Ciao, Siena

BY Staff Reporter

IMG_1946 Kevin Travers/THE REVIEW
Siena is a medieval city.

One week into my study abroad trip to Italy, I felt complex emotions. What follows are my initial thoughts from that first week.

It has been an exciting voyage, through seas at times turbulent. It’s Sunday night. Curled up in bed at my host family’s apartment in Siena, I have a full stomach after a delicious home-cooked meal. I’m tired after a Saturday spent dancing in a Discoteca we had visited in Bologna and worried about my then-new cigarette habit. I love it here.

One of the other habits I picked up since my arrival is not understanding a thing anyone is saying. Still, it is amazing how quickly I got used to sitting at the table while my host grandma, Flora, serves my roommate and I dinner and have no idea what Gianfranco is talking about. Studying abroad is like a 24/7 workshop in active listening.

I have never been good at learning languages; I still fight with English every day. Full immersion in Italian culture is likely the only way I can learn it. Plus, the food, sights and wine are piu buonissimo: “The best there is.”

IMG_1256 Kevin Travers/THE REVIEW
Our walk to school at the Dante Alighieri language society takes us through the main square: Piazza Del Campo.

Siena is a medieval city. Walled in between three hills are tight alleyways paved by cobblestone, brick and an enduring passion for preservation. The streets forbid heavy car traffic, so everyone goes about town on foot, an aspect one finds endearing until the wine and cheese from lunch drop into the small intestine. This is usually about the time you notice an old woman swearing at you for blocking the road from her compact Fiat, or a motorcyclist, cigarette in hand nearly mows you down.

Our walk to school at the Dante Alighieri language society takes us through the main square, Piazza Del Campo, and through these winding streets, a hike that really gets the ankles and shin splints screaming out in pain.

Despite the apparent danger and exhaustion, it is the luckiest thing in the world to be out of breath from walking through the streets of Siena. The city itself holds you back from moving too fast. The steep hills keep you from rushing. Late for school? No, the city hums, you are right on time, moving at a relaxed pace. Any faster and your knees will snap off Kevin Ware style.

Bells from numerous churches and towers punctuate the quarter hours and contribute to the lyrical tempo of Italian life. The Sienese wake up to the bells of the ancient Duomo, eat lunch by the bell of the town hall and retire to bed by the bells of the Basilica Cateriniana. This rhythm takes away the internal stress of maintaining one’s own schedule: in Italy the town maintains you.

Allora, tempo e tempo, “So, time is time.” Things move slower here, and everything is a hell of a lot older. When I first arrived in Rome a week ago, tired and lonely in a new place, I made a point of forcing myself to see everything I could before succumbing to the six-hour jet lag. I walked around Villa Borghese, the central park of Rome, and was amazed by the crumbling monuments. Giant columns were strewn about like the boulders back in the parks I was used to in New York City. Beautiful, these ancient structures were regarded with near indifference by a passing jogger and two kids playing soccer.

I want to be a writer, or I guess I already am. Inspiration, the fleeting energy to create is hard to come by. Discipline is more the type of stuff that realizes a lifetime of creativity. The last time I visited Italy was just for a weekend. Seeing the unimaginably old culture had proven to grant inspiration for a short time, but inspiration fades. This second time living and working in Italy, I believe I found discipline.

This time I was struck by the proximity of ancient art to normal people, who were just walking around doing their thing. We were in the Pantheon last Saturday, for example, and there was a small mass going on. Local Romans prayed on the last day of Christmas while tourists were flocking around taking pictures.

From this close proximity to preserved works of art and beautiful architecture, there is an inspiring connection with the past. Italians have this air about them, this firm and concrete notion that they come from a nation that has thousands of years of history. A certain strength comes with that I think, and it is found everywhere.

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One week later, I was wiser still.

In my experience, dinner is the best part of the day because 70 years of Italian life has crafted Flora into an extraordinary chef. I am an outlier among friends at home in the states, with a family that tried its best to sit down and eat a home-cooked meal every night. But I know that is rare, and without offense to my parents, Flora has them culinarily beat. Unfortunately, neither Gianfranco nor Flora drink wine, so they don’t serve it at dinner. It is likely their least Italian aspect.

Since last week, it has gotten easier to understand the language, as my friend Oliva Balanza said at some point “Your ear just switches.” She was right, it finally began to. I could feel myself comprehending more and was able to talk about the news a little with my hosts. Now we all mock-wave at President Trump when he frequently graces the TV. “Ecco Lui!” Unfortunately, my limited Italian vocabulary leaves me unable to form sentences to respond and explain to my hosts that Americans share the quality of inherent distrust in politicians that you can find in the average Italian. I am a long way from talking to una bella ragazza al bar (a beautiful girl at a bar) and further still from describing my similar disdain for politicians that unites my host family and I.

Flora and Gianni have become a second family of mine, and I’ve gotten to know them better. They are more than 70 years old and have been living in Siena for their entire lives. When they were younger, they climbed mountains across the world. After 30 years of alpine recreation, they retired but are still active members of an alpine protection club. Gianfranco has written two books about hiking and climbing. They have been hosting students for over 20 years from around the world and never had kids of their own but live next door to their nephews and grandnephews.

I have not the faintest idea of how they climb up the seven flights of stairs to their front door, but it must be the remnants of the energy that brought them to conquer the Alps.

At dinner we watch the news, then a game show where contestants attempt to guess the jobs of people based on solely their appearance. The news appears to be state-run, or at least more affected than American TV news. Though Italians might say that in reverse after seeing our Fox or CNN. Italian TV shows are produced in quality much like other media found in Italy: described by my host family as secondary to the skills of American Hollywood.

It seems like America still dominates the western world’s consumption habits. It’s like the Marshall Plan never ended, and we Americans are still pumping out art, in this case music and movies, some not even translated at all. My host family can’t speak any English at all, but one of the first things Gianfranco said to me was that Kevin Costner was his favorite actor.

I noticed this combination culture when I went to the University of Siena economics library and sat trying to focus on verb conjugation, only to be distracted by the Renaissance archways surrounding me. The students, using California Apple tech and dressed in Patagonia, Fjallraven and Vans, had the exact same products that I did. This was both comforting and confusing to me, feeling more out of place than ever before as I looked for a place to sit. Besides their heightened sense of style, these students would all fit in perfectly at home. But school feels different here, relating to the eternal culture idea, students are more serious and adult, holding themselves to more esteem than university students in America.

I think that overall, this contrast between modern life and the ancient enduring past is what I notice the most so far. Everything is a conflict between conservative and liberal, just like back home, only conservative is a notion of deeply historical Italy and liberal is just plain modernity. Siena is an ancient city not built for cars but filled with hip clothing outlets and sales. In its conflicted city center, an ancient piazza is surrounded by English speaking tourist trap restaurants. In the schools, the student’s study in converted renaissance buildings but have the same consumption habits that young Americans do.

Yet compared to the relatively young United States that is pumping out these commodifying factors, Italy fights against modernity tooth and nail. Preserving and protecting buildings, language, art and food is a cornerstone of Italian culture, lucky for those of us that are inspired by its preservation.

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In my last entry, I was getting ready to leave Italy after my fourth and final week.
Previously, I wrote that Italy celebrates regionalism in a way that directly combats the modern age of global collectivism. I wrote that before I went to Venice, a city that I found so charming and endangered. I can understand why the Italian culture has to fight for self preservation.

The food there is not particularly good, nothing to write home about. The museums are not as numerous or notable as Rome, Florence or Paris. The streets are clogged by more than 32,000 tourists every day, and it seems every building is shrouded by a €15 cover fee. And yet, the slow drowning death that is Venice is the most beautiful site created by mankind, like a romanticist painting of a sinking ship.

Venice was a spectacular city, one unlike any in the entire world. It was like some extraterrestrial place, a normal town for an ocean covered moon of Neptune maybe, but not a city on Earth. Despite its difference, it is supremely modern, beautiful and, for these collective reasons, Italian. The research I conducted to get through my ultimately goofy PowerPoint presentation required by my Italian 208 class echoed my emotional experience: Venice is a place of ancient trade, wealth and art. Through the millennia, the city has maintained its original founding purpose as a sanctuary from the outside world. Though if we are comparing history, I embody a Germanic vandal quite well: having entered the city to pillage culture and drink wine.

In the high times of the 14th century, the city was the wealthiest on the planet, a kingpin trading entrepot that connected the markets of Europe with those of the east, Asia, and beyond. It was the first financial center, the first major port trading center in history. In this way, it was truly the first modern city, emblematic of things to come. A trendsetter, Venice embodies all of Italy, the first Democratic empire to take charge, set up shop and begin the western tradition.

Because of this history, coming to Italy is like coming home, coming to the beginning of it all. I’m sure pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Mecca produce the same feelings in the devotedly religious as my own pilgrimage to Italy as a history major.

We stayed in an Airbnb, in the Academia quarter of the city. Arriving by boat taxi late at night, we were aiming to find the Ponte dell’Accademia to meet our host. It was cold, but the view warmed us, the water of the canal like glass and mirroring the glowing medieval architecture.

When we arrived, a short, lavishly dressed woman in high heels turned the corner, and in remarkably British English gave us an introduction to the local area. Frida was wrapped in a thick mink shawl that had to be 100% real. No People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lovers shedding tears in these ancient streets.

She also had a beret and enormous emerald rings: definitely a Venitian landlord. There were nine of us in total, though one was hiding in the alleyways nearby because we had only paid for eight. Together, we noisily moved as a luggage caravan through increasingly narrow hallways, winding over bridges and under arches. Venice is magical because it is silent at night; there are no cars and trucks. The only things you hear are the drifting sounds of conversation, laughter and the lapping of the tide. It is an extraordinarily human city.

We had rented an entire seven-bedroom townhouse on a side canal, with a backyard garden. The place had an air to it like it was a soundstage backdrop in a silver screen movie. Some flick with Audrey Hepburn cooly smoking a cigarette on the back patio, while some accordion plays softly nearby. After showing us around, our host went over the map of the city and circled beautiful places to visit.

“If you like Spritz, which are wine cocktails, with ah, how do you say, Aperol. If you like Spritz you can go here, and have a lunch outside on tables by the canal,” Frida said. “Spritz are great, you have one, it is not enough, you have two and it is almost enough, and if you have three, you might. Can you swim? You’ll fall into the canal.”

Spritz became our favorite drink right away, and we learned how to make it. I brought some home to make drinks for my parents, a meager thank you all the way from the most beautiful place they have ever helped me get too.

In the face of the original, copies are cheap, derivatives are easily spotted as forgeries. When I left Venice, I realized that I had been enjoying the modern world’s knock-off version of such a city all my life.

And yet, always the predictor of trends, Venice is currently painting a spooky picture of our future. The city is drowning, dying and overcome by damaging amounts of tourists. The place has become such an expensive nightmare that even proud local families are moving out; the housing prices have risen too high. Does this sinking ship of a city, beautiful in death as it may be, foreshadow a worldwide trend? I sure hope not, though the increasingly dire predictions of climate change seem to encourage the abandonment of hope.

Now that I am leaving, I have to finally ask why I visited in the first place. And the real answer of “If I didn’t add these two courses, I would not have graduated on time” does not suffice. So, what can I take away from my experience in Italy? What can I take away from Venice?

IMG_1291 Kevin Travers/THE REVIEW
The city itself holds you back from moving too fast— the steep hills keep you from rushing.
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For one, that my initial instincts were correct: that the original will always outpace the copies. Learning by seeing the cities and culture that inspired the western world helped showed me both what I was missing, and the original qualities of humanity that had initially inspired my love for history. Italy and history are synonymous, and this eternal quality inspires success, progress and pride in the people of Italy.

Outside of lofty historical comparisons, my experience growing and learning alongside my 20 traveling companions was beautiful. I know everyone says studying abroad changes their life, but at least for me, Italy pulled me out from what feels like a deep depression, a hole in the ground three years deep. Something about stepping out into the unknown and meeting beautiful people that I learned to love, sharing this experience of fear in a place completely foreign to my life really helped me put things in order.

I realized that if I can meet friends, explore a new country and learn a new language all while drinking a ton of wine, I can do anything.

We didn’t know each other before, and this trip gave us a connection we never would have had before. These kids were on campus with me the entire time I’ve been here, and it took a trip halfway across the world and back for me to finally meet them. Funny how that works.

For the rest of my life, I will learn and remember from my experience here, and I am terribly sorry to leave. I don’t know when I will be back to Italy again, though I hope it will be soon. Until then, I’ll remember the wine, the art and the cheese.

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