(Author’s Note: This and future posts consist of stories of our first Education Abroad adventure in Siena, Italy during summer, 2013. This compilation will likely materialize into a brief, online book as the revised chapters are posted. It is meant to be a slightly tongue-and-cheek account of my own perceptions and adventures, though academic sources are occasionally invoked for better understanding. Fair warning.)
At first glance our dreadfully steep street of Via di Fontebranda is just another winding medieval funnel, mostly for cars and the miniature Route 54 city bus. It’s not a fun place to walk, though pedestrian traffic actually mingles well with the occasional gas-powered vehicle. Calves get a workout tramping up or down, and our ears get a workout listening for the inevitable revving of car or bus engines. More often it’s the obnoxious whine of scooters and motorcycles. Though we cringe at their high-pitched motors, the rate of motorcycle and scooter use in Italian cities is impressively high. And they are one of the more practical and economic approaches to moving about the city. In residential Siena, they are parked along the streets nearly everywhere they will fit. This is not SUV territory, if you actually want to get somewhere.
Our humble abode is just outside the tourist realm as well; some 98% of day-trippers are content to remain at the top of the steep incline along Via di Citta, one of the city’s main spines. At the intersection, curious visitors gaze through the arch where our street begins, and they see that it drops off precipitously like an urban black-diamond ski run. This is a natural deterrent for most visitors, calculating quickly the chances they would make it back up the hill in time for their group dinner. Thus, most of them scurry past altogether, while others notice a picturesque photo opportunity when they see one. They won’t risk skipping down our street for fear of never returning, but they will certainly photograph it from the top. The view could almost be found in an Italian painting, with its winding medieval structures and a stunning view in the background of the majestic Basilica of San Domenico.
Later we also discover another favored perch for visitors – sometimes legions of them in large group tours – overlooking our street from a commanding overpass near our apartment. From that vantage point they enjoy a breathtaking view of the valley, San Domenico, and the medieval neighborhood of the Goose contrada far below. It becomes a bit unnerving, if amusing, to see these folks spying on us from above. We come to understand a little better how locals can feel objectified, essentially becoming the Other on their own street. Occasionally we hold up our own cameras from below and return the favor, just for fun. I often wonder while trudging upwards if they can tell immediately I’m not Italian, given my typical combination of baseball cap, NAU jacket or, later, crewneck shirt – not to mention rather blonde hair and fair skin. I am not likely contributing to their idealistic Italian scene. I most certainly ruin many a promising photo as my baseball cap or screaming-red Universita di Siena sweatshirt steals the show while lumbering up the hill.
Our street therefore serves more local Sienese than visitors. The locals are usually on a daily commute into or out of the city, mostly by car or scooter, but occasionally by bus or foot. The use of multiple modes of transportation here is noteworthy, despite the narrowness of our street with no dedicated sidewalks. The wayward visitors who choose to park outside the walls will pay the price. Siena’s urban layout is roughly in the shape of a Y, along three intersecting ridges. Stray from the main streets along the ridge, and you briskly head downhill into one of the valleys between the Y. I remarked to Linda at one point, “This is the only place I know where the shortest route is not a straight line.” The more efficient, speedy route is to stick to the ridges, avoiding the valleys. By parking below, they find themselves puffing up our hill, muttering expletives or other facetious statements as they walk past us headed the opposite way. “Half way there,” one man yells back to his family, to which they sigh and press onward to their prize, the tourist-centered medieval core. I cheer them on more than once, convincing them that they don’t have much farther to go. Usually they’re satisfied when they hit the flatter and less arduous Via di Citta. Actually, so are we. Linda and I climb it from our apartment multiple times a day, gaining leg muscles throughout our stay. As a habit, I begin our short journey upwards with a question to Linda: “Ready to take that hill?” I can’t help but emulate a similar phrase within the epic film Gettysburg, when Robert E. Lee’s loyalist is trying to convince him to “take that hill” before the Yanks do. Although I would later take to jogging at the Medici Fort, we were evidence that a walking commute could lead to better health. Of course the tradeoff was a typically sweaty arrival at school, sometimes dripping wet in this humid, rainy season. Still, in later weeks we were no longer winded with each ascent. Just walking in town became part of our daily exercise regimen.
As for the car traffic, it never fails to amaze me what humans will do to bring their cars as close to their doorsteps as possible. Along our Via di Fontebranda, this means converting street-level storage areas beneath buildings where no cars were ever meant to fit. The automobile bug has clearly inflicted the Sienese and many other Italians as well. Nearly every day we watch desperate housewives or suit-wearing fellows work tirelessly to stuff Toyotas or Fiats into storage areas under their 500-year old buildings. Never mind that they’re doing it from a narrow street with a steep slope and no shoulder space for wiggle room. In consequence, the five- or seven-point turn is invented. A friend helps them back in, or they struggle to avoid touching the scraped-up stone walls with less durable side mirrors. I did a double-take with one garage, cleverly retrofitted with a two-tiered platform to store one car above the other – a vertical two-car garage.
Occasionally poor dumb luck overwhelms a car owner, who unwittingly finds his car protruding half way into the street while the Route 54 is chugging up or screaming down the hill. Then temporary mayhem ensues, with presumed panic setting in from the perpetrator blocking traffic. Sometimes we become involved during our own pedestrian commute, finding ourselves flattened against the buildings while six drivers try to negotiate around one another. To the credit of the patient Sienese, there is no road rage, arm waving or shouting of expletives. They clearly understand and sympathize with such predicaments and will assist one another when necessary. Perhaps some Americans could take lessons here.
Via di Fontebranda does have an upside, like all nondescript Sienese residential streets. It is part of a contrada, one of 17 socially active neighborhoods hosting a few thousand people or less. The true residential areas are found off to either side of the main city spines along the ridges, including that of the Goose, or its official title, Nobile Contrada dell’Oca. A bit further down from our apartment is one of the city’s two remaining, and oldest medieval public water sources, for which our street is named. This is one landmark along our street worth remembering and visiting, and it does provide a respite as one makes her way up or down to the city gate. It is said that neighborhood residents continued to wash their clothes here up through World War II and beyond, after which an amazing invention called the washing machine forever made the laundry ritual at Fontebranda obsolete. It remains a landmark for the Goose and Siena as a whole, now relegated to a picturesque water feature. Beyond its dominating Gothic stone arches, our auto-centric street happens to reside within the Goose contrada, essentially serving as one of its gateways. In fact, unsuspecting passersby would have no way of knowing that the contrada’s hub of activity is tucked behind our street’s facades. These places are not advertised. Beneath the dense stack of rooftops across from our apartment are thousands of loyal contrada residents going about their daily routines and attending occasional contrada dinners and other events.
The Goose came to our attention in a humorous if appreciative way during our first week. Moving into a foreign city is no small task. Our first full week had been usurped by an unending litany of arrival logistics, delayed student flights, cell phones not working, internet concerns, grocery shopping, apartment furnishing, floor scrubbing, and only Santa Caterina knows what else. This author was fairly well fit to be tied as we struggled into Week Two, exclaiming to Linda that it would be wonderful if we ever have a chance to see the city. After several orientation meetings and our first class, Amy (pseudonym) from the Siena School was heavily promoting a Thursday night social event known as Aperitivo. Our class was instructed to meet Amy in the Campo near the Torre del Mangia (bell tower) around dusk. She would then lead our group to an outdoor garden space to enjoy good company and refreshments. It appeared that we might enjoy a chance to relax a bit with our group and maybe meet some new friends. Fate would end up stymieing that plan.
Earlier that day another Siena School staff member had arranged for a repair to our apartment’s entry door and lock. We thus prepared to have a fix-it person doing just that sometime during the day. Before setting out for the Campo that evening, Linda and I are heading back to our new home on Via di Fontebranda to trade off a few things and prepare for the evening out. I stick my key into the door as usual, expecting it to unlock. But something is wrong. They must have changed the mechanism earlier today, I presume. I try again, but entry is denied. There is no sign of wiggling or fussing inside the lock. Ok, we’re locked out. Resignation sets in, with my logical assumption that the landlord had changed the lock as part of the maintenance effort. If this is the case, why didn’t anyone tell us or give us a new set of keys? Dio mio!
My earlier patience transitions into frustration with a budding concern, that of avoiding homelessness before nightfall. The only short-term safety net we have now is our impending rendezvous with Amy at the Campo. We would be rather late due to this newest development, but it would allow us to corner Amy if we could get there in time. I was never as overjoyed as I am now to see Amy chatting with our group precisely where she said they’d be waiting. After brief hello’s to the group, I dive for Amy and immediately pull her aside with a tone of urgency. I offer my own theory as to why we are currently homeless. We don’t have Linda’s set of keys for some reason, and mine show no signs of wanting to work. Amy had already demonstrated her devotion to making our collective lives easier while we transitioned into this foreign place, as has been the entire Siena School staff. In one sense, we were at their mercy. I really did not want to irritate her with more problems. Still, she launches herself into problem-solving mode and immediate hatches a plan. Amy would walk our group to the Aperitivo event and introduce them to the scene. Then she would double back with me to assess the situation for herself. Once again, the benefits of a walkable city are becoming evident. That said, our plan ends up requiring quite a hike – essentially two round trips to and from the Aperitivo site near the edge of town, at about 20 minutes each way.
While the remainder of our crew settles in for light fare and socializing, I wave goodbye to Linda and strike off with Amy. In my typical style, I treat this opportunity as an impromptu interview. She relates to her own discovery of Siena, where she went to school, and why she absolutely loves it here. We encountered several of her friends in the street, making it clear that she had already crafted an impressive social network without being a native. She jokes, “I have to plan an extra ten minutes for my walking commute if I’m going somewhere, to account for the time chatting with friends I see in the street”. I chuckle at the thought of padding a schedule to account for likely encounters with friends. This won’t happen often in the States, in one’s car, or even within our own Flagstaff neighborhood. Wow, this is a classic use of public space, and urban planning legend Jane Jacobs would certainly be proud.
Upon arrival at our apartment, the entry attempts begin, this time with Amy driving. No luck. My hopefulness deflates by the minute; she seems genuinely stymied. Up to this point, she was invincible, solving any problem we would throw her way. Still, nothing will budge. I ask if she can call the landlord. Her phone, I’ve learned, includes all sorts of useful contacts – her friends, the school staff, and likely a third of Siena’s local population. Which “phone a friend” option will she use? I finally drop my sweater on a stair railing and take a seat while Amy makes a flurry of calls. Though American by upbringing, Amy is nearly fluent in Italian. The landlord’s son, I gather, is ultimately the most productive choice. Lorenzo will head over here shortly to see what he can do.
The remainder of this story could not be invented by Hollywood script writers. We head back outside to await Lorenzo, who shows up cheerfully on his scooter. His attempts at entry fail as well. They both exchange a rapid conversation in Italian which I conveniently ignore, hoping there is a successful strategy at the end of it. To my shock, they ask me which window is ours, and fortunately I vaguely recall that ours is the furthest window in the building, on the up-hill side. He surveys the window from the street and is satisfied that we had apparently left the window unlocked. So, the open window becomes his new strategy. I am not amused, as the window is rather high off the street, and in any case, don’t these people simply have the new key to the lock? Is this a magic trick of some kind? I am helpless, so I step aside and allow my two companions to take the helm. Lorenzo soon boards his scooter and coasts down Via di Fontebranda, with me more perplexed than ever. Amy then brings me up to speed, translating into English. Lorenzo is going to find a ladder and try to climb through the window. No way. Way. This is the plan? How long will it take to find a ladder? How is he going to get it here? Will it be tall enough?
Then I learn an important factor in this plan: Lorenzo is a proud member of the Goose contrada. At this point I have no idea where the various contrada buildings or secret storage areas exist, but Amy expresses confidence that he’ll be right back. True to her word, I see Lorenzo with a ladder attached somehow vertically onto the back of his scooter (how did he do that?) as he returns to save the day. This can’t be good, I think, especially after he assembles the ladder behind a parked scooter and he gingerly ascends with Amy trying to steady him. Even I can see from afar that he’s got a good six feet beyond the top of the ladder rung. He does confirm the window is open, however, which is our saving grace. They admit temporary defeat, and he heads off back down from whence he came. In the meantime, Amy explains how he’s getting the equipment so quickly. He and his family are Ocaioli, or Goose contrada residents. Confirming what Robert Rodi and various academic writers have explained, the contrada behaves like a giant extended family, and is considered as one of our planet’s most impressive social networks. They look out for each other, even if you’re not immediate family. And at least for some of these people, they seem to enjoy it.
Lorenzo finally returns with a longer ladder, similarly borrowed from a contrada storage space somewhere in the neighborhood. This time, I am satisfied that the ladder is apparently tall enough to access the window. The remaining problem is the uneven street. We need to find a way to balance one leg at the same height as the other. We shift the scooter around while Amy and I move the ladder. I am hoping to at least present an outward appearance of being useful here. Climbing up, he somehow launches off the ladder and through our window, with me trying to remember what we had placed on the other side where he would inevitably land. I think it’s the clothes drying rack. It is a stroke of good Ocaioli luck, I suppose, that our window was the closest to the road, given its steep slope. It provided the necessary elevation for the primitive ladder approach to be effective. Once inside, it’s like cake. He soon appears outside the building with Linda’s set of keys.
Amy and I express curiosity about what he found. It turns out that, as I have often discovered in this fine country, my logical presumption was inaccurate. Linda’s key was still inserted on the inside of the lock, preventing my key from working! We had neglected to remove her key from the inside of the door when we left! This is embarrassing, as I was already blaming the mystery landlord who had changed the lock without telling us. Instead, we had already gotten in the habit of leaving a set of keys on the inside of the lock at night, as suggested by another staff member. As Amy winced at this, I explained that the logic was to insert a key at night to prevent any unwanted Sienese from picking the lock. True enough, though it now backfired. Had that window not been open, I do not envision a solution on this night without heavy mechanical equipment or sledgehammers. Consequently, this behavior would cease immediately. We would no longer leave any keys inside the lock, and why should we need to do so, anyway? This is one of Europe’s safest cities.
For Lorenzo’s part, I am grateful and thankful, using my best Italian expressions of appreciation. It is nothing (di niente), he says, and to his credit he seemed to be enjoying himself. We had called him down here on a moment’s notice, taking him away from whatever he was doing, which is certainly better than this. He was kind and patient, however, throughout the process. Moreover, the Goose had just saved us. A strong social network provided our landlord’s son with access to whatever he needed, only a few hundred feet away – somewhere. In one sense, he had performed magic. From this point on I could not help being impressed with the Goose, and the contrada system as a whole.