we have lived completely different lives since we grew up in different cultures and surroundings, I really enjoyed being able to engage with them as if we had grown up together. Their kindness and respect for me, as a foreigner, was something I really appreciated, and we plan on staying in touch though we may not be within the walls of Siena together anymore.

Anyone who is passionate about learning the language and culture of Italy should apply for an SLA. The grant provided me with an opportunity that has and will forever change my life. Although I could speak for days about how amazing my trip was, I believe that no one can really understand unless they experience it firsthand.  

Looking forward to my future, I plan to return to Siena every time I am in Italy in the future so that I can reconnect with all those who made my experience incredible. I also have been motivated to spend ample time in my future in Italy as a physician, providing healthcare to those in need, especially refugees. Although I had to leave Siena, I know that this is certainly not a forever goodbye. We may have had to part ways, but we will never forget the experiences we have shared.

See you soon Siena,

Gabriel Biondo

Cultural Experiences Through Local Food

Seeking to completely immerse myself in the culture of Siena, I obviously have had to experience the cuisine unique to the region. The first day I arrived in Siena I went to a restaurant in the city and asked the waiter for a local specialty. He suggested that I order the pici al ragu. Since I had never had or heard of pici before, I asked him about how it is made and its historical significance for Siena.

Pici is a type of pasta that originated in the local Siena area. It is a simple pasta, made of only water and flour. The dough is then rolled by hand into a 5mm thick roll. Just as it has been prepared for generations, pici must be made by hand. The pasta can be served with a variety of sauces but typically, it is served with ragu.

Although pici is a very simple pasta, its simplicity has a rich history which my waiter explained to me. Pici was historically the everyday pasta for peasants since there were no stores to buy cheap pasta and many did not have money to buy more than the simple ingredients used in pici. It is significant that pici is made without eggs since eggs cost more and were only included in pasta typically served for a special occasion. Further, the word pici comes from the Italian word appicciare which means to stick together. 

Pici has been made by generations and generations of Tuscan locals and today it is a common dish that tourists come seeking when visiting the region. I have already had pici every time that I have been to a restaurant here in Siena and, thus far, I can confidently say that not all pici tastes the same. Although the pasta only requires two ingredients, some cooks have distinguished themselves as pici experts. Overall, I have not had a negative experience with this local dish, and I hope to learn how to make it from an expert prior to leaving Siena. 

Pici al ragu!

New Prospectives and Cultural Awareness

Along with traveling to a different country typically comes exposure to diverse attitudes and cultural beliefs. Although my roommates in Siena are not Italian, they are from other European countries (Switzerland and Netherlands) and speak fluent English; therefore, I decided to ask them about their opinion on the United States.

My roommates began by telling me about their trips to the United States. My roommate from the Netherlands told me that he had visited the western region of the United States once and was surprised to find the natural beauty of the country to be plentiful. My roommate from Switzerland also told me about his vacation to Florida, stating that it was a wonderful experience that expanded his cultural awareness.

They prefaced that their opinion on the United States is based on their own experiences in the country and on what they have learned from the news. The first remark that both of my roommates made about the political and economic situation in the United States was their appreciation of the wealth of opportunities and the ease of social mobility. However, they also told me that they dislike the work ethic and what they believe to be “an emphasis on work over life.” 

In terms of pollical policy, they both believe that there are two grave issues in the United States: extreme poverty and healthcare inequalities. During their trips to the United States, they had both encountered “an unusually significant amount of homeless people.” They had a hard time comprehending how such large populations of people could be without a home, especially since it is very rare for them to see a homeless person in their respective countries. My roommate from the Netherlands summarized his opinion on the United States: “while it is possible to become very rich in the United States, it is also unfortunately very easy to be extremely poor and for this, I do not like the system.” 

In addition to the problem with poverty, my roommates identified the healthcare system as an issue. Coming from countries in which healthcare is universal, they were perplexed by the necessity to pay large sums of money for “the basic human need which is healthcare.” They believe that, in the circumstance of healthcare, it is a fault that “physicians and businessmen can profit significantly while the patient suffers financially and physically.” 

My conversation with my roommates has helped me improve my cultural awareness of the situations apparent in the United States, some of which I had not paid much attention to in the past.

From a concert of a local orchestra in the Piazza del Campo

The Unrivaled History and Tradition of Siena

By simply entering the city of Siena during the summer it is hard to miss the local festivities and environment which surround il Palio di Siena. Il Palio di Siena is an annual horse race dating back to medieval times in which the different contrade (sectors of the city) of Siena compete against each other in the Piazza del Campo (center square of the city). The winning contrada receives a Drappellone (a large beautifully painted drape) and has bragging rights throughout the city. Over the past few weeks leading up to il Palio, I have been able to experience how highly the locals of Siena regard il Palio and how loyal they are to their own contrada. As a Sicilian who has not even voyaged out of Sicily while in Italy, I have never had much interest in il Palio. However, being in Siena has ignited a fascination within me and I want to learn more about this local tradition.

To discover more about the history and importance of il Palio, I asked one of my professors, Professore Elia, who is a local of Siena and has a sentimental attachment to the event. Professore Elia told me that although il Palio has a historical significance, the reason why the locals are so passionate about the game is because of the generational pride each local has for their own contrada and the importance of upholding such tradition.

Following my encounter with Professore Elia, I then wanted to ask the opinion of another one of my professors who is not originally from Siena, Professoressa Puma. Professoressa Puma is originally from Agrigento, Sicily but has lived in Siena for over 10 years. Like what Professore Elia said, Professoressa Puma also told me that the people of Siena are incredibly passionate about il Palio; however, unlike the professor from Siena, she does not have such an attachment to il Palio and has a hard time understanding the obsession with the race among the people of Siena even after living here for 10 years. While she does not share the same devotion to il Palio, she has come to appreciate the rich history behind the game. 

From the accounts of my two professors, I have come to realize that, for people without origins in Siena, the historical significance of il Palio is easy to admire while an emotional attachment to the race is a trait unique to locals. Overall, being in the environment of il Palio and having the ability to experience the race firsthand has been surreal. The preservation of the historical traditions has made me feel as if I have traveled back in time to the Middle Ages. I truly believe that the authenticity of il Palio and its traditions are incomparable to anything else, and I am extremely grateful to witness them in person. 

From the ceremony when the race horses are picked and distributed to each contrada
From the trial race the day before il Palio

Learning Step by Step

One of my main goals while being in Italy is to improve my conversational skills in Italian. Outside of school, I have been speaking daily with local Italians. From ordering a cappuccino at the local bar to conversing with local university students, I have been exposing myself to the colloquiums of the Italian language. From my experiences thus far I have come to understand the significance behind some phrases used in daily speech. 

For example, I have learned the meaning behind the phrase ci penso io. Ci penso io may have a direct translation of I think about it but, not everything can be directly translated between languages. The expression is used in discussion to indicate that one speaking will do a task themselves.  I have already begun using this phrase in my speech without even realizing it. This phrase is commonly used daily by all Italians regardless of age and gender.

Another expression I have often heard in conversation is può darsi. Puo darsi is used in discussion when the object of discourse has a probability of happening. While I have primarily heard this phrase while speaking with other younger students, it is also used by all other age groups. I have not utilized this expression as often as ci penso io; however, it has been useful to understand the meaning.

Through my informal conversations with local university students, I have also picked up some Italian slang. For example, when addressing a group, one will say raga. Raga is an abridged version of the term ragazzi meaning guys. I have also noticed this formula in other slang such as fra, short for fratello (brother).  

From my experiences thus far, I have realized that the most efficient way to apprehend a language is not to always perform a word-for-word translation but rather to listen for the context in which certain words are employed.

Chapel of the Duomo di Siena

Prima di andare in Italia

The immersive nature of studying abroad in Siena will be vastly different from my experiences so far because it will allow me to truly integrate into Italian culture, not only by speaking solely in Italian but also by participating in cultural events and experiences. I will take advantage of every opportunity to learn about the people and places of Siena to become familiar with their way of life. This is an opportunity unlike any classroom learning because studying abroad is completely interactive, allowing me to practice the language skills I have learned. Living in Siena will also be different from my other experiences traveling to Italy with my family because I will be more independent, better enabling me to take the initiative to meet and get to know people and travel to new places. While abroad, I hope to focus on learning more about grammar and pronunciation to grow immensely in my Italian language skills. I will work to better my speaking abilities in my daily life abroad to become perfectly fluent and completely immersed in the Italian culture and lifestyle. I am so incredibly excited to embark upon this life-changing experience where I will be able to apply my learning from the classroom. I believe that my greatest growth will be in my confidence level in speaking Italian, especially with natives of Italy. I really hope to be able to communicate in such a way that I will seem integrated into society completely. As my future goal is to become a doctor and work in Italy, this calls for my ability to communicate effectively with native speakers to help meet their needs.