The pigeons are sick of Siena.
I know this because the regulations at the pensione where I’m staying in Italy say so--at least, when one uses Google Translate it reads that way. There it is in black and white, telling me not to try to attract them to the windowsills (as if I would want to ), because they’re just so bloody sick of Siena. Or something like that.
I thought this was funny, until the other day when I was hanging out by the window, enjoying the view of the church of San Domenico and the distant Tuscan hills, praying for some wind or a few drops of rain (I’ve counted about five drops since I arrived), and I overheard a conversation. There was a pigeon right nearby, and when another one landed next to it, the conversation went something like this:
First Pigeon: “Well, look who’s here! If it isn’t ol’ Beppe!”
Second Pigeon: “Eh, Stefano! Come stai?”
First Pigeon: “Sto bene, grazie. Where have you been, man? Was beginning to think maybe you got into some windmills or a jet engine or something.”
Second Pigeon: “No . . .no. Nothing like that. I just needed a little space, a little change of scenery. I am so sick of Siena.”
First Pigeon: “I hear you, man. Me, too. It’s like, how many times can you go for a swig at the Fonte Gaia, you know?”
Second Pigeon: “I know! And the drumming . . . for crying out loud, do these people ever stop?”
First Pigeon: “ . . and when it’s not the drumming, it’s the bells, and if it’s not the bells, it’s the damned canon for the races and the trumpets on Piazza del Campo. I tell ya, it’s given me PTSD. I really need to get away.”
Second Pigeon: “You owe it to yourself. Really. The squabs are all about ready to take off, and I hear Antonella is pretty much recovered from the collision with the shop window . . seriously. Have you considered Rome?”
First Pigeon: “Actually, it’s always been a dream of mine.”
Second Pigeon: “Oh, then you must. You wanna sit on some statuary . . well, that’s your city. Emperors, kings, saints, popes, gods of the sea. You name it, you can have a sit-down on some seriously important figures. Aaaaah, Roma. . . I tell you, there’s nothing like it. . . . . Hey, who’s the chick in the window?”
First Pigeon: “Some American broad. Speaks Italian like Tarzan."
Second Pigeon: [laughing in his little smug, pigeony way] “Heh . . . crrrroooo. . . . crrrroooo . . . .Americans! What can you do with them?!”
Now, I must stress at this point that this is a translation from the Italian. They speak a sort of . . . well. . . . .pidgin Italian. Which, of course, is why I could understand them.
While I didn’t appreciate their smug commentary on my Italian skills, I could sort of understand their disenchantment with the noise. Siena is a noisy place; at least during the Palio festival. But it has a lot more to recommend itself than it has drawbacks.
For me, there are the buildings. Always the buildings. I am in love with the buildings. I walk almost every night here. This is not hard to do, as the weather is so perfect I find myself sometimes hoping for rain, just so I’ll have an excuse to stay indoors and do something productive (no, blogging does not count as ‘productive’). Instead, I feel compelled to go out and about, revelling in life’s simpler pleasures, like the sun or the stars, food, beauty, a slow pace, people-watching, window shopping, etc. I walk, and often feel like I’m on a movie set, where everything is perfectly formed, perfectly lighted, and in the imagination of the viewer (hopefully) perfectly scented and in perfect accord with one’s deepest hopes and desires.
|One of Siena's many little passageways.|
I have to say, this city is as clean as it is noisy. During festivals there might be a huge mess for a little while, but the next morning, you would never know that anything celebratory had gone on at all. It’s really impressive. I remarked to a new Sienese friend the other day that, while it may sound strange to take note of such a thing, I haven’t seen a single rat or mouse the whole time I’ve been in Siena. Coming from NYC, this is a pretty big deal. Rat sightings are commonplace there, and sometimes they’re so big you have to do a double-take to be sure it wasn’t an escaped Upper East Side lap-dog. My friend says that on the rare occasion that somebody sees such a thing in Siena, the city is right away at work with extermination (perhaps why I have also not seen any insects in these old buildings, besides fruit flies). I suppose that having had half the population wiped out by a plague at one point, one learns a few lessons about vectors and the importance of vigilance. Should a new plague arise in the modern era, I’m betting on NYC as the place where it all begins. After all, we like to brag that you can get anything you want in New York . . .and perhaps a few things that you don’t.
Anyway, on a happier note, back to Siena. The streets here are usually narrow. Many are not really like “streets” at all, in the American sense, but rather “alleys”, big enough for motor scooters and the mini trucks that collect trash here, but some streets would hold a car captive if it managed to get onto it in the first place. These streets would laugh heartily at your SUV, if you could get it close enough for them to see it. . . which you can’t. The walls lining the streets hold me as I walk, like giant hands guiding me along the path, keeping me on course, though occasionally offering more options than I can handle. It’s OK, though. I always end up joining another main street before too long and staying on track.
They cradle and they comfort, any time of the day or night, but especially at night. A few steps off the main arteries where tourists tend to congregate, and it’s like a different city altogether. Sometimes it’s like my own private city, as I have the streets to myself, while just over the buildings tourists bump and nudge each other; gelato in one hand, camera in the other. I like these more private streets best when I hear the bells of one of Siena’s many churches in the distance, suddenly swallowed again by silence, punctuated occasionally by my own footsteps on stone. Sometimes I’ll stop walking, close my eyes, and just listen to the silence, amazed to find it in a city (a city full of Italians, no less). Would that my own pensione were located in one of these neighborhoods. . .
Sometimes I feel a little lost, as the buildings can look very much alike if I don’t pay enough attention. Always there is rough-textured stone and, built into the walls, metal rings for tying up horses back in the days before Fiat. There are tiles on the corners of some buildings which identify the boundaries of the Contradas (neighborhoods or districts) of Siena. On one side of the street, you might see a little symbol for the Selva contrada (a rhino standing under a tree), while a building on the other side of the street has the symbol of L’Aquila contrada (a double-headed eagle). Sometimes the flags of the various contrade serve the same purpose as the more permanent tiles. Then there are gothic windows, and very tall wooden and metal doors from the days when (apparently) giraffes lived in the palazzi of Siena. There are stone benches built into walls, twists and undulations of both building facades and the streets they abut--streets undulating on both the horizontal and vertical axes; walls curve along the streets, but streets rise and fall like waves, too.
|Tile marker on building for Civetta (little owl) contrada.|
Still, though so much looks similar, none are the same. Look closely and sometimes secrets are revealed, while at other times, one is pulled into a mystery. Why that small, seemingly random window? What does that Latin script say, and why is it over that door to nowhere? Why would that metal ring be twenty feet up the wall? Why all these little square holes going all the way up the wall? I prefer these medieval buildings to flashy modern marvels for perhaps the same reason that I prefer old people--they have stories to tell, and I know it. I’m as hungry for stories as I am for local foods, like panforte and pici or pappardelle with cinghiale ragu’. I’m hoping that if I’ll just be patient and keep my eyes and ears open, spend enough time with them, they’ll tell me as many as I care to hear.
So far, slowly they have entrusted me with that key; the one that unlocks the greatest secret of them all--how to live the stories, deeply; how to breathe in a way that takes one past mere survival into the depths of life. Being here, wanting the stories is, I suspect, part of that larger secret. Taking chances, embracing a little discomfort for the rewards it brings, the connections one makes.
How many people on how many nights like this, in how many centuries, have wandered these lanes and listened to the silence, listened to the noises--the drums, the clang of silverware through a dining room window, a shutter opening or closing, a child calling to his mother--smelled the smells, smiled at moonlight on stone and glass. How many will follow? How many have kept promises that have enabled me to look upon these same things they saw 500 years ago--like this Palio that has the city electrified. I can watch this spectacle and feel connected not only to the present, but to people in all times; past and future, too. My world expands not only in space, but in time. I can experience this because they created and kept alive the things we now call traditions. Others after me will do the same because the Sienese keep them alive still.
Someone on a distant day will walk these streets and wonder about those who walked before, and it will be me (among others) they’re wondering about.
Around each corner voices whisper, “Breathe. See. Listen. Remember. Pay attention . . .pay attention . . .pay attention . . .”, a thousand different voices, in many different tongues.
To which I add my own, “I did. . . I am . . .thank you . . . grazie. . . grazie.”