Siena, ci rivedremo presto…arrivederci, ma non addio.

Last summer, the Notre Dame School of Architecture sent me and my fifty-four classmates abroad to Italy. The intention was to supplement the learning of our third year in the program. The tradition of the architecture program is to send third-year students for one year to Rome, to enhance their learning of traditional architecture and urbanism. This, in my case, would have been the 2020-2021 academic year, which was affected by the pandemic. However, the School was adamant – this experience would be crucial for our learning as architecture students. As such, the program faculty and staff made an incredible and kind effort to teach us in Rome the summer of 2021. As such, my classmates and I were guided through nine weeks in Italy, expanding our understanding of history, urbanism, and architectural design. In my time there, my already-great passion for language learning took off, given that was my first experience living abroad. I had been studying Italian at the university for three years at that point, and I felt so fortunate to be able to practice using the language in an authentic environment. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the culture and history that surrounded me everyday.

On July 31, 2021, I was heartbroken to leave Italy. It did not feel that I had only spent nine weeks traveling, drawing, and painting, but that I had undergone a transformative experience that I wished to continue. With that, the first week of August I began thinking about how I could go back to Italy to take my learning of the language to the next level. I spoke with Professoressa Blad, and I was inspired to apply for the Summer Language Abroad grant. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: language learning has been one of my greatest sources of joy since a young age, and to be able to go into an immersive program and focus so deeply on my language development sounded like a dream. I was encouraged to apply to the program in Siena – la Scuola di Dante Alighieri – for the wonderful level of instruction and family-like attention and care of the faculty and staff. I became gradually more excited and was overcome with joy when the news came that I had been awarded the grant. The reality of the opportunity came when I completed my purchase of the round-trip airline tickets.

After four weeks spent in Rome studying and interning with my professor – again funded by Nanovic – I stepped on the train to go to Siena. I could not believe that I was getting closer and closer to beginning an immersive language program, and was immediately welcomed by the School along with five other Notre Dame students in a Welcome dinner. I witnessed very quickly the level of care given by the School, and came to see this more as the time in the program passed. 

Every weekday, from 9:10am until 1:00pm, I was in language instruction. The beauty of the program was that students came into the School at different times and for different durations, and into different level courses, as it suited them. As a result, I met so many kind individuals from all over the world and of all ages. I was able to meet other eager language learners from Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Japan, and Spain, to name just a few. I developed a friendship with my instructors, who came in with smiles on their faces and an openness to talk to us regarding whatever we were curious about or whatever we wanted to share – in Italian, of course. Sonia, a Sienese native, guided me through my first weeks of learning, and Bianca from Agrigento, Sicily led me through the last three weeks. At 10:50am, many of us from the School would head downstairs and reconvene at the Bar Al Solito Posto around the block, where Mattia would greet us with a big smile and serve us a cappuccino or espresso for those twenty minutes. Back in class, we frequently launched into very organic, enjoyable group conversations that allowed each student to piggy-back off of what someone else was saying and make their own contribution through thoughtful efforts to engage the Italian language. 

What struck me in these language classes was that I did not feel so nervous to speak as I normally have in language courses in school. Interestingly enough, I think that the great variety in age and background made me feel more comfortable and at home, and as such, I would speak up and even launch into long explanations of my own thoughts and feelings. I want to bring this same comfort level back to campus when I enter the Primo Levi course in the fall. I cannot quite pinpoint why I get so nervous in language classes, even though I recognize we are all learners, and as such I hope I have moved past this fear and can apply newfound confidence to class participation! I discovered that the spontaneous conversation that came from different textbook topics and grammar lessons was where I felt most engaged, and I want to bring this spirit back to the classroom at Notre Dame.

Looking back on what I wrote on May 27, when I was in Rome and preparing to travel to Siena, it is incredible to see overlap in some themes. For instance, I write now about nervousness washing away in lessons while in Siena. And upon revisiting my pre-departure blog, I see that I hoped for this very thing to occur. This brings me joy to see that I have overcome something that I was concerned about just two months ago. Now the challenge I give to myself is to maintain this confidence moving forward. I will work to discipline myself in my continued use of the Italian language outside of the Primo Levi course. For instance, I want to maintain my new friendships from Siena and keep in touch on WhatsApp, actively practicing my more informal use of Italian. I also wish to call these friends once in a while, because the spoken language is always more of a challenge to me than the written one. 

I wish to make time to read books in Italian and journal in Italian, too. Throughout this summer, I maintained a journal, which further enabled self-discovery. I advise future SLA recipients, and even just other students studying abroad to do this. Even more so, I suggest you do what I did: do not write in English. I wrote interchangeably in Spanish and Italian, and while this was largely for practice, I reaped another benefit as well. I found that thinking in another language unlocked different perspectives even within the confines of a personal notebook. It was incredible to reflect upon this as I wrote, and I want to make this a habit for all future travel. I should even do this back in the States: write outside of my native language of English, and see how it impacts my thinking and outlook. I propose the same challenge to all of you!

As another piece of advice, I would say: if you have any interest in language learning, please visit the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures in Bond Hall. I work there as a language tutor of Spanish, and there are many passionate language peer tutors that would be happy to talk to you about opportunities such as these or help you practice your target language. I also advise you to talk to your language professors. Dr. Alessia Blad, both as Director of the CSLC and as one of my Italian culture professors, enthusiastically received millions of questions from me about how I could evolve as a language learner. She alongside Dr. Kathleen Boyle were both so supportive in my search for these opportunities, and were those who highly praised the program of Siena. Talk to the faculty at Notre Dame, because they want you to find these wonderful opportunities and are happy to share their own insights. Ask these questions, and you may find yourself on the language learning journey of your dreams. Now I walk away, eager to return, and I will make sure to do so.

Back in Siena, the variety in demographic among students in my language lessons was also so enriching both to the eager-to-learn atmosphere and to how much I learned about different cultures. Satomi shared so much about her life and experiences in Japan, which was very interesting. And each student touched my life in their own unique way. For instance, on Satomi’s last day of class, as we all spoke, she actively made origami for each of us. I still have mine, working hard to keep it intact during this final week in Rome and throughout my travel back to the States.

I also benefited from and was touched by the insights of individuals such as Volker, Catherine, and Claudia (all from Switzerland) and Virginia (from Spain) in their learning strategies and their life perspectives. Virginia and I often sat next to each other, and given her native language of Spanish and my good grasp of it, we would often swap notes to better understand certain vocabulary and grammar concepts in Italian that had a likeness to that of the former. Likewise, the three Swiss students inspired me with their learning as well, because given their residence in Switzerland, their exposure to the Italian language prior proved useful. 

Gabe, or as we would call him in class, Gabriele, carried many of his own insights as well. A fellow Notre Dame student, and now a friend, is Sicilian, specifically of Trapani, and goes to Trapani every summer to be with all of his family. Given his extensive experience both there and in his community in Detroit, it was enjoyable to hear both his and Bianca’s (a native of Agrigento, Sicily) insights for a different culture in Italy and to hear how it shapes their perceptions.

Virginia and I now write to each other in Spanish to get to know each other better as well as help my own skill development in Spanish. It is wonderful getting book recommendations and insights into the Catalan language from a native of Barcelona! New friendships such as these are another wonderful consequence of my time in Siena. My instructor Bianca still keeps in touch with me and Gabe, allowing us both to practice our Italian and to stay up-to-date with what’s going on in her life.

Three afternoons every week, several of us would meet for class from 2:00 to 4:00pm for lessons with Luca Bonomi, the president of the school. He would teach us the culture and history of Siena, and enrich his PowerPoints with his tours throughout the city and even two day trips to Florence. As if I did not already feel at home with the kind gestures of the language instructors and of the School staff, Luca enhanced this family-like atmosphere even further for all of us. He was eager to share his love for Siena, and in turn, I, too, came to love Siena. He made sure at all times that we were engaged and felt comfortable with both our lessons and our living situations. 

The School also made a diligent effort to lead us through the weeks preceding the Palio of July 2nd. This event was much more than a ninety-second horse race. I caught a glimpse of the rich cultural and historical atmosphere that inevitably engulfs the city each Palio “season”, and I felt blessed to do so in a way that a brief vacation in Siena would not accomplish. I admired the system of the contrade in Siena, something that is difficult to capture with words and more something that is felt. The rich sense of community that can be identified in Siena owes a great deal to these contrade, and also contributed to how light-hearted and very safe I felt in the city at all times.

Something I also noted in my pre-departure blog as a goal of mine, and something that I found to be prevalent in my Siena experience, was the impact of urbanism and architecture on everyday life. The movement through streets that were narrow, but not claustrophobic and in fact homey, was formative to my daily experience of Siena. I saw these same pedestrian-dominated streets be filled with enthusiastic Sienese people as various contrade marched through these streets anticipating the Palio. And I cannot stress enough how positive the virtual absence of cars in the historic center of Siena was. Furthermore, the change of elevation and the curving of streets rendered me constantly engaged as a pedestrian on the streets. I was always excited to see what was around a given corner. I was also in love with the architectural character of Siena. Luca Bonomi told us in one of our early culture class tours of the city that Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and that is why the medieval character of the city is perfectly preserved. I will declare that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture and urbanism, so the retention of this history is something very moving to me. I genuinely believe in its positive impacts on the preservation of cultural heritage in Siena.

On any given day in those five weeks in Siena, a passerby had a high chance of passing me in Piazza del Campo, the central part of the city. It was a common occurrence that I would bring a journal, sketchbook, a pair of earbuds, or just myself, and sit on the ground in the center of the piazza. I would let the simultaneously calm and vibrant feeling in the Campo air wash over me as I sat there overhearing bits of Italian – trying to imagine the context of different conversations in passing – or observing the movement of people in and out of the space. This ritual came to be somewhat of a religious experience for me, in that it was my default way to pass time outside of class. Chances are, when my roommates asked me where I was going on the way out of the apartment, I would respond “Campo.” This was all that needed to be said, because they all knew how much joy it brought me simply to exist in the Piazza del Campo for hours on end. At one point, I extended this routine to the beautiful steps behind the Baptistery of Siena. It simultaneously had great activity as people passed back and forth and carried the promise of shade in the dry heat of Siena.

My attitude towards language learning during my time in Siena was enriched, and I hope to go back to the School later down the road. It was very difficult when the time came to leave Siena, and it certainly kept a piece of my heart, ensuring I will go back. The wholly positive experience in Siena ignited my passion further to speak, write, listen, and read in Italian. Now back in Rome for a short while longer, I have taken the opportunity to speak and write occasionally in Italian to my professor, and I am so grateful for the courage I developed in Siena in order to do this. I would strongly encourage all those who are moved by the beauty of language and culture to seek out a program like this, if not this very program itself. And I cannot stress enough how special of a place Siena is. Even as I write this, I think back wistfully on just a few weeks ago when I was there, feeling right at home. But this connection is one I feel blessed to have, because that means I will go back.

Luca and Guido, in our last culture lesson, gave moving speeches about how Siena was our home, that we were leaving Siena, but that we would come back. Some of these beautiful words emphasized that all of them at the Dante Alighieri of Siena were our family, and not just for our time in class, but from now on. The community and care shown in Siena went well beyond what I ever could have asked for, and being awarded an SLA grant to undergo this transformative, family-like experience is something that will never go unappreciated in my memory. Luca, quoting a past student, said, “Rome is Rome, but Siena is home.” I, having lived in both of these incredible cities, was deeply touched by this as well.

In my final hour in Siena, I once again found myself sitting on a stoop in Campo and gazing out on the life before me. I know Campo awaits my return. Not long from now, I will once again sit in the embrace of that wonderful space.

Satomi’s origami gift to me on her last day in class. I’ll always remember her!
Our farewell cooking class and dinner the Wednesday before departure!

The Power of the Palio: A reflection across several weeks

Though I have already spoken of the Palio in Siena and some possible issues that might be perceived with it, I would like to dive deeper into how involved the experience of living in Siena has been all the way since my arrival on June 12. Within my first week of being in Siena, I began running into contrada parades on the streets just by chance. What this has looked like: large groups of contrada members, usually led by men in traditional wear, followed by other enthusiasts of the same contrada. They walk through the streets, waving large flags that bear the emblem and colors of that contrada. This visual is also accompanied by the audible: several contrada members dressed traditionally also play the drums to a specific rhythm, and the contrada at large has a chant of some sort to complement the drums. This is a wonderful display of contrada pride through the streets for all to witness. Keep in mind I started to see this three weeks prior to the Palio, which is telling about how the Palio is so much more than just a ninety-second race. 

These were some initial observations, but I am also grateful for the clarifications that my instructors shared both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Sonia, my first language instructor, is a native of Siena, and thus was very much able to speak to the Palio’s emotional effect on her and other Sienese individuals. What resonated with me most from her lesson was her description of the moments immediately preceding the race, in which the horses’ line-up is announced. She notes how there are tens of thousands of people, and yet somehow, despite all the commotion, there is an instant where everybody falls to complete silence to hear the announcer’s words. “Mi dà sempre dei brividi,” she tells us, which means that the beauty of this silence and attention is so moving that she often gets goosebumps at this moment. I was touched to hear this, and I kept this in mind as she showed us various clips on the screen of previous Palios. Luca, our culture class instructor, happened to teach us about the Palio on the very same day. He shared many of the same details as Sonia, and also added his own emotion to the descriptions. Though not native to Siena as Sonia is, Luca is sixty-seven years old and has lived in Siena since he was seventeen. What he has mentioned several times to us, jokingly, is that he thought the people of the city were a bit odd for how strongly emotional they would get during the Palio season. Now, he says, after so many decades of living here, he too feels a very deep connection to the event and all of its traditions. He even shares with us details beyond the Palio, more specifically of the contrada system. It was very evident to me how much he loves his contrada – Torre – as one day in class he led us to that section of the city and invited us into its church and museum. The character was incredible, and the museum touched me even more. It serves as an artifact of the many traditions of the Torre contrada across centuries, including much of the traditional dress that I have seen on the street throughout the weeks in Siena. The final room we visited in the museum featured dozens of large, elongated banners. They were exquisite, painted by hand onto a fabric, from an assortment of years. These were the banners of the Palio during the years that the Torre contrada won. This respect for history and tradition is something I very much admire, and I greatly appreciated the combination of the following:

  • My first hand experiences in the streets of Siena
  • The lessons on the Palio by Sonia and Luca
  • The accounts of the same two individuals who are so clearly impacted by a love for their city and for their respective contrade

This perspective is much more complete than something I might read in a book, and certainly, this has expanded upon my very first notion of the Palio. In my class taught by Professor Kathleen Boyle in Spring 2019, I saw a video clip of a past Palio, and was grateful for this initial exposure so that I would be aware of it three years down the line when I would incidentally live the Palio.

I also liked getting other outsiders’ perspectives. My other language instructor, Bianca, does not feel as Sonia and Luca do. She appreciates the tradition, but she hails from Agrigento, Sicily, and despite living in Siena for ten years, she does not feel as strongly. I imagine that her perception of the Palio might change later down the road, if she remains in the city for the following decades. I also met an American classmate, older than I am, who has been visiting Siena across decades. In fact, she has watched the Palio in person multiple times, often paying for a special balcony seat. Even not native to Siena, she has a great admiration for the event and has many experiences to share with the class.

The brividi Sonia mentioned several weeks before the Palio are something I feel myself even several days before the Palio, on Wednesday, June 29. This is the day of assigning the horses to the contrade, and this is an important, well-attended tradition hosted in Piazza del Campo. The school thoughtfully brought us over to the Piazza around noon to watch this, and I noted the same silence falling over the crowd every time a horse assignment was about to be announced. I, too, felt the goosebumps that Sonia once mentioned, and found myself getting caught up in the emotions. Naturally, as a temporary resident, I am not part of a contrada, but my friends and I had a few contrade that we were supporting: Torre, because of Luca; Istrice, because of our other teacher Guido and because of our upcoming contrada dinner; and Lupa, because that is the contrada in which our apartment is located.

Friday, July 1, the evening immediately prior to the Palio, was the night that all contrade hosted very large, formal dinners. The Dante Alighieri School of Siena has again gone above and beyond to provide us with an incredible cultural experience: the Notre Dame students were able to go with Guido to the Istrice contrada dinner. I was naturally very excited for this, so Iliana and I took a stroll down the streets of Siena Tuesday evening to find ourselves nice dresses for the gala-style dinner. On Thursday morning and evening, Friday morning and evening, and Saturday morning, there were what are called prove, which are relaxed “tests” of the race around the Piazza del Campo. 

However, in the Friday evening prova, the horse of Istrice got a bit hurt. It was hard to understand what had happened because I heard about this secondhand. Furthermore, this event is very important to Sienese people, so when something upsetting like this happens, there is such a range of emotions that I did not wish to upset someone further by asking too many questions out of curiosity. As such, in the approach to the Istrice contrada dinner, there was a noticeable sadness in the air, as it was anticipated that their horse would not race the next evening. I could sense some sadness, which made me and my classmates in turn also a bit sad out of empathy for the contrada members and for the horse. That said, people’s spirits across the board seemed to be lifted once we all settled down for the courses of dinner. We were seated across a large expanse of outdoor space, totaling around 2,500 attendees. Volunteers came around the long tables presenting us with each course throughout the night, an event, complemented with speeches, that extended until 1:00am. 

On the day of the Palio – Saturday, June 2 – the excitement was once again obvious. I wondered to myself how the event is affected when it does not so perfectly fall on a weekend day as it does this year. Are businesses closed? Or are streets emptier because everyone resumes normal business operations? I imagine it is somewhere in the middle, but this is something for me to confirm down the road when I return to Siena. 

I had previously decided with my friends that the several hours standing in the hot sun before the Palio’s start might come to be too much. That is, in order to watch the Palio in person and not pay several hundred euros to sit in a balcony, you would have to stand with a mass of people in the center of the Piazza waiting for the event’s commencement while also hoping that you have a good view of the race. In fact, the Piazza slopes down in the middle, much as a shell would – and this reaffirms the shape of the shell that is identified in Piazza del Campo. This downward slope might even further obstruct a spectator’s view, and it would have been much more crowded than my observation of L’assegnazione dei cavalli four days prior in the same spot.

As such, the six of us walked around in search of a restaurant with a television. Gabe found one less than ten minutes from the Piazza, and the atmosphere even at the restaurant was electric. Many patrons sported their contrada’s scarf proudly, and maintained an attentive eye towards the TV. Naturally, as the start of the race approached, more spectators began to surround the restaurant, purchasing some kind of beverage to be able to reasonably stand around and benefit from the business’s showing of the race. From that point forward there was an assortment of shouts, scoffs, and exhales as we all waited through four to five restarts of the race. The complicated nature of the race comes from the fact that the final horse in the line-up, as he passes a designated point, indicates the start of the race. But this moment must be preceded by all horses settling perfectly in their proper positions, something which is difficult to accomplish. And, for whatever reason that I still do not understand, the starter gun was prematurely shot almost every time – that is, it came before the final horse trotted past the line. Though this served as a source of frustration for many Sienese people who had been waiting three years for this moment, I was grateful for the “dragging out” of the race. I was able to soak in more of the atmosphere and the anticipation. And I am also grateful to be in Siena the first year of the Palio since the pandemic began, because the additional layer of enthusiasm on the part of Siena as a whole was wonderful to experience.

Ultimately, the contrada Drago won, but I did feel badly for the contrada of Luca – Torre – because it really did seem to have won. Drago won by a hair, and Luca had once said that finishing second is almost worse than any other finish because the win was so nearly in the contrada’s grasp. The moment Drago won, the spectators around us from that very contrada jumped up immediately in a cry of overwhelming gratitude and immediately ran out of the restaurant towards the Piazza del Campo several blocks away. Even just reflecting on this now, I get goosebumps as I write. The six of us waited patiently for the restaurant to empty out, and then we strolled down the streets eager to go visit the contrada of Drago. We knew that there would be celebration, and we wished to see it all. When we arrived in Piazza Matteotti, we waited for about ten minutes or so before we heard the drums of the triumphant contrada returning from the central Piazza del Campo. A large mass of people arrived, and trailed behind the drumline and flag bearers, up the stairs, into the contrada church. The electric atmosphere in Piazza Matteotti lasted at least forty minutes, and once the masses had emptied out, we went to the Piazza del Campo ourselves. At this point, over an hour had passed since the race’s finish, and we entered Campo to find a parade around the circumference of the piazza. It was beautiful to witness, and we remained there for two hours grateful to be surrounded by so much excitement.

What touched me even more was the resumption of the proud Drago members’ celebration throughout the streets of Siena for the next three days and nights. I would often happen upon this while sitting behind the Baptistery or while sitting on the ground of Piazza del Campo. Each time, the leading drumline and flag bearers would come in their uniforms, keeping the traditions alive to an extraordinary extent. This unique cultural experience will stick with me for years to come, and I am thankful for the insights my teachers and peers shared along the way so that it would resonate with me even more.

Wednesday, June 29: L’assegnazione dei cavalli
Friday, July 1: The dinner of the Istrice contrada
Saturday, July 2: The night of the Palio. Awaiting the arrival of the Drago contrada in their Piazza Matteotti.
Saturday, July 2: The movement of the winning contrada into their church
Saturday, July 2: The church of the Drago contrada

Il Palio di Siena: Controversial?

There is a bit of a debate in the community of Siena regarding the Palio event. This tradition dates back to medieval times and remains very integral to Sienese culture. This horse race occurs twice a year, on the second of July and on the sixteenth of August. Its duration is ninety seconds, and features horses representing ten of the seventeen Sienese contrade. The festivities, however, precede and follow each Palio for weeks. The preparation for this race entails arranging wooden posts around the shell-form of the Piazza del Campo, forming an enclosed space for spectators for the Palio Day, as well as the layering of dirt on the “track” so that the horses may run on dirt and not on the hard pavement.

The experience of living in Siena leading up to, through, and after the July Palio was something incredible. I was very moved by the rich atmosphere in the air for weeks on end, the visible and unmistakable excitement of most Sienese residents. The great pride many carry for their contrade is quite beautiful and you could even witness a range of emotions while walking through the narrow streets.

That said, I present the debate I have heard mentioned on several occasions by members of the Dante Alighieri School of Siena and by those in the community. Some imply that perhaps this tradition should not continue, that this horse race is immoral and inhumane and should no longer persist. It is hard for me to take a stance on this because I do not live in Siena and cannot speak to the conditions of the horses. 

I will say that I noted a palpable reverence of each horse assigned to each contrada, and have heard people discuss how much the horse is loved by the contrada as even more important and admirable than the fantino (jockey). On Wednesday, June 29, around 2:00pm, L’assegnazione dei cavalli took place. This is when the names of the various contrade are called at random to be assigned to certain horses that will partake in the race. The experience was something incredible, as each contrada, upon hearing itself assigned to the horse currently before the Palazzo Pubblico, would run eagerly to the horse and follow it with enthusiasm and pride out of the piazza in a ceremonial manner.

 I also have heard from a Sienese community member that one opponent to the Palio’s continuation said the horses were forced to run on pavement, which would be cruel. However, this was somewhat of an uninformed statement to make, because as is documented on the Internet and in photos, and as I have seen myself for the weeks around the Palio, the Piazza comes to be covered with sand as to make it an appropriate track for the event.

I believe that this is a very complex issue. As an outsider, I find it difficult to form an educated opinion. I can respect both sides of this argument, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about different opinions of the Palio from the perspective of the Sienese community.

Magari…I learned something new!

Before I came to Siena, I thought “magari” was a Roman term. The reason I say this is because I did not make note of it at all the previous summer when I was in Italy, and I first started noticing it when I was in Professor Sabrina Ferri’s Modern Italian Literature course. I heard her using it a lot, and I asked her to clarify the word; she said that it meant “maybe”, and that Romans like herself use it a great deal. Moving forward, I assumed it was part of the Roman dialect. In fact, when I arrived to Rome May 12, I very quickly started noticing its usage as I had not before. However, when I arrived to Siena, and I started to hear Sonia and Bianca – my two instructors – using it very frequently, it changed my conception of the word as pertaining to a more southern dialect. I also learned its meaning can be adapted to “as if!” or to a sense comparable to “oh, I wish.” It seems prevalent throughout the country. It was a pleasure to learn this, because each piece of information such as this continually molds my understanding of the Italian language and the dialects.

I also have been learning a great deal of Sienese dialect. I reflect upon my own residence in the state of Florida. Are there words, phrases, or pronunciations that are distinctly Floridian? It is hard to say as an “insider”, but it would be interesting to explore this on the Internet in my free time. And this is keeping in mind that the state of Florida is comparable in size to Italy, though smaller at least somewhat. What really strikes me is just the degree of variation in accent and expression between the many regions of Italy. Imagine that my Sarasota County were to have differences from the adjacent county: Lee County. What is even more puzzling to me is the distinction from city to city. For instance, there are differences in pronunciation between Siena and Florence, separated only by a one-hour bus ride. This was something framed by my teachers, not something I have picked up on my own. However, it has been incredible to notice the way Sienese people speak in dialect on the streets and in businesses after receiving some “pointers” in class. For instance, “la casa” is transformed into “la hasa”. Hard C’s are pronounced as H’s, which in my opinion is a bit reminiscent of the manipulation of different letters’ pronunciation between various countries in Latin America. For instance, it brings to my mind what my Dominican friend Jazmin told me years ago about Dominican Spanish: oftentimes the R’s and S’s are not articulated as much or are sometimes virtually eliminated from words in the spoken language. Or how Puerto Rican Spanish sometimes abbreviates certain words, allowing for more fluidity in daily speech. I love being able to learn about these subtle variations between dialects in Italy, and then expanding my understanding of dialects as a phenomenon across various languages.

As part of the DA School, I have been able to develop some friendships with Italians with whom I speak to in Italian. This is wonderful practice, and it allows me to implement new phrases I learn in school. For instance, I constantly hear Bianca saying “ci sta….ci sta…ci sta.” What does this mean? I asked her, and she told me it was a more colloquial expression of “ha senso”, or “that makes sense.” “I see what you’re saying; that tracks.” Since she shed light on this, I find myself incorporating “ci sta” myself into my conversations, hoping to make it a more natural and intuitive part of my Italian language use. I want to make my transition into fluency to feature some phrases that Italian themselves use, because I believe this makes me more approachable as a speaker of Italian. In other words, rather than default to English upon hearing my non-Italian accent, a native speaker might think “Wait. She seems eager to speak with me and she is not speaking perfectly, but she has some understanding of colloquial speech and I appreciate her effort. I will respond to Italian and in turn help her expand her knowledge.” This brings me to another point. I so treasure when an Italian might hear me stumble slightly over some words and yet still dignifies my efforts with responses in Italian, even recognizing my learning phrase. This patience and understanding touches my heart, and these individuals often remain in my memory as the days pass.

My first two weeks in Siena, Sonia was the instructor of my class! The variety of learners’ backgrounds was a wonderful contribution to the lessons.
From left to right: Volker (Switzerland); Catherine (Switzerland); Gabe (U.S., also Notre Dame); Claudia (Switzerland); Yours truly (U.S.); Sonia (Siena native); Lisa (U.S., recently immigrated to Italy).
Front: Virginia (Spain)
A later week in the program! Bianca is now our instructor at this point.
From left to right, back: Gabe (U.S.); Volker (Switzerland); Virginia (Spain); Lisa (U.S.)
From left to right, front: Satomi (Japan); Bianca (Agrigento, Sicily – moved to Siena); Mary (U.S.); Yours truly (U.S.)

An array of takes on America: the Sienese edition

In my Summer Language Abroad program, I have had the opportunity to meet three to four times a week in a class with the other Notre Dame SLA Siena recipients and a teacher in the Dante Alighieri School of Siena. This teacher, Luca Bonomi, as the president of the school, has had decades of experience working in the school and interacting with Notre Dame, and more broadly, Americans. He even has visited the U.S. and Notre Dame specifically several times. While teaching us about the Sienese culture, Luca often has made comparisons with the culture he has observed in the United States. For instance, there was one day in class where he was talking about the practice of the Catholic faith. He made a stark contrast between that in Italy and that in the United States. This was something Professor Alessia Blad had previously noted in a culture class I took with her in the university, but it was interesting to see his perspective as well. In essence, what he perceived is that the Catholic faith in Italy is something that lingers out of tradition and the Church’s great influence in governmental decisions, rather than out of religious fervor. In contrast, he tells us, the Catholic faith in the United States is much more practiced with intentionality and passion. He mentioned some experiences in the states of Tennessee and Indiana, in which he went to a Catholic Church to find that, to his surprise, the pews were filled. Something that took me aback was that he said in the Duomo of Siena, the breathtaking and marvelous cathedral of the city, a Sunday mass is often met with a relatively empty nave. Because this was an insight Professor Blad had shared before, none of this was a complete surprise, but I still found it very interesting to hear his perceptions. Frankly, it strikes me as a shame because Italy has a wealth of churches with very awe-inspiring architecture. To see that they may go somewhat unappreciated besides the paying tourist (and perhaps not even then either) is a bit disappointing. But these are important considerations to keep in mind nonetheless!

A change of environment and a change of perspective comes in my daily runs to Il Bocconcino, the paninoteca right on the edge of Piazza del Campo. The piazza is a central hub of activity, so going there for lunch everyday always brings a new wave of joy and energy. I walk in with a friend or two, often Gabe, to see what panino I will choose today. The shop owners always greet us with a smile as I canvas the slew of options available. These panini have been the best I have had daily access to, because they are made with a wonderful bread, and a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and salsa as you may see fit from the twenty-plus options that lie on the menu. The difference can really be seen from the fact that these panini are made freshly upon your order. Then the owners graciously give us discounts as students of the DA School. Aside from the fact that this is one of the great joys of each school day, I enjoyed hearing the shop owners’ response when Gabe and I told them we were from the United States. “Ah! Amiamo l’America!” And then they shared with us all of the places in the U.S. which they have visited. While this brief interaction was not particularly one in which I gained their insights of a specific aspect of American culture, it was heartwarming to see their joy upon hearing we came from the States. 

It has also been enlightening to learn more about the passage of laws regarding women’s rights, etcetera when regarding the U.S. and Italy. Given some recent developments in the U.S., class discussion was recently redirected for a bit towards when major transformations in rights have occurred between the two countries. Even as we perceive our own granting of rights to different groups to be overdue in many moments, I learned that Italy has often been several decades behind in carrying out the same decisions. Making these comparisons has been important for me to develop a more well-rounded of how the world views different issues and takes action towards them. 

A recurring theme of my classes has been the portrayal of Italy in American film. To hear the perspective of Bianca, my instructor, has been interesting. Native to Agrigento (Sicilia), she has grown up in Sicily and then about ten years ago, around eighteen years old, moved to Siena to study and then begin work after graduation. She has not yet traveled to America but has several times shared her comedic take on the American portrayal of Italians in film. We spoke continuously of the many gestures at the disposal of any conversation between Italians, and how they are often applied erroneously or in an exaggerated manner in American film. Furthermore, she has shared with us the romanticization of the Italian Mafia, such as of Cosa Nostra, in American film. We have spoken of several series and films that do this, and in fact some Italian series err towards romanticization as well. She has warned against this and has spoken of this in greater detail. This has been refreshing to hear, especially given her upbringing in Sicily. 

Bianca, as well one of my classmates Lisa – recently immigrated from the U.S. – have shared some interesting insights into a few shortcomings of the Italian government structure. For instance, throughout Lisa’s search of Italian citizenship, she has often suffered from an overly-prolonged process and from several seemingly unnecessary setbacks. Even certain steps of her acquisition of a driver’s license, identification card, and what is called the “codice fiscale” are a bit overcomplicated. While in the U.S. there is often a level of complexity in the approvals and actions necessary to accomplish something related to the federal or state level, it seems even a bit more exaggerated in Italy. This has opened my eyes to the fact that many countries have some degree of bureaucracy that can be both beneficial and a hindrance.

All in all, my conversations with members of the community and the Dante Alighieri School of Siena have enriched my perspectives of Italy, even more so Siena, and of the United States in relation to each other, something that cannot always be taught through textbooks. 

Felice di tornare in Italia!

Fortunately, my first study abroad experience was last summer, on behalf of the School of Architecture’s generosity. I was able to study in Italy then as well, which increased my conviction that living in Italy greatly aided my learning of the language and regional cultures.  I say “fortunately” only because I would not have recognized on my own how important studying abroad was for my personal growth and education, and because I was thus inspired to return. While I resided in Rome in Summer 2021, I had the opportunity to travel to Florence and Siena on a school trip. I was impressed by Siena, even from just one day spent there, and heard such high praise of the Dante Alighieri School program from my Italian professors. At this point, I have been back in Rome for two weeks already, and I am very excited to expand upon my language learning in Siena. I feel that this time now, living here and doing an internship with my architecture professor, allows me to “warm up” once again with the language and with the way of life. 

I have been incorporating the Italian language when I can, which is fairly accessible due to being in Italy. This has taken many forms: listening to my professor and his colleagues speak about a design proposal and gleaning what I can from it; ordering a cappuccino in the late morning at a small café; practicing in Italian with my professor’s daughter; and so forth. And that is why I think that studying abroad, here in Rome and, shortly, in Siena, is so empowering for a student passionate about languages. While Italian language courses have allowed me to develop a strong foundation through an incredible support system, I always feel the nervousness of speaking up in class. But here, I realize the necessity to speak up, to use the language as often the only way I can communicate and connect with other people. Being abroad, I am not worried about what a peer might think if I mess up with a phrase or conjugation; rather, I recognize that whoever I am talking to will simply appreciate my efforts and might simply not be someone I see again, so there is no embarrassment to be felt. Not concerned about “messing up” allows me to grow, so I am eager to enter the immersive language program and more deeply understand the language. By the time I return to campus in August, I hope that feelings of hesitation will have washed away, so that I may more actively engage with material in the classroom.

As an architecture student with an interest in urbanism, living in Siena, paired with culture courses, will greatly enrich my studies of architecture and history overall. I plan to draw and walk through the city in a way that will help me better understand the planning and motivations behind architectural styles and urbanistic choices. The immersive experience will allow me the time to reflect on this. Furthermore, I enjoy learning slang and popular expressions in my target language. I think it allows me to be more in touch with Italian beyond just knowing vocabulary or grammar. 

As a language learner, I recognize it is very valuable to make many mistakes to learn quickly. However, I also think matching the cadence or typical pronunciation of letters in the target language, to the best of your ability, is very beneficial as a learner. For instance, if I mess up the cadence or pronunciation of the first words I say when talking to a native Italian speaker, sometimes they may default to English. While I recognize they are doing this to help me out, I value even more the opportunity to keep speaking so that I may get extra practice. If I disguise just a bit longer that I am an early learner, i.e. pronounce words in a comparable way, then this affords me the chance to avoid this “default to English” and get more speaking time in Italian! So I would love to learn more about pronunciation and matching the rhythm of the Italian language, to allow my practice and conversation with locals to flow more easily.

What largely prompted my desire to return to Italy this summer is because of how much I felt that my time here changed me. With each week that passed in Summer 2021, I felt myself continually in awe of the language, the various cultures throughout the country, the rich architectural history, and the walkable cities. I did not anticipate that my time abroad would have that much of an effect on me, but it did. I started to see what it might look like to be a lifelong learner. Were there course assignments when I was here last summer? Sure. But were the focuses of those the limits of my education then? Not at all. Even on weekend trips independent from academic study, I felt my horizons expanding greatly. I come from a more suburban area of Southwest Florida, so I had never been able to walk around a city everyday as my primary means of movement. I love my home, of course, but to walk around in Rome – Siena – Florence – Naples – Venice – etc. etc. finally brought to light the lessons of urbanism that had intrigued me in school, but had never really stuck until now. My two greatest passions are brought together here: design and language. And what really impressed me across last summer and this summer is how important applying your studies to everyday life is for understanding, personal growth, and increased interest. I trust that with the start of the Siena program, about two weeks away, I will delve deeper into what about the Italian language is so moving – and with that, the study of language in general – and into why architecture and urbanism truly shape the life of visitors and residents alike.

I’ve made a new friend with my professor’s daughter Livia, who is about my age. We have been spending a lot of time together. Another friend and I invited her into the garden here of the Notre Dame Villa in the Celio neighborhood one afternoon! Livia (left), me (right).