This is my first post from Bologna, Italy, where I am beginning the first year of a M.A. program in international relations. I will be in Bologna for nine months, the longest I have ever lived outside of the United States. Prior to this trip, the bulk of my travel has been in sub-Saharan Africa (Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire). This is a different kind of adventure, a different set of new discoveries, challenges.
Bologna is a student city, slowly swelling in size as tens of thousands of university students finish their vacations and start the academic year. The city walls are marked with youthful expressions of all kind – simple graffiti tags, political slogans (Berlusconi out!), vaguely revolutionary expressions (continue your education on the barricades!), and amateur depictions of people and places. It is startling to realize that this graffiti is plastered on walls dating back to the fourteenth century. Many locals I’ve spoken with are angry about the layer of spray paint cropping up on city walls. Although I don’t have much of a right to an opinion either way, most of the time, I like this mash-up.
In a lot of ways, Bologna feels more familiar than I thought it would. I live on the sixth floor of an apartment building, and the descent into the city is a flood of noise, smells, colors. Motorcycles compete for space with taxis and bikes. Greasy and inexpensive street food is easy to find. The fruit vendor on the street corner and I are quickly becoming friends. Businesses and government offices close down for long and seemingly random hours in the middle of the day. Panhandlers, street musicians, and beggars sense my foreign status almost immediately. Houses crowd together over narrow streets and at night, I can look out over my neighborhood from our balcony and listen to the city eating, studying, fighting, laughing. In these moments, Bologna feels like what I loved best about Yaoundé and Abidjan – the closeness of your life to everyone else’s, the small magic of getting from point a to point b.
Of course there are new things to love in Bologna. My list expands daily. Meals are simple and slow. When you cook with quality ingredients, you don’t need to do much to prepare something delicious. A decent bottle of wine can be had for five or six euro. At home, I drive my friend nuts with my constant need to look at my watch, to move onto the next thing. Here, I often forget my phone at home. I like being unplugged, I like getting lost exploring streets, I like staying until the restaurant closes and we need to find someplace new. My favorite after-hours drinking spot is Piazza Verde. In the daytime, the square is dominated by a large bookstore, but when the sun goes down, DJs set up in the open air, and students come out to be young together.
But, so far, I think what I am most captivated by is Italian swagger. It’s not that people are universally beautiful (although many of them certainly are). It’s just that nearly everyone I see on the street walks with this incredible laid back type of confidence – from the stiletto-clad model types to the dread-locked hippies chain-smoking outside coffee bars to pan handlers posted up in the main Piazzas. Even the kids are loud, happy, and self-assured. I contrast this with Washington DC, where I’ve been living for most of the past four years. People seem so much more harried, so much more likely to pull out their resume at a party, to check their blackberry incessantly while elbowing their way through the metro. Over the next nine months, I want to learn some of this way of walking through the world.