Section: Features

Notes from Abroad: Siena, Italy

Notes from Abroad: Siena, Italy

Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire. No matter where you go or turn, you will always end up at home.

In Italy — more so than in America — the family is the basic social unit. I’m studying abroad in Siena, a small city in central Italy where passion for the family is intensified by a unique form of social organization: the contrada.

Siena is divided in 17 districts, or contrade, most of which are named after animals. The contrade are often referred to as “extended families.” They host city-wide dinners, manage their own museums and churches, have their own executive councils and, most famously, compete against other contrade in the Palio, an immensely violent and emotional horse race that takes place on July 2 and August 15 each year.

Italians outside of Siena often scoff at the ardor Sienese display toward their contrade. I am inclined to agree. My host family, belonging to la civetta (the owl) contrada, decorates their home almost exclusively with owl regalia — owl wind chimes, decorative owl plates and owl figurines.

Three nights a week, my host mother and host brother leave the house for the evening to participate in contrade activities. My host brother teaches drumming to the younger boys in the contrada while my host mother participates in flag sewing — activities of historical significance.

During medieval times, when nearby cities continuously warred with one another, contrade were makeshift armies; drumming and flag-waving served both symbolic and practical purposes. Now, these activities are intended to keep the legacy of the past alive. 

Federico Fellini, an Italian screenwriter and director, wrote that a “mysterious cord” links Sienese of every age. As a non-Sienese — and more notably, as an American — it is nigh impossible to pass the impregnable walls of what it means to be Sienese.

To be truly integrated in Siena, a person must possess a few characteristics — many of which center on the contrada (such as being baptized in your contrada church). Others are irrespective of it. One includes speaking with the Tuscan accent. This requires the speaker to drop his “c’s,” replacing them with a much softer sound. A coppa of gelato becomes a hoppa of gelato and identifying oneself as americana becomes identifying oneself as amerihana.

Though I make a concerted effort to speak with the local accent, I find myself slipping in and out of using it. Seemingly insignificant things, like pronouncing one letter differently, are often what create the most noticeable chasm between locals and myself.

Yet as the adage suggests, in Siena, it’s still easy to feel at home no matter where I turn despite the many aspects that identify me as a foreigner. And though I will never belong to a contrada, I can’t help but feel I’ve made my own extended family during my year abroad.

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