Learning to Take a Breath in Siena

Written by Elena Sinagra (Sarah Lawrence College) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Fall 2017

This coming week will mark eight weeks, or two months of living in Siena.  In my memory, there is a contradiction to my measurement of time.  On one hand, it feels like I have just arrived and that this semester is flying by.  On the other hand, I think of when I first arrived in Siena and those following days, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

Looking up to see flowers in the afternoon.

Looking up to see flowers in the afternoon.

The person I was when I got on a plane to go to Italy for a year compared to the person I am now,  two months later, is completely different.  Before leaving, my study abroad counselor told me that it would take at least a month and a half to two months to feel comfortable.  Now that I have been here for that amount of time I can confirm that it does take that long to get used to it.  When going abroad, one is completely immersed in a new way of life.  This is especially prevalent in a place like Siena, which is smaller and less overrun by tourists and study abroad programs.  The first couple of days may feel similar to a vacation, but one quickly realizes that it is rather a new start, like going to college for the first time.  There are many things to get used to and learn, just like at any new beginning.  Similar to how the freshman quickly learn not to wear their lanyard with the room key around their neck, I have learned similar dos and don’ts.  For example, I learned very quickly to never to go outside with wet hair and to always wear shoes around the house. Other things range from getting used to eating dinner late, a superior quality of food and a generally slower and more relaxed pace of life.   This latter one, was the most difficult thing to grow accustomed to.

Throughout the two months of being here, I could not help but stare at the odd sight of old men sitting in Piazza del Campo doing nothing.  NOTHING.  There was not one that even had a coffee or a newspaper.  They were all just sitting there; maybe talking but mostly just being there.  That is a very common scene in Siena.  When I walk along the streets, there are numerous cafes and bars filled with people nonchalantly nibbling on a sandwich or a pastry and slowly sipping an espresso.  The notion of getting something to go is not very common and in some cases frowned upon.  This slower paced culture is in stark contrast to America, where efficiency is key and ambition to get things done is high.

This last summer, I had an internship in New York City’s Wall Street which is the epitome of fast paced life.  I remember waking up at 7:00 AM then rushing to make the C downtown subway with a bagel in one hand, a coffee in the other and a phone clenched between my neck and shoulder talking.  My lunch break would consist of doing work at my desk with maybe a salad.  At the end of the day I would rush and weave through the crowds to hop on a sardine filled Manhattan rush hour subway towards uptown.  After that I would go on a run around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park before I had a quick dinner and got ready for the next day.  Every weekday, I would be in bed at 10:00 PM at the latest.

The Palazzo Pubblico as seen from my favorite gelateria.

The Palazzo Pubblico as seen from my favorite gelateria.

This new slower paced life in Italy  was at times difficult to get used to.  Everything took longer. People walked slower.  Everyone wakes up later and goes to bed later.  People take naps.  On many days there are two hour dinners and people do not go to bed until the early morning.  The scene of adults sitting in the Piazza doing nothing or young people lounging in a cafe, gave me a weird sense of anxiety.  I could not help but think “Don’t you have somewhere to be? Something to do? Are you forgetting something in your schedule?” In these two months, I finally understand the appeal and have even slipped into this pace of life.  The aspect of not having as much homework or extra curriculars as I do at my home university than in Siena, was somewhat difficult to get used to.  I would lie awake at night feeling like I had forgotten something.  I would spend large chunks of the day in a nervous state and feeling like I should be doing more. I had to get used to having more free time in my schedule. It has been only recently that I have learned to slow down.  Before it seemed counterproductive to sit in the Piazza and get a gelato, but now it gives me so much joy.  To spend an hour in the afternoon with a creamy and satisfying chocolate gelato in the Piazza looking at the various interactions the different groups of people are having is now so much fun for me.  In addition, I have learned to enjoy meals as both an eating, cultural and social experience, and not just a chore to do in the day.  In the cafes in Siena, I rarely find anyone who brings work or a book for lunch or a coffee break.  For me, I always associated cafes for being just for that, but here it is felt that one should enjoy and focus their energy on the food being consumed rather than multi-task.

I decided to take a moment to smell the roses.

I decided to take a moment to smell the roses.

To take a hour or so to go to a cafe with a friend or get a gelato in the Piazza has improved my quality of life by huge quantities and I feel so much happier. After the two months of being here, I learned to take a breath which finally allowed me to become used to Siena and I can enjoy it now.  Not only has my brain and my thinking became clearer, I have become more attuned to the pulse of this city. I now notice and react to things and moments throughout the day.  It could be watching a child walk with their father, noticing the subtle colors and pictures carved into the Duomo, the flowers that hang out of the windows in the apartments, or watching the shadow of the Palazzo Pubblico change throughout the afternoon sunlight.  I can finally breath in all of Tuscany’s experiences .