by Tim Lee
Featured image: Bologna on New Year’s Eve, 2019 ———>
Congratulations! You’ve passed the IMAT, you made your way to Bologna whether by land or air, and albeit with much difficulty, still managed to find a place to stay. Whether you might be from the EU or not, I’m sure some of the few emotions you could be feeling would be uncertainty, frustration, curiosity, and homesickness. Certainly, this was the case for me and many other new arrivals into the city. So how does one get used to this all: the language, the people, and of course, the bureaucracy? In this article, I will try to outline my own observations, experiences, and advice from living in multiple countries prior to Italy, and add some other random tidbits.
Bologna is the seventh most populous city in Italy, with the metropolitan area having over a million people, around 400,000 of them urban. Bologna is also one of Italy’s wealthiest and most developed cities, being housed in Emilia-Romagna province, which boasts a HDI (Human Development Index) of .908; just shy of .001 points from Trentino province, while sharing the same Index number as Austria. Of course, while being home to the University of Bologna, the oldest continuously running university in the world, the city also shares a trove of other historical artifacts, buildings, and values. Weather is unpredictable, but much like any valley area, the climate is known for its muggy and humid summers, while staying colder than most of Italy. It isn’t unusual for it to snow, but don’t expect too much to stick.
Personally, when I first came to the city, it was not as I’d imagined; while I’ve been to cities of similar size in terms of population in three different continents, Bologna seemed quiet. Devoid of any underground transit systems (the city has tried and is trying to construct one; my Italian friends tell me however that it was more or less a “legal tax theft scheme”) let alone light rail, the city felt much smaller. Granted, there is a bus system. Roads are rather inconsistent and sometimes narrow, especially within the city walls. However, beyond the walls, it is as open, as if I were back in a random quiet small suburb in North America. Much like many university cities, housing remains a big issue (refer to an article that my dear friend Elad Fayel has written), but this comes with the benefit of having a vibrant social life and great variation in food.
New Arrival: One Important Thing to Know
There are a few things to note when trying to adjust to Bologna. One critical step is: in many aspects, things that just seem to make sense cease to do so in Italy. To put it bluntly, efficiency has long been lost to time, along with any semblance of logic.
What I’m alluding to, of course, is first and foremost, Italian bureaucracy and rule-bending.
From opening bank accounts, to waiting in line at the Student Secretary’s office, it has always been a game of possibilities. Why can I not do something, despite clearly being told otherwise by many others? Who are you going to send me off to next? How much longer do I have to wait for the permesso di soggiorno? (As of the publication of this article, I still haven’t received mine. That’s nearly three months and counting!)
Throw your pride to the wind, and learn to haggle and be obstinate. Google Translate is your best friend, for those whose main language is English. Never lose hope; there will always be some way to do something. For example, some banks will refuse to give you an account because you don’t speak Italian. No worries, try another. Even the same location, depending on the staff member, you may get different answers. The general consensus seems to be that the banks closest to where the university is clustered around, seem to be more forgiving of Italian skills (existent or not).
This bit of advice also applies to even official bureaucracy as well. You don’t quite have all the documents yet for the permesso di soggiorno, but your due date shows just 10 days to prepare everything? Just get everything in when you can. Certain rules are not necessarily rules, more of a “suggestion”. Of course, acts of serious felony do go punished.
Bologna is definitely a place of many faces. While certainly not the most diverse city I’ve lived in, on the streets the variety of people is definitely noticeable. In the culinary scene, along with the good ol’ Italian establishments there are stores selling Indian products, Chinese takeaway joints, sushi bars, kebab shops, American-style burger places, and even a Korean BBQ restaurant. If you wish to reach out to people from your own country of origin, make sure to search on google or any social media platform. Forums tend to help quite a bit, or even visiting some of the abovementioned eateries. You might be lucky to be let in on what goes on in the community by the staff or the owner(s). Personally, I believe Facebook groups tend to be a good choice. A colleague of mine from Brazil has even mentioned there is a WhatsApp group for Brazilians in the city! When in doubt, you can even try reaching out on Reddit’s Bologna subreddit, though the post history there is quite sporadic and their user base not quite active. Knowing and being part of a community also has some fringe benefits; you could even be in the know for affordable housing…
Of course, that said, the elephant in the room must be addressed: racism. While Bologna is definitely a left-leaning city in which people have been very vocal about intolerance — in late 2019 there was a big organized protest regarding right-wing former Deputy PM Salvini’s visit to the city — as a student of East Asian ethnicity I have experienced the occasional Mandarin greeting either by shopkeepers, university staff, or just random people in the street, perhaps out of benign ignorance. Only rarely did I ever receive a few genuine remarks of malicious ethnic slurs or the usual “ch”-starting vernaculars. These were mostly by the many con-men, drunks, or beggars in front of grocery stores. My advice is to never confront them, and if needs be, record everything that is going on if the problem persists. It rarely gets as far as a physical confrontation, but remember: those who do so likely have nothing to lose. Do not ever physically confront them, because more likely than not the aggressor knows more Italian than you do, and can easily try and frame you as the instigator should police get involved. That said, Bologna is a very welcoming city to all and even if you do not speak Italian while the other party does not speak English, the majority of the time people will try their best to assist you in any way they can. As the proverb goes: don’t let a few bad apples spoil the rest of the bushel.
In my humble opinion, Emilia-Romagna is the culinary capital of the Western world, being the home of the parma prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the all too familiar ragù alla bolognese. The food is very rich and mild while somehow remaining very flavorful. Spicy foods are definitely not too well liked here, unlike in southern Italian regions like Calabria. While it’s great to indulge in the marvels the city has to offer, at times you might feel somewhat homesick for the food you grew up with at home. Not to worry, for Bologna has multiple restaurants and food stores which have sorted that out. A quick Google Search or asking around goes a long way; I personally have a list of my favorite shops for various ethnic foods and items. Anything from Eastern European to Asian and African exists in the city, for those items that giant local retailers do not carry.
Businesses that cater to students exist as well; There is even a pizzeria which has a cult-like following for their 2.50 euro margherita! The University Mensa is a decent and affordable option, providing meals at a discounted price for students upon presenting their student ID cards, while qualifying ER-GO students may eat for free.
Do keep in mind that while it seems enticing to bring foodstuff from home, ALWAYS be observant of the customs law of the European Union. Fish, fresh produce, and meat are always a hazard and banned, and violating this will land you a heavy fine. Spices and processed snacks are acceptable but when in doubt, always declare. While this mostly applies to students living outside of the EU zone, as per usual it is smart to doublecheck.
As mentioned earlier, Bologna is a rather compact city despite its population. The distances (sometimes with enough willpower!) are mostly walkable, while the option to take the bus exists as well. Bus tickets can be bought at the ubiquitous tabacchi stores, in some chain supermarkets — these always specify whether they sell such tickets — and on the buses themselves. It is, however, always cheaper to buy the tickets beforehand; as of 2020 the price of single journey tickets on the buses are two euros for 75 minutes, while a regular ticket bought beforehand at any of the listed locations will cost 1.50. Airport bus tickets are SEPARATE from the standard bus tickets and cost 6 euros. Remember to ALWAYS validate your tickets at the yellow machines in the bus! Unlike in certain countries, when you see transit staff coming into the bus, more often than not they will not be there for you to buy tickets off of them, and will promptly hand you a hefty fine for farehopping, despite your protests.
There are multiple other options as well for tickets, from 24-hour tickets to even a year pass. A 10 journey ticket will cost you 14 euros, a 24 hour ticket six euros, and with the University’s agreement with the TPER company, students can apply for a yearlong bus pass at from a 40 to even a further 81 euro discount. For more information, check out the University of Bologna’s info page here!
Bologna is also a city that is fairly good for biking, although the roads are somewhat patchy and sometimes a mishmash of cobblestones and pavement. Bikeshare programs exist as well. Should you choose to invest in a bike, be aware: while it is possible to see bike parking being widely available, it is worth noting that Bologna is rather notorious for bike thefts. For this reason, I personally use an electric scooter for the sake of portability, and thus far have not been heckled by local law enforcement unlike some parts of Europe and other Italian cities like Torino. Helmet wearing seems to be widely unobserved, let alone having bike lights at nighttime, so exercise caution while on bikes or electric scooters.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
All in all, Bologna is the place that you, the reader, may be calling home for at least six years. The unfamiliarity of the city, people, and the language can seem intimidating for those coming from outside of Italy. This is perfectly normal and OK; reaching out to get help, making new friends (be they Italians or not), and slowly trying to grasp the language, will all be small steps to soon call Bologna your new home. The international desk of the university (located at via Filippo Re 4, a direct search on Google maps thankfully reveals directions to get there) will be available to help issues pertaining to your stay. Hope to see you in Bologna, and best of luck!
Erik Campano is a graduate student in Umeå, Sweden, studying the ethics of artificial intelligence in medicine. He formerly was an academic consultant to the English-language medical school of the University of Turin. Erik completed his Bachelor’s of science in Symbolic Systems (cognitive science) at Stanford University, and then he worked for about eight years as a radio news anchor, before moving to biomedical scientific study and research at the University of Paris and Columbia University. Erik grew up in Connecticut, is a citizen of the United States and Germany, and his family is a mix of Filipino, Italian, and German.
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