Final Reflection

Spending five weeks in Siena, Italy, is an experience that I will never forget. I went into this opportunity with my mind open and the goal of growing my Italian language skills to the best of my ability. I had total faith in the idea of full immersion to understand culture and language through living it and I am so glad that I had those notions in my mind. 

In my classes and in my daily life in Siena I was challenged to use my speaking and listening skills to understand how to communicate properly in different situations. I grew my understanding of grammar, my vocabulary, and my confidence in speaking. The way the school structured our classes was mostly through speaking with one another and coming up with things to say on the spot. I struggled with this at first but over time grew to do well with the challenges. This on-the-spot thinking proved very helpful during my daily life where it became much easier to begin and understand conversations with Italians. This ability to communicate stronger also allowed me to experience Italian culture in a different way. I was able to speak with people my own age and understand their lives. I learned a lot about the education system in Italy as well as their own ideas on life in America.

In addition to my communication skills, I grew my understanding of Italian history and culture. Most specifically, I learned a great deal about Tuscan history and the culture that developed in Siena through the road of pilgrimage stemming from Northwestern Europe. Siena used this opportunity to develop its economy to thrive off of the travelers making their way to the Holy City in Rome. Additionally, we learned of the governmental structure of Siena itself which was something I found interesting. The city of Siena has a tradition of strong faith in the Blessed Mother which is evident in their crowning of her as the queen of Siena. A title she still holds today. 

Finally, in regards to how I felt I would grow at the start of this program, I feel as though my expectations were met exceedingly. Looking back, I hoped that this program would not only grow my academic knowledge but that it would grow my sense of independence. I felt as though living in Siena and having the opportunity to be myself in a place so different from home I became a much stronger and more independent person. I grew confident in myself by being able to speak well with the Italians, make friends with new people, and immerse myself in another culture but not quite losing my own. This experience changed me for the better and I hope that other students continue to be blessed with this same opportunity.

Some of my favorite moments captured:

America Through Italian Eyes

While I went to Italy to learn more about the Italian culture and language, I also was able to learn about how the United States is perceived from the outside. Luckily, this was a topic of conversation in one of my language classes. 

During this lesson, our instructor asked us to discuss what our different government systems are like as we had just discussed the Italian bureaucracy. Beyond the Notre Dame students whom I shared my class with, there were students from Switzerland and Spain. They each explained their governments leaving the US citizens to be the last to explain. I recall our instructor pointing the conversation towards the way that other countries view the United States government. He asked us about the way the government works given that no one really agrees on anything. I was shocked at how well he seemed to understand the state of our government. Not only did he point the question this way, but the citizens from the other European countries were also wondering the same. This encounter was quite eye-opening about the reputation of the American government in other democratic nations. 

Outside of the Dante Alighieri School in Siena, Italy

In general, there was no obvious dislike of Americans from the Italians. They were welcoming and most were interested to hear where you were from as well as what brought you to Italy. However, it was common that even if you began to speak with the Italians in their language, they would switch to English right away after hearing Italian with an American accent. By another request, most would continue to talk to you in Italian knowing that your purpose in the country was to learn their language. 

Beyond the language barrier, many Italians like to share their culture and learn more about the American culture. They ask questions about life in America, the different cities that we each come from, and all seem to know about the city of New York as a place with many cultures. During our many class discussions, we compared the culture of the countries we each live in. Comparing foods, social lives, popular culture, sports, and entertainment. The Italians and other Europeans seemed to understand our culture through the lens of the shows and films that they were able to watch. Some friends we had made in class from Switzerland also discussed how they came to understand US culture through watching our television shows and movies on Netflix. Our music also greatly impacts what they think of our culture. Thus, how we are portrayed within media through television, film, and social media. 

Friends from Switzerland with another Notre Dame student, Gabe Biondo, and myself after dinner.

Public Transportation Strikes

Public transportation is relied on heavily throughout Italy as it is usually convenient and quite affordable to get from point A to point B. The transportation is safe and well managed, however, it is subject to the rippling effects of strikes. Before traveling to Italy, I was told to be on the lookout for possible strikes in public transportation. I thought to myself, this must be a rare occurrence, but during my time in Italy, I was proven wrong. A group of students traveled to the Cinque Terre in Liguria which is outside of Tuscany. During this weekend, we had not come into any issues with public transportation, and additionally, throughout all of my time in Italy leading up to this trip I had not had any struggles using the busses or trains. 

Train Schedule in La Spezia station

However, when it was time for us to return to Siena on our scheduled train, we found that it had been canceled! What we did not know was that there was a train strike planned for all trains in the Tuscan region. Therefore, we could not get to Siena which is in the heart of Tuscany. We contacted our school and they told us to sit tight and we would be able to travel the following day. We returned to our hotel and waited to take the train back to Siena the following morning. 

After returning to our hotel we spoke with the woman in charge of it and she explained to us that these strikes are something to look out for when you are traveling by public transport. The strikes extend between trains, buses, and even taxis for specific lines or regions. We also were able to speak about the experience with our professors at the Dante Alighieri school. It seemed in these conversations that these occurrences are accepted by Italians as a normal part of their transportation system. In regards to the strike that I was impacted by, starting in June the strikes throughout Italy have taken place due to wage disputes. Workers in the unions feel as though they are in need of a wage increase as the cost of living has increased drastically. Additionally, during the week following my return home, there were taxi strikes across the country as the drivers were protesting the government’s plans to deregulate the sector. Striking is the reality of public transportation in Italy and is something that you just need to get informed about before you book travel. 

Based on these examples, the strikes seem to be a reflection of Italian nature. They are willing to stand up for their beliefs and will do it in a peaceful yet effective manner. As an outsider, the act of protesting by striking is seemingly very impactful. Not only does this affect the consumers of the transport, but this affects the larger corporations and eventually the government as they lose sales to these events. However, the benefit of Italian strikes is that they are scheduled. This information is shared online and should be researched before you are planning a trip. This is something that I learned firsthand and would not have had I done just a bit more research.

  1. Italia Rail Strike Information
  2. Crisis24: Italy: Unionized taxi drivers to strike nationwide July 20-21
  3. Planes and trains: Italy’s calendar for 2022 summer strikes

Il Palio e Le Contrade

Picture a city square filled with members of the city, cheering on the jockey and horse of their neighborhood, and reacting passionately to the results of a race. The winning team crying tears of joy while its competitors are weeping or arguing that the race is unfair. Twice a year you can find this passion in the city of Siena during the Palio races. These are bare-backed horse races that date back to the year 1633 in the city. 

Image from TravelsToTuscany

These races are between the 17 contradas, which are the 17 districts of Siena. Contrade is used in Italy to divide cities into wards or districts, and in Siena, they became part of the lives of citizens. The Contradas influence community life and provide a civic obligation to their inhabitants. During the Palio, ten Contrade are selected to race, and this changes between each race. 

Leading up to the first event, there are trial runs for the horses and the best ten racers are chosen to be the horses of the Palio. The first event of the festival is the choosing of the horses where one of the ten horses is assigned to each competing party. When I attended this event, you could see which Contrada each person lives in as they would wear the flag and the colors of their respective districts. They all filed into the square chanting and singing the motto or songs of their contradas in hopes of being assigned the best horse. As they had also watched the races and kept track of which horses had the most experience, they would react accordingly when they received their assignment. Especially when the best horse was chosen, the Contrada of the Estrice, or porcupine, cheered and ran together to follow the horse out of the square and parade to their home. 

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

The following events were the trials. These were races that occurred each day leading up to the actual race to prepare the jockeys and the horses for the starting arrangements. It was during these days that a few horses and jockeys were injured making the race just between the remaining six contrade. One of these injuries was to Estrice Contrada’s horse. Estrice was the Contrada that we had the opportunity to attend the dinner for the night before the race. While the dinner itself was the largest of all the city, it was also quite somber as during the trial runs, their horse was injured and unable to compete in the actual race.

The day of the race was incomparable. The streets were filled as people from all over the world came to watch this historical tradition continue. The piazza, the town center, was filled with people who stayed there for hours following the mid-day parade of the jockeys and horses. Bleachers were filled with people who had spent thousands of dollars on their seating to view the event while the restaurants and bars were filled with people watching while they enjoyed refreshments. Taking to the advice of the many local Sienese people we came to know during our time there, my classmates and I decided to take part in the latter half for a more enjoyable watching experience.

Parade members

The race commenced following seven calls back where one jockey was injured. The race was between very few horses by the time it went off. In the restaurant, you could hear the locals cheering for their own contradas as well as arguments between enemy contradas. This year, the race was close between the Torre and Drago contradas but the Drago was victorious in the end. The locals in our restaurant were of this Contrada and sprinted from the establishment to go celebrate in the piazza with their families and friends. The women wept tears of joy and embraced one another as excitement filled the streets. We made our way to the piazza of their Contrada to watch their flag bearers and representatives dressed in traditional Tuscan fashion carrying the Palio banner and the jockey into their district’s museum. The drummers played and marched to the beat of their Contrada as well to begin their night of celebration. This was truly a unique experience of Sienese culture. 

Drago Contrada Celebration

Dishes of Tuscany

The region of Tuscany, Siena especially, has a couple of important foods that are unique to their location. These two foods are called, Cinghiale al Ragu, Pici al tartufo, and Panzanella. Each of these foods is used throughout Siena in different restaurants and in different ways. I have had the opportunity to try each of these foods during my time in Siena and was able to experience the Tuscan culture through their foods. 

Cinghiale al Ragu

Cinghiale is the meat of wild boar found in Tuscany. This meat is popular in Tuscan cuisine and is often used in a pasta dish, un primo piatto, called pasta con ragu. In America, pasta con ragu is called pasta with bolognese sauce. Pictured above is a dish of this sauce and tagliatelle. The Cinghiale ragu has a rich flavor and can be made with or without tomatoes. My preference is the ragu with tomatoes because it really enhances the flavor of the meat. I found it to be important to try the traditional Tuscan dish because it is so highly recommended and it also carries Tuscan tradition. 

Tagliatelle al Tartufo

The second type of food that is important in the Tuscan region is Pici al Tartufo. This primo piatto was also found on most menus in Siena and carries a rich creamy flavor through every bite. The pasta dish is made with butter, garlic, parmesan cheese, and right on top the shavings of black truffle. Specifically, in Siena, the pasta of choice is called pici which is a hand-rolled pasta that is native to the city. The pasta is traditionally only made with water and flour, but the egg can be added in for consistency if needed. Since Tuscany is a region that is known for its truffle production, I knew I needed to try this dish. The pasta was creamy, rich, and full of truffle flavor. I am glad I tried this dish because I had never had pasta like it before. 

Finally, the Panzanella dish is a traditional Tuscan dish often referred to as a poor man’s dish. It is almost like a bread salad with tomatoes, red onion, oil, and red wine vinegar. Sometimes it includes cucumbers and basil which were in the salad when I first tried it. It is topped off with salt and pepper to taste. This was one of the first Tuscan dishes that I tried upon arriving in Siena. There was a dinner with our school in which Panzanella was the antipasto course. This dish was refreshing after a long day in the summer heat of Siena. We sat on a beautiful rooftop overlooking the neighborhood, or contrada, where our school was located in. This was an unforgettable experience taking in Tuscan culture.

Rooftop at Dante Alighieri School, Siena, Italy

Trying these dishes in the heart of their origin really filled my time living in Siena with the strong culture of the region. Upon speaking with the Sienese people and the chefs at our school, we were informed that many of these dishes were created because of what was available to the people of Tuscan over the ages. Panzanella was created as a way to use leftover bread and vegetables that fed many poor citizens. The use of Cinghiale within ragu originated from what was available to the Tuscans in their environment. Finally, tagliatelle al Tartufo originates in this area because of the high levels of growth of truffle, or Tartufo, in the area.

Reflecting Before Departure

As my study abroad experience is approaching closely, I am looking forward to the opportunities that I will be afforded during my time in Italy. As I have grown in my Italian education over the past years of studying in the classroom, I feel as though being in Italy will provide me with an entirely different academic experience. Through living and using the language every day, I hope that the immersive experience will challenge me to grow my Italian language skills beyond what can be taught in the classroom. I hope to get a better understanding of facial expressions, gestures, and the important common phrases for Italians today.

I also expect that being immersed in the culture will teach me more than the readings I have done about it. The opportunity to talk with Italians about their daily lives, explorations, and what they feel is important within their culture will provide me with the knowledge that I feel can be lost in readings. In addition, seeing art and architecture, tasting food and drink, and hearing how Italians talk with one another will be an experience that you cannot have in a classroom. My goal while abroad is to grow my ability to speak, and my vocabulary, and to actually experience the culture rather than just learning about it. I hope to learn about the way the country functions and specifically find out information about their history or their economy through our culture classes. 

During this time abroad, I hope that I will not only grow academically but also individually. This experience will teach me about independence, communication, and to truly take in every experience to the fullest. I have never left the country before and am excited to see what life outside of the United States is like. I am open to learning about the culture of Italy, the culture of other students whom we may encounter, and I look forward to this opportunity for self-growth. My hope is that this experience will not only teach me about the Italian culture but that it will teach me a lot about myself and my ability to interact with differing cultures. I hope I grow academically and become a more well-rounded individual.