August 21, 2016-September 2, 2016: Benvenuto a Bologna!

So on the plane ride from Tokyo, I didn’t blog nearly as much as I had hoped. I was already 3 weeks behind, and I didn’t do much catching up despite sitting on a plane for hours on end. My writing process is frustratingly slow. I firmly believe that long flights are best spent watching unusually long movies. So I watched Gone with the Wind to start. When else am I going to be able to set aside four hours to watch the classic? And then I followed that up with best picture All the President’s Men and contemporary Mr. Holmes. I had a layover in Moscow. I browsed the Russian vodkas and I stopped by Russian Burger King. But they didn’t have Hershey Sundae Pie, so I was a little disappointed. I slept on my connecting flight because it didn’t have screens. The airplane food was terrible on the connecting flight. We went from good Japanese food on the first flight, to bad European on the second.

So on my first night in Bologna, I got to my hotel via taxi. The hotel is not far from school, but the neighborhood looks kinda sketch. There’s graffiti on all the walls. Not just any graffiti–it is distinctly anti-fascist. The city is very leftist, a former Communist stronghold, if I’m not mistaken. Some of the graffiti around University of Bologna is actually very intricate and creative. One day, I saw some people painting over the graffiti (the good ones!). The streets are dark and empty so I am not leaving the hotel. The man behind the counter doesn’t speak English very well, so I got to practice my Italian. The air conditioning in my room wasn’t working because I didn’t have a remote. So I went back to him three times as he handed me different remotes, none of which were working. They were all from different companies, and the one that ended up working actually didn’t match. Go figure.

I arrived at SAIS at 9am for my housing appointment with Salvatore. I stood there for a while until he finally showed up and told me to come back at 2. I have had this appointment for months. And he said there’s no one else here right now. And I was at his mercy. So I went to Italian class in the morning instead. I’d already missed the first two meetings. But class didn’t start till 11, so I had a couple hours to go to the registrar and get my ID.

I met Lorenzo, half of the IT Department here, which is not affiliated with the IT Department in Baltimore. They run their own system here. They don’t use J-Cards, they have their own IDs to scan into the building. The wifi system is different and they don’t use J-Cash. The printing system is different–you have to send your files to an email where it’ll be queued to print. It goes to show how small the campus is here, approximately 200 students in a single building.

Italian class is pretty easy since I have a background in Italian. And even though it is fast, it is at an elementary level. We had Francesca in the morning. She is Sicilian but does not eat fish, or drink coffee, or wine. Claudia teaches in the afternoon and she is hilarious. She is supremely Italian. She shrieks when we mispronounce words and sing at us to correct us. And her English is very good, which helps.

I went on my housing tour with Joseph and Kathryn. And we had slim pickings, scraping the bottom of the barrel. We saw four apartments. The first was newly renovated and there were already three girls living in it, so Kathryn got first priority. It’s a nice place and very large. There is a view of a courtyard and some picturesque rooftops. It is on the top floor. We took a tiny little Italian elevator, which is apparently normal sized here. Anyways, that one went to Kathryn.

The third and fourth were really far away. At least twenty minutes walk well outside the city walls. They were ok, but nothing special enough that I would be persuaded to live so far away.

The second is the one that would become my apartment. It is just a ten minute walk from school, near a supermarket and near the train station and University of Bologna. It is very small, with two bedrooms. The large bedroom has a queen bed and lots of closet space (too much and too tall) and a wall sized mirror. The small bedroom has a twin bed and a little desk and a more manageable dresser. The whole apartment has a character. And that character is antique old lady. All the furniture is made of old wood. The kitchen unit is concealed in a cabinet too–that’s what happens in a small apartment. The apartment has a bit of a wood smell to it and it doesn’t go away no matter how much I air out the apartment. The bathroom is a little cramped but it’s clean and actually I like it. The toilet is square and so are the toilets at SAIS (At SAIS, the toilet paper is in individual sheets, not a roll). There is a bidet and a low-ceiling tub in an alcove. Anyone taller than me would not be able to take a shower because I barely avoid hitting my head (really incompatible with the tall closets). All the furniture is solid. The beds and couch do not sink at all. There is no natural light since we are on the ground floor. We look out on a courtyard. The windows here also open funny. They open two different ways, normally outward connected at the ends, but also outward connected at the bottom just to allow air to flow.


I didn’t move in right away. I had the hotel for two nights. And then I told Salvatore I had to move in, even without a roommate. So he gave me a key and I brought my stuff over after class. I got through the building door but my key didn’t fit in the apartment door. It looked like the key was printed backwards or something. I swear, this would only happen to me. So I called the emergency number, and Salvatore showed up about a half hour later. Salvatore is a man of few words, but he gets things done. He always says “I’ll take care of it” and he does. You sort of have to just put your faith in Salvatore.

I could not figure out how to use the washing machine for the life of me. For one it was in Italian. But I also had to deal with a set of buttons and two different dials. I never stood a chance. It was very confusing. I had to get Salvatore to show me.  I also couldn’t figure out the stove. I couldn’t get the flame to stay on. It’d keep clicking but getting the flame to stay was hit or miss. Gaetano, Salvatore’s helper, showed me how to use it. And he helped me fix the wifi. I went the first night without wifi.

Just outside my building, a student was killed in a leftist protest back in the 1970s and the bullet holes in the wall have been preserved by a glass panel. I kind of settled on my apartment, but I’ve come to be satisfied by it. Who knows if Salvatore would have any new places? It is simply the disadvantage of arriving late.  The other disadvantage, of course, is that everyone has already met. At first, I felt like everyone already knew each other. I actually missed more than two days, because people had showed up earlier than the first day of class. They’ve already been here for a week and they’ve become acquainted with each other. I missed out already. My class had a group chat already and they forgot to add me until I wasn’t even in the class anymore. I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like for people skipping preterm.

Bologna is kind of dead. My street is totally empty. All the shops and restaurants are closed for ferie, when all the Italians collectively go on vacation at the same time (for a whole month!). Even the tobacco shops (as frequent as konbini in Japan) are closed, though you can still buy your cigarettes from machines sticking through the metal grate. Even in the main square, the people are quite sparse.  It was hard to even find a place to have dinner. It is not a good introduction to Bologna.

The SAIS building is tiny. It honestly doesn’t feel like school. Grad school life is not like college. There’s less going on. There is no equivalent of Brody here. The library is so small. There is no 24/7 library. There isn’t even a campus. Isn’t that really the signature of a college?  There are clubs, but not fun clubs. They are all career oriented or soccer. Cause, well, the world is really into soccer outside of the US and only about half of the students are American.

Everyone here smokes. I thought France was bad, but this is also unbearable. There is a courtyard where people eat lunch, but I find it difficult to go out there sometimes because everyone out there is smoking all day.

Grad school is all about alcohol. The school sponsors happy hours all the time. There is a beer tap in the cafe and innumerable bottles of prosecco lying around to have a drink between classes. Maybe it has to do with being in Italy, but I think it’s also just a grad school thing. Drinking is part of the socializing. We drank with Professor Cesa, Lorenzo and Giulio (manager of the cafe/bar at school) and Marie until 10pm one Monday evening having a grand ole time. I got bit up that night by all the mosquitoes.

My very first morsel of food in Italy was a panino in the shadow of the Due Torre with Alex and Dylan. It was nice to see some familiar faces on my first day at school. The Italians know how to do their sliced meats. Prosciutto and mortadella and salami are all amazing all the time here. They don’t give you much. Sandwiches are not Subway size here. They are notoriously thin, but scrumptious.

We were served by an Asian waitress. And there are actually a pleasantly surprising amount of Asians in Bologna (I think mostly Chinese or Pakistani). Apparently, there are a lot of Asian immigrants in Italy. The Chinese are actually everywhere. I ventured to the Asian supermarket on my street to buy sauces and dumplings and found a Vietnamese family running it. The cashier tried to tell me in Italian that there was something wrong with my credit card. I naturally didn’t understand, so she switched to Mandarin while I was still in Italian mode. And I struggled to transition. Eventually I told her my parents were from Hong Kong, and so she switched to Cantonese while I was still in Mandarin mode. She switched so fast and I struggled to keep up. Her son thankfully spoke English. He was born in Italy, but the parents immigrated from Vietnam in 1989. The mother is Cantonese (she speaks four languages) and the father is Vietnamese.


The city of Bologna is really pretty. I went on a walking tour set up by the school and learned a bit about the history of the city. It is well known for its towers and miles of porticoes, basically covered elevated sidewalks with archways. The arches in the sun cast an enchanting shadow. Look up because the archways are really pretty. But I can’t help but think that people could hide behind the columns and mug you. Being in Japan for so long, I haven’t had to worry about that, but I’m on high alert now, reactivating street sense.


I also couldn’t figure out where to throw out garbage and I still haven’t done garbage a month in. I think we put out garbage on Monday nights just in front of the building. And then recyclables on Tuesdays. And glass goes in a large bell-shaped receptacle across the street. If you can’t wait until Monday, there is somewhere I can dispose of it on the street but I don’t know where. It’s not particularly close. I’ve been bringing out my few articles of garbage with me every morning and throwing it out on the street (something I couldn’t do in Japan). As one person with not too much garbage, this was feasible.

It was also feasible because I mostly ate out my first week. I had a strangely difficult time finding meat. When you eat out, you can get a primi or a secondi or both, where primi is a pasta and secondi is meat. When they serve you pasta, it rarely ever includes meat or vegetables. It’s just pasta and sauce. And it’s delicious, but lacking in meat. They always cook it al dente, of course. And pasta actually tastes better that way. I started cooking my pasta at home al dente too.  The pasta at Giulio’s bar at school is also delicious–my favorites are the pumpkin ravioli and paccheri with guanciale. I like trying new shapes of pasta, they have all sorts of shapes I’ve never seen in the States. Some of them even just look like scraps of pasta. It’s quite easy to find meat like prosciutto or speck or bacon, plenty of cold cuts, but I’m looking for substantial meat. No one does meat-filled ravioli. Even in the supermarket I had a hard time finding meat, but admittedly, I wasn’t looking hard enough. The chickens are tiny here though. I understandably missed it. The kebab and falafel places are pretty good here too. There are lots of immigrants in Bologna. So the falafel is authentic and cheap.

The greatest thing about Italy is aperitivo. Basically, you buy a drink for 5-10 euros. The most popular drink is spritz, either campari or aperol, it’s quite bitter. So you buy a drink and then you get access to an entire buffet. And you hang out for a couple of hours and drink and eat and it’s cheap. We go all the time. Lab 16 is basically an extension of the SAIS campus. There are always SAIS students there. You sit outside in the plaza, and they have the most extensive buffet of all the aperitivo (though there is mostly a lack of meat). Aperitivo is the greatest. Food is really cheap here in Bologna.

There was also an earthquake that devastated Amatrice, Italy. I didn’t feel a thing. I slept right through it. My bed is really solid. But I got lots of messages of concern, including from Issei all the way over in earthquake-prone Japan.

After finally unpacking all my belongings, I finally feel more relaxed. I’m comfortable and feel at home. It’s really important to not feel like I’m perpetually traveling. Vacation is great and all, but I need to settle in. I don’t remember which day it was exactly, but I wrote down this note: Today was the first time I didn’t wish I was somewhere else. It’s a long time to be away from home. And I miss being home. Didn’t think I’d miss America but I do. It’s exhausting always being a tourist. It is the first day of my transition into becoming a Bolognese local.

I live down the street from a movie theater. They only show movies in the evening. And only in Italian. They dub movies into Italian and in fact, they take pride in it. The Italians see dubbing as an art form. So don’t knock it out loud. In fact, the Italian Woody Allen and Al Pacino is relatively famous allegedly. It’s weird because they don’t do that in all European countries. Italy is kind of special. Bologna is also the home to the Cineteca di Bologna, famous for its restoration projects. There, they show films in the original language with subtitles. But I’m not sure if they do new films too or just classics. Some theaters may do English on one day of the week, but you have to find out when. The movie theater is at the intersection of via Mascarella and via Belle Arti. I think it was fate that I lived near Belle Arti. It even intersects vicollo Facchini. I sent pictures to Max.

I really miss Japan and all the people in the program now that it’s gone. I thought I was done with Japan but I’m not. The service was so much better in Japan. I miss the convenience of konbini. You can’t get a quick bite to eat anywhere here. They certainly respect their food here, so it’s slow going. They also don’t do leftovers here. You sit down and eat. Now I have to go to a bank for the ATM, I can’t go to 7-11. And the Japanese don’t have these ridiculous vacation months. And Japan feels safer than the streets of Italy; the drug dealers are out in force here. Tokyo was more lively and less lonely (it helped that our group was so big and close knit). I feel very alone in Bologna. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so lonely, longing for Japan and America. Solitude is not necessarily a bad thing, because I like being by myself, but I certainly feel alone.

A school with a view

I got bumped up from the C class to the B class after taking the midterm. I do have a background in Italian, so I should be in the higher class. The higher class was actually quite difficult though. There was a gap between C and B that was not compensated for. So we had some catching up to do. And the class moves very fast. Alessia goes a lot faster and her English isn’t quite as good as Claudia’s or Giulia’s or Giuliana’s. Alessia also has difficulty remembering my name, she calls me Lee. Or she thinks that because I’m Chinese, we say last name first? In any case, I respond to either cause she switches sometimes. And sometimes she skips me, possibly because she can’t come up with my name in that moment. But Alessia is great. Giulia is hilarious too. She is very different than Claudia. Her comedy is more sarcastic. And she draws. Giuliana is excellent too. All the teachers are very good but I don’t know why they keep rotating the teachers. It would be helpful to have some continuity. I don’t buy the accent argument.

My first weekend, I stayed in Bologna and went to the parties my classmates were hosting. I needed to socialize and meet friends to fend off some of that loneliness. That’s why we’re here in preterm, to make friends. I had fun and I met tons of people but it is exhausting, mentally taxing. What is particularly striking is how nice these other apartments are. They have enormous terraces that have beautiful views of the city. Their apartments are huge and furnished and equipped nicely and completely and in a modern fashion. I hung out with Radhika in Piazza Maggiore and we saw Lorenzo playing frisbee with his friends (frisbee later gave him an injury that prevented him from going to work. The two person IT team was sick/injured one week in September, rendering the school without IT support at all). We saw all the crazy people out playing music and drinking and laying in the piazza. But the main point is that there were people, which was comforting, because just a week before there was no one in Bologna. Slowly life is flowing back into this historic college town.



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