On a narrow street tucked behind the piazza Italians sing and dance and joy flies about. Siena, signature in its tranquility, is having a contrada moment, as one of the city’s 17 towns – they’re families, more so – hosts a dinner for local and international students, the pride of la Civetta (the Owl contrada) written in wide smiles and deep-dive helpings of polenta. It’s Saturday night, and a residential block has become a party: long tables defy the tilt and twist of the street, spanning my sight up left, where a speaker is a background singer to the jolly crowd, and down right and all around, where young people are gathered for the Italian centerpiece.
Two men of la Civetta stand at the head of the table, dishing the first course, cooked in family kitchens that reach back generations, with a passion that welcomes our group and warms the heart. We’re passing bowls of polenta down the table until they’re out of sight, and the Sienese are exchanging an energetic Italian that you’ll never tire of listening to. Its verbal distance is no barrier thanks to the gesticulations, changes of pitch, belly-laughs, demonstrations on how to mix the food before eating, and – aspetta, we’re out of polenta! A self-important wave summons more as a wine bottle runs dry. We’re quick to make sure that’s replaced, too. And we feel a part of something here in Siena, the Tuscan city we were lucky to call casa over the past month and a half.
Our group of twenty-two students arrived here at the end of January as strangers to each other and to Italy, but today we are friends to both. As the spread of the coronavirus has stoked health concerns around the world, most of our group has departed Siena, the place we found favorite osterias, formed bonds with shopkeepers and students of the city, and the place we made home. Our strong and smart group, brought together with laughter and connection and conversation during our time in Siena, has disbanded, and that hurts.
I write from the air, suspended between two places that both feel like home. I’m bound for home, of course, but Siena had been home and was by every expectation going to be home until May. I’ve just seen my second Roman sunset from a tarmac I never imagined myself towing. The view, bittersweet for its finality and its beauty, came after a bus ride from the terminal to an aircraft I never imagined myself boarding.
Both the bus ride and the sunset brought me back to places on which I’d prefer to reflect to the dimness of departure, the shadow of this shock.
On the Roman Borghese our group of eight travelers to the Eternal City are perched on a grassy ledge, buoyed by a feeling of success – we had seen and done all we had set out to – but beat from the journey. Backpacks become cushions, and with a lean backward, perspectives shift from the gardens below to the dynamic sky above, a gentle blue replacing a deep green. My mind is too busy to spell me for the sleep my body needs, so I turn to music and embrace the active stream of thought. Billy Joel sounds – now I’m thinking of home – as the melody of laughter from my right plays underneath. My eyes close intermittently, each time opening to the birth of a new sky, clouds thinner, sketches of pink approaching from the background. After an hour or so, the sky has taken on the pink-orange color as its whole outfit. My first Roman sunset.
In a quiet moment like this I feel a sated calm come over us. A wordless ease. A silent cohesion. Each falls into his own place, perhaps thinking of home, of past or future. Then there are the fast moments, the rush to catch a bus or a class, the far-too-early AirBnb checkout, or the uproarious staging of a baseball diamond on the piazza after all the lights of the city have flickered off, bar one blue strip above. You don’t forget these moments, the slow or the fast. In the quieted bus, its passengers either in thoughts or dreams, on a ride from a balsamic vinegar farmhouse in Modena toward Bologna Centrale, and in the worry-free kneading of egg and flour into fresh pici in a cooking class overlooking vineyards, energy high in the evaluation of friends’ handiwork, there are hopeful and good gazes at life that just don’t leave you.
I’m travelling from the terminal to a small German plane on the tarmac in Frankfurt, bound for Florence, where this journey will all begin. It’s the first time I’ve taken such a ride across the tarmac. It is a stunningly long drive. The tarmac is like an industrial desert, stretching indefinitely in search of this vehicle tasked with delivering me to my dream destination. I don’t claim to be a stress-free traveler, or a stress-free person, but, perhaps having in 24 hours already fallen under the charm of movement, I peer out the window on this short flight, gliding over snow-topped Alps, not with an eccentric anxiousness or a worried nervousness but with a confident peace. Siena, Italy awaits.
At a pace just besting those of bus doors on the Frankfurt tarmac, automatic sliders split for entry into Florence’s airport a few hours later.
“Ciao”— “Benvenuto” – “Piacere” – maybe three of the first words I hear, or say, as Matilde from IES Abroad Siena welcomes me to the program and to Italy. I sit in one of the 15 or so seats the airport has, and I talk with new classmates, soon to be friends. Each files in with a name, university, home state or city, and we take a first, small stride toward the kind of community we will build in a month and a half.
None of us have a clue of how good it will be.
We’ll share meals and wine bottles and laughter and stories. When it’s time to say goodbye, we’ll even shed a few tears. Easy coffee chats in the IES Abroad Center, simple strolls across the piazza, neck craning to add a new piece for mental storage each day, will be regularities.
The piazza, La Piazza del Campo, reveals more of itself each day. The universal meeting spot for all things – gelato, a beer, in recent days, a farewell. All of Siena’s arteries are pumped by the beat of it, pinned at its deepest point by the tower. Il Torre clasps all of Siena, holding the city and its people in her palm, drawing eyes from the tranquil piazza to her certain stance.
We were lucky to be a few of those people, the twenty-two of us, who called Siena casa, who skipped across that stage – piazza and tower, Italy in full form – most of our days in the past month and a half.
I’ve shared only a few moments here intentionally in the present tense, because that is how I continue to perceive them. They are written in us and between us as stories, and stories do not die. Stories persist where our studies in Siena cannot. These moments add to the chemistry of our young adult experience, and of life experience, a potent happening of people’s goodness, of people coming together. There were meals and moments that continue to live, connections across language and country code, lessons of a day valuated at a lifetime’s worth.
The last three days have been turbulent, and I won’t rush to say the next three, and beyond, will not be the same. But above the Atlantic Ocean, I know the bell in il Torre just chimed back at home for the new hour. Siena lies at rest. I’ll miss the sight of that bell from the corner of my bedroom window, where I could see the slightest movement of its swing in the centuries-old tower. I’ll miss Buongiorno in the mornings and afternoons, Buonasera in the evenings, Ciao at all times. I’ll miss it all, but I’ve arrived at a confident peace in knowing it cannot be taken away from me.
For it lives on in each of us.
The final ray of sunlight from a downing sun seen from the tarmac has long been left behind, the sky now having faded from the spectrum of color to a solid black. Rounding the final lap of this journey, I can’t get its brilliance off my mind, a singular, straight line piercing a darkening sky as we ran from it in our ascent toward the clouds, over the ocean. This plane will land, and the same sun will shine, that same ray showing itself in a different way.
A chapter of this story is carved as in the marble of our studied Renaissance sculptures, standing in meaning as the word Ciao means “hello” and “goodbye,” and as the sun rises for the morning and sets for the evening.
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<p>I am a junior studying business at Fordham University, where I’ve found a home at WFUV Radio calling college football and baseball. Sports enthusiast, politics observer, and reader, I have a passion for boiling my experiences into the written word. Based in New York, New York, a city with such a unique identity, I’m ecstatic to fall under the European spell this semester.</p>