by Joanne Socha

Considering Life As An Expatriate?  Why Not Dip A Toe In First


Are you longing to live in a chateau in France, surrounded by lavender fields?  Perhaps you picture yourself in a tiny Italian villa, with cypress trees standing guard at night and a slipper moon hung just so?  Or are you more of a city mouse, yearning for non-stop twinkling lights and the ability to step into the hustle?  Why not try on a country, a city, or a village for size first before making the Big Decision?

I have been strategizing my European move for as long as I can remember.  It started as a girl, when I read about Chanel summering in Deauville, or Jane Austen in Bath.  As an adult, after I fled my life as a lawyer and transitioned into the luxury travel world, I knew I could start taking concrete steps to live abroad part of the year at first, with a gimlet eye towards a permanent move.

I always pictured my expatriate life in the South of France, walking up the mountainous path to Eze after dipping into the Mediterranean.  I’d jump on the TGV to Paris for Fall weekends, and put the finishing touches on my French language.  While I have always appreciated the melodic sound of Italian, I never dreamed I would speak it.   Enter European husband, stage right.  

I’d always travelled solo or with a small group of advisors to Italia every year to meet with guides, inspect villas and vineyards, and enjoy the country.   So I was a bit destabilized when I found myself en route to Tuscany, not for work but to live with una famiglia Italiana.  Not a luxury hotel in sight for me. 

The seed of the trip was planted by my husband, who had lived in Italy for 30 years.  He speaks Italian, and proposed the Dante Alighieri school in Siena to me, insisting that I live with an Italian family. Total immersion into the Italian experience and no English speaking allowed!  I gingerly agreed as I’d never had a semester abroad….this was to be my delayed one.

Little did I know that I was landing there during the most important season of the year:  Il Palio di Siena, a  zany horse race around Il Piazza del Campo.

Rooftop Ruminations –   Life At The Casa

When the taxi driver pulled up to the palazzo inside the Siena city walls, I knew this would be a perfect substitution for my addiction to luxury hotels.  It was an olive throw from Piazza del Campo.   Anna and Giorgio, the proprietors of the home, showed me my ‘camera’.  I was immediately drawn to the windows, shuttered against the heat of the day.  Upon opening them, Anna proudly presented her city to me, unveiling the gorgeous terracotta rooftops of Siena.  They would be in the palm of my hand for the stay, paired with a complement of church bells to announce each new day.  If this was expatriate living, I thought I could easily trade my sea views and air for it. 

Anna immediately swept me into her family, cats included (as a warm welcome the cat trashed my suitcase the first day).  Before school, my day started with an entire pot of espresso to myself and lovely Italian music on the radio.  When I left in the morning, Anna was hard at work hanging clothes out to dry on the clothesline out her window.  In the afternoons, she was always busy preparing something lovely for dinner.  Clearly the C.E.O of her home, she was also the heart of it.  

She quickly proved to me that she is someone I want in my corner if I have a problem in Siena.  From communicating with airlines to track down lost luggage, to scolding a driver on departure day because he didn’t want to drive inside the city walls because of Il Palio, Anna became my adopted Italian Fairy Godmother.  While we couldn’t necessarily communicate in Italian, I quickly understood by her intonations and gestures that Anna would stop at nothing to help her student charges.  

Every night after dinner, I would retreat to my room and open the shutters for a final glance at the remains of the day.  That is when I heard groups of men singing in the streets….

Swept Into A Sea Of Italians 

I had arrived in Siena several weeks before Il Palio di Siena, a 90 second horse race which circles the Piazza del Campo for three laps.  Until now I hadn’t appreciated what an important role this medieval festa plays in the lives of the Sienese people.  

Ten contrade (city districts, of which there are 17 total) are represented at the race.  As a native Sienese couple, Anna and Giorgio were born into rival contrade.  Giorgio represents La Contrada della Selva, or the Forest, known for its green, orange and white colors.   Anna is from the Onda, or the Wave contrada, which bears blue and white colors on its flag.  While I thought it might be hard to know who to ‘vote’ for during the race, Anna asked us to support her husband’s contrada which we happily did.  

At school, we took field trips to Piazza del Campo to see them turn the public square into a racetrack with imported dirt   – no small feat.  Throngs of Italians paraded through the streets, waving the colorful flags of their respective contrade and singing their hearts out.  It is hard to be homesick in Siena.

The evening before the event, we ran to Piazza del Campo to see the Corteo Storico, a stunning pageant which makes you long for the olden days.  We were literally packed in like pasta.  Groups of men on bleachers across from us would routinely stand up and burst into song.  And the pomp and circumstance!  Carabinieri on horseback, with swords, charged around the track, their horses bearing the respective colors of their contrade.  

We were invited by Giorgio to dine with his contrada under the stars the night before the race.  Our tables were laid out at the foot of the Duomo di Siena.  Giorgio made sure we were seated in front of the jockey, the Mayor and other notables from the city.  There was singing, eating, endless wine and jumping up and down (the children).  I gazed at our jockey, Giovanni Atzeni, and saw a proud look and determined glint in his eye.  I sensed a winner.  

The day of Il Palio arrived and again there was endless singing and celebrating in the streets.  My auspicious feeling from the night before proved true.  Our horse won, crossing the finish line without our dear jockey, who had fallen off before the finish.  The win still counts!  The twists and turns of the piazza are harrowing and many a riderless horse crosses the finish line.  The site of Remorex determined to win practically broke my heart – he captured the beauty and spirit of Italy in those final moments.  

They might still be celebrating that victory in Siena today.  

Plotting Our Permanent Return

When I first arrived in Siena, Anna had admired my red purse.  Before my departure, I decided to give it to her.  She laughed like a happy baby, clutching it to her chest and twirling around.  She had made my experience in Siena so rich and warm, and I wanted to spread a bit of happiness in return.  

For now, I haven’t given up my remote Italian studies with my Italian tutor and I am still committed to our dreamy villa life in Italy.  

Until then, I imagine elegant Anna strolling through the streets of Siena, red bag swinging by her side.