Friday, January 20, 2012

I Primi Giorni Della Mia Avventura

Ciao! I'm a bit late starting my blog, as the first few days here in Siena have been very busy and overwhelming (and wonderful, of course). Also, please excuse the highly unoriginal blog name. After days of brainstorming, I ultimately gave up. So, here's a bit of a recap of "the first days of my adventure."

Evan and I departing on our journey.

After a fairly easy journey to Italy (a six hour layover in Paris, a taxi strike at the Florence airport and an airplane champagne toast to our new lives are the only notable events of the trip) Evan, a roommate and friend of mine from UVA (visit her blog, for a more detailed recount of the trip over), and Brooke, a fellow Siena student we met at the airport, arrived successfully at the bus stop in Florence for our hour and 15 min. ride to the beautiful, walled, medieval city of Siena. To describe the ride there is nearly impossible, "quaint Italian villas dotted the countryside" is an understatement. But, picture that, and that's about as close to the real thing you can get.

Once we arrived inside the walls of Siena, our fabulous resident director, Christina, greeted us and sent us to our respective homes. She walked me to Via Montanini, the street I have declared permanent residence on for the next four months. My roommate, Faith, arrived before me, and she and my host mom, Stella, greeted me at the door. Stella's apartment is so charming and, well, Italian. It even smells Italian, if that makes any sense. The window in Faith and I's room overlooks the georgeous hills of Chianti - wine country! After chatting a bit in a mix of broken Italian and English, I set off for my room to unpack. About an hour later, dinner was ready. My first authentic, home-cooked, Italian meal. What an experience. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a picture, but I was too hungry to think about that at the time! First, we had pumpkin soup, followed by "polpeto" a mixture of different meats rolled into a patty-like shape, with delicious tomato sauce and mashed potatoes (nothing like American mashed potatoes, by the way). Three things that are guaranteed to be on the dinner table : olive oil, bread, and red wine. No surprise there, right? The mix of Italian and English conversation continued through dinner. Stella told us about her one and a half year old grandon, Cosimo, who will be at the apartment a lot, and how he is already taking after his father in playing the drums. Needless to say, he is the cutest thing on the planet. We met him two nights later, his blonde hair and blue eyes, although a bit of a surprise, are absolutely heartbreaking. I may come home with an Italian child, watch out. She also gave us a bit of history on the famous summer time horse race, the Palio, and the contradas, or neighborhoods, of Siena, hers in particular - dragon, although we now live in wolf. I will get more into this later, but, Stella described it the best I have heard thus far, saying, "la contrada è più della madre," or, the contrada is more than the mother. It's a way of life. There is even a separate baptism within the contrada. Faith and I promptly went to bed, full and happy, after the dinner. My 30 hour day had come to a close.

The view out Evan's window is ah-mazing.

The next day started at 9am, and after 11 hours of sleep, I wasn't too jetlagged. There was quite a nice surprise on the table when we sat down for breakfat, Special K with Red Berries! My favorite cereal! That paired with butter and marmellata and tea, I knew it was going to be a good day. We started by meeting the rest of our group, there's 13 of us, in the Piazza del Campo, the main piazza of Siena for meeting, eating, or just hanging out.

Piazza del Campo.

Fontana in Piazza del Campo.

From here, Christina took us on a tour of the city, showing us important places like where to find the best gelato and cheapest wine, and other things like the pharmacy, grocery store and school. The best way to get to know Siena, though, is to just get lost. Ok you can't actually get lost here, because it's about a 25 minute walk from one end of the city to the other, but you get the idea. The plan this weekend is to wander through the winding alleys of Siena to find the heart of all 17 contradas, where there is a church and a fountain, and the stalls where the Palio horses are kept around race time in the summer. We got to tour one of the churches and museums of la contrada della Selva, or the forest contrada, with a woman from the contrada who was given the key to the very private contrada church, one that is not open to the public, and only used for special occasions like weddings, or the blessing of the Palio horse. A side note about the horses - they are selected at random from the surrounding countryside a few days before the race, and are considered a hero if they are the victor.

Inside the church of La Contrada della Selva.

In the museum of the contrada churches are every Palio ever won by that contrada, the Palio being the name of the prize as well. They are paintings done by a different artist every year, and they are stored in the crypt/museum of the church after a year of being displayed up above. The Virgin Mary is featured on every Palio, as the race, and Siena in general, is dedicated to her.

Some of la Selva's Palios.

Life in the contradas is very special. Each one has its own capitano and priore, the main organizer of the Palio and the governor, respectively. They have their own colors, flags, and animals to represent them, and they also have allies and enemies, some of which go back centuries. These relationships are either a blessing or a curse when it comes to the random placing of the horses at the start of the Palio. If you are placed next to your enemy contrada, you will have a hard time even starting the race.

After our tour Evan, Faith and I found a little bar near my apartment to eat lunch, and I had a delicious plate of tortellini and a prosciutto, mozzarella, and olive oil sandwich, then we had an orientation meeting at the CET Center. This meeting was just to go over logistical kind of stuff, including our schedule for the semester, which involves a wine and cheese tasting field trip, and a traveling seminar to Sicily! I also learned that Evan and I are the only two in our Italian class, hello private tutor! That evening, we had our welcome dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Fonte Giusto with everyone in the program, as well as the Italian roommates of the rest of the group! There were courses and courses of salame (different slices of meats) and fried artichoke and bruschetta, then lots of different pastas! And bread and wine, of course. For dessert was an interesting cider-like wine called Vin Santo, it actually almost tasted like whiskey. You dip your cantucci (a type of cookie) into it, but honestly none of the Americans were too fond of it.

Evan and I outside the Fonte Giusta restaurant.

Now, on to today. After a late start (Stella came into our room an our after we were supposed to have breakfast and informed us it was 10am, our meeting was at 1030), we rushed out of the house to school for more orientation meetings. Then had a couple hours in the afternoon to ourselves, when I had my first piece of pizza! I'm not going to lie, it didn't exactly meet my expectations. Although it was from a place called "Pizzaland." Probably not the best choice on my part. It was good, of course, but I'm still waiting for that piece of pizza that changes my life. The afternoon held more orientation sessions, then finally we were free for the day. Faith, Evan, her roommate Eric and I, went to the Italian grocery store, Conad, for snacks and chocolate...and Nutella :) Nutella is HUGE here. Stella even said "if you are sad, eat Nutella." Then we decided to just wander a bit, walked the backroads and the alleys of Siena, and found gorgeous views and the soccer stadium! Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera with me, but I may steal some of Evan's pictures and post them on here. We came home to a dinner of lentil soup, bruschetta, salad, and a veggie and potato omelet, yum! For dessert was ricciarelli, a delicious almond cookie made only with almonds, flour and sugar. Now I am at my desk, writing and debating what to wear out on my first night out in Siena...this will take my full attention. A presto!


  1. Fantastico! Un bello inizio! E, il blog nome - perfetto. Thanks for sending me the link, Rachel. It's exciting to read about your few days in your vivid words. Getting ready to go out to breakfast here is far less exciting than reading about yours, that's for sure. Don't sweat the pizza. That particular life-changer may still be in NYC. Tell Cosimo to keep wailing away on the drums, and say "hey" to nonna.

    A presto!