Written by Cosima Smith, (University of Virginia) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Fall 2018
Living in Siena, even in these first weeks, has been a challenge well worth the effort. I’m no novice when it comes to studying and living abroad, but this is my first true extended stay in a European (read: white) country, and Siena is far enough from the major cities in Italy that the flow of bodies of color into the city is rather lacking. That’s not to say there are no black or brown people, or that I find myself uncomfortable in the city, just that it has been… come si dice… interesting to navigate the spaces in which I find myself as a queer, multiracial, multicultural, black americano in Siena.
When I first arrived, after a bus ride from the airport that seemed to last hours, I was greeted by our program director, Victoria, as I hastily tried to sneak a cigarette away from the other members of the group. She introduced me to Luigina, my host mother for my time in Italy and the sweetest lady you could ever meet. I was immediately taken aback to learn that Luigina spoke no English, but I quickly let go of this feeling as Vicky explained to me that Luigina was excited to no longer be the only smoker in her home and her family. This explanation, though an odd point of commonality, genuinely brought a smile to my face and a giggle to my lips. We made the eight (8) minute walk to my homestay, and I had my first home cooked meal in a week. Little did I know, I was clueless when it came to eating.
Luckily, Giorgio, my host father, was prepared to explain to me—in Italian—that there is actually an order in which one is meant to eat. We start each night with a pasta dish. After the first plate, there is a slight pausa for the food to settle before a chunk of meat—most often chicken or beef—is placed in front of me. This is when the rules relax just a bit: I have the option to have prosciutto and figs or melon, and often a salad or veggies, in addition to my meaty dish. Finally, Luigina absolutely insists that I have a piece of fruit to round out my diet. Of course, if I drank wine, it would be appropriate to do so at any point in the meal. Oftentimes, I find that my stomach is far too full to accept the offer of fruit and instead opt for a small shot of espresso. This prepares me for a night of studying, or enjoying my time in the piazza—the plaza.
In the square, people meet up with friends, some drink, but everyone just generally relaxes. The first few nights, I went out to learn more about the other students on the program. As classes began, some of the students have found themselves otherwise occupied. I, personally, found myself with enough time to desire going to just sit, even if I sat alone. This lasted perhaps a day. I very quickly learned one of the Italian roommates happens to frequent the piazza after dark, with a backpack or two full of instruments. More often than not, I’ve found myself making noise on a drum or some part of my body as 10 or 15 or even 20 people around me do the same or sing to whatever tune is being strummed on the guitars. The one problem is that, in Siena, not many people have a strong background in English. I’ve recently come to realize that this doesn’t mean Italian is their mother tongue. In these nights, I’ve met people from Libya, India, a slew of Spanish-speaking countries, and various places around Europe. Beautifully, this isn’t where the multiculturalism ends!
Siena is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site in which the entire city, at least within the city walls, is legally protected. This designation means that any change in the city has to undergo major trials before being approved. For those visiting, these protections mean that the city that we see is basically the exact same city as it has existed for hundreds of years. From the beautiful duomos—the cathedrals—to the residential areas, sites and buildings are well-kept, in good condition, and as hauntingly beautiful as can be. The one exception to this is the street art, which I’ve come to love so much I plan to dedicate an entire post to the exceptionally terrifying, beautiful, and very illegal paintings and taggings I’ve noticed around the city. I’m sure there is so much more for me to discover, from language to culture to architecture to people.
No doubt there will be times when I can’t help but feel out of place, but the family I’ve come into, the friends I’ve already made, and the people running my program are a comfort when things get rough. Siena has defied my expectations. Every twist and turn thus far has enamored and shocked me. I’m honestly so excited to see what comes next, and so very glad I decided to spend my time in my quaint, hilly new hometown of Siena.