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Study Abroad in Bologna

Slowing Down and Discovering the Good Life in Italy

Bologna, Italy during Piazza Maggiore religious festival.
Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore during a national religious festival.

Funding Study in Bologna

Thanks to a Foreign Language Area Studies grant, a government grant available to American graduate students studying at public and private universities throughout the United States, I’m studying Comparative Literature in Italy for a year at the University of Bologna. Bologna is an ideal city for the language immersion that FLAS promotes because there are relatively few native English speakers living here as compared to Florence or Rome. This fact makes speaking Italian on a daily basis achievable and enhances engagement in a new cultural environment. This is my third study abroad experience and my first in Italy, the others having been in neighboring France. I specifically chose Italy this time because of my academic focus on early nineteenth century European literature, specifically, Italian studies which I began at the University of Washington two years ago. Another impetus for applying to study in Italy was that, while living in France, I visited Rome and fell in love with Italian life. Though visiting a country as a tourist is by no means the same as living there, during my two-week vacation in Rome I sensed the residents enthusiasm for both the fineries of life and the simplicities. I’m aware that the famous phrase la dolce vita, often used when referring to Italy, is a kind of ironic cinematic stereotype, but there is truth in it. Regardless of one’s economic status, the Italian mentality and lifestyle requires slowing down, living in the moment, and making the best of the daily pleasures life has to offer. Think of Caesar and his legendary command to trust not in the future but, rather, to seize the day. That is precisely what I have planned to do, both academically and personally, during my year in Bologna.

I am glad that I have because there is much to take advantage of and savor in Bologna. The courses I am attending at the University of Bologna, for example, have fulfilled my expectations, and then some. It is considered the top educational institution in Italy and is among the most renowned on the European continent. As a result, students come from all over the country, as well as from all corners of Europe and the world to study here. This is an added benefit to overseas students because the International Relations department, through which the initial registration for a direct exchange is done, is extremely helpful and is well equipped to answer any questions about how the university system works in Italy. The university even offers a six-week Italian language crash-course, free of charge, with varying levels for all but the most advanced full-time enrollees. Though I did not actually attend this course, because I also received a summer FLAS grant that required a different course of study at that time, I have heard from other international exchange students that the crash-course was extremely useful both in helping them to overcome language difficulties and in assisting them with adjusting to the university system in Bologna and life here in general. The summer FLAS grant, which is a separate application from the academic year grant, can be used consecutively and is for two months at a public or private school where the focus is solely on language studies, whereas the academic year grant is more open to a student’s specific concentration — what FLAS refers to as “Area Studies.”

Making Friends and Feeling at Home in Bologna

The fact that I arrived in Bologna two months before my classes at the university started was a real gift. During this time, I took afternoon classes daily at a private language school, which gave me a chance to get to know some people as well as to get my Italian in shape before starting University level coursework with native speakers. During my free time I found an apartment and familiarized myself with the city. One of the many pleasing discoveries I have come to find out since moving to Bologna is that Italians are some of the easiest people to talk to I’ve ever met, and they are equally easy to befriend. Perhaps this is because Italian culture requires being social, or simpatico, as they say. Almost everything one does here requires taking a number and waiting in line for a turn (i.e., at the pharmacy, the bakery, the post office, etc.). So, while waiting, people naturally strike up conversations. Being forward and asking what to do next while waiting in line for this or that has been necessary for me, as well as beneficial in demystifying the bureaucracy of the system. For instance, how do I check out a library book? Not every library operates in the same way, therefore this is not an unusual question, and many libraries in Italy tend to be somewhat like Fort Knox with extremely high security in order to protect their antique collections and national treasures. One answer might be: Turn in a request online from inside the library and then wait twenty minutes upstairs at the main office where, soon enough, the selected volume will come bobbing down a conveyor belt. Eventually, someone will call your name. In the meantime, I like to chat with other students who are waiting or with the library staff in order to exercise my Italian skills.

Learning how to overcome language and cultural barriers is an important step in adjusting to life abroad. Thanks to the internet, making connections with locals has become easier. Many social organizations with an active Web presence have groups in Bologna, such as CouchSurfing, the International Women’s Foundation, and Aegee for foreign students, each of which have opened doorways for me to new friendships with other people living in my city. They all send frequent updates via email to members about what’s going on around town within their groups. I have to admit that I hesitated in joining any of them at first for various reasons (i.e., being nervous about meeting people via the internet, not wanting to speak English too often, or feeling uncomfortable about going to events where I didn't know a soul), but now I am glad I do participate in every one of the above because the payoff has been big. They each host parties and outings and are a great way to speak Italian with locals, meet people of all ages and walks of life, and to see the sights throughout Italy and Europe for little money.

Author on a boat tour around Portofino.
A boat tour around Portofino arranged by Aegee Bologna.

Some of my closest friends here were actually my language instructors at the private school I attended in the summer. My former instructors are all just out of grad school, and are extremely open to meeting new people. They also have a lot of patience with my Italian, which is clearly not as rapid or fluent as theirs. Chatting with neighbors who I run in to in my building, at the local market, or in the bus has been another excellent way to meet people and establish friendships. I got locked out of my apartment my first month here and went to a neighbor so I could make a phone call to my landlord. This neighbor is an eighty-year old retired lawyer, still working freelance, and has since become like a grandfather figure to me. He checks up on me often, offers me advice on everything from how to pay my bills to the best places to grocery shop in the neighborhood, and he photocopied recipes for me on how to make the famous Bolognese ragu and tortellini from scratch. He has even loaned me hanging pictures and knick-knacks to furnish my apartment with. Similarly, when the fuses in my apartment blew out, I asked for help from a young woman in my lobby and we now socialize together.

English as a Valuable Skill

Having English as a mother-tongue is a valuable commodity in Italy. Before going abroad I never could have imagined how useful my English would be, yet it has become an indispensable form of barter. I do a weekly language exchange between English and Italian with one of my former language instructors and also trade out English lessons for exercise classes with an instructor I met at the gym. As a student on a tight income, this type of swap is a wonderful way to save money and to fill extra time while sharing my skills. It is empowering to know that, even though my Italian is far from perfect, I have something desirable to offer which can help others. For extra cash, I also teach English to a few private students weekly. We meet in cafes in the city center and work together for about an hour or more each time. I found most of my students by putting up flyers around town at bookstores, near the university, and at gyms. I also spread the word that I teach to everyone I know. Passaparola, which translates to passing information through the grapevine, is quite important in Italy and is, by far, the best way to network here.

City Life and Economizing in Bologna

The population of Bologna is around 400,000 and the city center, the area inside the former medieval walls, is negotiable by foot or bike, though the bus system is excellent and necessary for going to the suburbs. I use all three. Bologna is also a major hub for national train transport: all trains, including the high speeders, stop here. This makes Bologna extremely convenient for day trips to almost anywhere in Italy that is north of Rome. I do this often since daytrips don't require paying for an overnight stay at a hotel. Now that the euro is the strongest it has ever been against the dollar, I have found ways to economize by taking advantage of all that is thrifty here. Most museums in Bologna are free, and going for the evening passeggiata, when the whole population pours out into the streets from work to go for a stroll, window shop, and be seen in the latest fashions, doesn’t cost a cent either. Conveniently, just afterward there is the aperitivo hour at around seven. This sometimes is like dinner for me because, for the cost of a drink, unlimited munchies (i.e., lasagna, risotto, mini-sandwiches, olives, cheese, sliced fruit) are all available at no extra charge, and standing at the counter instead of being seated at a table is even cheaper. These customs are practiced throughout Italy and have become some of my favorite pastimes.

Statue of Nepture in Bologna.
A statue of Neptune in one of Bologna’s many civic museums.

Cooking at home is the best way to eat in Italy for it is well known that the height of Italian cuisine isn't necessarily found in expensive restaurants, but is right in your own kitchen. The quality of the food in the markets is astounding; absolutely everything is fresh and preservative free. I just can’t get enough of the mozzarella, prosciutto, gnocchi, and tortellini, all of which are easy to prepare as simple dishes at home for little money. The fizzy fruity wines like Lambrusco and Pignoletto are a bang for your euro too, and my newest discovery, since they can’t be found in the U.S. Needless to say, I eat and drink like a queen everyday and I often have friends over to my place for dinner, or go to their places. Then we go out after dinner to walk off the pounds of pasta we ate and fill up again on gelato. I only hope that when I return to the States I can replicate all the scrumptious recipes I’ve learned!

Studying in Bologna

The University of Bologna is said to be the oldest university in the Western world. Established in the year 1088, it is renowned for preparing such students as Dante, Petrarca, and Carducci and, more recently, for having in its employ as professors the author Umberto Eco and the former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, to name a few. Education is taken quite seriously in Italy and most students, even undergrads, have an impressive knowledge of the classics and history as well as contemporary theory, and have excellent study habits to boot. The classes are all lecture-based and students literally write out every word the professors say for as long as two hours straight. I had some trouble at first keeping up with the speed of the spoken lecture so bought a small recorder, which helped, but also meant showing up early and getting a seat in the front row of the lecture hall.

Exams here are nothing like in the States. In fact, even the way the classes are structured was completely confusing to me at first. Most professors post a syllabus on line or at a local copy shop and it is up to each student to select from the extensive readings what he or she wants to focus on. Exams are all oral and usually take place anywhere from a month to three months after the class has finished. It’s a juggling act to organize my study schedule as a result, but I’m getting the hang of it and even appreciate now the extra time to prepare for the final evaluation since I must know all the materials thoroughly in order to be able to answer the mystery questions. It helped to inform the professors up front that I am a foreign student and to frequent the scheduled office hours in order to get my questions answered, if only just the logistical ones. Some professors will even give foreign students a break and reduce the reading list or allow some of the readings to be done in translation, though this is rare at the graduate level.

Words Of Advice

As an American student enrolled in a direct exchange at an Italian university, it is important not to take anything for granted. By this I mean, don't ever expect information to be handed out carte blanche the way it is back home in the U.S.  At my university in Seattle, I was used to receiving in my hand a hard copy of the syllabus on the first day of the course and to being told by the professor exactly what the class would be reading when. This is not the case in Italy. Sometimes the course pack isn’t available until three weeks into the course, or the readings come at you piecemeal, but you don’t have time to read them at present anyway because you are busy studying for an exam for a course that ended over a month ago. Italian students have no trouble with this system at all, so how can an American student adapt? Ask questions, tons of them, to your professors, at the International Relations office, to other students in your class. If there is something important that you missed during the lecture, ask to see your classmates’ notes. Getting a little extra help this way should be no problem. In fact, as soon as some of my classmates discovered that I am American, they offered to photocopy their notes for me before I had even thought to ask them.

Likewise, pose questions to your landlord or your roommates about how, for instance, to pay quarterly utility bills at the post office, or about how to open a free bank account with the post that doesn’t charge withdrawal fees. Ask directions from people on the street and advice in markets. Italians love to help you out, and even more, they love to chat. Be confident that you’ll be advised about the best place to buy that used bike you need to get around, or which nearby town you should visit on your next outing by train. And get a cell phone, because you’ll be busy with spur of the moment plans for a stroll under the porticos or a coffee break with friends somewhere nearby the main piazza. Last and most important, speak Italian. You’ll get a dozen compliments a day on how well you speak, whether you think it is true or not. A year abroad in Italy goes by quickly, so get involved in activities and just have fun every day. Italians will, in turn, love you for your openness and will think you’re really simpatico!

Carnival masks at the Medieval Market in Bologna.
Carnival masks at the Medieval Market in Bologna.

For More Info

U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program:
Check with your home university as to what kind of FLAS grants it offers and to which world regions

Aegee European Students’ Forum:
Find your study abroad country in Europe and join your local group. See what kinds of expeditions they offer. Travel with any subdivision throughout Europe.

The University of Bologna. This institution of higher education is world-famous for law and economics, arts and sciences, as well as literature and classics.
Check out the International Relations page as well.

International Women’s Forum Bologna is a social and professional network of English-speaking women.
This group is specific to Bologna and to women. It’s not actually necessary to join in order to attend monthly events around town. I have participated in the aperitivo club where there were men too. Since most participants are Anglophone, speaking either English or Italian is entirely up to you.

Related Topics
Study Abroad in Italy
Student Participant Stories
Living Abroad in Italy: The Best Expatriate Resources

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