Studying abroad in Italy

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My back is pressed against the cement grooves of the Piazza. My tanned arms are folded underneath me to prop my head up to the night sky. A sky that looks like a black sheet of construction paper that’s been intricately speckled with white paint.

I breathe in the night air, which smells of fresh Italian bread mixed with cigarette smoke, and I close my eyes. Full-bellied laughs and the clinking of wine glasses echo from the overpriced restaurants that encircle us.

Sixteen of my newest friends surround me. We are all sprawled out in the same manner. Josie is to the left of me, her curly brown locks a tangled mess on the top of her head. Her hazel eyes watching the sky deepen into the depths of night.

Sarah is to the right of me, her bronze skin blends in with the bricks. She breathes deeply as the cool, summer air washes over her. Then there is Rachel, sitting up and soaking in the scenery. Her long, blonde hair swishing from side to side as she tries to memorize her surroundings.

All sixteen of us are trying to forget the inevitable sunrise which signals our departure and the end of our time studying abroad in Italy.

Studying abroad in Italy is a dream of many young people. However, the reality of studying in Siena was not everything this author expected. #sienaitaly #studyabroad #studyabroadinitaly
Siena skyline. Photo by Andrea Ares

A Dainty Dinner in Siena

The soles of my feet are burning red and my bunions are throbbing, making them look larger and even more noticeable than they already are. I haven’t slept in 32 hours. I‘ve been walking in the scorching sun since my plane hit the runway and am living off a 2-euro cone of chocolate gelato.

After the walking tour of Siena, our guide promises us a lavish group dinner. Visions of big pasta plates and margarita pizzas dance in my head, only to be met with a small cup of couscous, a fatty assortment of prosciutto, and a shrimp entrée.

My roommates also studying abroad in Italy, Josie, Sarah, and Rachel devour the dainty meal, while I smash it across my plate to make it look like I had eaten it. Unfortunately, Italy is no place for a picky eater.

Siena Italy skyline
Siena skyline. Photo by Andrea Ares

IES: Studying Abroad in Italy

It’s Wednesday morning and class starts at 9 am, which, in Italian time, really means 9:15. My roommates and I are about to embark on the sweaty haul up the hilly street to class when we come across a cat.

His black and white fur is matted, accessorized with a few blades of grass, and he is basking in the sun on the second step of the staircase. I gush over the geriatric cat as I stroke his mangled fur and Josie, a fellow cat lover, joins me in cooing sweet nothings to him.

Bernardo!” I say.

“What?” Josie asks.

Bernardo, that’s his name,” I say.

But… he looks like a she. It has a pink collar.

I don’t care, his name is Bernardo,” I reply. Nobody fights me on this one.

He reminds me of home and of my own cat, giving me an odd sense of comfort. He seems familiar in a place that is so foreign. Sarah lets us have our moment and then summons us back.

It’s almost 9:15. The creaking sound of wooden shutters being pried open to let in the warm, summer air and the faint echoes of conversations create the morning melody. Last night’s clothes still hang out on the line, dried out by the Tuscan sun, and grandmas in aprons shuffle out to their balconies to water their flowers.

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Studying Abroad in Italy
Bernardo the cat. Photo by Andrea Ares

We make it to the top of the street, huffing and puffing and wiping off our sweat mustaches. I fish for a granola bar in my purse, still malnourished from the night before. Walking on flat ground now, the heat seems more tolerable.

A minute or two away from our school building we come to a sudden halt. Down past the winding street lined with tiny Fiats, over the untrimmed bushes that sprawl onto the sidewalk, we see it. I blink my eyes a few times just to make sure I’m not looking at a life-size postcard.

The panoramic view of Siena is right before us. Dozens of rustic, beige monuments and buildings overlap one another like a collage. Some stretching high up into the sky and others dipping down low into the valley.

Little specks of orange and red are visible on some of them. Tiny, metal points stick up from the top of the tall ones. Lush, green trees encompass the immaculate landscape and it seems miles away, but at the same time, very close.

We pull ourselves away from the view, but my mind lingers there for several hours. I suppose jetlag had clouded my vision because this felt like the first I had seen Siena. It sunk in. It was real. We were here.

Studying aborad in Italy
Via Mannini 3 apartment in Siena. Photo by Andrea Ares

Via Mannini 3: Home Away From Home?

Tan tiles cover the bathroom. Stained with age, the mold has aggressively declared the crevices home. I slip on my flip-flops to go in the shower and my eye catches one lone ant scurrying down the drain.

The shower water turns from scalding hot to ice cold with no warning and forces my body in and out of shock several times a minute. I try to shower as quickly as possible as I notice pools of water gathering at my ankles.

I must keep my elbows tight to my sides or else I will bang them on the moldy walls. Every time I move my feet my flip-flops work as a shovel, heaving up bales of water and then dumping it down the malfunctioning drain.

Stepping out into a puddle of water that accumulated outside the accordion shower door I realize the sudsy water has overtaken the entire bathroom floor. I lay down the rug the apartment provided us with and my spare towel to soak up the mess.

Come morning, I wake up to a musty bathroom that has attracted a family of mosquitos. I wring out the sopping wet towels outside and hang them on the clothesline to dry. Plopping down on one of the chairs out on our terrace I take a deep breath — this was not what I expected.

Oddly enough, in my fantasies of Italy, a family of potential Zika carriers living in my shower and a moldy, clogged drain were not in it. Neither were the ants that infested our kitchen or the thick, black residue that stained our feet whenever we walked on the tile.

Siena Italy: View at golden hour
Golden Hour at Contrada dinner. Photo by Andrea Ares

Experiencing Tartuca Contrada in Siena

Giovanni, our Italian Cuisine teacher, has invited us to his contrada dinner this evening. Contrade are a very big deal in Siena. There are 17 different contrade, or neighborhoods, in Siena. Much like high school cliques, there are the cool ones and the not-so-cool ones. Giovanni’s is a cool one.

Every July, the contrade compete in a horserace on the Piazza called the Palio. Essentially, if your contrada wins every few years you’re cool. If your contrada hasn’t won in fifty-plus years, you’re not cool.

I didn’t think much of it until I attended the drawing to see which of the contrada were going to compete. People were crying, screaming, hugging, and fighting. During the drawing ceremony, I whispered to Josie and a small, brunette girl of about thirteen turned around and shushed me.

Giovanni is proudly marching at the head of the line, leading us to the Tartuca contrada dinner. They are the “Turtle” contrada. We walk along the residential cobblestone streets, past the storefronts and vendors and up a dirt path that leads us to a plateau. Here we are encompassed in a 360-degree view of the city.

The sun is setting over the medieval architecture and the sky is smeared with streaks of orange and pink. I stare over the horizon and take in a deep breath of evening air, ignoring the untrimmed grass that’s tickling my toes. Mosquitos buzz around my head and I feel itchy, but I don’t care.

Teach in Italy

We are instructed to sit at a long white card table under one of those graduation party-type tents. Dozens of tables are lined up in front of us, all inhabited by members of the Tartuca contrada. All I can hear is a roar of unfamiliar words from the tan-skinned, curly-haired Italians.

Everyone is laughing, touching, playing and feeling. We stick out like a sore thumb. Just a gaggle of American students studying abroad in Italy awkwardly folding our napkins on our lap and staring at the circus going on around us.

Giovanni explains to us in broken English what’s being served for dinner tonight. Rabbit, meatloaf, or salted cod are the three choices.

I take a large sip of my red wine. Volunteers of the contrada put on the whole dinner and my order of meatloaf is taken by a frantic, middle-aged woman who screeches my choice to a young boy. The wine begins to settle in my system, and I can feel my cheeks turning into hot, pink circles.

Unlike when we arrived, we begin to laugh, touch, play, feel. We eat our meals in gluttonous glory and guzzle down glasses of sweet, red wine. No rush, nothing to do, just to be.

Studying abroad in Italy Siena streets at night canva
Late-night Siena streets

Dancing the Night Away

It’s reaching midnight and some of the adults have begun trickling out, making their way down the dirt road back to the comforts of their own homes. My 16 friends and I stare into the night sky and relish in the cool, crisp breeze. I begin to close my eyes, heavy from Italian wine and sleep deprivation.

Just as I am about to drift off, Sarah pulls my arm and leads me and my other roommates toward a big field where all the Italian teens are dancing to a DJ blasting the Billboard’s Top 100. My legs feel like Jell-O, wobbling in the wind and the horizon is blurry. I have to grab onto Sarah’s shoulder as we make our way to the field.

The beat bounces in and out of my ears and I can feel condensation forming on my upper lip as I’m dancing. I am pulled this way and that, my surrounding a blur as I turn in a drunken stupor.

Josie is not dancing; she is just watching us look like foolish Americans in front of all the Italians. She smiles at me; I smile back and Rachel and I force her out onto the dance floor.

It’s 1 a.m. and it’s time to go. We gather up the troops and stumble down the unpaved road back to town. Siena is a quiet town, with a rather large senior population, but tonight it feels alive. My body is still vibrating from the music and my ears are ringing so loud that I must speak at an unnatural decibel.

Strolling down the winding roads we chuckle and talking to strangers as we head home. I greet Bernardo, peacefully resting in his normal spot and give him a satisfying belly scratch. His purrs vibrate through the air as I gaze at the stars above me, soaking in one last moment of the night before I turn in.

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Studying abroad Pecorino cheese wheels
Pecorino cheese wheels

The Scent of San Gimignano Cheese Factory 

We’re standing outside an industrial building and a man with a lifeless face is handing us blue booties to put over our shoes. I hear the roar of machinery from the inside of the building and my stomach starts to churn. I hate, no, despise cheese. Today we are visiting a pecorino cheese factory. I have been dreading this visit since I got here.

Still confused as to why we have to put on these booties we all slip them on with no question and walk in. I hold my breath and enter slowly, scanning the premises. Big, metal vats are nailed down to the cement floor.

Men, wearing no gloves and white tank tops, are submerging their hands into the milky white substance, breaking apart any chunks of cheese that may have escaped the smoothing process. I swallow down a rising gag

Not wanting to be rude or make a scene,  I have no other choice but to cover my nose and mouth with my sweater. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

You know, once you breathe it in you get used to it,” my teacher says.

In an effort to not look like the most ignorant American studying abroad in Italy, I uncover my face and take my first breath of steamy, sheep cheese. I don’t throw up, but my nostrils are burning. It feels like the live, active cultures from the cheese are aiming their scent directly at me. The smell is like spoiled milk left out on a hot, summer day.

Internship in Italy

I look around in disgust, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. They draw closer to the vats of creamy liquid to take pictures. Somehow they are breathing easy while asking questions about the production process. Suddenly, my feet feel wet and sticky. I assume it’s my own sweat from this emotionally exhausting experience but it’s not.

I look down and find my blue booties a deeper shade of blue than I remember and my toes are sticking to the leather base of my sandals. My shoes are soaked with cheese juice.

Moving out of the processing center we are guided into the area where they mold the cheese into wheels. As soon as we enter the hallway leading into the molds, a wave of potent cheese ignites my nostrils. Without any warning, I double over and audibly gag.

Everyone’s eyes are on me, especially our guide, who looks appalled at my behavior. I excuse myself and stand outside for the remainder of the tour, like a child in time out.

As I take off my blue booties my toes make a squeegee noise against my soaked shoes. Bending down I give them a quick sniff. They smell sour. These are the only sandals I brought on the trip. 

Studying Abroad Gelateria in Florence
Gelateria in Florence. Photo by Andrea Ares

An Empowering Gelato Experience

I can feel the weight of the hotel room key attached to a mini ball and chain in my pocket. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to turn it in at the front desk before leaving, but I darted out before I lost my nerve.

The streets of Florence are glistening from the recent downpour and the air smells like earthworms. After a dreary morning, the sun is starting to peek out from behind the clouds. I’m walking through the streets of Florence all alone.

I don’t go far, just a few blocks, but I feel empowered. In an effort not to get lost I take note of all the street signs I pass. This is the first time since getting to Italy that I’ve been alone. No roommates, no guides, just me.

Turning a random corner I stumble upon a gelato shop. This is not surprising as they are basically on every corner in Italy. I scrounge up 1.50 euros in change and drop it into the palm of the frazzled man working the counter. He hands me my tiny cup of mint chocolate chip gelato and I stroll over to a nearby park.

A babbling fountain hypnotizes me as I sit on a bench. Nobody looks at me weirdly or wonders why I’m eating gelato alone, it’s nice. After a rest, I decide to head back to the hotel. I work my way back and to my surprise, I don’t get lost.

Returning to my hotel room, I feel strangely satisfied with my own independence. Strangely strong. I smile at myself in the mirror, proud of myself in the most unabashed way.

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Studying abroad in Italy
Studying abroad in Italy

Pottery Class Mishaps  

We are going to a ceramic-making class today. I don’t quite understand why this is necessary since ceramics is not indigenous to Italy. The lady’s studio is so small though that we must break up into two groups and go in at separate times.

I am in the first group. We enter the studio in single file like first-graders being led into the lunchroom. Tables of unfinished ceramics crowd the space. Gobs of clay are dried onto the wooden tables and buckets of tools are stacked one on top of another in every corner of the room.

The studio owner emerges from the back, a lady around 60 with frizzy, white hair that’s gathered in a clip at the back of her head. She’s wearing hot pink gauchos and a white t-shirt that’s spattered with flecks of gray clay. She doesn’t speak a word of English, so we have an English translator there to dictate her ceramic-making process.

She gives us a short introduction then hops up on her stool and begins demonstrating how to spin the clay. Her hands gently cup the gray mass, molding it with her fingers, every so often sticking her thumb in the middle to make a large divot.

The wheel is mesmerizing and she handles it with such ease. It makes me wonder how long she’s been doing this. I’ve never used a pottery wheel before, but I’ve heard it’s difficult. You can’t put too much pressure on the clay or else it will collapse into a sticky mess right in your hands. But, she makes it look as if this was what her hands were made to do.

Stopping for a moment she mutters something in Italian about needing a tool of some sort. She eases up from her stool and locates said tool sitting in a bucket on the floor next to two cement blocks of wet, cooling clay.

Bending over she reaches her skinny, freckled arm over the blocks to the bucket and, within a millisecond, loses her footing. Her head smacks into the bucket, ricochets off, and she falls face-first into the cement blocks of gooey clay.

We all stand in silence as she moans and tries to get up. Her eyes are caked with the sticky substance and she wipes her forehead in shock which smears clay all over her face.

Our translator rushes to her and asks if she’s okay, but she just whimpers and holds her muddy hand to her face. Leaving the room in utter embarrassment she rushes off to the bathroom in the building adjacent to us.

Studying Abroad in Italy Piazza del Campo Siena
Piazza del Campo Siena. Photo by Andrea Ares

An Inappropriate Outburst

I look down at my legs dotted with clay from the splash. I then look back at everyone else. Our translator goes to make sure she’s okay while we stand around in silence trying to make sense of what just happened.

I begin smiling down at the floor, trying to stifle my laughter. I can’t. A few giggles escape. Then a few more. Then I erupt into uncontrollable laughter, holding my crotch to stop myself from peeing. I drop to my knees as tears stream down my face.

What the hell is wrong with you?” Rachel says in her thick, British accent.

I can’t reply. Rachel laughs at me laughing and then we both can’t stop laughing. From the gross apartment to the stinky cheese factory to the several arduous walking tours, this was the last straw.

The coordinators of the program meant well, truly, but the execution of these group activities had gone totally awry. We couldn’t help it, we just had to laugh. Let it out finally.

We had to accept that our picturesque expectations of studying abroad in Italy had been tainted by this trip. It only made sense that one of our last weeks in Italy included an elderly woman almost falling to her death.

Thankfully, Rachel and I had recovered by the time she re-entered the studio. But this time, she had a golf-ball-sized bump protruding from the right side of her forehead.

Calm, cool and collected she covered it with an ice pack wrapped in a towel and sat back on her stool. Without a word and with one free hand, she picked up where she left off.

Siena at night
Siena at night

Our Last Night in Siena

We had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to catch our bus to Florence airport. By the time we get home, shower and pack, we may have just enough time for a nice 30-minute slumber.

“C’mon, it’s time to go, nuggets,” Josie announces in her I-mean-business type of voice.

I take a long look at the night sky and then extend my hand out for her to pull me up. One by one, my vertebrae detach from the warm bricks of the Piazza. Josie, Rachel, Sarah and I all begin to stroll back, walking a little slower than normal. We want to take it all in one more time before we must leave.

A few yards from our house, I see Bernardo. I hold back tears. This is the last time I’m going to see him. He is usually lying right by our staircase, but tonight he is standing by his owner’s front door. I think he knows we’re abandoning him.

As I am about to descend the staircase, I hear a front door creak open and a cooing voice. I look up and see a man in his late 50’s, dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt with a yellow tinge. He has bushy eyebrows and sun-kissed skin and a kind face. He picks up the cat and before he can close the door, I yell in what little Italian I know,

Como si chiama el gatto?” (What is the cat’s name?)

He smiles at me, strokes the cat and replies, “Si chiama Frank. Frankquisimo, perché lui è grande,” (His name is Frank. Big Frank because he is big). I smile back.

Grazie,” I say softly. He gently closes the door.

That night I say goodbye to Bernardo (Frank). I say goodbye to my 16 friends, I say goodbye to studying abroad in Italy and I say goodbye to Siena. I take one more gaze out into the starry night sky and try to engrain its essence into my memory.

Night night, Siena. May I see you soon.

If You Go

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Check out our Italy Travel Guide for more on what to do and see on a trip to Italy.

Author Bio: Andrea Ares is a public relations specialist by day, creative writer by night. She enjoys documenting her travel experiences – both through journaling and photography – and has a love for learning new languages. Most recently, Andrea completed her certification in comedy writing for television from UCLA where she wrote one spec script and two original pilots. In her free time, she likes to hang out with her cat, Emilio, and try out new baking recipes

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