My Post-Siena-Program Reflection Post

For my final blog post, having arrived back in the U.S. after a slightly extended trip, I wanted to reflect on my experience in Siena. While I knew already how instrumental this immersion would be to my fluency with the Italian language, it was something else entirely to experience it firsthand. I think that my weeks in Italy far exceeded my expectations for how much I could learn in this frame of time. It’s easy to feel like you have stagnated in your learning of a foreign language once you’re hovering around an intermediate level, but I instead elevated to a medium level of fluency during my time there—something that could have otherwise taken me another semester or two. In my time in Siena, I felt like I went from making myself speak Italian (especially to other English-speaking students) to conversing naturally, even if not every word was perfect. And, I could not have felt more welcomed in doing so, from the helpful teachers in the Dante Alighieri program to the kind people of the city. 

Besides a new and better understanding of what it takes for me to really excel in my learning, I was exposed to the amazing Sienese culture. Something that we never see in the United States is traditions dating back five centuries! With the Palio and all the events leading up to it, I could not have been more astonished at how seriously this city takes and maintains its heritage in the modern day. While I may never have the same unique connection that a Siena-born Italian has to their contrada and the Palio as a whole, I won’t ever cease to admire it. Given this experience as a whole, I cannot recommend enough for my future fellow study abroad students to try and visit their area of choice during a significant cultural event to truly see their spirit while learning the language better than ever!

A Month Under the Scorching Siena Sun

For this week’s blog, I wanted to mention probably the only negative thing about my experience in Siena, that being the excessive heat during my whole month here. The weather has been very much constant here: high eighties or nineties every day, mostly sunny, and typically somewhat humid. My professors additionally informed me that this is especially unusual for that town at this time of year; it’s usually far more mild with warm daylight hours and cool evenings. Knowing this, I think I just have bad luck when it comes to weather and traveling in Italy. Of the four times I had been to the country, two have been during the most intense summers and two during the coldest winters in recent years!

With that said, I think there’s a lot that factors into this uncomfortable heat. For one thing, Siena is atop a very hilly terrain like many other medieval towns. Because of this, as I actually explored in a small research project about Sienese aqueducts, it’s very difficult and energy-consuming to bring water up to the main part of the city. When the city’s ancient aqueducts were not just being used for public fountains as they are today, they even had to have pumps installed many centuries later to support the demand for water with Siena’s growing population. 

For another thing, the city is definitely somewhat congested this summer, and I’ve been to enough ND football games to know how much hotter that can make an environment even in the open air! With travel restrictions a lot lighter this year, it certainly seemed as though thousands of tourists were flocking to Siena, especially around the time of the Palio. 

However, at the end of the day I just remember to keep a folding fan and water on me at all times. In all honesty, the heat was the only issue I ever had here, and you forget all about it when it comes to the excitement of seeing all the sights and just spending quality time in Siena!

What Do Europeans Think of Americans?

For this blog, I wanted to gather some opinions of Americans (both the country’s culture and the tourists we provide to cities like Siena) according to both native Italians and fellow students from countries such as Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. For this survey, I was certain to ask for their honest opinions excluding study abroad students like myself, since there would likely be some positive bias when accounting for Americans who come to Europe with the sincere intention of learning a foreign language and culture.

I first turned to my cultural professor for his thoughts, as dozens of Americans were chatting outside the Galleria dell’Accademia (the museum containing Michelangelo’s David). He remarked most prominently that it’s a shame that so many people come to grand cities like Florence to see the art and take pictures, but not to fully absorb its significance. Indeed, as I saw, it can be hard to find sincere, invested American tourists who aren’t only there for photo ops; however, my professor assured me that this is not at all exclusive to Americans or even all other Europeans. He explained, some cities just “become” fully tourist cities over time, and some of Italy’s grandest towns are great examples of this. As a result, even native Italians will see them as a site for their own tourism, much like how we Americans may spend vacations in hot cities like New York, Miami, or San Francisco. So, while it was comforting to know that this isn’t exclusively an American phenomenon, it’s rather unbelievable to consider that Italy probably has a much larger ratio of touristy cities to total landmass than the U.S.!

I spoke to my peers in Italian class more about how they view American culture. Did they feel like they knew a lot about it, and was it because of how easy it is to share media internationally these days? And how would they define the stereotypical American?

To answer the second question first, the response was fairly unanimous: loud and outgoing! I found that pretty fair, and added myself that American tourists like to see everything, but they often don’t take the time to understand it all. I think it says a lot when Italian business employees are impressed with a young American speaking their language as best they can, but it’s always a good sign that language schools like the one I’m attending have a steady influx of American students!

According to these students, they feel they’re inundated with plenty of American cultural references in online spaces, especially through mediums like music and fashion which can be found very easily on social media. The fact that they knew about the Fourth of July last week really demonstrates how much our country permeates the Internet! Entertainment, however, is generally the most reach American culture has for European teenagers, as they all have their own values and beliefs as influenced by their upbringing in their own home countries. I think this interview in particular was really great for having an extremely casual conversation to compare customs and interests across nationalities, especially among my peers.

The Unique Culture and Origins of the Palio of Siena

For this blog, I wanted to discuss the most traditional and unique holiday in all of Siena’s culture: the Palio! To oversimplify, the main event of this medieval festival is a horse race between ten of the seventeen contrade, or neighborhoods, of the town that takes place on July 2 and August 16 in the central Piazza del Campo. I had read plenty of articles about it before arriving in Siena, but I don’t think anything but seeing it take place firsthand could have helped me recognize how central this event is to Sienese culture. To elaborate, I’d like explain how historians and average citizens perceive the Palio!

Our cultural professor at the Dante Siena program may not be a Siena native, but his extensive knowledge on the history and customs of the Palio is truly second to no one! As he explains, the Palio is actually more about the horse than its jockey. Some hours before the race, every horse is taken to it’s contrada‘s church to receive a special blessing: to go and return a winner! The titular “Palio” is the name for the large painted silk banner that the winning contrada will be able to display in their local museum. These often feature the flag patterns of the ten participating contrade and some graphic of a horse, but will always show an image of the Virgin Mary—to whom the race and the city are specifically devoted to.

In medieval times, as the professor explained, contrade were strictly divided, with various rivalries and alliances. This horse race was both an event to blow off some steam (as post-race fistfights between very devoted fans are accepted as part of the Palio culture even today!) and to establish which contrada would have rule of the city for the year. There’s plenty of customs that may come off as strange to foreigners, he adds, but it’s most important to note that the Palio is a nearly five-centuries-old tradition that tourists should respect. For example in my experience at the Palio the other day: the Piazza, even crowded with thousands upon thousands of people, must be in dead silence while the horses’ starting lineups are announced! And while not as grievous, most native citizens of Siena prefer that tourists who aren’t strongly invested in their culture do not wear the fazzoletti (bandanas or scarves featuring their contrada‘s flag).

I found that average citizens are more likely to talk about their own contrada in the Palio, and this is where the aforementioned rivalries and alliances dominate conversation. Speaking with my host the night of the race, she said, “So long as Valdimontone doesn’t win, everything is good!”
Most contrade have a rival, and all will have at least one ally. Our contrada, Nicchio (“the seashell”) is rivals with Valdimontone (“valley of the ram”), and allies with Bruco (“the caterpillar”), Tartuca (“the tortoise”), and Onda (“the wave”). Allies are known to help each other out either financially or—as it’s whispered—with certain maneuvers during the race itself. My host adds: the gravity of these ties between contrade remains present all year! She rarely enters Valdimontone, despite it being a few streets away, because they are Nicchio’s enemy.

As extreme as some of these traditions may seem—and this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface!—the spirit and excitement of the Palio truly can’t be matched. The dedication to this holiday even after five centuries is unbelievable, and I highly encourage anyone who is interested by what I have to say to read up on it or watch videos in their own time.

Truffle Hunting!

For this blog post, I’d like to discuss what a learned a unique ingredient that’s very special in Tuscan cuisine: the truffle! For those unfamiliar, this is a rare sort of mushroom with a potent taste and earthy aroma, and its extensive use in the kitchen has made it an expensive staple of upscale cuisine despite its unassuming, lumpy, brown exterior. But, just last week, I had the great opportunity to learn of this fungus’ wild origins in the woods of Siena!

What makes truffle so rare is its very specific needs: plenty of moisture, some shade, and even the species of tree whose roots it can sprout at are limiting factors for its growth. Additionally, it takes at least a month for these mushrooms to reach a harvestable size. The mild but wet climate of Tuscan forests facilitates their growth perfectly. But even then, truffles can be made unusable by insect infestations or blight. However, when hunts for this mushroom are successful, both the economic and culinary yields are rich!

The greatest part of my truffle-hunting experience had to be meeting the hunters themselves: two adorable dogs! With their amazing sense of smell, the two canines I followed along—named Moka and Pepita—sniffed out mushrooms for their handler, Alessandro, with pinpoint accuracy. Truffles, depending on the species, are typically either naturally exposed or just under the surface of the soil, but even the most trained truffle dog will only notice the scent of mature truffles—therefore ensuring that the ones collected are more likely to have a great taste.

I didn’t understand the popularity of truffles before the tasting experience at Alessandro’s little shop in the heart of Siena. But after sampling panforte (another Sienese specialty), cheese spreads, and even honey utilizing the ingredient, I realized how absolutely delicious it could be—especially complemented with sweet and savory flavors! What makes it a stellar part of a dish is when its used most authentically, straight from the mushroom, as opposed to derivatives such as truffle oil. Aside from infusions, chefs use truffle very conservatively: typically grated over food with the exterior layer included so that every last bit of it boosts the dish it’s in (often pasta) as a whole.

All in all, the most important thing I gained from this experience was the dedication it takes for truffle hunters such as Alessandro (and his dogs!) to uphold this niche but lucrative industry. Authentic truffles can only be natural, and only an amazingly small handful of people in Tuscany and the surrounding areas are practically the sole providers to such a unique element of the region’s cuisine. Though I don’t know when I will next have truffles considering the price tag, this experience as whole will remain a staple of my first week abroad!

Pre-Departure Post

As the countdown to my departure to Siena draws nearer, I can only anticipate how incredible this fully immersive experience will boost my knowledge of Italian language and culture during those five weeks. Of course, the greatest difference compared to my Notre Dame Italian courses is that I will have the chance to practice my proficiency in the language all day, every day. Knowing few Italian majors, I had rarely had the chance to rehearse my skills in holding conversations. While in Siena, I know I’ll also be trying to interpret and absorb the many differences in cultural practices. Things like the expressive body language and dialectical variances have always been of great interest to me, and that’s surely something an Italian student can’t always get from lectures and textbooks.

I think this experience overall will be great for practicing my independence. As a youngest sibling and despite being from a large suburb, I have never been brave enough to branch out on my own. However, I hope to change that with this trip now that I’ll doing things mostly by myself. I’m very fortunate that I’ll always have someone like my host family in Siena to fall back on if I’m having trouble adjusting to this drastic change, but I am going to challenge myself as much as I can to embrace the immersion and individuality that this adventure abroad presents to me.