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Living, Studying, and Enjoying Your Time Abroad in Bologna, Italy

Due Torri Bologna

Due Torri: Bologna has its own leaning tower!

New Years Eve, 2011: Sitting in a small mountain cabin, I watch my Italian housemates and friends around the smoky wooden interior preparing fresh fish in the fireplace, cooking pasta over a small heater, cutting up fennel, bread, and meat for appetizers, and of course, continually refilling cups with more wine. They mix all of the food with their hands and everyone inherently knows how to cook—these recipes have been passed down for generations in their families, a recipe book is never used. It is 11:30 p.m. and I begin to wonder what kind of celebration will occur at midnight. As I should have expected, we ring in the new year packed around the table eating dinner.

If there is any stereotype about Italy that is accurate, it is the cultural importance placed on food. Entire days revolve around dinner. Every holiday and celebration has a cenone (a really large dinner) as the focal point of the evening. If you ever plan on coming to Italy there is one rule you must follow: taste everything. But of course, there is much more to Italy than just food.

What to Know About Living in Bologna

The center of Bologna is roughly circular, originally surrounded by an enclosing wall with twelve entrances marked by a porta. The walls have since been torn down but the twelve entrances remain, creating easy points of reference around the city. Most students choose to live in the center because that is where all university classes take place, it is well connected by bus routes, and it is easy to navigate on foot or bicycle. At the center of town are the two biggest sites, “due torri”, the two central towers, and Piazza Maggiore, a large square that is nearly always crowded and has a (rather scandalous) statue of Neptune. Bologna is not really a “site-seeing” kind of city. The best way to really see the city is to either have a local show you all of the hidden intricacies or live there and find them on your own!

Piazza Santa Stefano

Typical Piazza Santa Stefano street scene.

I chose to study abroad in Italy because I study Art History with a focus on Italian Renaissance art.  I chose Bologna in particular because it has the oldest university in the western world and a large student population. Founded in 1088, the Università di Bologna was the alma mater of many notable personalities such as Dante, Petrarch, and Copernicus, and today there are around 90,000 students. With an overall population of less than 400,000 inhabitants, university students make up over one-fourth of the entire city. Because the university here is so well-known, students flock from all over Italy as well as all over the world to attend. The university is familiar with exchange students thanks to the ERASMUS program (a popular European student exchange program), thus most professors are aware that there are added difficulties for someone who does not know the language well and many are willing to work with differing requirements, such as altering a reading list or adding an essay. All classes taught at the University of Bologna are in Italian (with a few exceptions) and the grades are based on a final oral exam. Unlike schools in America, finals can be retaken until the student accepts the grade received and there are multiple dates in which a student can take a final, making the school year very fluid and open to the differing schedules of students.

Because of the influx of students from all over Italy, living in Bologna permits exposure not only to Bolognese culture but also to the abundance of diverse traditions, particularities, and dialects from all over Italy.

The University of Bologna is not the only academic option; there is also the Accademia di Belle Arti, the Conservatorio di Musica, and the Accademia Nazionale del Cinema.

Language Barriers

Few people speak English in Bologna. I was glad since one of my goals in coming to Italy was to become fluent in Italian. The major Italian cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice, or Milan make learning Italian rather difficult because most people speak English. Comparatively, Bologna is a dream for those who desire to improve their Italian. With a basic level of Italian you can at least order food, buy a train ticket, or find your way around town. However, if you plan on living with Italians, it might be difficult finding housemates who are willing to deal with such a communication barrier. If you would like to improve your Italian, there are a lot of ways do so in Bologna for free. The University of Bologna organizes free Italian courses through the University Linguistics center, CILTA. Some of the Centri Sociali also offer free Italian courses for foreigners. If you prefer one-on-one attention, you can easily set up a free language exchange with an Italian who would like to learn English. The best way to distribute information is with flyers, so print a bunch with your phone number and post them up around town. It benefits both you and the person interested in learning English…and its free! Never forget what a valuable asset you possess—English as a first language. Additionally, it should not be difficult to find an outlet in which you can teach English for pay. There are a number of associations looking for English instructors on an almost constant basis, such as the Cultural Association for Interactive Learning, Centro Didattico Santo Stefano, and the British School of Bologna. In some cases, you can even get paid just to have a conversation in English.

Housing in Bologna

The best way to find housing is to look at posted announcements around town. Italy does not yet rely on Internet usage quite as much as America does, so I would not recommend trying to find a place to live online as a first option, although it can be done. Every street has ads for an upcoming show, language lessons, apartments, dance courses, etc. Just off of the main university street, there is a long wall bursting with housing ads. You can browse it, pick off a few numbers of apartments, and start the calling processes. The best advice I can give is to be patient and look at a lot of different apartments to be sure you are happy not only with the building itself, but also with your future roommates. An apartment may be beautiful, but what good is it if you are not happy with your roommate? You can choose to live with Italians, other foreigners, or Americans…its up to you! If you do choose to live with Italians (which I highly recommend as it is very useful for learning Italian) then make sure you feel the right “vibe” right away. Your roommates will be your most immediate exposure to Italian culture and lifestyle, so choose wisely!

Bologna Portico with announcements

A portico in Bologna with posted announcements.

Nightlife in Bologna

Bologna has a lot going on, and with posters and advertisements littering the city, it is not difficult to find something to do on a Friday night. It is however, a bit more difficult to find something to do that is cheap. Most of the better venues are outside the city center, so getting to and from each club can be an epic journey. Most buses stop running around midnight or 1 a.m., so even though you can take a bus wherever you are going, expect to take a taxi home. Additionally, most venues have their own tesera, a special card that you need in order to enter each club, on top of the entrance fee, which generally is €5-15 (1 euro is approximately equal to US$1.50 at the time of this writing) on a given night, and sometimes more for special concerts and events. If you, like me, don’t have enough money to spend going out to clubs every weekend, don’t fret! There are a lot of ways to have fun in Bologna without spending too much money. Aperitivo, which is essentially a happy hour with the added benefit of free food, is very common in Bologna. While most Italians treat this as a pre-dinner appetizer, the thrifty American is aware that this can become a full-blown dinner if necessary. For the price of one drink (usually €4-8) you can get endless mini-sandwiches and lasagna slices, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and bread. For the evenings, Bologna is full of bars, from overcrowded ones located in the university area, to Irish pubs, to smaller, more intimate bars found off of any given side street. You can also find a Centro Sociale, which hosts events on the weekends to fund their community events during the week. These often have much more reasonable entrance fees (€3-5) and cheap drinks. These locations also often have cheap yoga, pilates, or dance classes, free Italian language courses, and political rallies and events.

Food in Bologna

In any discussion of Italy, you simply cannot leave out the topic of food. It is a central focus of the Italian life and it is particularly good in Bologna. In fact, Bologna is considered the food capital of Italy, earning its title “Bologna la dotta, la grassa, e la rossa”. “La dotta” (the learned) refers to the intellectual atmosphere provided by the university, “la rossa” (the red) refers to the red colored rooftops all over the city, and “la grassa” (the fat) refers to the long tradition and passion for delicious food. Bologna is well known for mortadella, a sliced meat that’s a more subtle version of what is called “bologna” in America, tortellini, a hand rolled pasta generally filled with meat, and tagliatelle, a flat pasta often served with meat sauce. Although there are a lot of great restaurants in town, it is much cheaper to buy the ingredients and make these dishes yourself. Italian food is generally rather simple and has few ingredients—the key is to have quality ingredients, which abound throughout Italy. Although the food culture in Bologna is heavily based on meat, it is not impossible to be vegetarian. There are a few vegetarian restaurants and biological markets around town, and with the high quality of vegetables you should have no problem.

No matter what you are interested in—art, food, music, quiet nights in or long nights out dancing—Bologna has something to offer to almost everyone. The key is to go out and find them and never be shy! Italians are generally very hospitable, welcoming, curious, and genuinely interested in other cultures, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or strike up conversation at the market, in the library, or on the street. Even after six months in Bologna, I am still finding new things to do, new events to go to, new venues to check out, cafés I never knew existed, and small streets that I swear were not there before. You will be amazed at everything that Bologna has hidden up its sleeves.

For More Info

Schools in Bologna

Università di Bolognawww.unibo.it
Accademia di Belle Artiwww.accademiabelleartibologna.it
Conservatorio di Musica “Giovan Battista Martini”www.conservatorio-bologna.com
Accademia Nazionale del Cinemawww.accademiadelcinema.it

Free Italian Language Programs

CILTAwww.cilta.unibo.it (run through the University of Bologna)

Free Travel and Volunteer Opportunities

www.couchsurfing.org (I highly recommend making an account! This is a great way to meet people from all over, get a local’s perspective, and you get a free place to stay!)
www.wwoof.it (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms)
www.liberaterra.it

Cheap Travel

www.hostelworld.com
www.hostelbookers.com

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