During the first three weeks here in Siena, the curriculum was centered around an intensive Italian language course on which we spent three hours a day, usually from 10 am-1 pm. In the afternoons, we’d alternate between viewing Italian films, exploring the city of Siena with our encyclopedic tour guide-cum-teacher Roberto, or having introductory classes to our courses for the rest of the Fall. One of these afternoons was spent learning about the Palio, Siena’s annual horse race in which the 17 contradas, or neighborhoods, compete for glory. During this class, and afterwards, when I talked to my host father, who is an anthropologist, I found that both he and Roberto emphasized a sort of ‘if you’re not from Siena, you’ll never really understand’ mantra. They were both very open and willing to discuss their experiences with the Palio and Contrada system, my host father going so far as to invite me stay with him if I decided to come back to Siena for the Palio someday—but both struggled to put into English words that such a direct, visceral connection to the local history could never be understood by someone not connected by blood to the city.
I think what Roberto and Angelo were trying to tell me may just as well be said of Study Abroad as a whole. People study abroad for many reasons, one of which is to feel a connection to a new place and new people. Ultimately, one’s ability to connect to new places and people is limited by many factors—language, the brevity of one’s stay, and that certain indefinable factor of foreignness that my Sienese hosts struggled to articulate. What I feared at first, but eventually grew comfortable with, is that these factors made me ‘alone’, which I thought was the same as ‘lonely’.
Perhaps what my hosts were getting at is that ‘connection’ to a place or to people is not something that you describe or define or think about, but something that you feel. Maybe come December, I will feel connected to this place in a way I never thought possible–but for now, I haven’t felt that feeling. To know a place is one thing, but to feel it is another. Perhaps you feel connected to a place by growing there, and grow I certainly have, but I don’t feel like that growth has resulted in any roots extending into the densely-packed cobblestones of Sienese streets.
The closest I feel to connecting with Tuscany and the people around me is when something reminds me of home. Yesterday, sitting in the back of a car driving around the Tuscan countryside for a field trip, my heart warmed when I was hit in the face with the smell of manure, and instantly transported back to a summer day driving down Route 47 in Hadley, near all the dairy farms. I feel connected when the air is cool and dew-heavy but the sun still warms your skin, because it reminds me of those rare Fall afternoons on Cape Cod when it’s just the right temperature, and not too windy, for a walk through the woods near a pond or the beach. I feel connected when I explain a Boston accent to my hosts using the sentence ‘Park the car in Harvard Yard,’ and they respond that in a Tuscan accent, in which the ‘c’ is often dropped, asking for a can of Coca-Cola with a short straw sounds like a string of unintelligible vowels. But are these connections to Tuscany, or are they merely me fortifying my connections to home? Maybe I’ll never feel connected to Tuscany until I’m back home and I hear the sound of people talking quietly and plates and utensils and glass clinking as they sound when you’re walking down Siena streets on a Sunday during lunchtime and everyone’s home with their windows open, dining peacefully with their families. Is that what a Tuscan would feel connected to if she were in the United States?
My interactions with my peers have followed a similar trajectory. One person whose company I particularly appreciate is from Mount Holyoke, and the two of us often reminisce about our favorite (food) places in the Valley. As a group, we probe which parts of our respective cultures are regional, national, and global. I have learned which New England words are foreign to the Westerners, the strange ways movie titles are translated into Greek and Italian, and about the refugee-led Hip Hop scene in Athens. Is this what connecting is? Am I doing it wrong if it’s not with Sienese people?
All the folks in our small program are great, and munching together on some cheese from the town of Pienza yesterday overlooking the fields of the countryside, I couldn’t help but be glad I was sharing the experience with exactly that group of people. Yet still, something about being in this place with these people out of the coincidence the application process
and for a stipulated amount of time affects the way we interact with each other. Will we stay friends when we go back to Massachusetts, Arizona, North Carolina and Greece? It’s hard to say. We struggle together to learn Italian, get our bearings in a new place, and maybe even meet some locals, but through technology, we’re sure to maintain the ties most important to us back home. As much fun as we may be having, a part of each of us is counting down the days til our return Home. I wonder what Study Abroad was like before such instantaneous communication technology? Are the days gone when, as one former New Yorker who married a Tuscan put it, each program had its ‘casualties’ who fell in love in and with their host countries, and found themselves in a new home?
Earlier today, an Amherst friend texted me to ask if I get lonely here. I responded quite quickly that I do, but spent the rest of the day thinking about the question. There are days when I’m sad not to be around the people I love, and days when it’s hard to face the challenges of any old day without feeling that love. But I think I’ve learned a lot about the distinction between loneliness and aloneness since being here. Loneliness, to me, is when you’re surrounded by people, but it feels like none of them care about you. For some reason, Amherst College is good at creating this illusion. I’ve felt less lonely here than I have at Amherst, despite the fact that I am quite often ‘alone’ and in a foreign country. I am alone here, and in that aloneness I am able to think and feel with much clarity. Today (Sunday), I spent my morning just feeling–feeling the love between me and all my friends and family, feeling the distance between us, feeling how far I’ve come and how far I’ve got to go, and savoring all these feelings in a way that I don’t think I ever could in an environment of constant stimulus like Amherst College. Is that what it means to connect?
There’s a lot here for just three weeks. I won’t discount the possibility (probability?) that I might disagree with a good deal of what I’ve written here in the near future, let alone in December. But these weeks have been a busy time for my brain, and I figured I’d share what’s been going on up there. The next two weeks will be busy for my body. Tomorrow, I start a two-week internship at the Comune di Bagnaia, a nearly completely self-sufficient commune about 20 minutes outside of Siena. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report by then about sustainability, community, property, and more.