I hadn’t approached the subject of Siena, even though it has always been at the back of mind ever since I came back from there a few months ago. I have since been reeling after the abundantly independent life I had led in a beautiful town, with a medieval past. It can hardly be put into words, but it was a sort of nostalgic stay, in that I knew my time to go would arrive soon enough, and I was trying to make the most of everything. In the short space of five months I made Siena my home; lived in a part of the town buzzing with life and energy, made some life time friends I can never seize to forget, immersed myself in language and culture, and last and most important, ate the most splendidly exquisite Italian food.
As I packed my bags to go I continually had bouts of nervousness of not knowing what to expect. I was going to a country where English was hardly a spoken language, and though I had knowledge of the Italian language, I was terrified of facing some very angry Italians, at failing in their beloved language! I arrived in a city, decorated by a stream of lights and on a mountain hill, from where you could exploit a beautiful panoramic view. It was gorgeous! Central Siena is a walled city, much like many of the Italian cities, thus I felt the sense of a majestic past, and I felt a whiff of history surrounding me.
At first, living was a tad bit strange. Where I stayed, there was no concept of a microwave, there was no toaster and there was no boiling kettle. I wondered how I would cope, having left behind a fairly modernized lifestyle, where I was dependent on these types of appliances. I hovered the cobbly streets of the ancient town to somehow purchase a kettle if anything, but with no avail. That is when I realised I was at the heart of a place in the world, that not only valued, but proudly advertised their idea of a simple life, and this organic way of living is deeply wedged in their being. I was forced to buy fresh ingredients for the day, to cook and consume. As much as I had found it an annoyance at the beginning, it converted to an extreme pride, of leading the most healthy lifestyle. And it didn’t just stop there, I noticed myself changing. I noticed myself happier, I noticed how I developed a very fresh face. It was only one of the factors of making my stay so incredible.
I think I can never forget Siena visually. It was the most extraordinary place I have ever lived in. The structure and design of the walled city is indescribable unless you go visit it and witness it yourself. I was living in an apartment where the entrance was on ground level, yet most remarkably, the view from the window went up three floors! So whenever I’d stand at the window to observe I was very far up from the ground! This meant that the buildings were designed in such a way, to fit the the slanted and steep streets. It was indeed very clever and one of a kind I have seen any where in the world! I could stand at the window for hours, because the ambience was terrifically soothing. I could never feel scared, even if I would come back late at night.
Some people may describe it to be an Italian Oxford street because of the buzz of shops and shop goers, however I never agreed to that. It is a little different from Oxford street because there was an extreme culture embedded in all the avenues of the city. By culture I mean that Siena could never be like Oxford street because it can never yield to the present-day element of the chaotic London town. It has too much of the historic Palio and its Contrade to allow that to happen!
This aspect of the city, single handedly distinguished it from most other cities in the world. Even before the Palio game was introduced, the Contrade had made their mark in the city dating back to as far as the Middle Ages. I was immensely intrigued to learn the history of the Contrade, and set about doing so. These Contrade in English are tribes, or clans. Initially they were set up as a defense mechanism from war against Florence and other neighboring cities. Today, they don’t operate in a physical way, but the emotional impact they have made on all Sienese people is stupefying. These are people who have followed the legacy with ardent passion, and are as patriotic as you can get about their particular Contrade. There are seventeen Contrade within Siena itself, and each has its own symbolic value, their own fountains and baptismal font. Such is the dedication towards these Contrade, that every aspect of Sienese life is determined within ones Contrada. For example if a baby is born, it will be baptised in its own Contrada and by the very own Priest of the Contrada. Or if someone dies, it will be revered by its own Contrada, in that there will be a list of all the people that have passed away from a specific Contrada, to be remembered. It is truly fascinating. It is a life separate from all worldly things. It is unique and what makes it even more so is how willingly Sienese people submit to this kind of devotion. It is as if its a religion of their own, being practiced for decades, and which gives them a purpose of life. This fervour that I saw in people was truly enchanting. It was a complete honour to be in a city, at a time where I could see all this hustle of a Sienese life, revolving around their Contrade, and the Palio.
Of course the Palio was another reason to get tongues wagging. It is a horse race, that is held twice a year in the magnificent Piazza del Campo bang at the centre of Siena, where I was able to gawk at the stifling preparation Sienese people take into getting ready for the game! It was marvelous! The Contrade were to battle it out in this horse race to achieve a winner in the form of a horse. This was no ordinary horse. The members of each Contrada considered their horse to be an absolute sacred entity. It was regarded with utmost respect. I can safely say the game was rather about the horse than anything. It was this horse that was to bring them victory, so in essence they worshipped it. I remember the day each Contrada was to get appointed their horse, there was an air of madness within the walls of Siena! People were going ballistic at the thought of finally receiving their prized possession! There was an eruption of emotions and a celebration was underway. This was not uncommon in Siena as they always needed a reason to celebrate, resulting in numerous street parties. Days before the Palio each Contrada celebrated with parties being held at the street where they were situated. During the time of the initial Contrade formation each tribe was given a street to own, for defense purposes, and today these streets are used for celebratory reasons, in memory of earlier chivalry. When the Palio games start, it as if you are transported to the past, where it is not simply a horse race, like polo, or a sport like football. It is a battle, almost like the afore days, of ongoing rivalry and competition between the Contrade. It is oozing with passion and pride. And the end result is an outpouring of emotion, larger than when the horse is appointed. There are people on the floor crying, embracing each other and their horse with an aggressive zeal. It is an atmosphere to observe, and I consider myself lucky to have been there to witness everything.
Aside from the very aspect of a ‘Palio Siena’, I had immense joy in being in a city I adore, and learning a language which I have given my all to. I studied at the Universita per Stranieri di Siena, a University designed for foreigners but having the best of both worlds, where there were also Italian nationals studying there. Thus I managed to intermingle with everyone and really plunge myself into the language. What helped was having a mix of friends from different parts of the world, and a lot of them did not know English, so the only mode of communication for us was Italian. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and really had to make an effort in speaking Italian as I had no other choice! And while I’m on the subject of friends, I will have to pay a special tribute to them, since they turned out to be friends I have now made for life. When I had first arrived in Siena I felt daunted at the thought of blundering and alienating myself completely. I was foolishly wrong. These friends were my support system. I got to know them on personal level, more than I’d ever know someone here in my own country. It was a pleasure getting to spend some quality time with them. I miss them dearly and I wish some day we have a massive reunion where we can brush up on our Italian as well.
I would call my stay in Italy an achievement because I honestly felt myself progressing. I have to give it to the poor Vodafone people that I would harass every day as my phone or internet would have some problem or the other. So I began with demanding an English speaking person to come and help me at the Vodafone store in a quant alley of Siena, to confidently strutting to the top of the counter and jabbering in Italian which I thought was near perfect! Needless to say it was no where near perfect, but the kind ladies working at the store boosted my confidence by announcing I was brilliant. In effect they saw me growing!
I have loved every bit of Italy, from studying, to eating, especially the gelato, to meeting friends where we’d walk around the lovely streets till the early hours of the morning just chatting and having no fear, to witnessing the most legendary game in the world. It was simply outstanding. I will never forget it. And I sincerely wish that you can go out there and visit the place just once, because it is amazing! As far as I am concerned, I have promised myself a trip to Siena every year to continue perfecting my language skills.