Having returned home for the holidays I’ve been bombarded with the same question from family and friends, “How’s Italy?”. “I need a more specific question,” is my typical answer. Trying to synthesize a semester’s worth of experience aboard in a few sentences is like trying to throw a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle together in an afternoon, it takes time to understand the full picture. I’ve told them about some of the bigger events that have been covered in my previous blogs, but that doesn’t fully answer the question. Small clusters of experiences and insights in Italy remain disjointed but still speak volumes about the larger picture, that is my overall experience. In the name of these overlooked fragments I bring to you a mosh-posh of events that have escaped my previous blogs over the past few months.
Failed Attempt at San Luca
The “seven secrets of Bologna” are scattered throughout the city. You may pass them everyday and not know, I passed under one for weeks and didn’t notice it. I’ve discovered five of the seven, rather four and a half. Saint Luca sits on top of a hill on the periphery of the city. A week after arriving in Bologna a couple of BCSP students and I decided to climb the longest portico in the world to reach the pristine sanctuary. Bologna is famous for its covered walkways or porticos. Some date back to medieval ages when noble families tried to extend their properties by building not on public space, but above it. Now they are great because there’s always a place to hide from the rain, which is a frequent requirement here.
We left for Saint Luca a bit after seven o’clock with the intention of arriving just before sunset, which we would enjoy from the top. There are 666 porticos you must pass through to reach Saint Luca. I believe we reached portico 657, not because the hill on outskirts of the city becomes a mountain where you climb it one step at a time, but because we were met by a locked gate. Little to our knowledge, Saint Luca closes at 7:30; we had arrived about 20 minutes too late. That didn’t deter us, however, and we enjoyed the sunset from a nearby parking lot. This mishap gave us the unique perspective of San Luca from across the sanctuary grounds as the walls absorbed the last rays of sun light against a pink blush sky. I promised myself there to make the most out of everyday. I still haven’t entered the sanctuary, hence the four and a half secrets discovered but the sun sets earlier nowadays and I only have two other secrets to check off my list.
Stephanie’s first bus ride
If you ever visit Bologna you may spend a few hours turned about in the labyrinth of alleys that seemed to wind you around in circles. I suggest studying a map beforehand just to know some of the main areas. The downtown area seemed expansive upon arrival, but really to traverse it from one side to the other may take forty minutes on foot. After some time you should begin to get your bearings – that is, until you explore beyond the “walls” where an entire other city awaits you.
I say “walls” because the ancient wall is for the most part is non-existent and has been replaced by an always-churning beltway of cars and buses, which rotates around the city like a carousel. The historic downtown, however, is still commonly referred to as the area within the walls. The gates of the ancient wall, on the other hand, still stand and are common bus stops.
If you plan on leaving the city center frequently you will most likely spend some time on the bus. Pay attention on the bus; it’s somewhat of a social experiment. You can see the man in an Armani suit standing next to an empty seat, checking his watch incessantly. Two rows behind him, a woman of Middle Eastern descent struggles to control her two wandering toddlers. At the front of the bus, a group of Italian teens gossip loudly while at the back, two raggedy looking men bob around in their seats, asleep. There’s plenty to learn observing the passengers but don’t get distracted because the bus itself can throw you for a turn. The same line has different stops on weekends and holidays and you can find yourself in unfamiliar neighborhoods with no knowledge of how you got there. That’s what happened to Stephanie the first time she took a bus. She eventually ended up at the bus station, far away from the city center. Naturally, she was frightened as she followed the bus driver into the station in the middle of the night, but what started like the plot to a bad horror film ended in the most encouraging way possible; the bus driver personally drove Stephanie home in his own car.
My near and dear friend from the BCSP program, Katelyn, lives with four boys, bless her heart, and one other girl. Their apartment is somewhat a madhouse of guests due to them being a welcoming bunch and having an expansive kitchen that overlooks the scenic canal. Some of my best memories are of late nights at Katelyn’s surrounded by friends. One night, Katelyn’s roommate, Theo, invited eleven people to a potluck dinner. We collectively represented eight nations, and the food at the dinner was just as diverse. Theo made Indian food, Caroline made stir-fry broccoli, and Conor made a roast loin. I never expected to meet such a diversity of people in Italy.
Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany lasts from September 19th – October 4th. I was disappointed to hear I had missed it from returning BCSP participants who had made the trip. Luckily, Bologna holds its own version of the celebration and this time I was prepared – well, for the most part. We had a little difficulty reaching the fair grounds outside of town but my roommates Loris and Andrea came to meet Stephanie, Katelyn, and myself at the bus stop. The smell of wurstel and pretzels called from behind the flap of a giant tent. As we approached, I heard the hum of an accordion, chanting, and the stomping of feet. Behind the tent flap was a strange scene of Italians celebrating German culture, but I was glad to share and take part in the slightly altered celebration.
My roommates and I decided early on that we would do Halloween costumes as a group. We juggled between zombies and the Scooby Doo gang, but eventually landed on the Addam’s Family. The results are uncanny. Loris went as cousin It and spent most of the night bumping into things due to his partial blindness on account of the hair and sunglasses. Andrea and I watched the Addam’s Family movie to get into character, and Francesca did all our makeup.
Months had passed since our last gathering as a whole program. After pre-session ends everyone splits off on their own path. It was strange spending so much time with a group of people, getting to know them through shared hardships and then having many of them disappear. I kept in touch with a few and had some BCSP students in my classes but many of them I felt had dropped off the face of the earth. Perhaps it was that separation that made Thanksgiving feel so nostalgic. We all dressed our best for our last hurrah together at an exquisite restaurant off Strada Maggiore, and who knew italians would have such an outstanding grasp on Thanksgiving cuisine. There were rolls, green beans, turkey, cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin soup is still talked about to this day. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home but I still had so much to be thankful for.
One aspect of the Bloomington campus that I have really come to miss and appreciate is its integration with nature. The smell of trees and the sound of birds in the morning are rare commodities here in Bologna. I noticed this the day after Thanksgiving when I was walking back from Katelyn’s apartment in the morning. I turned the corner and heard birds chirping. You may not give this a second thought but it stopped me in my tracks. I looked around at the pigeons confused for a moment by what had snatched my attention. I looked up to see a birdcage hanging out of a second story window. For the last few months the only birds I was surrounded by were pigeons and I had not noticed the absence of birds chirping until that moment.
Groves of nature have found a way, however, to tuck themselves into the crevices of the medieval city. In a small park behind the an art faculty building off Via San Petronio Vecchio, a tiled ping-pong table sits atop a dirt patch in the shade. The net is a thin metal sheet and makes a derisive ding for every foul. Two curved wooden beams make up benches that border the table. The beam on the outside is raised, stadium style, and they have about enough space for three people but are occupied by various bags. Many epic matches have transpired there, including one Facebook official tournament, which seriously humbled my confidence at ping-pong.
A kilometer or so outside Porta San Mamolo the hills of Villa Ghigi peer out over the south central city center. We went together as a program and picnicked at the peak and played games; although the Frisbee I brought wasn’t adept to the hilly terrain. It was our first trip as a program that was purely recreational and therefore it was truly appreciated. After the picnic I learned an Italian card game called scopa from a couple other students. It’s played with special cards that I hope will make a good stocking stuffer this holiday.
As the semester comes to a close many students begin to reminisce on their time here. I’ve heard from quite a few that their favorite memory was the program trip to the Agriturismo. The muddy gravel road that snaked up the hill to the farm had me feeling shaky in the charter bus that honked at every bend to warn the traffic ahead. Once my feet touched the sacred ground, however, I never wanted to leave.
I write these stories to you from the heavenly Fram Café, which sits at the foot of my block off Via Della Braina and Via Rialto. I’ve become somewhat of a regular here. My favorite barista greets me with a friendly, “Ciao” when I pass her on the street and this morning there was no need to order because she already knew it would be a cafè macchiato. It’s my last day in Italy before I returned to the United States for Christmas and nearly a month break before I return in January, the new year. I hope to keep the promise I made myself on the hill surrounding Saint Luca, to make the best of my time here, and to take the optimism I feel into the next six months in Italy. The Italian word for the day is “ricordi” or memories.