Study Abroad in Siena: Italian Class Redefined

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Chelsea Lakdawala
May 30, 2018

Wanting to study abroad in Tuscany, but your Italian is a little rusty (or non-existent)? Never fear. Our study abroad programs in Siena have no language prerequisites, and IES Abroad Italian faculty are ready to develop your language skills – inside and outside of the classroom.

Chelsea Kuchik, IES Abroad Program Advisor, recently visited Siena and accompanied our study abroad students on a course-related trip. Read her account of the tasty language-learning experience.

I’ll be honest, as the program advisor of two major Italian cities, my Italian is atrocious. But when I was told I would be visiting the tiny medieval city of Siena was I worried? Not at all!

After visiting our IES Abroad Rome Center, I was armed with a borrowed copy of a Rick Steve’s Italian dictionary, a bus ticket, and a little pack of breakfast biscuits (that I later realized were for babies…whoops). My bus pulled away from the Roma Termeni station, and I was on my way to Tuscany.

For a tiny city, Siena is quite English-friendly. My “Ciao!” to the hotel clerk was greeted back with a “Ciao, how may I help you?” That said, Siena is also the perfect location to learn Italian because it is one of the few dialect-free cities in Italy.

After a night of settling in, I was ready to take on my first Italian language lesson at a bakery, of all places. On that drizzly morning, I met both the IES Abroad beginner and advanced Italian language students, who were huddled under umbrellas at the designated meeting point, which was a little café close to the our Siena Center. I wanted to grab another delicious Italian cappuccino (since it is really only acceptable to drink during breakfast in Italy), but something told me a third one that morning would be a bit excessive.

Once the group was all there, the two Italian language teachers took us on a scenic walk down towards the bakery, winding past Tuscan apartments painted warm yellow and brick red with green shutters, perfect for a postcard. One of the students pointed to one and said, “Guys, that’s my homestay!”, and we all agreed that living in such a scenic apartment seemed like an awesome Sienese experience.

When we stepped into the bakery, our eyes immediately jumped to the case of sweets filled with rows of Italian confections that greeted us as we walked in, almost too pretty to eat. We were greeted by one of the bakers, who showed us back towards the kitchen.

The students and I were directed to a pile of blue smocks and hairnets – this was going to be a language class we had to suit up for. After a few selfies, we entered the kitchen and were greeted by a spread of ingredients. The Italian language teachers explained that the baker would describe the process to make two famous Sienese treats: panforte and ricciarelli. The baker only spoke Italian, so the advanced Italian students would translate to the beginner Italian students. Oh, and we’d be making some ourselves, as well.

The advanced students were translating with ease, with few words filled in by the teachers here and there if necessary. We learned about the history behind these deserts and the Italian names of all the ingredients found in panforte. There are multiple varieties of panforte, so, of course, we had to sample them all.

After the samples, we moved on to a big table covered in flour – the baker grinned wide as he brought out a sheet of dough. He was showing us how to roll ricciarelli! We all took turns trying to make the perfect oval – getting either a “bene” or a laugh from the baker if it wasn’t good. His assistant tossed them in to a giant fridge-shaped oven, saying we had dodici minuti (12 minutes) before they were ready.

While we waited, a giant vat had started mixing all of the panforte spices and dried fruits together. The baker then scooped a large bit onto the table. It smelled amazing, but it did look a bit like chunky cat food. We all laughed that it wasn’t an attractive dessert until the very end – but looks aren’t everything! We kept grabbing samples of the finished panforte, which tasted like a heavenly mix of gingerbread and dried fruit.

Finally, the baker motioned us all to look at the oven as he wheeled out the baking trays with our slightly misshapen ricciarelli. Some flour was tossed on top for effect, and then we were allowed to eat our creations. The warm almond cookies melted in our mouths as we savored the taste of a job well done.

Just like our Italian (mine, especially) the ricciarelli certainly weren’t perfect, but they were still a hit. We left the bakery that day with goodie bags filled with our new favorite desserts of Siena, a slightly larger Italian vocabulary, and a definite feeling of accomplishment.

chelsea lakdawala headshot

Chelsea Lakdawala

After studying abroad in Granada with IES Abroad, Chelsea knew she wanted to help others have a similar life-changing experience. At the time of writing, she advised IES Abroad students preparing to study abroad in Dublin, Rome, Shanghai, and Siena. In her free time, she enjoys learning languages and cooking.

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