I have walked down a street to the pomp of Star Wars and awoken to the dulcet tones of Indiana Jones echoing through the fog.
Scattered upon the marbled sidewalks of the arcades are reminders that Bologna is a city—not only the home of students and cafés and ancient structures, but also to its own underworld.
The homeless of Bologna are consistent and predictable, wandering their same given streets with the same signs or the same one-liners. A crippled man hobbled on crutches on Via Indipendenza holding out his hat to passers-by, an old woman on Via Rizzoli covered in scarves and huddled in prayer, a man cuddled with his two dogs on Via Marconi with a sign Abbiamo Fame (We are Hungry)…
Sometimes the street begging is more creative and light-hearted: it includes acoustic guitar, sidewalk fortune telling, accordion love songs, handmade metal jewelry, brass band movie tunes, and an old man—a street artist—painting landscapes from memory.
The darker undertone is thieves. While Bologna is a fairly safe city, it is always worthwhile to be cautious, especially at night and especially at the train stations—being encircled by strangers constantly bumping into each other.
As innovative is the begging, so inspired is the thieving.
They can work in pairs: One as distraction while the other robs. Or they might ask for some change, waiting for you to pull out your wallet. They cut bottoms of purses and they cut straps. They can sweep by on a bike, grabbing something and peddling off.
More common is stealing an entire bike.
The bike thieves wander the university streets, whispering “Bici, bici” as they try to sell their ill-gotten goods.
My best advice: be sensible. Put away the iPods, keep the purses in front, and keep to well-lit or well-inhabited areas.
I have meandered down the midnight streets, navigated nighttime stations, and been harangued by beggars for change and strangers for a word; but even with these undertones, I feel safe. Bologna—for the sensible—holds nothing to fear.