Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 5, "Scusi, do you speak English?"

Tuesday began, for me, with a trip to the supermarket with a few members of our group. The Genettis had planned a trek to a mega-supermarket some distance away (they made this place sound as big as an American Pathmark) so they could find some special supplies, but the rest of us were satisfied with the local market. Armed with a list Georg had written out for me (complete with phonetic spellings), I was actually able to communicate a request for cento grammi di prosciutto and mozzarella bufala (the real mozzarella, made from buffalo milk, which I'd only had once or twice before). I'm sure my pronunciation was atrocious, but the lady at the deli counter was very friendly & patient with me.

I guess now would be a good time to talk about the language barrier. We found that we could manage most transactions with no more Italian than scusi and grazie. However, Georg and I wanted to speak as much Italian as we could learn in such a short time. I confess to being disappointed in my own performance in the language. When we were just sitting around chatting or practicing words, I did alright. But when I got into a store, or some other place where speech was actually required to be understood, I would get flustered and nervous. I felt like I was drawling out my words in a thick, nasal, Southern American accent. Chock-ohh-reez-oh, pear favouray? I studied French and Latin in high school, so I wish I had done better with Italian. I never did get the hang of the gl sound (as in gli Amanti, the Lovers). I could say it alright within a word, as in aglio, but it really gave me trouble at the beginning of a word.

Georg, on the other hand, did really well with his Italian pronunciation. The perfect example: In Siena we went into a gelateria. I went up and ordered in Italian, and the clerk said "OK! Small or medium!" (this was the only curt person I talked to all week, and it was really busy so I guess he had an excuse.) Then Georg went up and ordered, also in Italian, and the guy asked him what size in Italian. I was impressed!

Georg was even mistaken for Italian a couple of times, once by an Australian tourist who asked him to take his picture ("Photo, per favore?") and once by an Italian woman on the train who asked him to help read her ticket, which had been misprinted. When he said "Si, I think so," she said "Oh! Sorry!" in English. On the other hand, I must look particularly American, because often I would be greeted with "Hello" before I even had the chance to ask "Scusi, do you speak English?"

Anyway, I shouldn't complain about not picking up perfect Italian in just a few days. As I said, I was able to get around with only a few embarrassing moments. I tried hard not to be afraid of making a fool of myself. Francesca, of course, interpreted for us and also taught me useful phrases -- like the difference between Quanto costa (how much does that cost), and Quanto le devo (how much do I owe you), or the difference between Scusi (excuse me) and Mi dispiace (I'm sorry). And at the same time, she pointed out to me some interesting inconsistencies in English, for example, why does devil not rhyme with evil.

Speaking of Francesca, after lunch the whole group set off on our big trip to Siena, where Georg and I had planned to meet up with her. We met Francesca in front of the duomo after a brief mix-up, caused by Georg and myself being so impressed by the baptistry at the back of the duomo that we thought that was the front, and waited there instead. While we were waiting in the wrong place, Glenna offered to help us look for Francesca in the crowd, and asked me to describe her. "Well," I said, "she's tall and pretty, with dark shoulder-length hair." Looking around at the sea of Italian faces, Glenna deadpanned, "We should have no trouble finding her in this crowd!"

In any case, after finding Francesca we were just in time for Brian's tour of the interior. As impressive as the duomo is on the outside, it's even more impressive on the inside. Clearly, it was designed to fill the visitor with overwhelming awe. In my case, it succeeded! The columns are formed of horizontal stripes of black and white marble, a remarkable effect. Way up high, along the ceiling are busts of hundreds of popes (I think it's supposed to represent every pope up to the time that the duomo was built). Oddly, the popes didn't look down at the viewer, but instead seemed to regard each other. Brian told us that there had been a bust of Pope Joan up there until it was removed, probably for the two reasons that 1. it was unseemly to have a woman up there with the popes, and 2. Pope Joan was ahistorical.

We had a minor disappointment in that the legendary mosaics in front of the entrance were covered up to protect them from wear. I think that the second week folks got to see these mosaics uncovered, and I hope one of them will describe the sight in their own trip reports (hint, hint!). We did get to see a few of the mosaics, which are out of the line of traffic so they can be roped off. The mosaics were highly pagan in nature -- featuring sybils and non-Christian stories. It was really interesting to hear Brian and Alexandra, both experts in pagan symbolism, discuss the meaning of the imagery.

At one point during Brian's talk, he compared one of the images to a card in his upcoming deck, the Minchiate Tarot. Minchiate (min-key-AH-tay) is a little-known historical variant of the Tarot, which includes 19 extra cards (mainly additional virtues missing from the traditional Tarot trumps, and the signs of the zodiac). Now, Francesca had warned me ahead of time that in modern Italian, minchiate is a swear word, used the way we say bullshit. When Brian referred "the image in my minchiate", I saw Francesca turn away a little, smiling behind her hand. I guess I'd be similarly embarrassed if I heard someone say "my bullshit Tarot" inside a church!

I think my favorite part of the duomo was a little room off to the side, that included marvelous frescoes on the ceilings, and glass cases on the walls displaying ancient illuminated books. The books, intended for choir singers, were massive, with large writing so several singers could share each book. On each page was marvelous art that illustrated the content of the song. Brian mentioned that the books stolen from Monte Oliveto were probably much like these. The frescoes on the ceilings were full of pagan imagery such as Leda and the swan, a marvelous discovery inside this massive tribute to Christianity. Georg even noticed a subtle pun in the decorations: above the door is a tiny sculpture of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden. A droll way of marking the exit?

The Campo, Siena
The Campo, Siena. To the right are Brian Williams, Sarah, Ann Williams, and Francesca Bucca.

Next Brian led us to the Campo, only a few blocks away. This is the piazza where the Palio is raced, which Georg has already described quite well so I can skip that part. At this time, Brian took the group on a tour of the Museo Civico, the civic museum in the Palazzo Pubblica. Georg and Francesca and I had to miss that tour, since we needed to retrieve her luggage from a baggage check down at the train station. It was quite a hike, and I'm afraid that as the slacker with the sedentary life, I held up Francesca (who walks all the time) and Georg (who works on his feet). Still, I did my best to keep up, and it was nice to have the chance to catch up with Francesca, who seemed to have greatly enjoyed her visit with her Florentine friends Mauro and Cecilia. Besides, in an odd way, it was nice to walk through an area that looked more familiar, to see proof that there's more to Italy than ancient hill towns and 15th century frescoes sprouting from every surface. I was glad to see bus shelters and apartment buildings and roads with sidewalks too.

On the walk we discussed all sorts of things. At one point Francesca told us the very charming expression two hearts and a hut, which refers to marrying for love, not money. She asked what expression we use in the US. To my embarrassment, I couldn't think of a single one, so I told her that never happens in America.

She also asked us if we still have dowries in the US, and said they are quite common in Italy. I was a little surprised by this, since a dowry seems a rather backward custom, and I had been impressed up to that point by the modern and progressive culture I saw in Italia. It turns out that in Italy, a dowry (or whatever Italian word is cognate to it) means what we would call a hope chest or trousseau. With some relief I could agree that, while the custom is fading, it certainly isn't unknown in the US. In fact, a couple of times my mother has given me some pretty antique linen, telling me with a sigh that she had saved it for my hope chest.

Along the way. we passed a roadblock with three carabinieri (cops), one of whom was standing there, casually holding an automatic weapon in his hands! I found this quite alarming, though Francesca assured me that it's not uncommon and nothing to worry about. We mentioned it to the others when we got back, prompting a discussion between Brian and Francesca on the different types of Italian law enforcement.

Apparently there are several different organizations: carabinieri, polizia, vigili urbani, plus another whose name I forget. Each one acts independantly, with jurisdiction over a specific area of crime. For example, the vigili urbani are traffic cops, not allowed to make arrests in other matters. So if the vigili urbani stopped someone for speeding and noticed drugs in the car, they would have to hold the suspects until the carabinieri could arrive and take over. Brian suggested that this system had developed because after experiencing a fascist state, the Italian people wanted to ensure that their police never had too much power again. So they split up the police into several forces that could not act in concert to oppress the people. Francesca sounded a little dubious of this explanation, so I'm not sure if that's really the case. In any case, I found it all very confusing.

We got Francesca's bag safely locked up in the van, and made it back to the historical district in time to enjoy more marvelous gelato before meeting up with the rest of the group. In Siena we found a flavor totally new to us: riso (rice) and cioccoriso (chocolate rice). I'm afraid it's a little difficult for me to describe these flavors. I guess the closest American dessert would be rice pudding, but it really didn't taste like rice pudding. All I can say is that it was excellent. So if you live in a big city with a good gelateria, definitely give riso a try.

Many of the travelers were tired and ready to go back, but some of us wanted to stay and experience Siena at night. Luckily, we had all three cars, (the two Fiats plus the Genettis' smaller van) so we were able to arrange the trip back to everyone's satisfaction. Before dinner Brian, Ann, Georg, Francesca and I went for a short walk around the city, while the rest of those who stayed sat at a cafe in the Campo to have a drink and rest their feet. I was really glad to have this chance to walk around the historical city, especially since we had spent most of the afternoon walking down to the train station. We walked through several contrade: the goose, the shell, the porcupine and the unicorn. As Georg mentioned, you could tell what contrada you were in, not only because people would hang their flag from their window, but because the street lamps were decorated with that contrada's symbol. I heard that Brian was most fond of the shell, but personally I thought the goose had the best lamps by far.

During this walk I also saw the only non-Catholic church all week: a Jewish synagogue. I knew that Italy was a Catholic country, but I was surprised not to see any Protestant churches at all. We did see a couple of Mormons, however; Brian said that two American men with white shirts, ties and bicycles are unmistakable Mormoni. Also we passed the parading Chiocciola, the victorious contrada, a couple of times. They seemed to be wandering around the city making noise all day & all night. The fervor did remind me of when Duke wins the ACC basketball tournament, except that nothing got burned.

Back at the Campo, Brian and Bob settled on a rather pricey-looking restaurant for dinner. A few of us decided to find something a little more reasonable (as Mike put it, as soon as he saw the waiter's uniform, he knew the place was too expensive!). So Mike, Arnell, Francesca, Georg and I wandered along until we found an outdoor cafe, and had a lovely dinner together. Since we only had one course each, our meal was finished long before the other group. So we had some time to enjoy Siena at night. Georg, Francesca and I headed for the Museo Civico, which we had missed earlier in the day and was fortunately open late. Because of the late hour, the place was deserted except for the staff. It was nice to take as long as we wanted at each work, without worrying about blocking anyone else's view.

The Museo Civico, Siena
The Museo Civico, Siena

I have to admit, I was not too impressed by the first couple of rooms. In fact, I had to restrain myself from a few "ugly tourist" remarks about my feet hurting and the museum being lame. I am so glad I gave it a chance! As we made our way further into the museum, we found a series of rooms with incredible frescoes. I know, I keep calling everything wonderful and incredible and these words are beginning to lose their meaning. But these really were amazing. There was a 14th century work by Simone Martini, depicting a knight on horseback riding from a tented camp to a city. Francesca told us that she had studied this painting in school, as an early attempt to show movement realistically. The horse is wearing a coat with a lozenge pattern, that ripples and waves in the wind.

We also saw the mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism that I've mentioned elsewhere. For example, on one wall was a massive fresco (I think this was also by Martini) depicting Christ and an assortment of saints. Several arches led out of the room, and under the arches were portraits of Roman and Greek gods. We were interested to see a portrait of Pallas Athena with a bat, rather than the more familiar owl. We asked Brian later, and he said that was probably simply a mistake, rather than a deliberate message.

In the room beyond that were three 14th century frescoes depicting good and bad government. These showed the virtues of good government: wisdom, compassion, justice, etc. Opposite them were the vices of bad government: avarice, tyranny, etc. In the good government town, the peasants are shown dancing, the fields are fertile, everyone is happy. In the bad government town, there's trash on the ground, buildings are falling down, the fields are barren, there are people begging and two men in the foreground attacking a woman. I cannot tell you how fascinating it was to see this pictoral representation of 14th century ethics. I gather that the Museo Civico was originally Siena's city hall. I guess these frescoes must have been put there to remind members of the government of their responsibilities to their citizens. Sadly, the frescoes have suffered water damage (particularly the bad government one). But still, there were so many wonderful details.

I found a website at: that has 3d virtual tours of this museum, with close-up photos of the good/bad government frescoes, the Martini fresco of the horse, and a few other works. If you don't mind the navigation in Italian (it's pretty straightforward), the website is worth a look. I think that on the front page, you click a link that says Arts and Culture. Then look for the link that says Museo Civico, that's the museum. You can't read the descriptions unless you can read Italian, but at least you can see the pictures.

By the time we left the museum, the "high rollers" had finished their dinner, so we were ready to head back home. We had miscalculated so the van was a little overfull, but we all managed to squeeze in somehow. We chatted with Ann Williams, Brian's mother, on the way back. Ann was very charming, a perfect conversationalist. Later Francesca told me that she liked Ann because she was reserved. On reflection, I thought that very perceptive of her. Ann had none of the superficial "instant intimacy" that, I suppose, has given Americans our international reputation as being overly chummy. Instead, Ann was ultimately gracious, a delight to talk to.

Back at Montalto we got Francesca set up in her room in Guardia, which Brian referred to as the European ghetto since all the European members of our group -- Simon, Maria, Moonchild, Riccardo, and Francesca -- ended up staying there. Since we drove in at night, she didn't get the full impact of the approach, emerging from the trees to that spectacular view of the castle. But still, at least we got there!

Tomorrow: A day of rest, and a very special ceremony.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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