It’s just after ten on Friday and the park at La Fortezza is full as is usual this time of day. The weather is cooler now with signs of fall changes everywhere. The leaves of the chestnut trees are crispy and yellow at the edges; the carcasses of the first fallen chestnut globes are starting to litter the walkway. I remember when I first saw them on the trees in the spring…bright green and spiny like misplaced sea creatures.
I’ve been lucky enough to be here in Siena for all four seasons this year. In January, the park is more open to light with bare tree branches at the top and darker and softer at the bottom as the stone pavement is covered with a ripening layer of foliage. In April the first buds arrive along with the first winter babies who are now old enough to brave a bit of chill and constant stops for admiring friends and neighbors. (“Come bellina sei!”)
By June my morning here starts earlier to beat the heat of the day. The runners are out in force and gaggles of gawking tourists clog the park’s pathways. The flowering trees make the entire place smell like heaven and the heaps of climbing jasmine we call “confederate” make it smell like home. The roses and lavender pop a little more every day. The windows of the music school in the center of the park are open and I hear drums counting out an Eric Clapton song on one end of my run and a tentative sax refrain on the other.
Today the lingering smell from the horses who passed through during the transumanza, the ancient annual ritual of moving the livestock from the highlands to the low-lying Maremma, instantly flash me back to a girlhood spent mucking stalls and wiping down sweaty ponies. The light here at this moment is similar the the light I remember from autumn days in the mountains of Pennsylvania. We witness the changes of the seasons, of the years, of our circumstances, but there are constants that keep us grounded as we pass these days of our lives.
Those constants give life here a comforting rhythm that is slowly opening itself to me. I pass the same people day after day at the park or the market or on the streets. They at first seem reserved but over time we begin to connect with a ciao or buon giorno from one of us or the other. I go home for a month or so at a time but when I return they are still here and I am happy to see that I have not been forgotten. The older man in the flashy running clothes and white rimmed sunglasses waved hello today to acknowledge my return. I share a smile with the two women who bring their ailing loved one -he appears to have had a stroke- and doggedly walk with him one tiny shuffle at a time around the park. It’s hard to tell how he is doing but the women seem to have gained strength and confidence in their mission since I first saw them in the spring.
The nonno with his grandbaby in the stroller who sits in the same corner day after day gives me a nod and a hello as we pass each other. Up ahead, Carmelo and his sweet dog Kenya wait patiently for me to catch up so we can spend a few minutes visiting. We know very little of each others’ backstory but in these moments in the park we connect like lifelong friends. The handsome man who sells wine at the Friday market reaches for my hand and wishes me “ben tornata”, welcome back!, as he delivers the Italian kiss to each cheek before handing over my wine. I don’t have to tell him what I want. It’s always the same.
In this place where rituals rule, the man in the wire rim glasses will reach into his pocket for a few coins in the same way, at the same bakery door, for the same loaf of bread he bought yesterday and the day before and will again everyday for as long as he is able. When the world outside of this precious place is completely crazy, I am grateful for the comfort that brings me. I am also grateful that there is enough room within all the ritual for the slow, steady embrace of a stranger making her way home.