Studying abroad in Italy: A Memoir Of Mixed Emotions

My back is against the Piazza’s cement grooves. To prop my head towards the night sky, I have my tanned arms folded under me. The sky looks like a sheet of black construction paper, with white paint intricately scattered throughout.

I inhale the night air that smells like fresh Italian bread and cigarette smoke. I close my eyes. We are surrounded by overpriced restaurants, which echo our full-bellied laughter and the clinking wine glasses.

Sixteen of my new friends surround me. All of us are spread out in the same way. Josie is to my left, her curly brown hair a messy mess on her head. Her hazel eyes are watching the sky from above, as the darkness falls into night.

Sarah is to my right, her bronze skin blends with the bricks. As the summer heat washes her, she inhales deeply. Rachel sits up and takes in the sights. As she attempts to remember her surroundings, her long, blonde hair moves side to side.

We are all trying to forget that the inevitable sunrise signals our departure and our time studying in Italy.

Dainty Dinner in Siena

My feet are turning a fiery red, and my bunions are throbbing. They look bigger and more visible than they are. For 32 hours, I haven’t slept. Since my plane touched the runway, I have been walking in the hot sun and living off a 2-euro chocolate gelato cone.

Our guide promises a group dinner after the walking tour through Siena. I imagine big plates of pasta and margarita pizzas dancing in my head. But, we are met by a cup of couscous and some prosciutto and shrimp.

Josie, Sarah, and Rachel, who are also studying abroad in Italy as roommates, eat the delicate meal while I smash it on my plate to look like I ate it. It is not a place where you can be picky.

IES: Study Abroad in Italy

It’s Wednesday morning, and class begins at 9 am. In Italian, that actually means 9:15. My roommate and I are about the start of our sweaty trek up the hilly street to class, when we meet a cat.

His matted black and white fur have been adorned with a few grass blades and he’s enjoying the sun at the second level of the staircase. Josie, another cat lover joins me in stroking his matted fur while I gush.

“Bernardo!” I shout.

“What?” Josie asks.

“Bernardo is his name,” I respond.

“But… He looks like she.” It has a pink collar.”

“I don’t care, his nickname is Bernardo,” I respond. This one is mine, and nobody will fight me.

He is a reminder of my cat and home, which gives me a strange sense of comfort. He is familiar even though he is in a foreign place. Sarah allows us to have our moments and then summons you back.

It’s almost 9:15. It’s almost 9:15 AM. The morning melody is created by the creaking sound of wooden shutters being opened to let in warm summer air, and faint echoes from conversations. The clothes from last night are still hanging on the line, dry by the Tuscan sun. Grandmas in aprons move out to their balconies to water the flowers.

We reach the top of the street, puffing, and wiping our sweat mustaches. I reach for the granola bars in my purse as I am still hungry from the night before. The heat is more bearable when you walk on flat ground.

We stop abruptly a minute or so from the school building. We see it down below the narrow street of tiny Fiats and the untrimmed bushes that stretch onto the sidewalk. To make sure that I am not staring at a postcard, I blink my eyes several times.

Right in front of us is the panoramic view over Siena. Numerous rustic, beige buildings and monuments are interwoven like a collage. Some are high in the sky, while others reach the valley floor.

Some of the tiny red and orange specks are visible. The tops of taller trees have tiny, metal points. The immaculate landscape is surrounded by lush, green trees. It seems so far away but it’s also very close.

Although we move away from the view, my mind remains there for many hours. Jetlag must have clouded my vision as this was the first time I saw Siena. It was real. It was real. We were there.

Via Mannini 3 – Home Away from Home?

The bathroom is covered in tan tiles. The mold has taken over the bathroom, leaving it stained with years. To go in the shower, I slip on my flip-flops and see one single ant crawling down the drain.

My body is constantly in shock as the shower water changes from boiling hot to icy cold without warning. I shower as fast as I can, as I see pools of water at my ankles.

To avoid slamming my elbows on the walls, I have to keep my elbows close to my sides. Flip-flops are a shovel that I use to move my feet. They collect water in bales and dump it down the drain.

I step out into the puddle of water outside the accordion door and realize that the water has soaked the whole bathroom floor. I used the spare towel and the carpet provided by the apartment to absorb the mess.

My morning starts with a musty bathroom, which has attracted a large number of mosquitos. I take the wet towels out and dry them on the clothesline. I sit down on one of the chairs on our terrace and take a deep inhale. This was not what I had hoped for.

Strangely, my dreams of Italy did not include a Zika-carrying family living in my shower or a clogged drain. The thick, black residue on our feet that stained the tile with ants and other pests was not there.

Experiencing Tartuca Contrada in Siena

Giovanni, our Italian Cooking teacher has invited us to his Contrada meal this evening. Contrade is a big deal in Siena. In Siena, there are 17 contra de or neighborhoods. Like high school cliques, there are both the cool and the not-so-cool. Giovanni’s is a great one.

Each July, contra de compete in a horserace at the Piazza known as the Palio. If your Contrada wins every few years, you’re probably cool. If your Contrada doesn’t win in 50 years or more, then you are not cool.

It was something I hadn’t thought about until I went to the drawing to see which Contrada would be competing. People were fighting, crying, hugging and screaming. During the drawing ceremony, I whispered to Josie. A small, blonde girl about thirteen turned around and shushed my feet.

Giovanni proudly marches at the front of the line leading us to Tartuca contrada dinner. They are the “Turtle contrada.” We follow the cobblestone streets of residential neighborhoods, passing the vendors and storefronts, and then we climb a dirt path to reach a plateau. We are surrounded by a 360-degree panorama of the city.

The sun is setting on medieval architecture, and the sky is streaked with orange and pink. I look out at the sky and take in the evening air. Although I feel itchy from the mosquitoes buzzing around my head, I don’t care.

Under one of the graduation party-type tents, we are told to sit at a long table made of white cards. We are surrounded by members of Tartuca’s contrada, who line up at dozens of tables in front of us. I can only hear the grumbling of unfamiliar words coming from the curly-haired, tan-skinned Italians.

Everyone is smiling, laughing, touching, playing, and feeling. We stick out like sore thumbs. We were just a group of American students in Italy studying abroad. We were all awkwardly folding napkins on the floor and staring at all that was going on around.

Giovanni tells us in broken English how he will prepare dinner tonight. There are three options: salted cod, meatloaf, or rabbit.

I take a big sip of my red wine. My entire meal is arranged by volunteers of the contrada. A middle-aged woman frantic takes my order of meatloaf and screech my choice to a young boy. My system begins to settle and my cheeks turn into hot, pink circles.

We begin to feel, laugh, touch, and play differently than when we first arrived. We feast in gluttonous joy and sip sweet, red wine. There is no rush.

Dancing the Night Away

It is midnight, and the adults are slowly making their way back down the dirt road to their homes. My 16 friends and I gaze into the night sky, taking in the crisp, cool breeze. I close my eyes due to heavy drinking of Italian wine and sleep deprivation.

Sarah grabs me just as I’m about to fall asleep and guides me and my roommates towards a large field with many Italian teenagers dancing to the Billboard Top 100. My legs feel like Jell O, writhing in the wind, and the horizon blurry. As we walk towards the field, I find myself having to grab Sarah’s shoulders.

My ears vibrate and the beat is bouncing in my ears. I can feel condensation form on my upper lip while I dance. As I dance, I feel pulled in every direction.

Josie isn’t dancing, she is simply watching us make fools of ourselves in front all the Italians. She smiles at Rachel, and Rachel and me force her to dance.

It is 1 a.m., and it is time to leave. We get the troops together and start walking down the dirt road back to the town. Siena is a small town with a large senior population. But, it feels alive tonight. My body vibrates from the music, and my ears ring so loudly that I have to speak at an unnatural decibel.

We walk along the winding roads, laughing and talking to people as we make our way home. I meet Bernardo, who is peacefully resting in his usual spot. He gives me a nice belly rub. As I look up at the stars, his purrs echo through the air. I am taking in the last moments of the night before turning in.

You can make your own romantic memories in Italy as an Au Pair. As a young adult, you can join an Italian family and explore the city. You will also enjoy great food. This opportunity is available at a very limited rate. You will also get paid back for your work. Find your Italian adventure right here.

The Scent of San Gimignano Cheese Factory

As we stand outside an industrial building, a man wearing a dead face hands us blue booties to cover our feet. My stomach begins to churn when I hear the machinery roaring inside the building. Cheese is something I loathe, but do not detest. Today, we visit a cheese factory. Since I arrived, I have been anxious about this visit.

We are still a bit confused about why we need to wear these booties, but we all put them on and we walk in. I take a deep breath, and slowly enter the building, scanning it. The cement floor is nailed with large, heavy metal vats.

The men are wearing white tank tops and no gloves, and submerge their hands in the milky white substance. They then break up any cheese pieces that have escaped the smoothing process. I take a rising gag.

I don’t want to make a scene or be rude so I cover my nose with my sweater. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

My teacher said, “You know, once it’s in your lungs, you get used to it.”

To avoid looking like the most ignorant American student abroad in Italy, my face is exposed and I take my first puff of steamy sheep cheese. My nostrils burn, but I don’t vomit. It’s as if the active, living cultures of the cheese are trying to target my nose. It smells like spoiled milk left out in the heat of summer.

While I find it disgusting to look around, everyone seems to be having a good time. They get closer to the creamy liquid vats to take photos. They seem to be able to breathe easily while they ask questions about the manufacturing process. My feet suddenly feel sticky and wet. It’s possible that my sweat is from the emotionally exhausting experience, but I don’t think so.

My blue booties are a darker shade than I remembered. I also notice that my toes stick to the sandals’ leather base. My shoes have been soaked in cheese juice.

We are taken out of the processing center and guided to the area where the cheese is molded into wheels. I feel a blast of cheese as soon as I enter the corridor leading to the molds. I am compelled to gag and double-over without warning.

Everybody’s eyes are on me, even our guide who is appalled at me. I stand outside and excuse myself, as if I were a child at play.

My toes make a loud squeegee sound as I take off my blue booties. I bend down to give them a quick sniff. They smell musty. These were the only sandals that I took on my trip.

An Empowering Gelato Experience

I feel the weight of my hotel room key, which is attached to a small ball and chain in the back of my hand. Although I believe I was supposed to turn it in at the front desk before I left, I ran out of time before losing my nerve.

The recent downpour has made the streets of Florence glisten and the air is suffused with earthworms. After a dark morning, the sun is beginning to shine through the clouds. I am walking alone through Florence’s streets.

Although I only go a few blocks, I feel empowered. To avoid getting lost, I make sure to take note of every street sign I pass. Since arriving in Italy, this is my first solo trip. There are no roommates or guides. Just me.

As I turn a corner, I find a gelato shop. They are found almost everywhere in Italy, so it is not surprising that they are there. I find 1.50 euros worth of change and hand it to the man at the counter. I walk over to the nearest park and he gives me my small cup of mint chocolate chip gelato.

As I am sitting on a bench, a babbling fountain seduces me. It’s not strange that anyone looks at me or wonders why I eat gelato by myself. After some rest, I decide that it’s time to go back to my hotel. I make my way back, and I am surprised that I don’t get lost.

When I return to my hotel room, it is strangely satisfying to feel content with my independence. Strangely strong. I smile at my reflection in the mirror, proudest of myself in the strongest way.

Pottery Class Mishaps

Today we are attending a class in ceramic-making. It is strange that this is necessary since ceramics are not native to Italy. We must split up and enter at different times because the lady’s studio was so small.

I am in the first group. As first-graders, we enter the studio as a single group. The studio is crowded with unfinished ceramics. In every corner, buckets and boxes of tools are stacked on top of each other.

A lady in her 60s with frizzy, blonde hair, stands out from the back. Hot pink gauchos are worn by the studio owner, as well as a white tee that is flecked with gray clay flecks. We have an English translator to help her with the ceramic-making process.

After a brief introduction, she gets up on her stool to demonstrate how to spin the clay. She gently cups the gray mass with her hands, shaping it with her fingers and occasionally sticking her thumb in its middle to create a large divot.

It’s amazing how she can handle the wheel with such ease. It makes me wonder how many years she has been doing this. Although I have never tried a pottery wheel, I know it is difficult. It is important not to apply too much pressure to the clay, or it will crumble into a sticky mess in your hands. She makes it seem like this is what her hands are made for.

After a while, she stops and speaks Italian to describe the need for some kind of tool. She gets up and places the tool in a bucket on top of two blocks of cement that are wet and cooling clay.

She bends over and reaches her thin, freckled arm above the bucket. Within a millisecond she loses her footing. Her head hits the bucket and ricochets off. She then falls face-first into cement blocks made of gooey clay.

As she moans, we all sit silently as she tries to get up. She licks her forehead with shock as the sticky substance clings to her eyes.

Our translator rushes over to her and asks her if she’s alright. But she just whimpers, and then holds her muddy hands to her face. She leaves the room in complete embarrassment and rushes to the nearest bathroom.

An Inappropriate Outburst

I see my legs, which are now flecked with clay from the splash. I look back at everyone. While we try to make sense of the events, our translator checks on her.

I start to smile down at the ground, trying not to let out my laughter. I can’t. A few giggles escape. I had a few more. I burst into uncontrollable laughter and hold my crotch tightly to stop myself from peeing. My face turns red as I fall to my knees and let out a torrent of tears.

Rachel’s thick British accent explains, “What the hell is going on?”

I don’t know how to reply. Rachel laughs at my jokes and we can’t stop laughing. This was the end of the straw, from the disgusting apartment to the smelly cheese factory to the many strenuous walking tours.

Although the coordinators were sincere, the execution of group activities went horribly wrong. We couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. Let it all out.

This trip ruined our idyllic expectations of studying abroad in Italy. It was only natural that our final weeks in Italy saw an elderly woman nearly falling to her death.

Rachel and I were both well enough to get back into the studio. However, this time she had a golf ball-sized bump sticking out of her forehead.

She was calm, collected, and cool. She picked up the pieces she had left without uttering a word.

Our Last Night in Siena

We had to be up at 5:05 a.m. in order to catch the bus to Florence. We may only have 30 minutes to sleep by the time we return home from packing and showering.

Josie calls out, “C’mon, it is time to go, nuggets,” in her I-mean business voice.

I look up at the night sky, then reach out to her for help. My vertebrae begin to separate from the Piazza’s warm bricks. Josie, Rachel, and Sarah all start to walk back, albeit a bit slower than usual. We want to enjoy it all one more time before we have to go.

Just a few meters from our house, Bernardo is visible to my right. I can’t help but cry. It’s the last time I will see him. He usually lies right next to our staircase but tonight he is standing at his owner’s door. He seems to know that we are abandoning him.

As I’m about to descend the stairs, I hear a creak in my front door and a squealing voice. I look up to see a man in his 50s wearing slacks and a white shirt with a yellow tinge. He is a friendly man with bushy eyebrows, sun-kissed skin, and kind eyes. He grabs the cat, and I shout in Italian before he closes the door.

“Como si si chiama al gatto?” (What’s the name of the cat?

He smiles at me and strokes the cat, before replying, “Si Chiama Frank.” Frankquisimo, perche lui e grande,” (His name is Frank. Because he’s big, Big Frank. I smile back.

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

I said goodbye to Bernardo (Frank) that night. I bid farewell to 16 of my closest friends. I also say goodbye to Italy to study abroad. I also say goodbye and goodbye to Siena. I look out at the starry night skies and try to capture its essence in my memories.

Nacht, Siena. Let me see you soon.