By Catherine McClelland
I awoke on my first morning in Bologna to a chorus of church bells booming over the frosty terracotta rooftops. It was a radiant January morning, and even after a labyrinth of flight delays, flooded train stations and heavy bags the night before, I shook off my jetlag and threw open my creaky window to enjoy the sound of the city waking up.
My connection in London coincided with the biggest snowstorm anyone had seen in years, complete with a rare weather phenomenon called “self-rolling giant snowballs.” The trip had not been pleasant.
It did not get easier immediately. The Bologna Consortial Studies Program was designed to be a five-month lesson in self-sufficiency and total language immersion. BCSP provided its students with a three-week stay at a hotel for our orientation, but after that, we were left on our own to find room and board. We had to scour Italian newspapers for apartment listings and make calls to find a room to rent. If we had a problem, we were reminded that we were adults and could handle it ourselves.
It was humbling to make stupid mistakes over and over. On my first trip outside Bologna, I left my cell phone on the train and suddenly found myself lost in the middle of an utterly foreign city. My friends had already left the cathedral where were supposed to meet because my train had been delayed. I had no map of the city except what was printed on the side of the bus stop. No one was in the streets. All the shops were closed since it was Sunday. There were no pay phones anywhere, and I didn’t have anyone’s number memorized.
For half an hour I paced around in a panic. Then I pulled myself together and calmed myself down with a leisurely walk in the park, sat down for lunch in a café, found my way to the central square and through a bit of luck met up with my friends again.
Italy’s chaos is the stuff of legends, and by working through its downs as well as its ups, I gained access to a side of Bolognese life that isn’t visible from the tour bus.
In Italy, each major city has a nickname—Venice is the Serene, Rome the Eternal. Bologna has three nicknames: it is the Learned because it has the oldest university in the world, dating back to 1088. Graduates can boast about their fellow alumni, Copernicus and Dante Alighieri. It is the Red because the entire city is painted in warm, vibrant reds and oranges with terracotta roofs. Finally, it is the Fat because even the proudest restaurant owner will admit that the best food in Italy is found in Bologna, with its fresh egg pasta, luxurious meat sauces and bread loaves shaped into impossible twists and spirals.
Bologna is often passed over because it has no major attractions, but its richness comes from the everyday details of Italian life that I absorbed. For instance, it is against the law to bike on the sidewalks, but the buses will run you over if you don’t. Ten in the morning is the latest you can order a cappuccino without the barista giving you a dirty look. A red traffic light is merely a suggestion. Be polite to the immigrations official and she will compliment you on your Italian and sign your paper even though you forgot your passport. A good dinner lasts an hour; a great dinner lasts three or more. Lady Gaga plays in all the clubs whether you like it or not. The best breakfast is an intensely sugared espresso, downed while standing elbow-to-elbow with other early risers at a local café.
By early spring I had gained enough confidence to brave the Cinque Terre, a remote and mountainous strip of coast in northwestern Italy. It was mid-April and the tourists were just beginning to appear in the streets, armed with cameras to capture the pastel-painted houses and wooden boats bobbing at the dock.
I couldn’t help smiling at the tour groups meandering through the narrow streets, a string of identical neon-orange baseball caps scurrying behind the bellowing tour guide. Their cameras were out but their faces were strained and distracted. They were feeling something close to what I’d felt in January, perhaps even more so because of their tight schedule. I was the lucky one—I had had enough time to work out the kinks and enjoy myself.
And what’s more, I knew that as hard as the first few months had been, it was smooth sailing from here.