Ten Tips for a Truly Tremendous Time in Siena
Alas chickens, it would seem that I have pochi giorni left before I must leave the glorious country of Italy! Sunday is the fateful day, and I’m trying not to pay attention to how close that is to today. How is it possible that four months have sped by so quickly? I knew I would love my time abroad, but I didn’t realize quite how attached I would become to everything, whether that means the people, the place, or the experience. So, as someone who can now say that she has lived in Siena for four months, I would like to give y’all a list of my top ten tips for having the best time possible in Siena.
1. Get to know an Italian family! When people ask me what my favorite part of the program has been, I tell them it was my homestay family. They’ve added immeasurably to my time in Siena, since they helped me learn so much about Italian culture that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and they really helped me with learning the Italian language. Plus they made me feel loved throughout my time here, in a uniquely Italian way!
2. Embrace Italian! I came to Italy knowing absolutely no Italian, and I was more than a little nervous about living in a small city like Siena, where not many people speak English. However, CET has a great Italian program, and I learned more Italian than I would have thought possible in 4 months. Plus, the Italian people are incredibly receptive to anyone who attempts to speak in Italian, and, more often than not, will be delighted when you try, even if you mangle the sentence horribly ( …not that I would ever do that, of course).
3. If you have the opportunity, volunteer! I volunteered through CET, teaching English once a week to some Italian 4th graders. While this was initially terrifying – “you mean I have to go talk to a bunch of children that don’t know English, while I don’t know Italian??” – it was immensely rewarding in the end. My kids were adorable, they treated me like a rock star, and it was really nice to be doing something productive with my free time. Plus I got to practice my Italian!
4. Siena is not only charming; it is very interesting, small though it may be. Thus, I think it is very valuable to take the time to thoroughly explore the city! It’s really easy to travel every weekend and not spend much time in Siena, but as much as I love traveling, and even though some of my favorite experiences were had while traveling, I had so much fun simply wandering through Siena’s tiny twisty streets, stumbling upon new things around every corner. You’re in Siena: go gawk at St. Catherine’s head! Go try to find the center of every contrada – even if you get lazy in the middle and eat a gelato instead, you’ll still be in the middle of a medieval city eating gelato. It can’t really get much better than that.
5. Understand the Italian dress code! This is key to not getting stared at and/or yelled at by old Italian people on the street. Things that are not ok in Siena: wearing flip-flops, pretty much ever. You’ll catch cold and die with your feet all exposed like that! Also, going out in wet hair. Yet another way to catch pneumonia! Moreover, if you wear a sundress sans tights, or even just decide that you are done with wearing your winter coat before April, you will get some very strange looks, because Italians dress for the winter apocalypse until warm weather is thoroughly established. They don’t want any chance of the wind catching them around the throat and giving them a deathly illness. Italians take their health very seriously.
6. Find a place for lunch where you can be a regular. I have a couple of places that I go to at least once a week, and the people there now recognize me, and smile and talk to me when I come in. The lady who works at the one euro pizza place our whole program goes to for lunch multiple times a week now knows that we most likely want a big piece of margherita pizza, or maybe the nutella kind instead. Besides the perks of being a regular at places this (discounts on already cheap pizza? Yes please!), it’s really fun to get to know the people who work at the bars and pizza places. They won’t really pay much attention to you for the first couple of weeks, because you’ll just be another American tourist, but if you show that you mean to stick around for a while, they’ll have no problem chatting with you, even if you occasionally commit gross grammatical errors.
7. Don’t worry about getting fat. Eat instead! Realize that you will only be in Italy for four months, and stuff your face whenever possible. Why pass up the best margherita pizza in the world, the creamiest gelato you’ve ever had the pleasure to taste, and the most delectable pasta in the history of the world?
P.S. If you need a good gelato place, I recommend Kopakabana. If you need a good pizza place, I recommend Il Pomodorino. And if you want good pasta… talk to my homestay mother.
8. Spend a lot of time on Piazza del Campo. It’s the center of Sienese life, and you’ll find everyone there, both tourists and Sienese people. So, grab a book or some picnic food, and go sit on the Campo and people-watch. Some of my friends and I refer to it as Siena’s beach, what with the way everyone sits on it soaking up the sun and people-watching.
9. Don’t hate on Siena for being small and not having much of a night scene. So what that there’s only about 5 places to go on the weekend? Just go to them all every weekend! Go to the Cuban bar and make friends with the bartender – he might let you go behind the bar and make a mojito! Go to Caffe del Corso (aka shots bar) and make friends with Italians while you stand in the street with your drink. Go to the Campo with some wine and look at the stars (and maybe roll down the Campo if you’re feeling especially adventurous and it’s late enough at night).
10. Finally, soak up every second you can – the time goes faster than you think it will! Take pictures everywhere you go, no matter how small the occasion. Don’t be afraid to look like a tourist: you are obviously not Italian, so go ahead and ask someone a dumb question. They’ll inevitably be very nice, and if you ask your question in Italian, they’ll be extremely happy.
Siena is a wonderful city, and I’ve enjoyed my time here so much. Leaving is going to be extremely bittersweet – my only consolation is that no matter what, I’m going to come back. Thanks for the amazing adventure, Siena!