Our first full day in Siena, Italy was as magical as we had imagined when we booked our fifth floor apartment. That day my wife and I did most of the things we had imagined while planning the trip: we had pasta at an outdoor table. We tasted more of the local wine that we might admit in public. We had begun what might amount to a gelato tour of the city. We sat in the brick-laden city center and imagined the horse races we have heard about that take place in the square. We enjoyed a full day of walking in the hot Tuscan summer sun.
As our day came near an end we ventured to the local market. We used, or I should more accurately say, butchered all four of our memorized Italian sayings. With the help of a benevolent English speaking person we were able to find some cheese, local wine and some fruit. We labored through the stifling heat and up the stairs to our apartment where we slumped onto the couch and caught our breath.
Later we moseyed over and we sat on the balcony, facing the most breath-taking countryside. There were lush green hills, vineyards aplenty, we overlooked the gardens of a local church and in the distance we saw stone buildings that we imagined had nestled in those hillsides for centuries. It was all we had imagined and a bundle more. We were basking in the full glory of the Italian summer night. There was nothing that could ruin this make-your-friends-jealous moment.
Nothing except, apparently, the drumming of what we assumed were some kids coming from a few blocks away. Thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump. On and on the drumming went. What seemed so great and local to us for the first 10 minutes eventually drove us out of the night air and into bed. I mean, there was one song, one beat and one rhythm that we had memorized just a few minutes into it. We were so tired it did not keep us awake. Furthermore, Italy is no place to be upset and tomorrow promised another day of adventure awaiting us.
The next day’s adventures brought us more wine, more local sights and sounds as well as more gelato than one person should eat if they are trying to avoid diabetes. Our escapades took us to local churches, to meet some local merchants, and walking to the limits of our physical capabilities. Another night on the balcony was definitely in store for us. Another evening to feast our eyes on the once-in-a-lifetime view. Although we should have anticipated it, we were surprised that the night was also another night to hear, enjoy, and then endure the local drumming classes, or whatever they were. Thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump. It was another night that ended with us laughing about the drums; the only part of these Italian summer days that we never saw mentioned it the travel magazines. Wine? Yes. Gelato? Obviously. Pasta? Unquestionably. Drums? Laughably no.
We awoke to a beautifully cool Sunday morning. As it is with the two of us, I got up early and went out for a walk knowing that I could get in a little workout and exploration and still be back for a comfortable breakfast with Susie. I walked the city and in case you wondered, there were no gelato stands open at that time. What broke the calm of the morning was the now familiar thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump.
Laughing out loud, I thought those kids were in for it now. I was sure it was either the way the locals punished the tourists for staying out too late on a Saturday night or some deviant kids making early morning mischief. I was wrong about both, but I was drawn to the sounds. I was determined to finally face those who would make the melodic and hypnotizing thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump. So I picked up my pace and went to where I thought the music was coming from.
I rounded a set of buildings just in time to come face-to-face with a beautiful local parade. It was not led by 76 trombones, rather by costume-clad drummers. There were smaller ones that looked as young as 5 and some as old as 60-ish. They had been lined up by size with the littlest up front. Their garb was brilliant tights adorned with one red leg and one black and white leg. They had black and red shirts that hung down to mid-thigh. Each chest was adorned with a picture of an owl. Every head was covered with a black and red hat, round and puffy. No baseball caps in this parade. They walked with precision and drummed with vigor: Thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump.
Behind them were rows of flag bearers. Each flag bearer was dressed the same as the drummers, but holding a 6 foot pole festooned with a flag. Left arms bent and holding their hip, the right arms twirling the flags. The flags were equally red, squiggly white and black. Every flag had an owl predominant in it’s the top quadrant. The multitudes of flag wavers moved with determination, exactitude and the confidence that comes with practice.
Bringing up the rear was a more casual collection of older folks walking along and talking to one another. Each person in this gaggle had a scarf or kerchief that matched the owl flags. This group looked more like the town elders, states people and some drummers’ grandparents. They moved with the same pride, but with less precision and more conversation.
It was there that I abandoned my viewership and wanted to ask a multitude of questions about what I was seeing. I caught up with the stragglers and asked a small group what was going on. One lady, about my age, said to me: “Come on, you’re one of us now.” Although my citizenship had not changed, I had never felt more Italian in my life! I was included, I was valued and I was walking with my new friends in an Italian parade to a destination I did not know, nor did I care. I did not mind that we were passing gelato stands, wine bars and the cannoli venders that were just setting up. My adventure had intensified and I was in for a penny and in for a pound. As we walked I got what every tourist dreams about; a firsthand glimpse into local life.
It turns out the owl represents a certain neighborhood, the one we were staying in. Our community with the drums and the amazing views. Siena has seven such sectors, each represented by a different animal. The parade was a traditional part of a festival that had gone on longer than my hostess or her friends could remember or confirm. Our neighborhood festival consisted of drumming their unique beat, dressing in their resident garb and waving their neighborhood’s flag. The parade would go to each of the other six neighborhoods, meet the residents of those areas in their local church and exchange greetings. I was loving my front row seat and could hardly wait to see what would happen next.
It was more crazy-cool than I could have dreamed. When we arrived at their church we were greeted by what seemed to be their drummers and flag wavers, sans costumes. They lined the street and led us into the church. Their elders and our elders embraced, said some cool Italian sounding things and there was a lot of clapping. Only after that did our group and their gathering join in a singular song that apparently everyone knew but me. I may have been one of them, but I was definitely the weakest link. There was swaying and passionate singing pulsing through to the end. At this time the drums began again thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump and just like that we were exiting the dolphin church and headed onto our next adventure.
I could not imagine the next stop being any more awesome than where we were, but I was along for the ride of a lifetime. I spent the walk getting to know my hosts and hearing about their families, their jobs and their daily lives. I felt like a voyeur in a little Siena production, but instead of virtual reality I was having real reality. They reciprocated the questions and wanted to know about my American life. They asked about our politics and they told me what they knew about our country. We laughed and we bonded.
We wondered onto the next church and had a similar experience of flags, beautiful local church art, songs, clapping and embraces. It wasn’t until we left that church that I wondered to myself about how this festival ends. I fantasized about ending in a park with a potluck that they invited me to. I imagined the wine, the homemade gelato and a bevy of Italian home cooking. Unfortunately, I was told it ends with families cheering for one another and going to their own homes to feed themselves with their closest loved ones. Alas, I was not that included.
My Sunday in Siena remains my fondest memory of the Tuscan region and a life-giving and life-changing experience. I will always affectionately remember that summer day; all of the colors, the drums, my hosts and the local lore. However, I will also remember the lessons I learned along the parade route. It is a lesson that our country and our people should embrace at this odd time in history. The lesson is simple: I was an outsider, a foreigner and I was invited into their cultural experience. They knew, what I will learn to embrace more, that you can have an unpolluted passion for your culture and your land while at the same time invite others to participate in meaningful ways. I was included, not shunned. I was warmly welcomed, not waved on. When we do that we broaden the human experience, the world wide connection and the personalization of a global love for others.
Thank you for that lesson, Siena. Thank you Italy. My heart beats to go back and see you again and the beat goes thump, ba dump. Thump, ba dump.