Reminiscing Italy

Being abroad, more specifically in Europe, was an experience that has definitely left a larger impact on me than expected. Just within the six weeks I spent in Sorrento, I found myself quickly growing to become more comfortable in a new environment. I was immersing myself in a culture that is foreign to me and it was such an amazing feeling. As the weeks progressed, I felt more and more like a local to the town of Sorrento. From the language to the times I would eat dinner, it was all becoming more italian. 

Before my arrival to Italy, I had this image of how everything would be. It was an image inspired by how the amalfi coast is portrayed on social media, a literal dream. I envisioned myself living in a dream. Once I arrived, I could not believe I was in Italy. I had idolized it for so long; it was all so surreal. Furthermore, I imagined myself eating carbs for the most part and of course this was very true. I had pasta for dinner almost every single day and I do not regret it one bit. I also thought highly of the iconic drink native to the amalfi, limoncello. From drinking limoncello, to speaking Italian to the best of my ability to the locals, I was always grateful for the exposure to a new culture. 

Immersing myself in the culture definitely helped create a stronger foundation for my speaking skills in Italian. Although, I did have various encounters where the Italians quickly concluded that I was not a native italian (obviously) and immediately spoke to me in English. I would respond in Italian and they would quickly grow to be shocked and become proud of how hard I tried. Other times, they would just continue to speak to me in only English despite speaking Italian to them. Overall, it was interesting to experience and to live amongst so many cultural differences.

I will attest to the fact that I came back with a completely different mindset. I used to always be stuck in this idea that to succeed and be happy I would need to be in California but after being abroad I saw how happy people were in Europe as well. Not to say I believed that this didn’t exist outside of where I am from, I just now see myself being able to thrive somewhere other than California. It’s almost as if I felt my brain physically expand. It was so rewarding to be able to adapt to a new culture. Towards the end of the program I realized that I could have stayed for so much longer and been just fine. Rather than being stuck on envisioning a life solely in the western part of the world, I now envision myself taking a leap of faith and moving to Europe when I am older. I now feel as if I am meant to live abroad for a period of time in my life. 

For anyone who is even slightly considering studying abroad through this program, do it! It is so worth it. It is worth the exposure to other cultures and ways of life. When abroad, do not be shy to interact with the locals. Although it is a bit nerve-wracking at first, it gets easier. You create friendships you would have never imagined as it allows you to meet new people who are involved in study abroad programs as well. Lastly, always keep an open mind and allow yourself room to grow!

Rome is Rome and Siena is Home

Prior to arriving in Siena, I was already terrified. Don’t get me wrong; I was very excited too, but it was going to be the first time I would be completely on my own which I feel is reasonably daunting for anyone. Despite being scared though, I was determined to embrace the venture outside of my comfort zone and open up my mind to the possibilities of individual travel. Learning the language posed a similar anxiety, as I was worried I might fall behind my peers. Throughout the course of my program, I came to realize the impact of immersion in a language. Being in a classroom just doesn’t compare to living among the people who speak it fluently. I had amazing instructors who were not only encouraging and patient, but they were kind and warm. Attending the Dante Alighieri school felt like learning alongside lifelong friends and family, even with the people I’d just met. 

I won’t say that the beginning of my stay in Siena was an easy one because it wasn’t. I was very scared and, like my instructor reminded me regularly, I worried too much. After about a week or so of settling into a routine, I felt more confident and capable of straying from it with purpose. I was able to practice my language skills and participate in class activities without being scared of messing up. I learned that learning a language takes practice, and most things in life are like that too. Starting from comfort takes practice, straying from a routine takes practice, and pushing confidence takes practice too.

The best advice I could give to someone looking to partake in a summer language study, is to trust that no matter how daunting it may seem, the nerves do not compare to the joy and excitement of participating in learning about what you love. Learning a language is a beautiful endeavor to engage in, and taking that leap into language immersion is exhilarating. I have made some of the best memories of my life over the last few weeks, met incredible people in the process, and I am so grateful for the opportunities I was given to learn about life and culture through a different lens.

The Truth in Paradise

I think one of the most honest things I can say about my time in Italy is that I discovered two different sides of one coin. On the one side it was, in fact, a dream come true and so much more than what I had hoped for. However, I also came to learn that Italy, despite its many wonders, is still a city that faces the issues of modern-day. I think that social media has a way of convincing an individual that going abroad and traveling is a magical experience all the time, and most of the time it is. Even so, there is still the reality that you can run into similar problems abroad as you could in your home country. And of course this isn’t the standard or the rule that one is bound to find trouble, but in the short experience I had, I still ran into a couple of predicaments I would have rather avoided.

One of the people who I met during my time in Siena was a part of my class (who for purposes of this blog I will call Remy). I’m not sure how the topic came to be discussed in the midst of our class break, but after telling me where he came from, Remy explained how since in Italy, he has been faced with a variety of unfortunate incidents. Remy came from a small country in the middle east – the name of which I cannot for the life of me remember –  and according to him it is not an incredibly well-known place. We got to talking after class and Remy explained that in Italy, due to his appearance, there would be times in which he would be treated unfairly. Remy said he was used to that kind of treatment and that being from the Middle East, he was used to receiving that kind of treatment. After this conversation, I tried to figure out why I was so astounded. Being from the United States and knowing my fair share of certain issues today, I wondered why the reality had struck me so hard. I came to the conclusion that in my mind Italy was romanticized; it was a place full of amazing things to do and sights to see without any of the typical anxieties.

Unfortunately, I myself shortly after faced a couple of uncomfortable situations too. While talking to a classmate about my culture, I was faced with mockery and painful jokes. About a week later, I had run-ins with a couple of men who acted quite inappropriately asI walked home. It was interesting to learn that specific lesson that way, but it opened my eyes to the truth. Remy faced many instances of bias, racism, etc and after listening to his story, I learned that being aware of these issues isn’t limited to my home country. The videos I had seen online of living carefree summers were only videos curated to show the best aspects of certain places, while the truth was that caution and awareness are always necessary.

I will say as well though, that learning these lessons and taking the time to reflect on my expectations and their place in reality was essentially a positive experience. It taught me not only to consider the issues I face everywhere both as a woman and a Latina but to also consider the struggles of the people around me even when I don’t perceive there to be any issues at all. The reality is that in many places most of the time, there is someone like Remy who could be dealing with important problems in a place that others would consider paradise.


Going to a school for language proved to be a very formative experience for many reasons. One of those reasons is that while attending this school I was able to meet a lot of people from a lot of different places around the world, and all of these people came with the goal of better immersing themselves into Italian, or to be more specific, Senese culture. In the five weeks I attended the Dante Alighieri school, I met people of all ages from Spain, Germany, Libya, and Switzerland just to name a few. The experience really forced us as students of the Italian language to communicate with each other exclusively in Italian no matter what level we were at.

Spreading so much time with these students from around the world, I had the opportunity to get to know some of them and more often than not they were willing to share bits about their backgrounds, opinions and ideologies. Granted, sometimes their commentaries could be considered intense but, nonetheless, I was always able to hear what they had to say. Today, I want to discuss the opinions of three individuals who unpromptedly offered their perspectives at different points of my trip. First I will discuss a bit about the opinion of a fellow student at the school, followed by the brief perspective from a worker at a local sandwich shop, and concluding with what one of the professors at the school had to say.

To start off, I met a student from Spain in my language class who humored me in a short conversation about herself and her thoughts about the United States. She was an older woman who, for purposes of this blog, I’ll call Maria. She was born and raised in Spain and is very much enamored with Italian culture. “There is just something unmatched about Romance languages and the cultures they belong to,” she remarked more than once. Her argument seems to be that, at least in her opinion, cultures that fall outside of the “romance origin” tended to have little to no appeal. (This is something I don’t personally agree with.) When I asked her about her thoughts on the United States, her general views weren’t necessarily scathing, only skeptical. She said to me that a lot of the things she heard about the United States confused her. “Controversial policies at the foot of debate today in the states are not topics I know a whole lot about,” she said, “But even I could argue that there are issues that need to be fixed.” Maria argued that, due to its youth, the United States hasn’t yet cultivated a strong cultural identity as captivating as Italy’s or Spain’s. However she also acknowledged her bias as a native of Spain who spent a majority of her life studying the rich history of Europe.

Keeping Maria’s perspective in mind, I had a brief conversation with a worker at Bocconcino’s – a local panino shop. Bocconcino’s was my favorite panino shop in Siena and I’d take a trip there at least once a week. The two men who were always working at the shop when I would visit were very kind people, and on my last day in Siena, I let them know that it was my last day and I would be returning to the United States soon. Excitedly, they recounted all of the places in the US that they had visited over the years. Both talked about how much they enjoyed the diaspora of cultures and geography of the states, as they had visited various areas themselves. Their opinion of the states was a positive one, and they were delighted to share their love of American culture; even more so to hear any little facts I may have had about my hometown.

At this point, I have heard two (kind of) contradictory opinions about the United States. However, throughout my five week language program I sporadically would get to hear someone else’ perspective on the matter. The professor of my culture class occasionally brought up differences between Italy and the United States. He described the different views in religion and the different approaches to culture, but he never imposed a particular narrative of “American culture.” Our professor is a very respectful and open-minded person, and he may not have explicitly mentioned either a positive or negative opinion on the United States. I did learn that through the eyes of many native Italians, American tourism can be exhausting. With hundreds or thousands of Americans entering Italy weekly, trying to find peaceful moments to appreciate the art and history of Rome can be difficult. Italy is itself a very touristy location which isn’t an issue. The issues arise when tourists treat the history disrespectfully, without taking the time to think beyond taking a picture.

I believe that now knowing about the different perspectives on the Unites States and American culture, I can myself see how different cultures from different parts of the world interpret who we are and what that says about the things our culture values. One of my favorite things about learning about different cultures and meeting people from different cultures is constantly realizing just how limited my own perspective can be. After speaking to other students at the DA school as well as my instructors and local residents, I was able to see that there is no singular idea of what the United States is, and that these kinds of opinions are subjective to personal experience.

Una Cena di Mercoledi

On my last week in Siena, I took a cooking class at the Dante Alighieri School alongside other Notre Dame students and a group of students from the University of Illinois in Chicago. The class was led by three cooking coaches: Letizia, Massimo, and Aldo. I spent a majority of the class under Letizia’s guidance and a few of the things I learned about her were that Letizia’s primary job is at a bank, but she loves to cook. She and her husband, who happens to be Massimo, work part time at the school as cooking instructors, and they love it. In general, every recipe they share with their students they have memorized by heart, and their joy for sharing them is obvious. Like everyone else at the school, Letizia, Massimo, and Aldo were some of the kindest people I have ever met, and naturally, they were amazing teachers.

There were four courses on the menu for that evening, therefore four plates we would learn to make. In order of, the four courses we learned to make were pomodori ripieni di riso in forno, pici all’aglione, vitella in salsa tonnata, and latte alla portoghese. The class was split into three groups, one group per instructor. I chose to stay with Letizia; she was in charge of the sauce for the pici. Letizia explained, in depth, the process of this simple yet lovely sauce, and it was incredible to watch as her experienced hands swiftly handled each ingredient. She was adamant that everyone in her group had the opportunity to contribute to the sauce making; she gave me the chance to dice vegetables, blend them, and stir them into the pot. The tasks to get the end product may at first seem simple enough, but it was obvious that each step takes great care and technique.

As I stirred in the tomatoes to the big pot, Letizia walked over to me and asked, “Come va la salsa, tesoro?” (How’s the sauce coming along, treasue?) She then looked into the pot, complimented my contribution to the sauce making, and gathered the rest of the group to offer up further tips. Letizia loved watching us try our hand at the cooking and delightedly complimented us often. Needless to say, the process was just as fun as it was informative. The sauce took a couple of hours to make and consisted primarily of oil, tomatoes, lots of garlic, and some spices. As we let it sit in the pot for some time, Letizia led us over to the back of the kitchen, and there she showed us the process of making pici: a traditional Senese pasta. The pasta, she explained, was traditionally made with only water and flour in its origins due to availability of resources back in the day. However, today it isn’t unusual to make a batch of pici with the inclusion of a single egg, as is her method. What makes pici so special is that due to the quick hand-rolling method of each individual noodle, it has a bit of an irregular shape and texture. Each batch is unique. 

By this point, Massimo and Aldo had finished teaching the other groups the process of making the veal and stuffed tomatoes, so everyone had gathered to watch Letizia knead the dough. She expertly and swiftly handled the batch, and as she finished incorporating the ingredients, dusted her hands and pointed to the batch of pici noodles she’d made earlier in the day. It had taken her two hours to make! Letizia stepped back and told us to try kneading; it wasn’t as easy as she made it look. Afterward, she explained the method of hand rolling the pasta – which also wasn’t as easy as it looked – and watched on as we together the class worked through the batch of dough. Thankfully, there were enough students to get through the task within the half hour. Our pasta was definitely irregularly shaped, and the cooking coaches looked pretty proud with our work. Once the pasta was finished, we quickly learned to make the dessert, and then it was time to serve and eat.

The class overall lasted about three hours, and we stayed to eat together out on the patio for a couple more. The dishes were amazing, and preparing them was even better. I think out of all the activities I participated in during my time at the DA school, this one was definitely one of my favorites, and no words can describe the gratitude I feel towards the school for providing these incredible experiences.

America in the eyes of others

This prompt definitely led me to become very curious about what other people from other countries in the world perceived about the place I call home. First and foremost, throughout my time in Italy, I have been able to visit other countries across Europe along with different areas in Italy. As an American, I have always been curious about how others across the world perceive us. 

Throughout my detours, I have come across a variety of people from so many different places in the world. Meanwhile, meeting new people across my travels I have always kept the question of “What is your opinion on the United States” in the back of my mind. The first interaction that definitely left me with quite an impression was when I went to Florence for the weekend and met a group of Austrialians who were on the same tour as me. After we briefly introduced ourselves the question of “Have you been to the United States before” was brought up and two of the girls said no. Of course promoting California, I encouraged them to go to the US. However, their response was one I didn’t quite expect. They said to me “We’re scared to go to America because you guys have all these shootings. We’re going to get shot up” and laughed. I remember looking at them and just kind’ve giggling without words to say. This was only the first of many interactions from a European to an American about guns that I had yet to encounter. Once again, when in Croatia I had a similar situation. A Swedish girl asked me “Why are Americans so in love with guns? You guys have all these shootings.” That same night a local Croatian asked me the exact same thing. Every single time I was asked this question made me realize that in our current day society, it is common for the US to be perceived this way. It became very common for people to ask me “Why do you guys even need guns in the first place”, “Do people just walk around carrying guns”, “You know if guns are just taken away from everyone, then no one would need them”, “In my country we don’t hear of shootings happening because no one has guns so no one feels the urge to have them.” Honestly it leaves me feeling embarrassed every single time. When speaking to a local italian for this prompt, it was no surprise that one thing they mentioned to dislike was the tragedies that occur in the US due to the gun violence that so oftenly occurs. They spoke with a tone of disappointment as they tried to wrap their minds around the fact that this is “normal” in the United States. I was constantly questioned as to why this happens during the interview and of course I had no words, once again. 

When coming to Italy I knew that I already had the curiosity of what Europeans thought of Americans, I had thought that the biggest perception Europeans had of Amercians had a lot to do with our love for fast food. Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely been asked about fast food various times but what will definitely stick with me is the amount of times I have been asked about our challenges with guns. 

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!

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.