First week in Italy: the Food, the Bad and the Beauty

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Even though I’ve only been out here for just over a week, I feel that I shouldn’t have left it this long to write my first post – so much has happened, so many feelings have come and gone and so many new impressions have hit me that I’ll never be able to do it all justice in one post, nor remember each amazing and frustrating thing about my first week in Bologna to recount later. I’ll give it a go – hopefully as the year goes on I’ll get better at putting this surreal experience into words.

I’ll start with the bad stuff, for two reasons: firstly, it’s very easy for people to travel the world and selectively show their friends and family back at home the exotic and novel, whilst leaving out that which might upset their family or, to be cynical, devalue their investment of time and money in a life-changing gamble in the eyes of their friends. This blog is as much about giving as accurate a representation as possible of starting a life in a scary new country for those considering doing the same as it is about letting those I love know that I’m having an amazing time – after all, it’s the 21st century and I have a phone. Secondly, you’ll know that the great parts have even more value than they would have if my whole experience were an insta-feed of pizza, beaches and parties.

Leaving home was hard – I didn’t feel prepared, though I’m starting to think that perhaps you’re never really fully prepared for bigs steps like this. Safe to say I am lucky to have such a supportive family and a girlfriend who had done the same thing two months previously to help me have some faith in my future.

No – I have a strict weight allowance, you can’t come along 😦

Hard too was the fact that I only had a place to stay for a week when I got out there. I’d read online that it was important to look for permanent accommodation in person so as to avoid paying money to someone I’d never met for a place I’d never seen – but while I reduced the risk of being scammed, I greatly increased my stress levels over the seven days it took me to find somewhere to live, each day getting closer to thinking that I’d have nowhere to stay on Saturday night. Maybe the best solution would’ve been to visit the city earlier in the summer to search then, and if you future exchange students have the money for extra return flights I would definitely advise that – I didn’t really want to spend the money, so in hindsight this was a dilemma that I couldn’t really have been avoided; I’m just glad finally to have a place (and a nice one at that) to call home until July!

So, I won’t deny that there were overtones – sometimes overriding – of homesickness and accommodation stress during my first week away – but then it’s probably a good thing that my first post wasn’t written at that time, or I might not have done justice to the amazing experiences that did occur every day. I am conscious that my negatives were very generalised and could have been written from any city – so, let me show you a selection of my initial highlights of Bologna:

1) The beauty of the city – people talked so much about spaghetti bolognese (or just ragù, as they call it here) before I came that the stunning porticos, iconic red roofs and (worryingly) leaning towers really were a welcome surprise when I first ventured into the city on Sunday morning.

Porticos – arches that cover most of the pavements in the centro storico. Taxes only used to be paid on the square footage of the ground floor of a building, so the Bolognesi just built over the pavements!

From the top of la torre asinelli

The smaller of ‘le due torri’, la garisenda, leans at 4.3 degrees – more than the leaning tower of Pisa.

2) Food – I’m actually yet to have spaghetti bolognese in Bologna (shock), but that’s because a) I prefer pizza, and b) there exists something called ‘aperitivo’ (or ‘apericena’) – you buy a large drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, for between 5-8€ (depending on the place), and then have access to an all-you-can-eat buffet full of meat, pasta, pizza and potatoes (not as many varieties as in Durham, granted) – the perfect and authentic way to line your stomach cheaply for the night to come.

3) Friends – okay, the concept isn’t exactly specific to Bologna, but the individuals certainly are in a sense – even though they come from all over the world. I’m certain that the best decision I’ve made since being out here was to go on an Erasmusland walking tour the day after I arrived; I was very nervous and it would have been very easy to ‘allow’ myself a few days to settle in before beginning to socialise, but on that tour I found some great people who have not only been fun, kind and crazy, but who are also in exactly the same situation as I am: at least the accommodation struggle was a shared one. And that group of friends expands more quickly by the day – the Erasmusland society has been great for organising parties and trips through which you meet so many friendly people. The only negative is the envy I feel at the incredible levels of English – and many other second languages – spoken by every Erasmus student; if there’s one strong opinion that this post is going to give, it’s that we, as a country, are seriously behind in our foreign language proficiency to a point where it’s almost embarrassing, and you wonder what we are actually learning at school if every foreign student has just as much knowledge and intelligence, if not more, as we do in the UK, yet can speak a second, third or fourth language to such a high level. And no, the fact that they speak English doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with other languages – I think that’s something that one half will agree with instantly, and something that the other half will never understand.

Aperitivo after a day on the beach

I think I’ll leave it there for now. Sorry for the length – then again, apologising itself is only making it longer. I just think it’s important not to give a polarised view of what has been such a hectic week, and to do that demands a bit more writing than I intend to do for my next posts. I hope you’ve found it at least informative, if not interesting – so, until next time, arrivederci!

Oh, and sorry for the awful title…

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