Adjusting to a new city is hard, especially in a new country. However, it can be done! Part of studying abroad is learning how to adapt culturally in different areas of the world, and that is what my first week here in Siena has been about. Although right now I’m spending a lot of time in school taking Italian classes and learning about the curriculum, I find myself wandering around the city for a couple of hours every day. After a little over a week of doing this, here are the top 10 things that have stuck out to me:
1. Coffee is not only a drink here, but a way of life
Unlike at school where I either drink no coffee at all or get a giant caramel macchiato from Starbucks, coffee in Italy in firmly integrated into everyday culture. In the mornings at breakfast, I drink a (very) small cup of espresso, with a splash of milk and sugar, and my host family typically enjoys a “caffe latte,” which is basically the opposite of mine, with a lot of milk. Throughout the day, Italians will often get a couple more cups of espresso, and even have one for an after-dinner treat. This concept of coffee culture, though, I was expecting. What I didn’t realize before moving here were the SUPER STRICT RULES against drinking a coffee macchiato after about 10 in the morning. If I were to do this, I would immediately be labeled a tourist. There is no specific reason why this is, other than tradition.
2. Stairs are unavoidable
In order to get to school, I climb approximately three million stairs, up and down, throughout the whole journey. Siena is a very hilly city, and therefore to get anywhere in the city, stairs will be used at some point. When there aren’t stairs, there are hills. Coming from a city where I have to drive even to go get some toothpaste at the drugstore down the street, this change has been hard, physically. On the first day, I had to stop midway in my 20-minute commute to catch my breath. Even now, after a week of practice, I still make sure I have water with me when I’m going from the city center to home, or vice versa.
3. Dinner is late, breakfast is small
The significant walking increase here has upped my appetite ten-fold. In the first few days when my host-mom packed me enough food to feed three people, I was confused and amused. Now, I can devour all the food given to me and more. On a regular day, I eat a small, traditionally Italian breakfast of coffee, milk, and breakfast cookies. For lunch, my host mom typically packs me a container of pasta (yum!), fruit, a small dessert, and water. By the afternoon, I’m hungry again, so I either find a gelato place, or forage in the fridge for something to eat at home. Dinner is very late here, so I often snack my way through the day until the 8:00 dinner time. I have been lucky going in to this change because I’ve only had to get used to eating an hour later than I’m used to, whereas some of my classmates are having to adjust from their normal dinner time at 5:00 to an 8:30 or 9:00 dinner.
4. “On-time” is relative
In the first couple days of school, the staff stressed the importance of being on time to every obligation. Soon though, I learned that the American on-time and the Italian on-time is a little different. At my school in the United States, I usually showed up to class 10-15 minutes early to be “on time.” In Italy, though, the concept of being prompt is more of being two to five minutes later than the schedule dictates. This stems from Italy’s approach to living as a more relaxed, enjoyment-seeking activity than a necessity to be exactly prompt and stressed. I’m still getting used to this one, but I think in the end this will be good for my type-A personality.
5. Fashion is more than just clothing
Unlike in the States where it is appropriate to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt to class, Italians take school style very seriously. I have yet to see a local dressed in less than skinny jeans, stylish shoes, and a very nice, pressed top. On top of all this, they are also in full makeup, hair, and jewelry. When I see someone who is not dressed in the manner, I immediately know that they are a tourist. On Saturdays, the ante is raised. Women wear nice dresses and high heels, while men are sure to look their nicest while they go out on their errands. They like to do this not only to present a good idea of themselves, but to present an idea of their overall success in life. Because I enjoyed dressing well before studying abroad, this has yet to be an issue.
6. Jeans vs. Heat
With fashion comes the commitment to the outfit. There are little to no Italians who ever wear shorts, or even short skirts. The Sienese mode of dressing for autumn, even if it is still sweltering outside, is long skinny jeans, a light sweater, and a scarf. The past few days have gotten close to 80 degrees, and I have yet to see a person look uncomfortable in these chosen outfits. Meanwhile, when I tried this outfit earlier in the week, I maintained a sweaty, gross appearance for most of the day. This will be something I have to work on.
In the main plaza in Siena, called the Piazza del Campo, it is common to see many people cuddling, hugging, or expressing other forms of intimacy. In America, this is often judged or uncomfortable. Here, though, it is a very normal occurrence. In my opinion from what I have observed since arriving here, Italians are much more comfortable with that aspect of human behavior; they are more apt to express it because it has never been taught as something shameful or embarrassing. As a pretty private person, I am still working on adjusting to this way of thinking. I don’t get upset or offended when I witness such encounters in such public places, but I definitely feel more uncomfortable with it than any local would.
8. Contradas: friend or fo?
Here in Siena, there are 17 different neighborhoods, called Contradas, that make up the city. These contradas are the groups that fund the annual horse race, or Palio, in the summertime. Right now, the excitement of the Palio is just starting to die down after the last race in the middle of August. There are flags still up all over the city, and there are many parties and dinners in celebration of individual contradas. Something interesting that I’ve observed in the past week has been the absolute, die-hard attachment that the Sienese have to these separate neighborhoods. Siena is less one unit (a whole city) and more 17 different communities cohabiting in one location. It isn’t uncommon to have a man hate another man for the sole reason that their contradas are “enemies.” People are even baptized into contradas here, and become lifelong supporters of their group. This concept is so far removed from anything I’ve ever witnessed in the United States that I’m stepping back from this point more than the others, and just letting this crazy, interesting occurrence happen.
9. Going out
The concept of “going out” in Italy is a little different that what we think of in the United States. Sure, clubs and bars to exist here in Italy, but Italians typically prefer to go out and share a bottle of wine and some food together, focusing more on chatting and social aspects than going out for the sole purpose of “going out.” Socializing is done on a smaller scale here, with only two or three people meeting to socialize rather than a whole group.
Something that I absolutely love about Italian culture is the closeness of the family. Sometimes, it is easy to feel in the United States that quality time is being overtaken by technology. Here, it is much less so. Dinner around the table is still very much alive and well here, instead of the concept of eating around the TV. Some of my favorite conversations with my host family have been around the table at dinner. I’m very happy that I came into this experience having already lived with this kind of familial closeness, so that it doesn’t seem as strange to me. I really like being able to connect with my host family as much as I do, and observe how Italian families interact. My family here has definitely been my favorite part of my experience so far.
Over the next few weeks, I will acclimate more into the Sienese culture and learn more about what is “normal” here. So far, this experience has been absolutely wonderful!
Until next time!
Clara is a current student at College of William and Mary studying at Siena Italian Studies in Italy during the Fall 2015 term.