Siena seems at first glance a typical Italian city: within its venerable medieval walls the citizens sport designer clothes, wield digital phones, and prize their dazzling local cuisine. But unlike neighboring Florence, Siena is still deeply rooted in ancient traditions—chiefly the spectacular Palio, in which seventeen independent societies known as contrade vie for bragging rights in an annual bareback horse race around the central piazza.
Into this strange, closed world steps Robert Rodi. A Chicago writer with few friends in town and a shaky command of conversational Italian, he couldn’t be more out of place. Yet something about the sense of belonging radiating from the ritual-obsessed Sienese excites him, and draws him back to witness firsthand how their passionate brand of community extends beyond the Palio into the entire calendar year. Smitten, Rodi undertakes a plan to insinuate himself into this body politic, learn their ways, and win their acceptance.
Seven Seasons in Siena is the story of Rodi’s love affair with the people of Siena—and of his awkward, heartfelt, intermittently successful, occasionally disastrous attempts to become a naturalized member of the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. It won’t be easy. As one of the locals points out, someone who’s American, gay, and a writer is the equivalent of a triple unicorn in this corner of Tuscany. But like a jockey in the Palio outlasting the competition in the home stretch, Rodi is determined to wear down all resistance. By immersing himself in the life of the contrada over seven visits at different times of the year—working in their kitchens, competing in their athletic events, and mastering the tangled politics of their various feuds and alliances—the ultimate outsider slowly begins to find his way into the hearts of this proud and remarkable people.
By turns hilarious and heartwarming, and redolent with the flavor of the Tuscan countryside, Seven Seasons in Siena opens a window on daily life in one of the most magical regions in all of Italy—revealing the joys to be found when we stop being spectators and start taking an active part in life’s rich pageant.
Memoirist and prolific author Rodi (Fag Hag) is an enthusiast. While many people like Siena, he loves it. While many people wish for a reason to return to the Tuscan town famous for its traditional horse race, the Palio, Rodi made a reason to go. Watching the race surrounded by Sienese wearing the colors of their contrada, or neighborhood, Rodi became deeply intrigued with this unique culture. Despite limited Italian and a full life elsewhere, Rodi decided to return again and again seven times in all. This book is the story of how he parlayed his friendship with a local tour guide into a genuine connection with the members of the Caterpillar contrada. Rodi's enthusiasm and humility he loves a story where he looks bad are charming, and it's easy to share his interest in this town where teenagers and 90-year-olds are bound by a shared love for their contrada. While the rhythms of a year organized around the Palio can get a little repetitive, Rodi does a good job of keeping things fresh and introducing us to the people he meets, their rituals, and the world they inhabit. Throughout, he's unabashed about what's driving him: the desire to be recognized as more than a tourist, the dream of being received as a member of the tribe. His desire will surely resonate with anyone who has ever fallen in love with a far away place.
Having recently returned from Tuscany and Siena, and not quite ready to let go of the trip, this book was the perfect follow-up.