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Palio, I Heart You

Allison and I, along with a half dozen of our American friends from the Summer Abroad Program, had finally found the party for Bruco, or caterpillar, one of the Contrade (neighborhoods) competing in this year’s Palio in Siena. We had big plans to partake of the cheap wine and beer, dancing and general merriment that surrounds this type of festa. We stuck out like sore thumbs with our loud behavior and strange dance moves, but the Italians adored our outgoing spirits and would let us play along in the festivity, which they take so seriously.

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This historic event has been a staple during the summer months for over 700 years, stopping only during the era of the Plague when three fourths of Siena’s population passed away from the disease, the rest simply fled the city. For the past thirty years, the city has been thriving, and the Palio fever is stronger than ever. Each Contrada has been like an extremely close family that you have to be born into or could join later, only if you were baptized into the community. There have been songs, bitter rivalries and alliances that have stemmed from centuries of bad blood and family ties between ancient members.

My Contrada, Chiocciola, or snail, was the enemy of Tortuga, or tortoise, which whom we shared a common border. On the day of the big race there is a procession that lasts for hours, circling the inner ring where tourists and locals alike are stuffed in like sardines, awaiting the race that will only last about a minute and a half. I stood near the outer edge, so that I could clearly see the track, and when the race finally did start, I was pressed against the fence yelling and screaming support for my fantino, or jockey, just like everyone else, not knowing that by the end of the race I would feel more out of place than at any other time during my stay in Italy.

The second the race began Tortuga was in the lead. Figuring that another horse would pull forward during the three laps, I didn’t worry, but at the close of the second there wasn’t another contender even close, and I watched as the Chiocciola supporters yelled, screamed and cried from the sidelines as Tortuga finished first. I can’t stress enough how devastating this was for the Italians that belonged to the Chiocciola Contrada, but picture grown men crying openly in the streets, holding each other for support. When I arrived back at my host family’s house, I found them in a daze, going over the race endlessly until finally they refused to even talk about it anymore.

As I drifted off to sleep that night I could hear members from the Tortuga Contrada playing music and celebrating late into the night. With their bragging rights locked in for a year, I knew the people from my Contrada would have to live through this long after I left in August.