Europe '96: Bologna

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hanging out in the Piazza Maggiore (photo)]

I'm glad I stayed in Bologna, not Florence. Florence is so overrun with tourists that you score major points by speaking even bad Italian. Asking for a "piccolo cono de fragola" nets you twice as much gelati for the same price as a "small strawberry cone." In Bologna, I actually met Italians.

Bologna is an old city and it looks it: not everything is well maintained (though much is) but most of it is well designed. It's also in many ways very hip and contemporary. It's a university town, with students composing nearly a fifth of its half million people. The architecture is remarkably uniform, but not dull: there are incredible numbers of arcaded walks (40 kilometers / 25 miles of arcade, I'm told), nearly everything is about 3 or 4 storeys high, occasionally 5, much of it is brownstone and what isn't is nearly all painted in the range between orangy yellow and dull red. Hard place to photograph, because uniformity is not photogenic and because cars and wires which you easily edit out in your mind show up ugly in a photo.

Lots of life. I went to a concert by 2 local bands, one sort of punk ska (a little too like the Clash: obviously paid no attention to "London calling to the imitation zone / Forget about us, you can go it alone") the other salsa. The venue was the Teatro Polivalente near the University, technically a squat [Addendum 2002: apparently they were eventually rousted out 🔗 in August 2000] but you'd never know it if you weren't told: they've fixed it up beautifully, and the only clue it's a squat is that the seating is just carpet and couches: the owner moved the old seats out to another theater when they closed this one. Dazzling sound system, I couldn't help thinking during the pseudo Clash set that any of the 70s punks would have killed for a system like this. The concert was a benefit for a new quasi-anarchist bus drivers' union in Mexico City.

A near repeat of Atletico: Bologna won their championship while I was there and advanced into the Italian A league. And this was on the Dia de la Repubblica, so the outdoor concert of the Carmina Burana that night, unamplified in the Piazza de San Stefano, had to compete with honking horns and the like. The soprano was quite equal to it, but the baritone must have been wishing for a sudden rainstorm. Unlike Atletico fans, though, these guys don't seem to be big drinkers. Atletico fans get drunk before the game and stay that way till they collapse. Bologna F.C. fans hoist a couple in the evening after the game.

in the Basilica (sketch)]

Good archeological museum in Bologna, great Egyptian collection, massive but ill-displayed Etruscan and Roman collection. Also some really cool stuff in the Basilica de San Petronio, a rather sparely decorated Gothic space. The architect really pushed the limits: the outer walls are squeezing in, bending even the iron rods which have been inserted to keep them from doing so. That's what you get when you decide the light of God conquers matter / sin and opt for only 8 pilasters to a side in a building on a scale which would lead one to expect 25. (Actually, usually you get a lot worse: at least this one is still standing.) Back in 1656 someone tracked the daily poisition of the sun at noon as it shone through a tiny opening in the roof. The opening and the line (now in marble) are still there. I'm told this has something to do with measuring the circumference of the earth, and normalizing standard time, and I assume there's some nice tricky trigonometry involved, but offhand I don't get it. Anyway, they still keep one clock inside on local sun time and another on I don't know what. If anyone knows, please tell me.

Lots of people hang out at night on the Piazza Maggiore (and on a few other piazzi, but that's the one I hung out on). Little knots of people with guitars singing on the steps of the Basilica, lots of people showing up on bicycles, one truly bad saxophone player who people engaged in conversation just to stop him playing. I met a pretty interesting couple, students at the University, Fulvio and Eva. We stayed up till 5, first on the piazza and ultimately at their place, after a long walkaround the city and a long rambling trilingual conversation about everything from computer security to the nature of the sacerdotal function of priests.

Fulvio is a physics student, but drawn to beliefs like that humans originated on the Lost Continent of Atlantis, an ardent but somewhat heretical Catholic, bright but not broadly read. Very nice guy, speaks English about as well as I speak Spanish, so we ranged across 3 languages. He's from Puglia (a.k.a. Apulia). Eva is a Florentine, a semi-hippy liberal arts type, a little drawn to crazies (Fulvio says she knows every pazza and pazzo in Bologna by name) and druggies, but pretty sane herself. She is constantly borrowing or giving away cigarettes, the kind of person who lives frugally but spends freely on everyone in sight. She and I did the basic Spanish / Italian crosstalk thing. She understands Spanish better than Fulvio does. Both charming people.

More than ever, I am convinced that the distinction between language and dialect involves more politics than linguistics. I obviously do much better in Northern Italy with my Spanish than would a Southern Italian who tried to talk Napolitano or Siciliano. Northern Italy proved to be easier for me in linguistic terms than Andalucia. A man from Madrid I ran into had the same experience, so it's not about how a foreigner learns Spanish.

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Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

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