Gina Stahla is a senior majoring in Health Promotion & Education and minoring in Italian. She participated in the University of Utah intensive language program in Siena, Italy, in summer 2010.
Studying abroad in Italy has always been a dream of mine. However, I am a constant procrastinator and a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of girl. Exactly a year ago (on the VERY last day of LATE registration for the program), I decided that I was going to Siena. No one was quite as shocked as I was at this spur of the moment decision. And I can say with absolute certainty that it was the best experience of my life thus far.
|Il Campo, Siena, Italy|
The planning process was a whirlwind. Before I knew it, I was staring at an empty suitcase with a plane ticket for the next morning. I was panicking so much, and I didn’t know which emotion to go with! I had two years of Italian under my belt, but suddenly that seemed unsubstantial. I had no idea what to expect from the program itself; I had never met my roommate, and the only information I had about my host mother was: “Fulvia lives alone, and is a very nice lady”. First thought? Cat lady. Super!
Thanks to calm action under crisis (by my mother, not myself), I got a large array of flights. It worked out that I flew from Salt Lake to Philly to Paris to Pisa. Not bad! I met up with a few people from the program in Paris, and after arriving in Pisa we took the trains to Siena. Needless to say, we struggled a little bit, but we figured it out eventually.
|The train station in Siena (with our shoes drying in the sun)|
Our host families picked us up from the train station. This was a quintessentially nerve-wracking moment for me. I was like the last girl to be picked up from soccer practice, except that I was sitting in a train station in a foreign country with 2 months’ worth of luggage . . . and I had never met the mom who was on her way to pick me up. Of course, contrary to my wildest thoughts, but consistent with the Italian way of life, all of these things worked out – quite serendipitously, I might add.
Arriving Sunday afternoon and starting class Monday was un po’ stressful. On our first day of classes, we had an oral test with the professors to place us. Once you are in a class, you can move up or down levels depending on how you are doing. My first class had a fantastic teacher and 14 or so students from a number of different countries. I moved to a higher level that ended up having only 4 students: myself, my roommate, Shimpei from Japan and Geoff from Australia. It was awesome to have so much one-on-one attention! The classroom etiquette and system in general is very different in Italy than it is in the U.S. There is a lot more focus placed on comprehending and conversation. The professors really want you to succeed, and they push you out of your comfort zone and to your highest potential.
|Cooking class with Chef Nando - Scuola di Dante Alighieri, Siena, Italy|
Our average days started with a 7:30 wake up from host mamma Fulvia telling us we were going to be late. Fulvia would always have breakfast on the table for us – bread, marmalade, cereal, milk, orange juice, & pastries. Our bus would arrive at the main bus hub circa 8:45, and we would make our way up the winding streets to the school. A unique and pleasing thing about Siena is that cars aren’t allowed to drive through the city- the streets are always full of people and, of course, the street-cleaning truck (SO clean!) Our first conversation class was from 9:00-11:00, then a short break, and back to conversation class until 12:00. We would switch professors and have another class from 12:05-1:30. Most days there would be a cultural activity in the early evening at the school- anything from wine-tasting to tours the city; really enjoyable! Our host mom would cook us dinner every evening, and our meals would last at least an hour. Often following dinner we would get ready and go out to meet our friends at the campo. There are always a lot of people out at night, and it was always fun to be a part of the local night life!
|Looking over Assisi & a panorama of Umbria|
Siena is in the heart of Tuscany, and it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with it at first sight. Each step is reminiscent of a not-so-distant medieval past, even if the storefronts are boasting wild fashions and Lady Gaga loud enough to match.
It is the seemingly contradicting moments that make for the best memories. I will never forget the day that my roommate and I came home to find our host mamma Fulvia preparing one of many incredible dinners. The kitchen window was wide open to the Tuscan countryside. She was rolling out homemade pasta on a specialized table made just for this purpose and singing along to Bob Marley on public radio.
The perfect location of Siena coupled with the awesome public transportation system made it really easy for us to travel on the weekends. Our first weekend, we went to Lucca, Pisa & Assisi as a study-abroad group. Lucca is one of my favorite Italian cities. We only stayed for a few hours, but we had the opportunity to rent bikes and ride them on top of the ancient city walls. We also climbed to the top of the Guinigi Tower. From the top, you can see the entire city!
|View from the top of Guinigi Tower, Siena, Italy|
On our second weekend, we ventured to Florence and Venice. Florence is easily one of my favorite cities in the entire world. There are so many incredible things; you almost don’t know where to start! There is no way to see all the art, architecture, and rich culture it has to offer. Brunelleschi’s dome on The Duomo, Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the Baptistry, The Uffizi, The Ponte Vecchio, Michelangelo’s David, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito, The Boboli Gardens, Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune in front of the Palazzo Vecchio… I could go on and on! Standing in front of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is one of the most stunning experiences I have ever had! SO many incredible things in Florence symbolize Italy and its importance to the world.
|Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy|
Also very close to my heart now is Venice. I have to discount the rumors that Venice is completely overrun by tourists, garbage, and bad odors. It is truly a magical place – unlike anywhere else in the world. The train station & Grand Canal are both overwhelmingly full of activity and commerce. However, it’s the moments on the backstreets, crossing bridges, and overlooking quiet canals uninterrupted by traffic that make the trip worthwhile. I could spend days exploring the churches, art, and tiny shops with intricate masks & blown glass.
My roommate and I decided to be adventurous & brave the trip to Sicily, an island off the Southern coast of the mainland. Little did we know while planning that a 12-hour overnight bus ride isn’t the most pleasant experience. But Sicily is incredible! It’s a completely different world than any other part of Italy. A few of my favorite memories are talking to the people: the older gentlemen playing cards who pointed us in 5 different directions to our hostel, a shopkeeper who patiently explained the symbol of Sicily to us, the sweet nonna who hand-embroidered lemons on linens. And of course, Gianni, who explained life to us in terms of “the marketing”. I only wish we would have had more time. Fun fact: when trains go to & from Sicily, they get on the ferry! The whole train… rolls onto a boat. I know, I was shocked too! And you’ll be happy to know that a 14-hour overnight train is a much more enjoyable method of transportation.
|Palio horse after a "test" race|
Originally, I was only going to stay in Siena for the five-week program, take a few days to travel on my own, and head home. However, the more I learned about the Palio, the clearer it became that I absolutely had to stay. Days and weeks surround a medieval-style horse race. The campo is transformed into an arena- completely covered in dirt, with wooden stands. Each contrada (neighborhood) of Siena has a horse and a rider. They also have individual insignias, colors, songs, etc. As soon as the Palio spirit hits, your contrada is everything.
|Parade after the winner of the Palio was announced|
There are only a few moments in life where you truly feel overwhelmed by something that is completely beyond your ability to understand. It’s almost impossible to describe Siena during the Palio. It’s almost as if the streets are electrified with that same medieval spirit that conceptualized the horse race in the first place. It’s more than loyalty to your contrada. It’s more than a horse race. It’s much, much bigger than life or death. It’s impossible to describe because there is nothing in this world that compares to what this event means to native Sienese. I witnessed grown men weeping, women swooning, children inconsolably screaming. The Palio is everything – if only for a few days.
The Italians really have it down – they genuinely like and want to be around other people, and their way of life is planned to facilitate that. People stroll, gather in the center of town, and have meals that last for hours and hours. I am in love with these people and this culture. I feel so lucky to have had this experience.
Grazie per tutto, Italia!