A week has passed since we have been in Italy, and so many things have happened. The most vital thing has been getting to know the other members of the group. My apartment houses the only girls on the trip. Liz, Allison, and Soo are all friendly and fun-loving. Joe lives in an apartment of five, and his roommates are Travis, Christian, Nick, and John. Next door to Dr. Parker and her husband Captain Tom Parker of American Airlines, there is another apartment of three boys. They are Mike, Brian, and Dr. Parker’s student assistant Luca. Because two of the original 14 students were unable to make it, one student, Ahmed, is living in town near the school. So far everyone seems to be getting along well and generally enjoying each other’s company.
On our first day of classes, I did not know what to expect. At 8 a.m. Dr. Parker and her husband led us to the bus stop which took us from the village of Vico Alto, where the monastery is located, to the bus station near the center of Siena. From there we walked up and down endless cobblestone streets which seemed to twist and turn with no planned pattern whatsoever. The buildings all seemed to look the same –medieval rows of shops and apartments with no breaks between them, only continuous walls. There are no patches of grass anywhere, though the occasional tree has been carefully planted here or there. To those of us who had not before been exposed to such an atmosphere, it was as if we had been transported back in time into a medieval Italian city. It would take most of us a couple of days to even begin to know the way through the confusing streets.
Though on our first journey through the streets of Siena, the confusion and twistedness made the greatest impression on my mind, don’t misunderstand… I soon found myself in love with the medieval feel of the streets and shops. It inspires stories and images along the same lines as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. I can’t get enough peeks into the shops filled with glittering jewelry and amazing art, or enough tastes of little sandwiches and pastries. Siena has a charm all its own…
The building in which our host school, Dante Alighieri, is located appears to be just another part of the continuous inner walls of Siena. The inside is just as twisted and convoluted as the streets outside. However, the people who work here are friendly and helpful to us, just as they are to the many other visiting foreign students. Embry-Riddle is one of several American schools to partner with Dante Alighieri for study abroad programs.
The director of the school, Luca, introduced himself to us, apologizing for his broken English, but giving us a warm welcome to the program. Next, he introduced us to our Italian teacher, Enzo. He is in his late 30’s, a little on the short side, thin, bald, and wears what seems to be the trendy Italian style of clothing. He teaches well, likely in part due to his friendly, casual, and understanding personality, as well as his sense of humor. I cannot speak for the others in class, but Joe and I are enjoying the Italian language class and do not find it too difficult, though it is sometimes a little confusing.
After lunch, for which we have an hour to eat anywhere in the city, we have Dr. Parker’s Italian Art and Literature class. The morning subject matter feels light and easy compared to the deep and rather personal topics we have covered so far in our afternoon class. In the first week, Dr. Parker talked about divisions of culture with relation to our position in the world. We discussed cultural differences between the U.S. and Italy; gave personal definitions of ourselves to the class based on things such as birthplace, family upbringing, and religion; and began to consider our two projects for the summer –a presentation on an Italian artist and a report on different levels of Dante’s Inferno. Despite the tendency of this second class to be sleep-inducing in its depth and weightiness, I find it entirely intriguing and do my best to focus and participate.
After classes, in the first week we have found ourselves generally hanging around (ironically) a certain Irish pub near the bus station for a couple hours. I believe the main reasons for this are the free Wi-Fi internet offered there and the wonderful laid-back atmosphere. It is something familiar to us in this typically unfamiliar city. We discuss classes and plans for weekend trips over a pint of brew and our favorite American-based websites. Also we all seem to like visiting a nearby grocery store which has a wide variety of Italian foods to experiment with.
Each day this week has brought new surprises and experiences, but in, general the days with classes tend to go the same way. As we approached our first three-day weekend, several of us had different ideas for where to go and what to see. In the end, three of the boys went to see Rome and a group of seven chose to fly up to London to see the city and the new Indiana Jones movie which just came out in theaters. Joe and I had plans to see Rome the following weekend and we both felt that flying all the way to London was out of the question when we were really here to see Italy. So we chose an Italian city nearby with the least expensive train ticket we could hope for –about seven euros each to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and its neighboring monuments.
Two of our fellow classmates, Nick and Allison, were planning to fly out of Pisa on their way to London. They chose to take the bus, which left early in the morning, giving them several hours to see the city before flying on. Joe and I joined them on the bus so that we could explore as a group rather than just the two of us. The walk from the station to the Leaning Tower was nice after two hours on the cramped bus. We ate lunch outdoors at a local cafe and continued on into what was the most tourist-filled sight we’ve yet seen in Italy. Everyone around seemed to be trying to hold up the Leaning Tower like mimes in line with hundreds of cameras.
Despite the crowd and the cheesiness, we enjoyed the monuments which, though not overwhelmingly large, did produce some sense of wonder and awe. Inside the cathedral the grand paintings and gothic architecture instilled a silence among the tourists. I don’t think I have ever noticed before how much presence a building can have. Though I do not practice much religion personally, I felt myself caught up in the spiritual curiosity and solemnity of the place. Even while I experimented with my camera to see how far it would focus and how best to steady it, I found myself talking with Joe about deep religious questions and considering what the people who built the cathedral felt when they knelt before the altar and allowed themselves to reach for something beyond the physical world.
When the four of us finally emerged from the cathedral’s heavy darkness, we were all in need of some sugar and a rest. We sat on some steps and indulged in some delicious gelato, the Italian version of ice cream, which we have been enjoying almost every day since the first in Siena. Afterward we explored some of the local shops before walking back across town to the train station.
It is hard to believe that already one out of five weeks in Italy is over and behind us. Despite the little bits of culture shock that sometimes make things difficult, it is hard not to love everything about this trip so far. Everyone in our group seems to be agreeable and fun, Siena is lovely if not inspiring, and our exploration of other cities in the country has only just begun.