Chapter 8. Prova Generale

Linda and I slither our way into the Piazza del Campo just after 6pm, hopeful that I might be able to land some bleacher seats for this trial finale. I had found my way behind the bleachers near the Casato earlier today to ask, it turns out, a gelato shop clerk how the process works to get bleacher seats for tonight. After struggling with my Italian a bit to explain what I want to do, she smiles and says “in English?”. I sigh and resign myself to another embarrassing attempt to communicate. These store owners are more likely to know at least some English given their location at Ground Zero for visitor activity. “Plan on being here by 6:15 at the latest, and someone will sell you tickets and let you in”. Ok, I’ve got pretty solid instructions, elevating my hope that if I do as she says, Linda might get a view of the action from above. I was intent on finding a decent location, hopefully in those tempting bleacher seats. They would only cost 5 or 10 euros each, which I was quite willing to pay, for Linda’s viewing pleasure as well as my own. We approached an opening in the bleacher gates from trackside, right around 6pm, satisfied that I had followed instructions of the Gelato lady and arrived about when she recommended.

Things always seem more difficult than they should be in Italy, an observation that comes home to me yet again. I was hoping to see a well-recognized bleacher attendant of some kind, someone I could pick out immediately selling tickets and perhaps even ushering people to their seats. Nobody stood out with such an appearance. Already I felt a let-down coming on instead, as I saw very few seats remaining in the bleachers that were, according to my gelato informant, supposed to be ushering in eager spectators at this time. My last hope was with two portly city employees wearing orange vests nearby. Of course, their proximity makes them experts, an assumption I hoped would pan out. It did. Their expert knowledge informed me and another gentleman that there was absolutely no chance of getting into the bleachers. For how long have these people been sitting up there, I wondered. No matter, we’re late. So much for my informant.

My level of alertness has shot up, however, as I realize there is no more time to waste. I report the bad news to Linda, and we make our way for the interior of the Piazza. No good view for her tonight, I think with some disappointment. Back to the center. My first instinct is my comfortable barrier at the Casato, directly across from the bleachers that had just denied us access. Note to self: Arrive at 5pm and bring food for the bleachers next year. With mixed emotions I find that middle-aged couples have already claimed the coveted trackside spots, with one couple sitting on the ground. Still, I notice my destination instantly – the 4-foot tall hexagonal cement pedestal that serves as one of the few permanent features in the Piazza throughout the year. Our chance is now. I quickly share the plan with Linda and we make our way to claim the post. As long as nobody sits on it, we will both have an unobstructed view of the track in front of us. Linda hugs the pedestal to peer over the top, while I stand behind her and enjoy the view over her head.

While negotiating space around us, we watch the intensity of this final prova unfold around us. Even though we consider ourselves to be early, large clusters of contrada loyalists wearing their home colors are already perched in reserved blocks of bleacher seats. This wouldn’t be so intriguing, but for the fact that some of the most prized seats, directly in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, are occupied exclusively by kids of grade-school to middle-school age. Lots of them – hundreds. Gradually, parades of them representing each individual contrada make their way through the gathering throngs and climb into the precarious bleachers overlooking the Palazzo stretch. This is really saying something, I think to myself, to place their kids in such prime real estate. Then the kids start to chant something in unison, singing some kind of fight song in their high-pitched voices, staying even busier with various arm-waving routines and swinging back and forth in unison.

“How…” My thought trails off in confusion. Then I try again: “How… did they entice the kids to do this, and in such a disciplined manner?” They are all generally coordinated in color of outfits, some contrade more so than others. From right to left, it is difficult to mistake their identities, as long as one has done a little homework on their colors. Wave, Ram, Goose… It’s hard to miss the Goose, third from the right, as their uniform green shirts signify one of the most disciplined groups. As each contrada horse makes its way with its entourage to the Palazzo entrance for staging, groups of kids are doing likewise, finding their designated places in the bleachers. The scene reminds me loosely of my marching band days, finding our designated bleachers for home games or “band days” for high school, all dressed uniformly and eager for the show.

I think I have found one answer to the mystery surrounding the eerily conforming teenagers in Siena. The kids are being included front and center as an important part of this tradition and spectacle. They are brought up with it, and taught to enjoy it. They have a place and feel like they have a strong role. By the time they are teenagers, it is in their DNA, so to speak. Where they live is who they are. Of course, the social scientist in me can’t help but also wonder how many kids are not here tonight? Are these attendees volunteering? Did their parents make them go “for the honor of God, family, contrada”? How many stayed at home because of last-minute temper-tantrums or not having done their homework? What percentage of kids, of various age groups, are engaged with the Palio specifically and with contrada life generally? Regardless of these remaining questions, tonight the answer is crystal clear: these kids are integrated and strategically placed front and center. They are perceived as a vital part of society, make no mistake, and they will be seen and heard. We further note that parents are the same pretty much anywhere; we chuckle as parents across the track from the bleachers yell and wave at their little contrada loyalists perched in what otherwise would have been hundred-euro bleacher seats.

Cutting through the background noise of socializing comes an impressive and recognizable melody. I have enjoyed this ritual throughout the past three trials, and now Linda has her chance. A large chorus of men down near San Martino are bellowing out a song in unison. And, is that harmony that I hear? They’ve practiced? The A Cappella music is muffled a bit due to its distance across the piazza, but it is captivating all the same. My first thought at hearing this was a distant memory of a favorite motion picture, none other than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Indians (or Pakistanis?) are singing in unison in the middle of a desert, essentially paying homage to the new “gods” that descended upon them the previous night. Creepy stuff. No UFOs here, but I experience a similar sensation with adults singing and chanting from across the open expanse. In response, directly behind us the young men of the Wave (Onda) Contrada open up their voice boxes and “send it back” to the other side. Then, almost as if to out-do their neighbors from the Wave, a lively group of young women decked out in orange and white belt it out themselves. They represent the Unicorn (Leocorno) and are enjoying the ultimate “ladies night out,” separated by gender and age, I note.

The song they sing now is at once an indicator of strong pride for both Siena and their own contrada. According to my college-aged friend from the Panther and some further online digging, the song is known as the Canta della Verbena, or the Song of Verbena. The verbena to which it owes its name is apparently an herb that is found growing between the bricks within the Piazza del Campo. Representing a sort of national anthem, the proud Sienese sing their song in unison at sporting events and other relevant city-wide events. The words to the song speak directly to a strong sense of place for Siena, focused intently on the Piazza del Campo itself:

“Nella Piazza del Campo/ci nasce la verbena, viva la nostra Siena/viva la nostra Siena (repeated 2 times). La più bella delle città.”

In the Piazza del Campo / There comes the Verbena
Long live our Siena / Long live our … SIENA!
In the Piazza del Campo / There comes the Verbena
Long live our Siena / The most beautiful city! (translated from

Though all Sienese sing these words of pride during city-wide events, each contrada replaces them with their own, more colorful verses during the Palio. A bit less romantic than the Siena version, the song is generally used by the contrada to verbally rip apart their enemies, albeit fit into the same melody. This explains the singing back and forth across the Piazza, focused instead on taunting their rivals. A rough translation of the Panther’s version, for instance, goes something like this, aimed at their rivals in the Eagle (Aquila):

Even if it flies high/we aren’t scared. Eagle garbage/Eagle garbage. Even if it flies high/We aren’t scared. Eagle garbage/You suck to the city.

Amusing taunts aside, the Canto della Verbena can be interpreted as a cultural allusion to their overlapping place identities for city and contrada, nested into one melody. At once the Sienese are expressing their local attachment to city and contrada, through the very same melody. Note that there is absolutely no hint of attachment in the song to Italy. The Sienese identify first with contrada, and to Siena as a close second. They are only Italians when necessary or convenient, from what I gather.

As the singing contest continues, I am unpleasantly reminded of what one Siena School staff told me days ago about the crowds here. “During the Palio people wait for hours and can get pretty nasty defending their space. It can become vicious and quite competitive in the Piazza”. We soon found that she was indeed accurate, even though this wasn’t the real Palio race. It’s a practice. There is no winner. The horses trot around with their jockey test pilots, getting a feel for the track while probably 20,000 spectators take the event much more seriously than they had the night before. It’s not about the game, I remind myself, it’s about the spectacle.

This is why people seemingly line up to challenge us for our coveted spot at the pylon. First a middle-aged, short Italian woman starts making a fuss about Linda’s coat being placed on the pylon, seemingly suggesting that someone should be sitting up there to not waste the space. I’m not sure this is what her annoyed Italian comments are actually saying, but otherwise I’m not sure. Her friends or family are not far away, and she is clearly serving as the courageous “front man”. The “whole fam damily” is just waiting to pounce at any weakness on our part. Linda hugs the pylon even tighter, with both of her feet strategically spaced on the ground. She knows this will be a territorial ground war now. The Italian woman continues to literally push her way into the couple standing to our left, from Holland I later determine. They were more annoyed with her than I had known, as the woman commented that they had been waiting for hours and were not about to give up their spots to a rude woman trying to press in. At this point I’m starting to become uneasy and a bit uncomfortable with this display of human nature: too many humans, too little space. Humans want space, humans not willing to give up space. Bad things can happen. We are already experiencing what Anya had forewarned about tomorrow night. Not a good sign for Palio night. The first cannon explodes, surprising all of us once again. I still have not unlocked the mystery of the cannon and why there is no audible warning before its first firing. Pavlov and his famous dogs kick in later when they provide a drum roll in advance, but not this time. Never mind, the crowd is thickening and pressing in. A group of Italian teenagers, it seems, is likewise eyeballing our precious pylon, with the hope that one of them will soon be atop of it, blocking the view of those of us behind. Lesson learned from that experience two mornings ago.  Linda warns me that the teens are gradually pushing in, presumably getting ready to make a run for the pylon. One of them actually points and provides a sheepish request to get in. Linda stands her ground and confirms that the request is denied.

In the meantime we have befriended the determined Dutch couple to our right, who have finally decided to stand. I am secretly worried that someone would use them as a stepping stone if they didn’t get up soon; they are relinquishing their air rights, which seem to matter here. Following some conversation that unites us against the intruders, the six of us form an unwritten, united front at our barrier, and by the time the Caribinieri make their appearance on the track the threats from behind us have apparently subsided. We lower the threat level to DefCon 2. The mad Italian woman has taken her fight elsewhere. Linda has made friends with the Dutch woman, just short of trading contact information. I keep wanting to call her Helga, my great Aunt, as that is who she reminds me of. Friendly when you get to know her, with a decent sense of humor, but don’t ever mess with her or she will flatten you without much regret. She and her husband are great allies to have standing beside us. It’s show time.

I realize another challenge, now that we have secured the pylon; people will crowd in – and upward – as the cameras rise in one unified mass into the air. Even I don’t have a very clear view down the track toward the Palazzo Pubblico as the mounted Carbinieri make their way towards us. They are impressive and gallant with their polished uniforms, graceful mounts, and layers of medals and regalia clanging along. This is the bonus, I have learned, to attending the trial tonight, which even has its own designation as the Prova Generale. We have been told about the traditional appearance of the Italian version of the Cavalry, and we are not disappointed. Not that we could see much. I mention to our Dutch friends that their second trip around the track should be at breakneck speed, swords extended in front of them as they ride courageously into an imagined battle. Or car chase, nowadays. Actually, what are they supposed to do on these horses? They will certainly go to war in style, I think. After another half lap around the track, I wonder if the promise of a full-on charge is not to be. Then past the mossa we see their bobbing heads increase in speed and the crowd roars with delight. I manage a few acceptable photos, albeit intruded with some arms and heads, as they blow past. As the jockeys finally make their way to the mossa one more time, we soak in the scene and ambiance of this thrilling tradition once more: the unified singing, the contrada pride, the electric crowd, the sea of spectators across the Piazza. Everything tonight is more intense, more elevated, with seemingly greater stakes for everyone involved. Tomorrow night at this time, it’s game on. Whether we are present or not for tomorrow’s final event, I am more satisfied than ever about one thing: For all intents and purposes, we have just experienced the Palio.

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Chapter 7. Building Confidence

I’ve been waking up around 8am if I sleep well enough, enduring the ceaseless if entertaining noise of Goose dinners and concerts, motor scooters, and other distractions outside our second floor window. My normal bedtime in Flagstaff hovers around 10:30pm if not earlier. In Siena, getting into bed, let alone thinking about falling asleep, is rarely accomplished before midnight. The nine-hour time difference between home and Siena means that NAU is just ramping up its workday by the time we finished dinner here. My second job, albeit online, then begins. I often take a few hours to get some work and email done at night, before giving up around midnight – or on the extreme end, around 2am. Needless to say, arising with the sun for a brisk morning jog at 6am is not in the cards here. I gave in to this night-owl schedule after our first week, when I noticed that we were not gradually adjusting to the time zone. Instead we stayed consistent with a midnight bedtime on average. Add to this mix an occasional  three-hour dinner – some with students, and evening festivals or class events, and one finds it not the simplest of tasks to improve on this sleep cycle.

Of course, much of Siena is already up and kicking by early morning – and they do everything possible, it seems, to make this fact quite apparent. One of us usually wakes up temporarily around 6:00am, most often with the advent of the morning motorcycle commute and city bus traffic charging up Via di Fontebranda. To no fault of their own, the Sienese are simply doing what we all do on workdays. Most noticeable, however, is our massive neighbor perched on a ridge across the valley, the Basilica of San Domenico. Naturally, the bigger the church, the louder the bells – and louder still when someone is trying to sleep. The otherwise impressive gongs of San Domenico penetrate deeply into our little studio apartment as if the thick shutters, glass panes, and inside window panels were all missing. “Cockadoodle-doooo!” I quipped to Linda, numerous times until we tired of the joke, the basilica serving well as a substitute for a more traditional rooster. More often than not, we are tired enough to sleep right through it. We never did ascertain a standard schedule of the bell concert during the day, but it was often and furious. The silver lining? They are real bells. It was a sad day when Linda and I doubted our ears, wondering how powerful an electronic speaker system is necessary to reach across the valley. More often than not, American bells for colleges or churches are set on a mechanical schedule and system, sometimes not even requiring real bells at all. No doubt, these are the real thing and mighty impressive – if a bit less so at 0-600 hours.

Today the bells toll, reminding me it’s the first morning trial, or prova. With yesterday’s tratta and first evening prova behind me, I plan to stick with my jogging routine. I am determined to stay on my workout schedule of every other day, now that I’ve discovered a rather pleasant and scenic arena of my own. The Medici Fort, or Fortezza Medicea was completed in 1563 after Siena’s last military stand against Spain and its ally, Florence. After Spain and France (Siena’s previous ally) signed a peace treaty in 1559, Siena’s fate was sealed. Spain handed control of the defeated city over to Duke Cosimo of Florence, one of a long line of Medici overlords. Cosimo purposely ordered the construction of this new fort atop the old Spanish Citadel which stood here previously. The fort and its Florentine military did not exist so much to repel future invaders, but to quickly subdue any uprising from the Sienese within. With its construction, Siena’s chances of an independence movement all but vanished. To this day, the six Medici balls that make up their family coat of arms can be found placed prominently above Siena’s city gates, on the walls of the fort, and even slapped onto the Palazzo Pubblico itself – in case anyone had any doubt about which family was in control here. Today, the fort is home to more civic purposes, including an elevated public park that can double as an extensive jogging track.

I reflected on the place’s past military activities as I stubbornly hiked to the fort every other day to begin my official workout. For probably three weeks I kept this schedule with minor exceptions, and today, June 30th should be no different. With Linda still asleep, I quietly dress and bolt into the street below, greeting the rising sun before it gets too high for fair-skinned people like me. Intent on turning left to conquer the mountainous set of stairs beside San Domenico, I stall, noticing the atypical density of determined Palio fans trudging up our hill. Not to be outdone, the occasional scooter and bus whizzes upward, intent on getting their riders up the hill a bit faster and sooner. Ok, fine. Do I really want to go jogging at the fort to commune with the Medici regime? Or do I actually want to see the action up at the Piazza to possibly repeat the excitement from yesterday? The answer to this question comes naturally. I find myself blending into the commute up the hill, with only a few euro coins, jogging shorts, an unsightly NAU T-shirt, and my baseball cap. I had intended to jog, not spend three hours or so at the Piazza as I had done the day before. I’m not quite prepared for the sun, but it’s a gorgeous Sunday morning. Somehow I find myself hiking up the hill, only somewhat berating myself for missing the jog. How often can people see bare-back jockeys riding horses around the city’s main square? Somehow yesterday had impressed me to the point of wanting to see more.

I do need some water before getting locked into the Piazza. Linda and I have learned how to find it cheaply, now feeling more like locals. First, always carry a few of those 1-2 euro coins in case you need a snack or another bottle of water. Or, in Linda’s case, another diet coke. With coin in hand, I decide to play it safe and dart through the incoming crowd to the nearest tobaccheria, a funny type of store more numerous than fruit stands in Italian cities like this one. It’s kind of like a small soda fountain and news stand before the 1950s, I suppose. And, these tobaccherie are much more exciting than the name implies. More than cigarettes and cigars, you can buy bus and lottery tickets in the same purchase. Or, perhaps add more minutes to your pay-as-you-go cell phone. Adding phone minutes here is an intriguing process for Americans, and in the least likely of places. Just give your phone number to the fellow behind the counter, he enters it into his computer, and you tell him (not often a “her”) how many euros worth you would like to add. Just like that, your phone is back in business. It’s hard to believe that you can’t send packages, wire money, or do your laundry as well, but these little shops are still impressive.

Oh, and did I mention that they sell bottles of water for 1 euro? The same water will cost two or three euros where the tourists roam. Even in the historic core, most tourists are understandably afraid to dive into these typically dark, cluttered places. This is where I can pretend somewhat to be an Italian local, darting in, finding the water, making my greetings, and getting out. That’s confidence – the type that we hope to instill in our students. At this point in our stay, I am no longer flustered by the sight of an actual Sienese local standing in front of the short refrigerator, chatting it up with the storekeeper as one is doing this morning. In this case, they each turn one friendly eye on me, noticing that I’m in a hurry as I visually scope out the fridge. With nary an interruption in their conversation, the man calmly bends down, opens the fridge, and acknowledges my words of appreciation. I confirm the 1-euro price, and out I go.

After nearly eight weeks plying the streets of Siena, I wonder how much of a “local” I have actually become. Certainly there is little social acceptance here, as that could require decades and, more importantly, living here. Still, a personal confidence has been gained through my collective interactions. You know you are feeling more like a local when:

  • You discover and use alternate “bypass” walking routes through the city to avoid the most trafficked tourist areas.
  • You feel comfortable rather than nervous venturing into one of the city’s many “tobaccherie” to purchase virtually everything except tobacco. Tourists steer clear of these seemingly scary places.
  • You give way-finding instructions to a confused visitor who is frustrated that no one speaks English. “Yes, the main shopping street is up a bit further, turning right at the next intersection. Oh, and you might want to keep in mind that you are now in ITALY.”
  • You greet café and store owners on a first-name basis while other confused onlookers wonder how a blonde guy became an Italian.
  • You can order an entire meal at a restaurant in Italian with little or no assistance, even if the wait staff insists on speaking some English to help you out.
  • You start cursing those “damn tour groups” under your breath as you try to “swim upstream” along the city’s main streets trying to get somewhere quickly.
  • You maneuver with confidence through the local grocery store, quietly laughing at the unknowing Americans getting scolded for not having properly weighed and bagged their fruits and veggies.
  • Your group of dinner companions hangs out at a restaurant for three hours and gets louder than the Italians sitting around you.
  • You actually get on the right city bus without asking someone. And, when you board the wrong one (yours truly), you decide to enjoy the view of suburban Siena while quietly screening the patterns of ridership. Some day the bus will bring you back around to familiar territory again.

With water in hand, I squeeze under the double balcony and scope out the situation in the Piazza. Am I too late for a prime spot this morning? It would be relatively easy to find my hangout at the Casato again. I’ve got plenty of photos from there, however, so why not get creative and find someplace else on the route? Do I see what I think I see? Now on a personal mission, my feet and brain shift into higher gear. I scurry along the track past other arrivals lumbering around as if they’re window shopping. Through the gate near Fonte Gaia I go, and into the center. I turn right and dart quickly to a yawning open space right along the barrier, within sight of the mossa! When that rope drops, the whole mass of horses and jockeys will thunder past my spot here. And it’s a bright, sunny morning with the sun behind me. It doesn’t get better than this. I’ve got both cameras, for which I returned to a darkened apartment earlier. A pat on the back for that one.

Then my overconfidence gets the better of me, a stark reminder of how little I know about the Italian language and Siena. There is a fine line with feeling too confident sometimes. An Italian mother and her kid are lingering nearby, and the 3-year old is wearing a fazzoletto that I recognize: Our beloved Bruco (Caterpillar)! Been to the museum, conversed with Dario, feeling confident. In Italian I say, “Ah you are a Bruco today” in Italian. The kid ignores me, something I had expected, while Mom just gives me a strange look and a polite smile. She slowly backs away – something I had not expected. Usually they start chatting incomprehensively. Ok, fine. Then it dawns on me that there is another contrada with similar colors to the Bruco, that of the Drago (Dragon). Oh boy, I probably just insulted Mom and her kid, and showed that I really haven’t learned my contrada designs well enough. I swallow and tell myself that it’s a learning opportunity. This is the chance one must take sometimes if you hope to converse with the natives. And, were they really from Siena, or had the kid randomly asked for the lowest-hanging scarf at a nearby kiosk? Perhaps he was a Bruco anyhow. Let it go. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

It’s show time. The cannon does its thing, the track is swept of humans and, soon thereafter, trash. Then out comes our four-legged heroes, emerging from the Palazzo Pubblico to the mild roar of the crowd. This may not be the actual Palio race, but this front-row seat to the action is unbeatable – and the right price. The lineup at the mossa is different today. They have specific rules, even during the trials. They do not all start in the same position each time. This is my third time as a spectator at the “Days of the Palio,” and the educator in me now thinks about our current and possibly future students. To learn the intricacies of the Palio race and how it all “goes down,” you need to be at the trials. By the time the real Palio comes around, you’ll be an expert and probably teaching a thing or two to those around you.

I spot Guess and Tittia making their way to the mossa and realize that on some minimal level I have become a Goose fan myself. I manage to snap close-up photos of all the horses as they make their way around the track, for the later creation of a “who’s who” of Palio competitors. They actually move in too close for decent photos sometimes, with only the barricade separating us.

The little voice on my shoulder pipes up again, asking if I should be thinking like a social scientist and remaining unbiased, or if it’s ok to display some loyalty to the Goose. The Bruco isn’t running in this Palio, so that’s not an issue here (though a mildly disappointing fact for the students). I am here to remain objective, I remind myself, observing all 17 contrade to the extent possible, in true social science tradition. There is no hope of integrating into a contrada much beyond the “repeat visitor” status for a few weeks, and I am personally comfortable with that. After all, Rodie had ambitious and perhaps unrealistic expectations with his drive to become a local and to be recognized and treated as such. That said, he still did amazingly well on that count. Eventually these reflective thoughts pass, and I obtain as many quality photos of Guess and Tittia as possible. So much for social science. It’s a strong attachment to place that drives my motives now, particularly to one hilly neighborhood near Fontebranda.

I keep wondering if Guess is the infamous white horse that threw its jockey at San Martino. Only one other white horse is racing, that of the Lupa (She-Wolf). Despite my efforts, I cannot tell them apart, and would have to conduct a rigorous photo analysis later. It’s a good thing they’re wearing different colors, as I am not visually aware enough to notice subtle differences between these animals. White horse vs. brown horse is about as good as I can do. There is one sleek, tall, shiny brown animal that has stood out since the trials, however, and I believe that was the other free spirit who threw his jockey. This one is the favorite hope of this Palio, now being run by the Ram. Indeed, the jockey wearing solid, dull pink is atop this steed, though a fashion statement he is not. We’ll all know if he wins, wearing that questionable outfit. I wonder how many Italian ladies in the Ram let out embarrassing sighs after seeing their chosen hero wearing that. Oh well, it’s not for me to judge, as these colors represent tradition, local history, honor, and hopefully a few Palio wins along the way. Pink, fluffy jacket or not, the Ram will be the one to beat on July 2.

I would ideally like to be the only spectator with a camera held in the sky this morning, but alas it is not to be. Everyone has brought their own version of digital wizardry, as my arms are not the only ones lifting cameras above the crowd. Now you need to get around the raised arms, not just the actual human bodies in front of you. Confident with my current camera strategies, it’s time for the hooves to hit the pavement, so to speak. The rope drops with little warning – have I mentioned that you need to watch that line without blinking if you don’t want to miss the first half lap? The thundering herd rushes toward and past me within seconds, and I manage about six photos by simply panning and holding the shutter down. I learned yesterday that I just get what I can, and check out my digital prizes later. I’m taking photos so quickly that it’s impossible to tell right away what I’ve captured. Upon return to the computer, it’s not unlike Christmas. After yesterday’s trial, I scan my winnings. “Holy cow,” I mutter with joy, “Money shot!” I eagerly invite Linda to see the digital loot screening by on the computer. After every trial there is a slide show. I foresee a similar personal event with Linda by my side within the hour.

The horses make good time, albeit not at full throttle – with possible exception of the Panther. What’s up with this guy? He’s been hauling the mail and shooting past his competition each time now. I wonder if he’s thinking, “I don’t have a chance with this Old Paint, so let’s open ‘er up now and enjoy the ride”. He may be underestimating his muscular horse from what I see. I suspect that Panther’s got a fighting chance. No one succumbs to San Martino today, so we may get these competitors to the Palio in one piece after all.

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Chapter 6. First Contact

Making my return to Goose headquarters, I am more mentally prepared to encounter local ocaioli should the occasion present itself. Somehow I even welcome the opportunity. Arriving at what I call the chapel-stable complex, I see activity not witnessed on my prior visit. A few people are stationed lazily around the simple wooden barricade signifying the house of Guess, and – oh wow, the stable door is open! A few others are quietly conversing while leaning against the opposite building. I peak over the barricade, and there he is! A bit of hero worship sweeps over me, in this case for an unsuspecting animal that will soon win the hearts and minds of thousands – if he hasn’t already done so. Across the street against the building is a friendly-looking Italian fellow who is enjoying the view of the stable from afar. In a rare moment of boldness, I now lose my sense of caution when it comes to approaching or bothering strangers – let alone Italian ones. Having recently learned the horse’s name from a visit to Virginia – she had written and pronounced it for me (like “Gwess”) – I approach the fellow and begin, “Buona sera, e questo Guess?”. Leave it to a horse or a football team to open a conversation. Of course it’s Guess, but this enables several things to happen. It shows that I’ve been paying closer attention to the affairs of the contrada than most weekend tourists. Beyond that, he sees that I can speak a little Italian.

He warms right up, with a kind smile and nonchalant attitude. His name is Georgio, and I quickly provide my canned if honest story of living along Fontebranda for eight weeks while teaching American students. Guess provides an immediate topic for conversation. I then ask if he is a strong horse, in the only Italian way I know: “E Guess un cavallo forte?” Georgio’s response is candid enough, if not a bit modest. Essentially he gestures that Guess is “so-so,” probably middle of the pack in terms of desirable horses for the Palio. The odds were not in the Goose’s favor, as they did not extract the most coveted animal. This indirectly confirms what Virginia and the students had related to me only hours after the extraction  – that the favored horse was held by the Ram. Expectations for this Palio are clearly low for the Goose faithful, but they seem ok with it. Really, do they have a choice?

Regardless of the quality of horse for racing purposes, every contrada still enjoys a shot at victory. Their designated steed is treated as veritable royalty, regardless. Above anything else, the horse represents the contrada and its strong place identity, and so its strength is of little concern when it comes to protecting their four-legged Palio star. Among many other traditions, the horse resides in the contrada chapel during the night preceding the Palio, essentially on its own camping trip or pajama party at the nearby house of God. His caretaker, the barbaresco, sleeps with the horse all night and never leaves its sight. I depart without extending my stay too long, eager to tell Linda that I have just made “first contact” with a Goose stranger, right there at the stable. Note to self: Don’t expect Goose to win. Several informants now point to the Ram for that distinction.

Later  we return to the site of First Contact to admittedly show off my findings and lead her around as if I live there (we kind of do). There’s Guess, I proudly point out, followed by a quick outdoor tour past the chapel and up to the Segretaria office. It is open. We walk around to one side, and while the door is unlocked, the entry is less than welcoming. Someone is at a desk just inside, and it seems like a little-used door to the street. The other front side is more spacious and also includes a small doorway. A few staff members are scurrying around with computers and paperwork. It is a compact space, and the furniture and wall cabinets are tightly packed. The entire office might only be about 15 feet deep from the street. Linda motions for us to go in. Not the boldest of visitors, I naturally balk, wondering why we would want to bother these fine people, never mind that we are standing at the hub of official contrada business. I see where this is going – well, where Linda is going, anyway. History tells me that resistance is futile (ok, another Star Trek reference). I quickly need to prepare with some combination of Italian phrases before bursting in on these unsuspecting folks. Didn’t Linda see the sign – “No tourists or American blonde-haired schmucks allowed”?

We partly would like to inquire about the mysterious pre-Palio dinner we’ve been learning about in piecemeal fashion. That seems to be our initial rationale. Virginia claimed that we could buy tickets for the Goose dinner here. We both remain uncertain about our own level of interest, but it’s worth investigating. We were further hesitant to pay the apparent 35 euros per person to attend, which seemed rather steep for our needs. The whole idea is intriguing on one level, being this close to an actual contrada dinner, just a ticket purchase away. And this is not just any contrada dinner, but the granddaddy of them all, on Palio eve. Known as the Cena della Prova Generale, or Dinner of the Final Trial, all ten contrade participating in the Palio hold their own outdoor event for hundreds if not thousands of their own contradaioli. The contrada officials and the jockey sit at the head table, typically providing uplifting speeches when appropriate. Outsiders are generally allowed to attend, though tickets must be purchased from contrada offices like this one at least several days beforehand.

Linda bursts in and says “buona sera” to the nearest staff member. I only have one choice now, to play along. We have entered the building and all bets are off as to how this will transpire. I realize quickly that I “need to get my Italian on”. Getting kicked back to the street with a mad Italian chasing us down to Fontebranda is one possible outcome. Somehow Linda asks about dinner tickets to confirm what we have been told, and I follow up with some Italian. I quickly unload my canned speech – we are living in Fontebranda, I am a professor and we have American students here for eight weeks. Have I mentioned that before? As predicted, their interest perks up and I feel that we have earned at least a brief welcome. All joking aside, they could not be kinder people. They confirm that the dinner tickets, are 35 euros each. We look at each other and quickly dismiss it, kindly saying no-thank you. Aside from the cost, we would be highly uncomfortable with nobody to socialize with, let alone in our own language. The Cena would have to wait for another time.

Then our boldness kicks in and we ask about the prized scarf, or fazzoletto. Somehow Linda begins in English and I quickly follow up. I don’t even know where they are stored, should we want to acquire one, anyway. My gosh, I think to myself, we’re asking about the scarves. How will this go? As it turns out, quite pleasantly with a happy surprise. The young lady paying most attention to us maneuvers around the tight space and opens a metal cabinet against the wall. She indicates that they are for sale as well. After some confirmation with her colleague – a rather humorous exchange to determine which scarves are silk and which are polyester – she removes an example of each and displays them for our inspection. Wow. The real silk fazzoletto is right here in front of me. I ask how much they cost; 35 euros for the polyester, cheaper model, and 50 euros for the upgraded silk “Cadillac”. For me the decision is instant, though I look to Linda for confirmation. She is considering options as well. The bottom line is that we found a contrada official who is willing to sell the silk version to an 8-week inhabitant. We’ve got some cash. We’ll take the silk fazzoletto, please. At this point I am containing my amazement as the transaction takes place. This trumps even the Goose plate as our most significant memento to take home. Part of me wants the cheaper one as well, but I decline, thinking that I can get a polyester version made in China at nearly any shop in town for only 8 euros.

With the silk fazzoletto now in our possession, I feel that I have to ask the big question. I stumble through it, but am ultimately successful with communicating my point: “Possiamo portare il fazzoletto qui?” Can we wear the scarf here? I follow up with an unsure expression on my face, though she is already indicating “yes”. I add, “Questo e soltanto per contradaioli, si?” This is only for real contrada members, yes? She gets it, quickly responding, “non, non, e ok…” She has given us definitive permission to wear a silk fazzoletto – the very kind that people are given when they are born into the contrada and wear for life – here in this very Goose neighborhood. As if to confirm her permission, she asks in Italian if Linda wants help putting it on. At this point my cautious instincts fly out the door, replaced with my iPhone camera at the ready, to record personal history. Like being hooded at graduation, she places it around Linda’s neck and ties two corners together in front. After some final adjustments, Linda is now a Goose – an Ocaiolo – at least as close as we are willing and able to become on this 8-week escapade. This is no Bruco baptism, but a significant moment for us nonetheless.

This may signal a more global approach for contrada policy and practice, making one more step to extend their welcome to visitors not born in the contrada. For a donation to the contrada, they are willing to part with some tradition. Are they recognizing that they can garner more contrada support if they open themselves to outsiders? Does this represent the first step toward the commodification of contrada traditions – basically you can buy your way in? On a more positive note, perhaps this indicates a greater recognition of reality, that the city and local population are becoming more heavily influenced from the outside. Traditions like the Palio will continue to change, but they still don’t die. There is clearly plenty of tradition to go around, and amazingly strong community cohesion. If The Bruco is any example, Robert Rodi’s Seven Seasons in Siena provides more poignant if humorous stories about his challenges to integrate socially, ultimately rewarded through a personal baptism. The goal of social belonging here remains a monumental challenge. A few scarves sold to outsiders who demonstrate a serious interest in their communities is not likely going to kill this place. Instead, evidence indicates that the Palio and contrada “complex” has become ever stronger since the 1990s, with increased contrada membership and Palio participation. Opening up to the world outside may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Beyond the elation I feel at being this close to contrada life, my concern now – I always seem to have at least one – is this: Sure, we received permission from the Office, and they don’t mind. But I wonder if that policy of selling to outsiders is universally accepted throughout the contrada. Are the more traditionalist members scoffing at the office’s decision to sell themselves out? If we walk along the streets of the Oca proudly supporting the contrada, nobody else will know that we actually live around the corner, even for a short time. We will be perceived like all other tourists, here for a few days, not likely understanding their complex social traditions, let alone the meaning of the fazzoletto. Italian locals can read people like a book, and research has shown that it takes less than 0.85 seconds for the average Italian on the street to pick out your nationality (not really, but you get the point).

We discussed the issue of racial profiling in a class one day, as our students were starting to realize that they could not escape their “American-ness” no matter what they said or how they dressed. I opened discussion with the questions, “So, are the Italians actually racially profiling the tourists, given that they automatically make assumptions about who we are by how we appear? How is this any different than the American issue of police officers racially profiling people in their cars?” A spirited discussion followed, as I had intended. The students are learning how to feel like the “Other” in a society where they are not part of the dominant culture. They concluded, quite logically I believe, that this type of racial profiling is not the same, nor is it as problematic as in the U.S. The primary difference, they concurred, is that the locals here are not profiling with any malicious intent. They are not targeting minority racial groups with the intent of giving them more traffic tickets or suspecting them automatically of misbehavior. The Sienese in front of their stores and homes are merely people-watching, one of the great social traditions found in any public space. That said, they still profile, and there is really no way to wear the fazzoletto, I fear, without a small mark of disgrace. Or, am I simply misjudging these fine people? Perhaps they are as easy going as their general lifestyle suggests, and are at worst ambivalent, not caring if a blonde guy or his wife from America is wearing their colors. Still, if I had a choice, there would be an additional statement on my back stating “Segretaria Approved” in Italian, or something with a local map and arrow that says “Abitiamo qui” – We live here.

To Linda’s credit, she enjoys her fazzoletto, and I will likely ask to borrow it in upcoming days. I am glad we made the purchase. I silently reflect that it’s good she’s wearing it and having fun, rather than keeping it locked under glass to protect it from reality. We might as well wrinkle it up, get some sweat on it, and display its use over the short period we are here. This philosophy is similar to a geographer taking pride on how beat up and faded a reference map becomes, almost as a badge of its constant use by the owner.

We wander along Via di Santa Caterina and end up conveniently at the contrada’s social hub, which is buzzing with all kinds of activities today. It is Palio weekend, and the place is swarming with young and old alike, all of whom seem to have some sort of purpose in mind. This is the Societa dell’Oca, a few modest doors up from the chapel. With our newfound fazzeletto decorating Linda’s neck, should we take a gander (pun intended) inside the social hub of the Goose? Linda is once again the instigator, for which I truly appreciate. While I tend to shy away from being intrusive, she is ready to chat it up with the locals. This has been true since before we were married, when she played the role of “front man,” warming up local business people before I hit them with interview questions for my dissertation. Things haven’t changed much, except that my confidence level has improved greatly over the years.  Linda is in the door and dodging busy Ocaioli before I can think more about it, so I simply enter behind her and take the plunge. Let’s take this fazzoletto for a test drive. I happily find a familiar face in Georgio, who hasn’t gone far. I introduce Linda, and we suddenly have a new acquaintance in the Goose. He is friendly, and this does a lot for our confidence, I think, in communicating with the locals. A kind, patient soul is a great confidence builder, not unlike Virginia and her husband across town.

It is true that first impressions mean everything, and Georgio unwittingly becomes the gateway into their social net. He is representing his contrada well, from my perspective. Then things get a little dicey for me, at least, as I’m not quite sure what to do next as a bumbling outsider who wandered in with a fazzeletto-draped wife. At least I had talked with Georgio beforehand, so we are not total strangers. He takes us through the hallowed entry halls, basically a series of wide rooms lined with contrada trophies for soccer and other honors. A few kids are playing that very game inside the halls, to which we laugh and accept this behavior because it’s cute and because their fellow adults don’t seem to care. This is a true community center, with all ages mixing socially and accepting one another, most donning their white and green quite proudly. Heading toward the back of the building, the second great room empties into an interior courtyard well groomed with grass and shrubs, with plenty of space to hang around and socialize – clearly the chosen activity at this hour. Others are preparing for Palio-related events and dinners, buzzing around with food, materials, and other implements that will come together later that evening down at the Fountain.

Georgio introduces us to an older, distinguished looking gentleman named Fabio, who I imagine is someone of significance to the contrada, though we are not there long enough to engage in such a complicated conversation. I use my best Italian to repeat who we are and why we are there. You know the story. It works. We are having an actual conversation with two busy contradioli at the heart of their social network, actually paying attention to us and expressing interest. This is impressive. We discuss the fazzoletto a bit, trying to explain how we acquired one. They don’t seem to mind. Fabio asks us what we want to drink. Oh, crud. Not my best question to answer quickly. Fanta, perhaps? He rattles off a variety of common Italian drinks, including grappa, prosecco, and others I don’t quite recognize. Trying not to act like an American schmuck, I briefly look at Linda and answer quickly: We will have prosecco. This seems to be the tamest alcoholic drink we have encountered, and even I can drink some of it without needing to use the restroom immediately afterwards to wash out my mouth. We wander for a few minutes, and somehow the planets align. Georgio and Fabio return with our orders and suddenly the four of us are standing together with small glasses of prosecco. I probably insult Fabio when I ask if it costs anything, like a bar tab, though I suspect I know the answer. It is free, and he seems surprised I would think otherwise. Ok, just a courtesy to make sure I wasn’t assuming something. To their credit, the two of them chat a bit and stand with us. Before taking some serious drinks (or sips in my case), I take the plunge and propose a simple toast to the Goose: “A l’Oca!” They agree, probably a bit amused, and we all take a drink. They really don’t think that Guess or Tittia, the jockey, stands a chance, but they appreciate the gesture.

At this point I fear that the moment will rapidly descend into awkwardness, which I know can happen depressingly fast. Within seconds I sense that they don’t really know what else to say, or at best they are simply enjoying standing around with us. I’m not really sure, but don’t want to push my luck. I make reference to the adjoining hall through which we entered and ask if we are allowed to walk around and look: “Possiamo andare li?” They nod and say “certo!” in approval, and we start moving off with the intent to look around as if in a museum. In a way, it is just that. This is a living museum, where the energy of today’s community is literally on display, surrounded by past heritage and symbolism representing their recent and distant pasts. This is the extended family of the contrada, and here is one brief window into their family. All age groups are represented, and they all seem to feel a belonging and sense of being a part of something larger than themselves.

After our toast, we extend our gracious thanks, and they go their own separate ways, back to the tasks of the contrada, to their local world. I am thankful for having behaved gracefully, both into and out of our brief conversation, and I am feeling more comfortable in their space. Nobody is really paying attention to us, which is a good sign. With the social component successfully concluded, I breathe out and relax a bit as we wander the hall and enjoy the giant, wall-sized photos of recent and past Palio wins. The photos all consist generally of posed, group shots, all men, sometime during the year after specific Palios. After soaking up a brief sense of place and community here, we silently say goodbye and slip out quietly into the realm of Via di Santa Caterina. This will be a treat that will be cherished for numerous Oca victories into the future – which may take quite a long time if the odds are not “ever in their favor”. There are 17 contrade who are always desperate to win just as badly. The Oca, with an apparently mediocre but beloved horse named Guess, will face nine of them in a matter of days. Once more, they are going back into the Arena.

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Chapter 4. Social Mixing

Now several weeks into our intense schedule of classes, our students have read and hopefully absorbed a variety of information pertaining to the contrada system and Palio. We have enjoyed spirited conversations both in and out of class, often focused on Robert Rodi’s book and the challenges of being an outsider in a new community. While walking to school on an otherwise normal day, I notice a ceramic shop, one of countless, along my usual route. Like all of such places, this one includes displays of the artist’s work on the outside wall, with the primary aim of attracting people like me to enter on impulse. Also in character for Siena is the modest, single-door entry with little indication of a business name. What makes me wander into this place today, I do not know. I start to browse the intricate designs of plates and many other ceramic knick-knacks, which predictably attracts the attention of a grandmotherly-looking, with a genuine smile and very gray hair. Someone else with equally gray, curly hair, presumably her husband, is slumped over an actual plate that he is painting in a separate room behind the counter. Looks like a friendly couple, I surmise, which ends up to be an accurate assessment. I provide my standard greeting in Italian and say a few extra words to indicate that I’m not an ordinary, weekend visitor. With this greeting I apparently earn a detailed tour of their shop, essentially divided into three sections: contrada plates and accessories, Renaissance-era designs from Siena (not Florence, she corrects me quickly), and replicas of the now-popular floor art found in the Duomo (cathedral). After a small while I gravitate to the contrada plates, still fascinated with their traditionally distinctive colors, symbols, and designs. I pay special interest to a dinner-sized Goose plate, perched on a top shelf.

The fun is just beginning – along with the awkwardness of my limited Italian speaking abilities. Somehow she asks me why I’m interested in the Goose plate, though I really can’t quite tell what she is saying. I do ok with the Italian that I know, but when it comes to understanding someone else, it’s a never-ending bout with frustration. I can ask questions pretty well, but the fun stops when I actually have to comprehend the answers. Then, no doubt, my unsuspecting conversant presumes I understand Italian fluently, so they unleash themselves and talk as if I’m a family member. Then invariably comes the blank stare, my empty look, and one of my regretful expressions I’ve practiced often that says “I’m sorry,” or “I don’t understand” because “I only speak a little Italian and I’m really just another American schmuck”. This does slow them down – often but not always, and they happily help me to understand. It turns out that this woman is particularly patient with me from the beginning, and she seems impressed that I at least know a little Italian. So I open up the conversation with something I can say: “I am a professor in Siena for 8 weeks, teaching American students, and we live on Via Fontebranda”. I’ve nearly mastered these connected phrases, which provide a lot of information in a very efficient manner. I don’t know what she finds most intriguing, though the professor thing seems to make a difference. Not everyone here is that fond with the University of Siena or its students, having taken over much of the city’s official population. But she really lights up with “Fontebranda,” leading to a flurry of arm waving, excitedly trying to tell me that they are of the Goose contrada themselves! No way! Way. As we fumble through some simple Italian, I convey to her that I am indeed aware that we live in the Goose, and that we are enjoying the Fontebranda neighborhood very much. We apparently now have new friends from our neighborhood.

I become equally enthusiastic at this news, and I try to ask her if they are natives, born into the contrada (so-called contradaioli). The Robert Rodi fan in me admittedly wants to know if they have their own fazzoletto (contrada scarf) from when they were baptized into the contrada. Not quite. I gather that her family is from Sicily (Sicilia) and that they moved here quite some time ago. Then the conversation starts going south, so to speak. I have reached and clearly moved beyond the limits of my language skills, fumbling for words and grasping for time to think. And we’re not talking about academic issues here, more like “Do you prefer milk or tea?”.  I finally admit that I don’t understand everything she’s saying, but to her credit she remains patient and is seemingly willing to put up with me. As I decide to leave this poor couple alone for awhile, other customers are starting to browse, and I somehow convey that I will return with my wife, who will enjoy looking at the pottery and plates. We exchange names – she is Virginia (this throws me, a bit), and her husband Alessandro. I joke that my name is Tomasso in Italian, having learned recently that most people here have some issues with comprehending the simple “Tom”. She starts calling me “Il professore” and we exchange pleasant goodbyes.

Recovering outside, I have just made my first social contact with Oca (Goose) loyalists, and certainly not where I expected. Throughout our stay this “mixing” of contrada residents with businesses around town, landlords and renters, and so forth make it clear that the social dynamics of the contrade are anything but simple. Yes, there are physical street boundaries that delineate the edges of contrade, marked discretely with small colored tiles inserted high up on the buildings. But like all cities the social geography is more complex. People living in one contrada commonly work in another, and landlords from one contrada own property in another. My colleague’s apartment, entrenched as it is in the Unicorn (Leocorno) is actually – he has related amusingly several times – decorated extensively in Blue and White, the colors of the Wave (Onda). Likewise was the unexpected experience with a favored restaurant of ours, known as a trattoria (family dining). Called the Trattoria di L’aquila (Restaurant of the Eagle), its location is along a nondescript residential street leading from the Piazza, where few day-trippers seemed to venture for some reason. The establishment is so named for its location within the Eagle (Aquila) contrada. After several visits and conversations with the partially English-speaking staff, however, we found that the owner was actually loyal to the Tower contrada, not far away (actually, there isn’t much that is far away from anywhere in this compact city).

One night as we ate a leisurely meal with Miguel, the level of activity continually notched up in an adjacent room, eventually erupting in male voices singing in unison. “Those must be the officials from the Eagle,” we agreed, chuckling with appreciation. On our way out we mustered the courage to peak around the corner to find some 20 middle-aged men singing and laughing it up among their peers. More bizarre was what they were occasionally paying attention to on the TV perched at the end of the room – a billiards match. Our assumptions about the contrada proved to be inaccurate, however, as one staff member explained that the group was from the Tower contrada, due to the owner’s own loyalties. Making it more complex are the employees, who can hail from any number of places, contrada or not. The staff member we spoke with at L’Aquila actually lived in the Goose, only for some six years now. He did not speak of any Goose loyalties aside from the coincidence of his residence being nearby the neighborhood of Santa Caterina. But here he was working for a Tower contradaiolo in the domain of the Eagle. So, there is much mixing across the borders, not unlike a larger scale for entire countries. This type of thing must drive contrada loyalists nuts, but overall everyone seems to accept reality without much ado. They’re not tearing out each other’s flags or discriminating against enemy contrada residents in the restaurants. All seem to be friends on the surface and accept the fact that there are seventeen contrade, and that somehow they have to get along. They may not be best friends, especially around Palio time, but their work and lives together in this dense, medieval city is impressively civil. They are all Sienese, though they will most certainly identify with their contrada first.

From that initial conversation, Linda and I return several times, confirming our interest level by parting with our euros in return for their colorful products. During our first trip to purchase something, Linda quickly makes her acquaintance with Virginia, both of them mutual arm waivers and social by nature. Linda receives the requisite tour of their shop. Based on my earlier prodding, Linda had already agreed that we would purchase a large dinner plate decorated for the Goose. While certainly not the eye-catching design of contrade such as the Shell, Panther, or Dragon, for instance, this graceful bird represented our home away from home, and it would thereby serve as a fitting memory back in Flagstaff. Virginia quickly notes our interest in the plate, and quickly conveys that it was the last one in their shop. “No more Goose!” she finally establishes, in part through her broken English. The message was clear: Palio time is coming. Get it now. We don’t know when we will make another one. Looking around, it was clear that she was accurate – aside from some smaller Goose items, this was the last large plate.

As the tallest in the room, I move toward the plate on the top shelf and reach for it. This triggers a quick burst on her part to push me aside and grab it herself. Though possibly to save me the effort in a polite way, she is more likely signaling that she wasn’t quite willing to trust me with her sole remaining masterpiece that represented home. In any case, it is rather cute when her short body and arms struggle to reach the plate, held on the shelf with a plastic display holder. As she reaches to grab it, the plastic holder slides out from under and nearly falls to the floor. I immediately envision the last Goose plate turning quickly into a thousand little Goose plates, the price of each greatly reduced if a bit less meaningful. As the plate wavers, I cautiously grab the side of the plate to provide stability, while still allowing her to handle the task. Crisis resolved, she wraps it up and gives us a burlap bag to carry it. It’s a pricey plate, but a meaningful souvenir. At this point in our short stay, I have not felt much loyalty at all to any one contrada, at least not to the point of decorating our home with the stuff. The Goose is likely as close as we would get, however, to displaying a favored interest in one contrada over the others.

Soon thereafter, I decide to start winding through the Goose streets to find the previously elusive Via Santa Caterina which Virginia bubbles on about. This is apparently the place to be for all things Goose. Coincidentally, I choose a quiet afternoon after shopping for some groceries at Conad, the route for which can easily dump me into the narrow depths of the Oca neighborhood. I haven’t bothered to investigate this area much, but I’m on a mission now. I unleash my imaginary antenna and start paying close attention to the narrow streets and their intersections. Somehow residents manage to live and commute on these streets, despite the fact that no street exhibits less than a 10-percent slope, with four-way intersections occurring on hills in all directions. Tough place, topographically speaking. It does not take me long to find the social center of Goose life. Even without neon signage and promotional banners as we might find in America, this neighborhood is the precise opposite of flashy.

After stumbling down part of the famed Via Santa Caterina, I start looking for signs of contrada offices and the like. At one corner a subtle storefront with some plate glass comes into view, labeled in green letters for the Segretaria dell’Oca. In one corner of the narrow storefront are some memorabilia items on display, apparently not for sale but for pride of the contrada. I fail to catch the times the office is open, but all appears to be quiet here on this afternoon during Pausa Pranza, the standard 3-hour Italian “pause for lunch” between 1 and 4pm. Happy to have found this office so easily, I continue my walk and quickly come across a small church façade, built with no great pretentions into the wall of medieval and Renaissance-era buildings. Really the only way to conclude that this is a church at all is the tell-tale signs of projecting Renaissance pediments above the modest entry and windows, a small bell tower, and two models of white Geese placed to each side of the entry. I have discovered the official Goose contrada chapel. I confirm this by reading the surrounding landscape a bit more, spying a simple wooden barricade projecting from the building across the street. With the official contrada stable nearly across the street, the animal need not tire itself making its way to the chapel for the traditional Palio blessing. Bingo, target acquired. I head home with the happy news that I have completed my quest.

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Chapter 5. Test Pilots

I arrive at Piazza del Campo at 8:30am, the sun peaking above the Palazzo Pubblico, casting long shadows. June 29 has arrived, after a week of transforming Siena’s premier public space into a veritable arena complete with race track and bleachers. The so-called Days of the Palio have begun. Actually, there are probably 365 such days; in some ways the Palio cycle never ends. Still, there are four consecutive days when this cycle reaches its height, and this is the first. When I scoped out this place a few days ago, I found the outer rim of the Piazza magically developed overnight into a dirt track, on top of which the unending chairs and tables of cafes and restaurants came marching back. From that day forth, these establishments have competed for space and turf around the Piazza, a humorous juxtaposition between temporary wooden bleachers fanning out into the eating areas. The preparation for the Palio apparently holds little impact on the daily ritual of setting up chairs, tables, and umbrellas. I wondered if they would sink unevenly into the turf, creating a landscape of drunken cafes. There was no chance of this happening, however, given the success of 21st-century steamrollers. This earthen material might as well have been pavement, for how packed it is.

Aside from hopeless romantics eating outdoors, the turf will get its first true workout. Today is the tratta, the first of six trials for the horses and jockeys. As it turns out, the trials are just as useful for the spectators, like me, who remain quite clueless about what will actually transpire here. I will witness this with fresh eyes. On this first morning of the “Days,” approximately 30 horses are tested on the track, under nearly precise Palio conditions – save for the speed. Groups of 6-7 horses will be tested at a time, each group allowed three complete laps to mimic the final race three days later. Some horses are veterans, even winners of past races. Others are novices, having never seen the Piazza before. Apparently one of the newer “safety features” is a mock Piazza track outside of town, designed to simulate this one. Horses have likely been tested on this virtual simulator, to help accustom the horses to what they can expect.

Still, they will not race each other during this and the five successive trials, though some loyalists do pay attention to who is first to cross the finish. “Who won?” asked a Siena School staffer the next day, to which I returned a surprise stare and shrugged, “Don’t know,” wondering why it would matter which horse finished its laps first. I suppose this practice is not unlike an NFL pre-season or college game where they play fellow teammates for practice. People and media still keep track of the “winners,” even when it’s meaningless. There always has to be a winner, it seems. In this case, it doesn’t cross my mind. The purpose today is not to show up your enemy contrada with your prized steed, but to “test drive” the animals with a variety of commands allowing them to experience the track conditions. It’s also a critical opportunity for jockeys to run the track as well. Like a test flight, jockeys will sometimes open the throttle to test a horse for speed and confidence, but often they are working with the horse on any number of other variables in flight – slow or otherwise.

I make my way into one of the shady corners of the Piazza, which happens to be the turn at the Casato. I screen my surroundings with the eyes of a newcomer, the early crowd mingling socially, not yet very dense. I can walk right up to the inside corner of the track, with the exception of a fenced box that occupies what seems to be an 8×8 foot space. Some people are inside the box, leaning up against the track fence. It seems like a sacred space of some kind, however, so I stay clear. Instead I find an easy perch on the track fence just outside the box, with an uncanny view of the entire straightaway in front of the Palazzo. With no better idea, this is where I decide to camp. Everything will be new to me this morning, with absolutely no expectations or understanding of what will transpire, or where. The crowd in the Piazza thickens somewhat as 9am approaches, and the shade gradually turns to sun as it peaks through the Palazzo’s crenellations. A photo opportunity, it seems. I capture the sun glowing through the City flag upon the roof.

Beyond my camera and iPhone, I came prepared for the outdoors as I would in Arizona, with sunscreen already applied on face and neck, and long-sleeve shirt and pants for even more sun protection. It’s still a bit chilly in the shade, so no need to shiver with short sleaves. Most important, a bottle of water is sunk into my cavernous pants pocket. This is a reason why guys love kackis like these. My virtual man-purse. My pockets are loaded down with survival gear, allowing my hands the freedom to fumble with two camera options. I come further armed with a bag of Sienese cookies, allowing me to last for hours here if necessary.

It is scary close to 9am when the tratta is scheduled to start, and yet hoards of people are still milling around on the track, especially further down near San Martino. What’s up with that? Cutting it a bit close, I surmise. Do the locals somehow magically know when to leave the track? How do they… KaBOOM! What sounds like a cannon blast cuts across the Piazza with its shock wave. Instinctively I drop my head and look in the direction of the explosion. Others around me are doing the same. We’re all alive and in one piece, we assess, looking around to express our mutual surprise. I do recall now that a faint drum roll preceded the “cannon,” as I will now call it. This must be the official “call to arms” signaling the beginning of the tratta. No, it must be more akin to dimming the lights on and off in advance of a theatre production to signal the crowd to sit down. Not that there’s anywhere to sit here. In the tradition of Pavlov’s dog, I detect a second drum roll and cross my ears. BOOM. This happens two or three times on this first morning. The seemingly random explosion is emanating from a tall poll near the mossa (starting line), with an unassuming black box perched atop. Some sound system. They have spared nothing with this one. The intensity of the crowd rises, and a movement is detected along the track in front of us. Must be show time.

A single line of blue-costumed Polizia – otherwise normal men and women smiling and saying “Hi” to friends – slowly processes toward us from the Palazzo entrance. Formed like a police line pushing back a rioting crowd, they walk slowly forward and literally sweep the track of humans lingering ahead of them. Bystanders are forced ever so slowly and calmly into their bleacher seats on the opposite side of the track, or more cheaply into the center of the Piazza where I am placed. I recall that the Palio race itself lasts only 90 seconds or so, given that horses are running at breakneck speeds. Try that with a lumbering lineup of police like this one, however, and the same romp around the track takes seemingly forever. But this is all enthralling, with no complaints from this viewer. I find myself trying to make sense of the whole thing as it unfolds in front of and around me. Gradually an empty dirt path opens up behind the police, with no violations behind them that I can see.

More amusing is a small army of men and women with city-issued work clothes making its way not far behind the police line. With authentic straw brooms, they perform their own dance as they sweep not humans, but the trash produced by humans. Their synchronous motions magically collect the trash into the center of the track. Not to be outdone, a separate trash collection detail moves methodically among the sweepers and shovels it into a mobile trash cart. As they pass our crowd we stare them down, and schmucks like me take dozens of photos. But nobody claps or cheers, which I find curious. In America I have seen high-spirited crowds or audiences clap and cheer, somewhat sarcastically but all in good fun, for various stage hands or other staff who are not really part of the show. I suppress my urge to do the same, as I would be the only one doing so, and would likely get stared down myself.

The officers have their work cut out for them at San Martino, on the opposite side of the Piazza. Hoards of people are hanging out, doing who knows what. There’s a race to run. Get out of the way, I silently command. But I am the novice here, and I simply watch the process with a sense of amazement. Without much fanfare or disorder, the crowd slowly parts and disburses. At this point I realize two things. First, I am now stuck in the middle of the Piazza, as the authorities have subtly but definitively closed off all access from outside streets. Police officers have been stationed strategically to prevent spectators from crossing the track, which now behaves like a moat to keep us penned inside. They are preventing people from entering the Piazza as well, with the main entrance opposite us blocked with an eight-foot wall and an equally solid line of police officers. Nobody is leaving or entering at this point, and it’s a bit unnerving.

On a normal day Linda and I will sometimes sit in the Piazza to watch people until the urge for a gelato or a stroll gets the better of us. Not now. I’m inside, and that’s that. I am confident with my survival gear, however. Consequently, beyond a mild sense of alarm, all is well. I will tough it out, which is trivial compared to the determined crowds of the coming grand finale. The track is finally empty of humans and their trash, but everyone penned inside the Piazza is giddy with anticipation. In America this would be called stalling, or boredom. Not here. There is something intoxicating and magical about seeing the empty track, and awaiting what comes next. The adrenalin rush from the first cannon alone is something I will not soon forget.

Apparently the riot gear, helmets, and batons are unnecessary this morning to clear the track. But now a distinct set of well-groomed humans is emerging onto the track, once again from the Palazzo’s front entrance. This is home base, I conclude. Everything seems to emerge from there. It is quickly obvious that these humans are special, wearing suits, ties, and dress shoes much too expensive for the dirt track. They are walking in small groups of 3-7 people, with the occasional man wearing a fazzoletto (contrada scarf) over his sports coat. Are they going to walk around the track as well? Break out the cookies, we’re in for the long haul. I lose sight of them up near the main palazzo entrance over which a two-story balcony has been temporarily installed. These city and contrada officials exit the track here and take turns shuffling up a very tightly wound spiral staircase to access the observation platforms above. They will watch the show from here. Eventually they are all standing shoulder to shoulder, the power and leaders of this spectacle all assembled now. I fully expect to see President Snow from the fictitious Capitol in the Hunger Games placed center stage. Instead it is difficult to determine their ranks or offices. I only know that somehow their influence here has awarded them one of the best seats in the house.

By this time I have made acquaintances with some folks, including two middle-aged couples traveling together from Minnesota. They are here for the weekend and “hit it lucky” to actually see some kind of festival in Siena, of which they know next to nothing. They don’t know what’s about to hit them, I think, as they unwittingly got stuck in the Piazza for several hours as the city prepares for the race of all races. They have a pair of oversized cameras with zoom lenses, which are ready for whatever action may ensue. Both women are teachers, and I admire their interest in what is happening here. I turn on my professor role for a little while and volunteer some information about the Palio. They seem intrigued, so I end up giving them the PAL 101 version of the contrada system and the Palio itself. “Do you see those flags lined up on the wall of the Palazzo?” I ask. “There are seven on top and ten below, representing the 17 contrade, or neighborhoods of Siena. Only ten contrade are allowed to race for each Palio, so the ten lower flags represent those running on July 2. The seven above are those which are sitting this one out. Next July, however, the seven contrade not running this time are guaranteed to race next year, with three more competitors chosen by a lottery, or extraction”. This was a more dangerous affair in the past, and the reason for allowing only ten to race at one time was basically due to geography: the track width did not allow for more horses to cluster at full speed without nearly guaranteeing some catastrophe for horse or jockey.

The cannon booms. We are all thrown off our guard as everyone’s adrenalin goes sky high, including mine. Out of the Palazzo Pubblico emerges the first set of seven horses, with jockeys wearing identical outfits and caps. They are designed simply with alternating black and white stripes – the colors of Siena and its elegantly simple shield, or herald. The horses have not been assigned to contrade yet. They have not even been selected to race, which this tratta will decide. I soon liken the jockeys to test pilots, courageously taking on an unfamiliar horse and seeing how it responds to the track and conditions. Hopefully they can come in for a graceful landing without incident.

The crowd roars as the first set of horses emerges and trots past our location. As if on cue, they reach the mossa and start circling behind it. They line up one by one, and with little warning the first group bolts off the mossa. Within seconds they accelerate and descend toward the notorious Curve of San Martino. They seem too eager, running faster than my gut says is necessary. These guys are racing – at least that is the outward appearance. I tell “Minnesota” with a tone of surprise that they’re moving much faster than expected; jockeys try to take it easy during the trials so as to avoid injuries before the Big Race. If a horse gets injured, it can be withdrawn from the Palio race and its representative contrada with it, once it is assigned. No chance of all-night celebrations for them. And, there is no clause for the substitution of horses, should one get injured. However, jockeys can be substituted or traded through the morning of the Palio. “The horse is the most precious good of the contrada,” explains Helen Sadler on A horse can even win the Palio for its contrada without a jockey attached.

Today San Martino takes its first victims. We know something is up when a collective gasp of surprise rumbles across the Piazza. The mood is replaced shortly with a mix of laughter and disbelief. At the first curve of the first trial run, two of the “test pilots” eject onto the track, reminding me of the real dangers here. One is seemingly carried off in a stretcher after an initial flurry of treatment under the Palazzo loggia. His ultimate fate is unknown. The other recovers to ride later, the dark brown mark of track dirt providing evidence of his initial mistake. A collective gasp from the crowd starts to grow, as one white and one brown horse make it clear that they really did not care for having anything on their backs. In the Palio, jockeys ride bareback – no saddle, no stirrups. Just a reign for driving and a whip to unleash on rivals more than anything else. But ditching jockeys is a rare occurrence for the tratta, when horses have not yet even been selected.

Statistics don’t matter today, however, as two horses are running amuck, and they are not stopping on their own accord. The scene becomes humorous, almost jovial among those of us processing what is occurring in front of us. Cameras are racing through their own digital ammunition. The horses aren’t stopping, but one is following the other at break-neck speed around the track. Lap 7. Lap 8. Lap 9. They are proving their stamina if nothing else. The other jockeys have since cleared their horses from the track. Every 30 seconds or so, the determined steeds blow past our spot for lack of a better idea. After a few such passes, small crews of courageous men jump into the track, waving towels and then escaping quickly. After several attempts with distraction, their steam is running out, and they lumber more than race up the hill toward the Casato. One horse is grabbed by the reigns and pulled to the side. The other horse takes another lap and finally relents to the same fate. In this way the first set of the tratta concludes. I don’t know about the professionals judging the horses, but I think they found two of their top picks! No doubt this will be the feature topic for Palio gossip around Siena today. Five sets of the tratta remain, and they proceed without incident.

Still, I notice a strong hint of schadenfreude sinking into the crowd, or eminating from it. Pronounced SHA-den-froy-da), the German term refers to a feeling of enjoyment obtained from the suffering of others. Minnesota makes the overt comment that “I’d like to see more excitement like that” as the tratta continues. The two jockeys who flew off the horses provided raw entertainment, and this contingent was hoping for more, regardless of the earlier stretcher scene. I remain silent at the comment, but realize that this seems like typical human reaction to sporting events – auto races, as one case – where the event just isn’t as exciting without the impromptu fight or car crash. Of course, I was entertained as well, though with a concern that it may have resulted in some serious injuries. Continuing on my Hunger Games kick, I cannot help but compare this feeling of the need for more blood-curdling entertainment with the collective glee of Capitol citizens over the District kids fighting to the death in the Arena. Must be human nature, or something. Not our finest trait.

As the powers that be let us loose from the Piazza, I say my parting words with Minnesota, accepting their thanks for the Palio lesson. I leave with a total feeling of intrigue, a sense of amazement with what I just witnessed. Having never thought much about horses or racing with them, I am now hooked, looking forward to the actual trials. I find my way out of the Piazza and bolt back to the Goose contrada to tell Linda about the fun. I imagine she will want to join me for one of the next trials.

Our students end up witnessing the extraction of horses in the Piazza. Soon after the tratta, the captains of the ten contending contrade choose the final horses to compete. These finalists are then assigned by lottery to each contrada, to the ecstacy or agony of those paying attention to the stronger or weaker horses. A simple drawing determines which horse goes to which contrada. One student relates later that, “the Ram got really excited, and we think the She-Wolf as well”. Indeed, the Ram “extracts” perhaps the best horse, as later Palio gossip will have it. No word on the luck of the Goose at this point. With horses matched to the ten contrade just after noontime, the crowds finally disperse and the horses are led back to their respective stables, pampered like royalty. The pace of this process is nothing short of impressive. Only this morning were the final ten horses chosen quickly from a rather sizeable pool. By 1:00 they were assigned to the contrade, and this evening they will be led back to the Piazza with much fanfare for their first real trial, or prova. How do they pull this off so quickly? Tonight we move one step closer to full Palio conditions. The current jockeys will don their contrada colors for the first time and lead their precious animals into the Arena.

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Chapter 1. Bread and Circuses

(Author’s Note: This and future posts consist of stories of our first Education Abroad adventure in Siena, Italy during summer, 2013. This compilation, with 14 chapters, can be interpreted as an online book, albeit somewhat rough around the edges. 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.)

Making one’s way to the Gothic city of Siena requires a good deal of persistence. Since its founding during Roman times, this hill-top community has always been a geographical backwater, lacking any major road or river access. Some two millennia later, the situation has not improved much, if our first few days in the otherwise bucolic Tuscany were any indication. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere – and by “make it” I mean that literally, not as a figure of speech from Sinatra that implies economic success. The city does not enjoy a main-line rail connection, either, but finds itself along a minor branch line still dependent on older (but cool) diesel-powered trains. So, one can drive, or take the train or bus, with nearly hourly service on either type of public transit — once you unlock their operations. Actually, Siena and much of Italy are the envy of America. Amtrak and Greyhound can’t touch European mass transit. Still, one must understand how these transit systems function, and from personal experience, little about them is intuitive. Our students learned this lesson quite early, fortunately deciding to remain in Siena and not simply retreating back to the less stressful USA. They would need to survive without automobiles for eight weeks, and most were not off to the best of starts.

One way to navigate to Siena is via Florence, Siena’s long-time rival and eventual conquerer, located just over an hour’s drive to the north. The proudest Sienese still occasionally hiss at their northern nemesis through various media or on the streets, often finding opportunities to remind the Florentines of the last Siena victory in 1260 in the Battle of Montaperti. Calls of “Remember Montaperti” still ring out when the AC Siena plays Florence. In contrast to the violent Middle Ages, the Florence airport is welcoming and of a reasonable size. One is not likely to be trapped here for eternity like Tom Hanks (remember “Terminal”?), trying to make one’s way to baggage claim or out the door.

As the first to arrive for our eight-week adventure, Linda and I survive Customs and Baggage and bolt out the one-way security doors into the airport’s main foyer, immediately looking for signs indicating shuttle buses. According to our instructions, the shuttle is supposedly easy to find. Right. I review my carefully prepared notes from the Siena School staff. Ok, sounds reasonable enough. Except for the clear fact that the Italians purposely hide such services in unsuspecting places and provide quizzical signage that sends you around in circles (not really, but it can seem like it as an outsider). Three attempts with my beginner Italian are required to determine exactly where airport management has placed the shuttle boarding area. It turns out that we must exit the far end of the airport, skirt through various hedge rows, and J-walk across airport access roads to find the elusive shuttles. Perhaps this was an afterthought following the original planning for the airport? In any case, we’ve only walked about a hundred yards and I am already wondering how our unsuspecting students are going to find the boarding area on their own, later today and tomorrow.

As advertised, our shuttle coach delivers us to the train station in Florence, apparently not continuing onward to the mythical bus terminal. Ok, we’re familiar with the train station from previous trips to this birthplace of the Renaissance, so we presume the bus terminal can’t be far away. Logically, it may even be attached to this transportation hub itself. The first mistake here is to rely on logic – at least my logic. Some 20 minutes of sniffing around the station area yields nothing. No buses, no signs. We finally grab our bags and start asking employees staged at the entrances, directing taxis or in charge of related fun tasks. Each time the apparent answer is the same, given my less than adequate listening skills in Italian. The respondent grumbles something and points. I do this some five times, bouncing from one guide to the next, Linda dragging the additional bags behind. Encouragingly, they keep pointing in the same direction, so we move another 50 feet and find someone else each time the trail disappears. At the far end of the station area we run out of guides and must turn to regular civilians. Time to play the tourist role. Sometimes we have to do this. Half the population of Florence must wander past us at some point, and we randomly ask unlucky passersby. They end up pointing in different directions, however, when I begin to think a conspiracy is afoot. Area 51 is easier to track down. Wonderful. There is no sign of any bus station anywhere around us, let alone any bold, blinking signage or distinct architectural façade that screams “bus terminal”. Then it dawns on me to “do as the Romans do,” so to speak. Start watching their elusive behaviors.

We start spying the buses themselves, getting wiser and more desperate. Where are they going? It’s like following hornets back to their hive before determining their fate. Then I see it – a motor coach in better shape than most city buses, turning off a major street and, what? Disappearing into an existing 5-story commercial building! Ah ha! Gotcha. I am puzzled and encouraged at the same time. We hike it down the street and find a subtle garage-door entrance in the façade of a much larger structure, blending easily into the urban streetscape. The bus had entered this unadvertised hole and disappeared. We peak through the entrance and discover our goal – a fully functioning and rather massive bus terminal, completely hidden from public view. Buses enter through one building wall and exit across the block through another. These crafty Italians! Again, how are students ever going to find this place? We discover within the next 24-48 hours that they simply don’t.

Adding to the fun of getting dumped in a foreign country is my now-useless iPhone. Regardless of promises made by confident Verizon staff back home, the phone does not recognize the Italian cell system, nor would it do so for the entire eight weeks. Nobody else’s phones would work, either, so welcome back to the 1990s. Only Linda’s Droid phone works, which doesn’t really help arriving students or faculty much at all. Nobody has Linda’s phone number – not that they could call it, anyway. Fortunately the 131 Bus is where it’s supposed to be, and we skulk around to find the ticket counter. A little more than an hour later, our bus arrives at Siena’s Piazza Gramsci. Somehow we locate our friendly staff member of the Siena School, who takes charge and leads us through the maze of medieval streets and squares. With final access to our new home, however, my stress level does not subside. Our students are expected in at different times, coming from different places, hopefully on the same regional buses that just deposited us. I had provided pages of detailed instructions on how to make this journey. No luck. I make multiple hikes to Siena’s bus terminal at Gramsci, awaiting the hourly #131 from Florence. I wait several hours total, but no students arrive – ever. I eventually give up, with no idea what my colleague is up to, either. Miguel was supposed to arrive from Rome, but I presume his phone isn’t working.

Ultimately the students are forced to discover their own persistence and inner courage. With not just one of them in tears, they discover the train system and avoid the buses altogether. With some consternation I am still relieved after the last student accesses her apartment sometime after midnight a full day later. Linda and I come to a quick conclusion about repeating this adventure in the future, with two simple words: group flight. Though not our ideal start to this 8-week experience, the students pass their first test, just getting here. If they can make it here they can make it anywhere. Later they would look back and laugh at themselves, wondering why they made such a fuss over the complexity of travel in Italy. Within three weeks they would master the bus and train system, ultimately venturing out on their own. At this point, however, I just hoped they wouldn’t throw up their hands, say “arrivederci,” and shuffle right back to the United States in despair.

Our home for eight weeks is the small medieval city of Siena with around 50,000 people – similar to Flagstaff but much more compact and walkable. Siena grew and prospered during the Medieval period, or Middle Ages, roughly 900 – 1350, with much of the urban pattern and architecture still surviving. They are still quite proud of their variously successful republican-style governments during that period, symbolized most prominently by the impressively massive Gothic city hall, Palazzo Pubblico. In a way, the city’s backwater location has helped resist urban development and save the historic city through what preservation enthusiasts call benign neglect. The local Sienese still regret the final fall of their medieval Republic, which came crashing down when the city-state fell to the Medici overlords from Florence in 1555. Since then the city has been governed by outsiders until its assimilation into a more or less unified Italian Kingdom during the 1860s. Through centuries of various governments and external influences, its prized annual horse race has continued uninterrupted, the Palio. Just as this vicious 90-second race flows through the blood of the Siena faithful, it likewise provides the central theme for my own Siena story herein.

The main central square, known as Piazza del Campo, is laid out in the shape of a shell, and is considered one of the more beautifully proportioned public spaces in Europe. In turn, it occupies the site of the original Roman forum that once stood here. Even today Siena is known as the “Gothic City” for its faithful adoption of Gothic architecture at the end of the Middle Ages, identified most prominently by the pointed-arch windows and entryways. The area inside the medieval walls is essentially their “downtown” and provides the best opportunity to study and enjoy walkable spaces. Outside the wall, however, is a different story, and geography. This is the Italian version of suburbs, with clusters of modernist apartment flats for Italy’s own baby boom and successive generations after World War II. Siena is, geographically, a tale of two cities. More than half the population lives outside the walls today, though still within easy transit reach of the central city.

There is one curious statistic about Siena, which provided an ongoing educational theme for our group. Siena is the safest city in Tuscany, and certainly one of the safest in Europe. There are no homicides to speak of during the past 20 years (and fist fights between hundreds of men during the annual Palio don’t count). The city boasts an exceptionally low crime rate overall. Teenage delinquency is amazingly low. There are no gangs as we think of them, and graffiti within the city is rare. This begs the question: What is going on here? What have the Sienese figured out that many other communities have not? How do they keep their teenagers from succumbing to slothful boredom? Among many other topics of study, we spent eight weeks trying to find conclusive answers to these perplexing questions.

The city is known most famously for its rather unique and ferocious horse race. This is what attracts many thousands of people to Siena during the so-called “Days of the Palio,” twice each year around July 2 and August 16. It is safe to say that the Palio is at the center of Siena’s identity and sense of place, which runs incredibly deep. The excitement of the Palio race forms the most visible tip of a very complex social system, in which we inadvertently found ourselves immersed throughout our stay. To understand the Palio race itself, it is important to learn about how Siena is divided geographically into 17 neighborhoods, known as contradas (contrade in plural Italian). Each contrada consists of a very tight-knit, local community, and all of them seem to live and die around the annual cycle of the Palio.

I eventually make a humorous, if not disturbing comparison to the Palio, found in Suzanne Collins’ apocalyptic Hunger Games series. This trilogy has been forefront on my mind lately, starting to prepare for a full college conference on the topic that I would lead next fall. “Let’s see if I understand this correctly,” I contemplate during our first week: all seventeen neighborhoods (districts) show up at the town square for the bi-annual extraction (reaping) to determine by lottery which neighborhoods will enter the Palio (Games) that summer. Each neighborhood chooses a hired jockey (tribute) who must stay alive on his horse until the finish line, risking injury to limbs and worse. The winning “district” gains a year’s worth of fame and bragging rights. Occasional “victory tours” transpire after the win, by parading the Palio banner, the drappellone, through the streets of other contrade.

The winning jockey, or tribute, is guaranteed a hefty pay off as well. Losing jockeys go home disappointed at best, beaten up and in the hospital at worst. In fact, the jockey himself doesn’t matter much, as he doesn’t always finish the race atop his steed. If the horse wins, that’s all that matters. Welcome to the Arena – in reality the city’s main stage set, the Piazza del Campo where the race is run. Just when you thought the comparative fun was over, you soon learn that the Medici rulers from Florence had a specially designed fort constructed inside the city after the 1550s – not to defend the city from future invaders, mind you, but instead to repel any uprisings from the citizens themselves. How Capitol of them. If nothing else, the elevated fort walls now make for a peaceful public park and half-decent jogging track with a view of “District 12” below.

Romans; Palio; Hunger Games. Aside from my rather tongue-and-cheek comparison, there is some historical truth that ties these three entities together. All three are focused on the notion of providing “bread and circuses”. It is no coincidence that Suzanne Collins named her mythical, messed-up country Panem. Like Panem et Circenses (Latin for Bread and Circuses, essentially food and games), Siena’s rulers encouraged the locals to entertain themselves with food and games after the fall of the Republic, just as the Roman empire had done with its own arenas, gladiators, and related distractions from political reality. Keep the population satisfied with cheap food and entertainment, the theory goes, and they are less likely to demand strong participation in civil society and related uprisings. Of course, it is the Roman version of Bread and Circuses that inspired Suzanne Collins and the now-famous Katniss and her dystopian world.

For Siena, according to one researcher (Dreshcler 2006), this was the rationale of the Florentine Medici overlords when they conquered the city but still encouraged the continuation of the local Palio. There was less chance they would completely rebel and fight off the “Capitol” if they stayed focused on their own entertainment and competition between the contrade themselves. In turn, there would be less chance they would unite and rise up en masse, demanding a return to their nostalgic republican, city-state ways. Instead, the Palio encouraged division and competition between the contrade and kept them on the same equal playing field. From the perspective of outside rulers trying to keep the local peace, the contrade formed “a seventeen-way division of class interests” (Silverman 1989). They are essentially an equalizing structure which serves to prevent class warfare, given that contrada residents run the gamut from working class to the blue-blood elite. As Dreschler directly claims, “The contrade system does to some degree provide panem et circenses” – now as well as centuries ago.

Let’s look at the real Palio a bit, in advance of later stories. First, the race itself lasts no longer than about 90 seconds. The setting for the race is Siena’s central square, Piazza del Campo, which is almost instantly transformed into a dirt race track around its perimeter twice each summer. Within a week before each event, wooden barriers are installed in this otherwise open space, a special blend of dirt is compacted with steamrollers to form the track, and a two-story balcony is installed at the main entrance for the city officials and local elites to view the excitement. Out of the 17 contradas, only ten are allowed to race due to the hazardous track conditions. Doing the math, that means that for any given Palio, seven contradas do not participate directly. Those not racing are then guaranteed a spot in next year’s Palio. The final three contenders are determined by an extraction, or lottery. As noted, I can’t help but think how this is very Hunger Games, albeit without the hunger. And their version of the “Reaping,” is admittedly a bit more voluntary.

Aside from the steep slopes of the track, there are the two horrendous turns: The most dangerous is the Curve of San Martino. This is a 95-degree turn that launches the horses into the main straight-away. The challenge is twofold here: First, getting around the steep downhill turn in one piece – or actually two pieces, horse and jockey. Then, they must avoid a massive marble loggia, or portico sticking out into the track from the City Hall. San Martino is the most dangerous turn, with some 57% of all accidents occurring here over the past 20 years, according to one study ( The next turn is the Casato, also hazardous, but headed uphill. Some 37% of accidents occur here. It is also further from the starting line, so the horses tend to be more separated by then. Still, this is the second most likely place for accidents. All in all, it’s a dangerous track and a harrowing race.

True horse-racing fans will notice something else: the horses travel clockwise around the track, unlike all other major western races which travel counterclockwise. They make three full circuits around the Campo from start to finish, and in less than two minutes the event is over. But wait, that’s not all. This is a bareback race. No saddles or stirrups. It is quite common, therefore, for jockeys to get thrown off, usually at one of the turns, with the happy horse simply continuing on without a driver. A horse with no jockey is known as scosso. And horses without jockeys occasionally win, as in 1988 when a riderless horse won the Palio in July and August. One such horse nearly pulled off the upset this year as well, as a future chapter will reveal in more detail. If you deduce from this that the horse is much more precious than the jockey, then you’d be right. The horse can still win the Palio as long as the contrada medallion is still attached to the horse’s forehead.

As for the jockeys, or fantini, they are basically hired mercenaries from other parts of Italy, often from Sicily. Each contrada negotiates with potential jockeys, until the morning of the Palio when the jockey cannot be changed. The contradas are often in contact with prospective jockeys throughout the year. There is the regular payment for a jockey to ride for a specific contrada, and the payout for a winning jockey is even larger. The rules of the Palio are complex, and they seem to fly in the face of our own typical values. Each jockey is given a rawhide whip, which tends to be deployed more on fellow jockeys than on their own horses. In the past, they were actually allowed to knock each other off their steeds. Further, each contrada has its own allies and its own longtime rival, or enemy. Throughout the year, their leaders are expected to make secretive, back-room deals that will either hurt their enemy’s chances of winning, or help their allies. In the chapel of the Bruco, or Caterpillar Contrada, small framed medallions make it clear who their allies are: namely, the Porcupine, Tower, and Shell. A contrada considers it a moral victory if their allied contrada wins, or in turn, if their enemy contrada loses. Payoffs from one contrada to another have reached into the quarter-million euro range. While these back-room deals seem unthinkable to American ethics, it is important to keep in mind the cultural and historical contexts in which this whole system operates. We cannot think of this in terms of American sporting events, as we are rooted in a different cultural system.

A few other traditions are seemingly flip-flopped from our own world view: The only payout for a victorious contrada is a cloth banner known as the drappelloni, or Palio. The Palio banner is designed for each new race by a local or regional artist. For some contradas, the odds have not been in their favor, of late. The Caterpillar (Bruco) went without a win for 41 years, between 1955 and 1996. The contrada has made up for lost time, however, bringing home the drappelloni three times in the 21st century. The Panther (Pantera), in contrast, has won only once since its win in 1994, and the Shell (Nicchio) hasn’t pulled it off in the past 15 years. The winningest contrada since record keeping began in the 1600s is the Goose (Oca), with a total of 65 wins (see more statistics about contradas and palio victories at Winning is a big deal, make no mistake. On the flip side, winning is expensive for the contrada, with all the celebrations throughout the year and, of course, the jockey to pay off. Each win is strictly a cultural and emotional victory based on the community’s strong attachment to place. It is therefore not economically advantageous to win; I can imagine contrada leaders secretly cringing when they win almost back to back, wondering how they will dig out thousands of euros once again to pay for it all – and likely, to pay off their allies as well. One source in Siena explained how the Panther contrada asks for pledges from its own citizens in advance of each race, in the rare chance that they pull off a victory and need to pay out. Some of these pledges can run upwards of 5,000 euros or more from the most loyal contrada members, or contradaioli.

Not everyone is enthralled with the Palio and its virtual lock on the social life of Siena. One college-aged member of the Panther who we befriended laments the city’s lack of alternative public social events (though Notte Bianca – White Night – is a pleasant exception). Others decry the violence, as one pizzeria owner discussed with us. “Why does everyone get along so well during the year, but then end up in massive brawls at Palio time?” he asked in broken English. In part he was referring to the traditional cazzotti, or ritualized group fistfights between contrada males. Though they lash out at each other for about a half hour, they can often shake hands and restore friendships soon thereafter. Still, not all Sienese are proud of this aspect of the Palio. More globally, outside interest groups have even called for the Palio to be discontinued, given past – and accurate – accusations of animal abuses, particularly to the horses. Despite the extreme pampering of their horses by each contrada, too many participating steeds have been injured or killed over the years, either during or after the harrowing race and its trials. Though the contradas strongly defend their focus on animal safety, the City has to its credit taken some serious measures in recent decades to better protect horses and jockeys alike. Injuries have been reduced but not eliminated. In a way, however, these influences of globalization from outside the community have indeed encouraged positive changes, revealing how even local communities can benefit from alternative perspectives.

Academic scholars and local residents make this fact very clear: The Palio is not designed for tourists, or outsiders of any kind. Tourists may show up in the many thousands (as do students and faculty like us), but they are tolerated at best. There is even a local web site that advises visitors on appropriate behaviors ( The author starts right off with “What shouldn’t tourists do on the days of the Palio”. For hundreds of years the Palio has been resilient – a real, or authentic, tradition rooted in a specific Italian place and cultural context. It is ever-changing and shifting with the times, but it is persistent. To me, this is one aspect that makes the whole spectacle quite intriguing. Now that our students had finally made their way to Siena, they would soon come to agree.

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Chapter 3. The Magic of Fontebranda

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.

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