Piazza Salembini, Siena

Allora, the Palio is over. Girafa (Giraffe) won, but if you ask me, my son Lucas won. Here’s why.

After a nap, we walked down to the headquarters of our contrada, Onda, to watch the race on the big screen with the other contradioli who didn’t want to sit for hours under the hot sun in the Campo waiting for the race to start. We descended to a stifling basement to await the start of the race. This year, they would not let children under the age of 12 onto the Campo, and there were metal detectors and caribinieri everywhere — this, because of the threat of Islamic terrorism and the fear of panicked trampling. We didn’t want to fool with it, so we joined the others in the club headquarters.

It started badly when Onda drew the worst starting position. Then the race took forever to start, mostly because the horse from Tartuca (Tortoise) was bucking and acting awful, delaying the race for over an hour. Finally, as the sun set, officials pulled the horse from the race. There was talk that they were going to postpone the running until tomorrow. The jockeys all dismounted. Having sat in that sweatbox for over an hour, Lucas said, “Let’s just go. This is too much.”

So, we climbed the steep streets towards Osteria da Vivo, where we had post-Palio dinner reservations. But as we walked down a street in the Aquila (Eagle) contrada, we saw a crowd gathered outside a little store. Turns out there was a TV screen in the shop, and everybody was astonished to see that all the remaining horses were gathered at the starting gate! We stood with the Aquila folks and watched the race. They were electrified as their horse ended up in a race for the win with the horse from Girafa. In the end, at the harsh final turn, Girafa bested Aquila.

The Aquila people collapsed. Literally, a woman in front of us fell to the ground, sobbing. Men screamed and punched the air. One man kicked a door hard. Children wept. I turned my video camera off, because the situation seemed instantly dangerous. “Come on, let’s go,” I said quietly to Lucas. We walked quickly out, with everyone around us falling to pieces. At the top of the street, a waitress from a nearby restaurant fell into the arms of her boyfriend, and sobbed.

See, second place is the Loser. It’s much worse to come in second than to come in at another place in the line-up. They were destroyed, these folks. It was painful to watch, but in a way, I was glad that Lucas saw it, so he could appreciate the passion of these people for their contrada and this race.

The restaurant was near the Duomo, which is in the Selva (Forest) contrada. People there were disappointed, but not like in Aquila. We sat at our table, and ordered a bottle of red wine. I poured Lucas a half-glass, because he’s used to having a taste of wine whenever we drink it with meals at home. I ordered cheese souffle, tagliatelle with fresh black truffles, and cinghiale (wild boar) simmered in red wine sauce. Lucas, being 13 years old, had spaghetti with olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

There was a party at the next table that included a Texan and a Louisiana native. We talked about the LSU Tigers, and I managed to say the “Hot boudin, cold coush-coush” chant in a fancy restaurant in the heart of Tuscany. So there’s that.

Lucas and I talked for a long time about our trip. Lucas got emotional at the end, really emotional. He loves this place. After dinner, we walked towards the Campo, and lo, Girafa was parading there! Brummm-ba-bum, brumm-ba-bum, brumm-ba-bum-ba-ba-bum-bum-bum! They held the actual palio (a banner of the Blessed Virgin Mary) aloft, waved the contrada flags, and cheered and held each other. We joined the march behind them. Around the Campo we went, and then wended our way through the city. It was pure joy. The tall white banner is the palio, from behind:

Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful! True, our contrada did not win, but to feel the joy of these Girafa folks, expressed on the streets of Siena — well, it was terrific.

Back at the hotel, Gregorio, who manages the overnight guest, asked us what we thought about things. We just gushed. He said, “I’m glad you saw what we have here. You know, globalism is good in some ways, but it takes tradition away from many places. Here in Siena, we hold on to our tradition. It’s not easy, but we do it. I hope you saw the value in what we do here.”

Yes, Gregorio, we do.

Today, someone asked Lucas what his favorite part of Italy was. He didn’t miss a beat: “The people.”

Tomorrow, on to Milan, and dinner with James C. and Giuseppe Scalas. We are so blessed it almost hurts.