Notes from a return to Siena: Accepting all the changes eight years can bring
In the summer of 2010, I had the chance to spend a summer in Siena, Italy.
To the 20 year old me, this summer was everything I could’ve dreamt of. I learned enough conversational Italian to go beyond surface-level tourist experiences. I learned how to cook, thanks to the constant presence of fresh produce. I even did the whole summer fling thing.
The summer fling didn’t last long, but everything else did. Cooking evolved into one of my major hobbies. I went on to try my hand at other languages with varying successes. And travel... that became a life-long love.
When Deanna and I first started getting to know each other, it was shortly after I got back from Siena, and I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t shut up about it.
The magical, medieval city I spent the past few months in.
The newfound appreciation for taking things really slow to soak in life and good company.
The Chianti. Definitely the Chianti.
As soon as I left Siena I knew it was a place I’d have to return to someday.
All that to say, when Deanna and I had the chance to finally go to Siena together this year, it felt like we were finally making good on a trip that I’d been anticipating much longer than we’d been married.
After spending a quick day in Rome, we took the train up to my old Italian homebase. The train station only looked vaguely familiar, but I knew exactly when I would feel like I’d returned.
Fifteen minutes later. When we walked through the gates and into the walls of the ancient city.
I immediately recognized the street where our Airbnb was located. It happened to be one of the longest, steepest streets in town, in the district of Bruco.
We checked in quickly, but I couldn’t wait to retrace all of my old steps.
Just after sophomore year of college was when I spent that semester in Italy, and that was really the point at which I felt like I became myself. It felt like I was now returning to where it all began.
Within that first night, we managed to rush out into the Piazza del Campo- the central gathering place for the entire town. We worked our way through the alleyways past the storefronts and up towards the northern part of town. My sense of geography started to return and it hit me that we were going towards the part of town where I used to live- the Drago district.
We walked past Piazza di Gramsci and instinct took over. We took a right at a narrow, downhill street and there it was. Residence Paradisio.
I stood at the doorway that led to the guesthouse where I used to live. I immediately recalled mornings on the balcony, watching people walk by. I recalled rainy days with stovetop coffee and card games. Playlists to unpack to.
That was just the first of many moments like that over the next few days.
I walked into my favorite pizzeria and remembered my first day in town. I walked past the building where my school used to be and remembered study break cappuccinos. I went grocery shopping and remembered how excited I was to have so many new, unfamiliar ingredients to experiment with.
I was so thankful for the opportunity to come back- but I also started to feel concerned about my own nostalgia. I hoped that the overwhelming presence of old memories weren’t getting in the way of my ability to make new ones with Deanna.
In fact, that’s a concern I have about nostalgia in general. Not just this trip.
It’s a gift to have a wealth of good memories, stories worth retelling, and great years to look back on. But nostalgia can become dangerous. When you spend too much time looking back, it takes away from your ability to continue building those moments in real time.
I’m aware that this is such a luxury problem. A problem caused by having great experiences can hardly been considered a problem.
As we spent more time in Siena, though, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways in which my life was totally different now.
A big part of what made my summer in college so exciting was the feeling that- in one sudden moment, I could be totally immersed in a different world. I could meet a new person and instantly feel connected. The world felt large and fascinating and I was just getting started with exploring.
These days, things are less about novelty. I’m more motivated to revisit old favorite spots. I don’t exactly want my life to radically change in an instant. I’m happy, but perhaps without that same sense of excited anticipation.
My return to Siena forced me to grapple with that. Was this a sad thing? Kind of. But not totally. It’s a byproduct of good things.
After a couple days, Deanna and I met with the one and only person I still knew in Siena. My old Italian professor, Cinzia. Talking to her would be my first Italian verbal exam in eight years.
Over an aperitif, we talked about changes. She moved back to Siena after living in Volterra for a bit, started working in Florence, and adopted four cats. On my end of things, I got married, moved six times, got two degrees and switched jobs several times. My life was totally different.
“But Siena,” I mentioned to her. “This is exactly the way I remember it.”
“Of course,” Cinzia replied. “That’s Italy. This place doesn’t really change.”
And for the most part, that was true. So much of Siena remains unchanged for centuries.
The city I remember from almost a decade ago also remains in tact. Things feel different, though. What changed? Me.
And realizing that suddenly felt really comforting. It was like acceptance.
Siena didn’t need to be the same experience for me in 2018 that it was in 2010. It probably shouldn’t be.
I needed to be grateful for the life I lived eight years ago, and awake to the life I’m living right now.
Going back to Siena was key to helping me get there. Going back to Siena didn’t mean recreating an old experience. It meant going back to the openness and presence that made my semester abroad what it was. I relearned the importance of being awake to who and what was around me.
That night, we followed Cinzia’s recommendation to a small restaurant to try pici- a local dish of thick, hand-rolled noodles. We sat down in a restaurant I’d never been to before, one that only opened three years prior. It was my first time ever trying the dish.