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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Study Abroad Siena: a local rivalry

It was at one of the first orientation sessions that someone told our group of 12 about contrade.”The city is divided into 17 sections, each a contrada – plural, contrade,” said Robert Williams, professor of economics at Guilford and faculty leader of the first Guilford-Siena study abroad program. “Learn your host parents’ contrade. It’ll be important.”

A little medieval town in the foothills of Tuscany, Siena has, for nearly 500 years, held what is locally known as “Il Palio.” It is, at first glance, an unremarkable custom – a very old, but very simple horse race.

Every year, jockeys from 10 of the contrade pick their racehorse from a lottery and are given 24 hours before the race begins. The horses are usually brought into their contrada’s church and blessed by a priest.

The jockeys aren’t forgotten, and they’re blessed too, but they are considered less important. For instance, if a rider falls off his horse in the race and the horse goes on to win, that horse’s contrada is still awarded the victory.

OK – so, a very interesting local horse race.

But, as it turns out, the Sienese are as dedicated to Il Palio as North Carolina natives are to college basketball. Imagine the big Duke-Carolina game is on and the room is divided between Duke fans and UNC fans, all of them screaming.

Now put those screaming fans in the center of a city square (the Piazza) and imagine 10 horses running circles around them.

Then multiply the chaos by five, because even that image doesn’t take into account that not two, but 10 sworn enemies are all screaming for their different teams.

It makes you wonder about married couples that come from different contrade. Another difference between college basketball and Il Palio is that when a baby is born in Siena, they are registered with a contrada for the rest of their life, and their loyalty is predetermined.

So what happens when the mother and the father of the child are from different areas? I asked Patricia Ramspeck, director of the Leonardo da Vinci Scoula, where I am studying, and she shrugged.

“Sometimes they flip a coin,” she told me, “or sometimes they make a deal – the first child is one contrada, the second is another. It is usually a very big argument for parents.”

I was wrong. This is anything but unremarkable.

Local Siena channels often show recaps of the past Palio. In 2007, the Leocorno contrada – the Unicorn – won. In 2008, the Istrice, or Crested Porcupine. 2009 featured the ferocious Civetta contrada, otherwise known as the Little Owl.

Despite the names of the winners for the past three years, the contrade are definitely intense. The Scoula, or the school, our group is attending is in the Dragon contrada (Drago), and the other participating contrada include the Panther, the Eagle, and the She-Wolf, respectively Pantera, Aquila, and Lupa.

Encouraged by Williams and Ramspeck, I looked up the contrada I’m living in. Maybe I’d be the panther, or some other equally awe-inspiring mascot. When I looked it up on the map, my street was right on the border between two sections. I zoomed in, closer and closer, until I could finally read the fearsome name of my contrada: Il Giraffa.

In other words, the Giraffe.

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