Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about family and what that means for a lot of different reasons. I don’t think that I can come up with one single definition of what family is, and I’m more than comfortable with that. I feel very close to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
I was lucky enough to have some serious family time with my easy-to-define immediate family consisting of wife and son here in Siena for 9 days. With Sean only being 14 months old there are so many firsts not only for him, but also for us as a family. We took Sean to the beach twice, and though he went last year when he was 3 months old, this time he really enjoyed it for the first time. So much sand, so much water, so much sunscreen.
While Marianna and Sean were here we also had a visit from friends from Denver. In middle school and high school I had the fortune of having a number of close friends. Our bond was similar to a brotherhood. We laughed, competed, fought, and came of age together. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in Denver, and I’ve seen a lot of things and met a lot of people, but the bond with my friends from what I still consider home doesn’t seem to have weakened. Hanging out with my friend, Dan was great and it was as if no time had passed despite the facts that we are married, have children, and we were in Italy, where I now live.
Last week I also got news that my Uncle, my Dad’s oldest brother, passed away. He’d been having some health problems of late and finally that took its final toll. To be honest, I didn’t know my Uncle that well. The times that I’d spent with him here mostly when I was rather young. Much of what I knew about him was from stories that my Dad told me. What I know is that my Uncle was right in the middle of everything that would come to be the historically famous 1960’s. When I say “right in the middle”, I mean it. In the hotbed of the bay area surrounding San Francisco, Peter was roommates with Jorma Kaukonen (read Jorma’s blog post about my uncle “Another Man Done Gone” if you’d like) who would go on to be in the band Jefferson Airplane. My Dad always told me the story about his brother taking him to a concert where a young band was opening up for some other band whose name is lost in history. That opening band’s lead singer was named Jim Morrison and his band was called “The Doors”. For my uncle, Psychedelia in San Francisco (combined with classical Jesuit school training) led to a career as a philosophy professor at Stony Brook in New York.
When someone is gone, you think about the time you spent with them and about the time that you would have liked to spend with them. It’s not easy being far away from family whether it’s parents, a wife or children. When it’s just me here I find that it’s important to reach out to others close to me to spend the time that I have with them. Skype helps a lot with our current Trans-European arrangement and has recently replaced the Sunday evening phone calls with my parents that we’ve been having ever since i went to college in Portland, OR. That’s right…. my parents just figured out skype only months ago. I think that the arrival of a grandchild was the motivation that they needed to make the technological leap.
Finally, this past week the city of Siena came together as a family, as it has done since the beginning of time for the Palio horse race. I’m not even going to try to explain it here for you. The only real way to understand it is to see it. A student who studied with Siena Italian Studies in the spring came back, as a guest of host family’s for the Palio. She asked me why we didn’t explain absolutely everything to her group in the spring. I told her two things: One, I actually did explain a lot, but I don’t think that anyone was listening, and two that some things just need to be experienced for them to make any sense. Here’s some info if you’re interested: Palio di Siena.
I will do my best to briefly explain what the Palio has to do with family. During medieval times Siena needed to defend itself from everyone else. Medieval times were not very neighborly times. If you could, you killed your neighbor and took their stuff. One organizational aspect of Siena’s defense system was that it divided the city into small neighborhoods that could form small armies to temporarily defend their part of the city in the case of attack until the rest of the Sienese army could get there. By the way, as far as the roots of all of this we’re talking 1200’s and some say even much earlier. I’m not a historian so forgive me if I am not that specific. When the city wasn’t being attacked the neighborhoods went along with their daily business and each neighborhood was comprised usually of groups of people, families, that were involved in the same line of work (there was no suburbia with highways into downtown…you lived where you worked). The people who worked with wool and shepards were situated close to each other as were the lawyers, hunters, bankers, etc… It became common for each neighborhood (which would eventually take on the name Contrada) to have it’s own church and even social center.
People were proud of what they did and of where they were from. Symbols evolved to represent and distinguish each neighborhood and it was common, even in other Italian city-states, for the powers-that-were to spend money to entertain the masses (still common today… What do you think sports are?). The entertainment often involved games that pit the neighborhoods against one another and of course the winner would be pronounced the pride of the whole city until there was a new winner. Over hundreds of years a horse race ended up being the most popular. Thus, Il Palio.
Today Siena is the only city that has held on to its tradition so closely that many say that the mentality in the city is still medieval. The Contrada’s are alive and well and the only way to be a part of a Contrada is to be baptized into one. For the Sienese, the Contradas are secondary families. I have chosen, out of respect to not be baptized into a Contrada. For me it’s difficult to pledge allegiance arbitrarily to one group of people. I came to be friends with so many people in Siena that it’s impossible for me to just choose one group to live and die with. I have the rare luxury of being able to frequent all of the Contradas as a guest of many friends.
Our son Sean, like most Sienese, was born in Siena and thus by right, can be baptized into a Contrada. In the end, the choice was rather arbitrary as neither myself nor Marianna have any official allegiance. Marianna has always been partial to the Nobile Contrada Del Nicchio and we have a number of friends who belong to that same Contrada, so that’s what we chose for Sean. If he ends up growing up in Siena, or even if he doesn’t, he’ll have a close network of people of all ages on which whom he can rely and with whom to play the timeless game that is the Palio. Upon his baptism he also was burdened with the responsibility to protect and uphold his Contrada.
Unfortunately for the Contrada del Nicchio, this Palio saw them suffer a rather crushing defeat as their rival’s jockey literally pulled their jocky from his horse mid-race. Luckily for Sean, he won’t remember this one.
Maybe you read all of this or maybe you just skipped to the end…Either way, here’s a video of us at the beach. Big hugs to all of my family, extended family, and everyone who’s reading this.