Trite, on-the-nose. Perhaps already the first word one conjures when imagining Tuscany.
But this word suits Siena too well for me to begin with any other.
The city is small, stony, and yellow. Medieval streets convolute through each other unpredictably. I spend my free time roaming around, doing what one does in an old Italian city. I shop for produce, eating a single fig between one place and the next (to purchase a single fig: solo una fici, per favore). I feel the waxed satchels hanging from the doors of sporadic leather shops. I pass gelaterias, mentally noting their locations until I’ve passed far too many to recall even one. I admire the flora spilling from window planters and rooftops. I take photos and send them to friends who, besides being mildly envious, don’t care enough about my being here to solicit photos. I walk along the city walls and stare thoughtlessly at blue mountains and Sienese terracotta-roofed apartment complexes. And always, whichever stone-laid medieval path I follow leads me insistently back to the central piazza.
Siena is beautiful.
Siena is small.
Without planning, I found myself last Saturday wandering in the blue haze of those impenetrable far away mountains. The ones I gaze thoughtlessly towards from the wall. The ones which, upon seeing, instill in me an implacable sense of nonexistence, as if the very landscape encasing this city is life as seen from the interior of a Mediterranean snow globe.
Saturday, September 10th was the kind of supple evening which effortlessly falls into your lap.
My plans for that night were mundane. I would buy a cheap bottle of wine. Run myself a bath. Shave my legs. Read.
I did not plan to leave Siena with two strangers on a northbound train. I did not plan to watch the sun slip behind the hills of Tuscany. I did not plan to sit at the head of an oak dining table in an Italian villa, drinking wine with travelers from eight disparate countries.
Let me explain.
At 4:30 p.m. the Euro store is brimming with people, and I have half a mind to abandon my errand on the spot. The register is situated immediately to the right of the entrance, and customers are crowding the cashier, paying for their goods in no discernable order. The thought of wading into the mass of people nauseates me, but I need seven coathangers—no more and no less.
The Euro store is the only place in Siena where you can buy exactly seven coathangers. So I sigh and enter.
I’ve been to the Euro store before, I know where the coathangers are kept. I passed them while looking for a toothbrush the other day. They are in the far right corner of the store, beyond the swarm. I make a beeline and tunnel through, tuning out all five of my senses and willing time to pass without my perceiving it.
I awake from a dissociative state upon noticing a tattoo on a woman’s forearm of the Venus di Milo. I am waiting to pay, surrounded in all directions by people speaking Italian, Cantonese, French, and English. The woman I see speaks to her friend in English, and I wonder if they are American.
I like your tattoo.
She looks at me quizzically, It’s hard to hear. I repeat myself.
The woman smiles brightly, happily informing me that it is a design of her own. She has an accent I cannot place. I ask if she takes commissions.
One thing leads to another, and I invite the two women into my apartment. Their names are Michelle and Bertie, traveling from Germany and Denmark, respectively. Their paths crossed while backpacking two days ago, yet the two move together in the street and converse with the ease of sisters. Michelle wraps herself in a new paisley scarf as we walk to my front door, and Bertie tells her kindly that it suits her complexion perfectly, which it does.
While sitting down in my kitchen Michelle and Bertie explain that they are staying in a hostel just out of town. A converted villa tucked away in the heart of the Tuscan wine country. They had planned on taking a bottle of wine to the top of a hill among the grapevines and watching the sunset. I am invited, though in the back of my mind a skeptical voice whispers.
Bait. It's too good to be true. What if it’s a sex trafficking scheme?
I decide that it’s too late for me. Apparently all it takes to rope me in are two blonde women and the promise of drinking wine in an Italian villa. I reason with myself that these are understandable weaknesses to have, and that if I do go missing at least my naivety will be justified.
Rest assured, this isn’t that kind of story.
The driveway leading into the estate is flanked by steep deciduous trees that canopy high overhead. The villa itself has a predictable, understated beauty. It is grown over in places by scaling ivy. There are empty flowerpots strewn along its walls. As we make our way towards the entrance, Bertie and Michelle greet a couple leaning against a low brick wall. Newcomers? they ask.
Yeah, just got here this morning.
Are you together?
Oh, God no. Just friends. Best friends.
I spent that evening drinking wine in a quiet vineyard, watching as the blue mountains slowly dissolved into a blackening sky. I sat at a table in the dining room of the villa with people from Australia, British Columbia, Argentina, Brooklyn, Germany, and Denmark.
A hostel is a place of congregation for travelers. A sanctuary. A site of pilgrimage. Shared experiences between visitors transcend the differences of ethnicity and patronage, illuminating our most fundamental similarities as humans. A desire for experience. A desire for connection. A desire for transformation.
I left that night feeling less alone in my own company than I had in days past. I may never see Bertie or Michelle again, but they are moving through this world the same as me. Having left the hostel I am newly emboldened, shedding my fear of traveling solo.
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My name is Olivia Bozuhoski, and I am a Boston-based Arts Administration student. I love painting, reading, journaling, hiking, wine, and learning about art history. I am thrilled to be in Italy this semester, and even more thrilled to be sharing the experience with students like myself.