When you move to a foreign country for six months, you expect to learn about the people and the culture there, as well as to temporarily adopt their way of life. In my case, I’ve adopted Bologna, located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy, as my international home. The perfect place to study abroad, Bologna is filled with college students and people who refuse to speak English to foreigners—as opposed to locals who cater to tourists in major cities like Florence, Rome, and Venice—which forces visitors to familiarize themselves with the language. Small enough to redner walking almost anywhere feasible and large enough to provide a constant stream of new faces, Bologna also provides an excellent sampling of the Italian population since the students who study here—apart from the many international students like myself—come from all over the country. Even though Italy is a fairly small country—roughly the size of the state of New Mexico—each region boasts fierce differences in language, culture, and food. In the past month or so of learning firsthand about the Italian lifestyle, I think the most important aspect of Italian culture is how the locals’ emotions have shaped almost every aspect of it.
Italians are like the Opera: they’re all about emotions. But not just any emotions—the feelings expressed in the Opera are always isolated and extremely intense. When angry, the soprano sings her aria with the most forceful feelings of vendetta possible. When pining for the soprano with his everlasting love, the tenor exudes an affection so strong that he would die for her in an instant. The Italians live their daily lives in a similarly exaggerated manner: they eat with ferocity, laugh with joy, love with all the passion capable of a human spirit, and cry with the pain of a thousand broken hearts. Their hand gestures only aid in the expression of these emotions. This vivacity constitutes a characteristic of the Italians that is vastly different from those of Americans. Perhaps we tend to numb ourselves to the world with all of the technology and medications constantly at our fingertips—Italy’s technology is stuck in the nineties and getting your hands on adderall proves more difficult than acquiring large quantities of Roofies—but I feel that Americans may never experience the world with the intensity that Italians do.
A friend of mine who studied in Italy last semester told me that the one thing he regretted was not spending more time with actual Italians, so when I arrived in Bologna, I set out to do just that. Since that Italians are generally very friendly people and that I’m a pretty likeable person myself, making Italian friends has been quite an easy task. Chiara, the adorable girl who works at the gym I frequent, studies Art History—like myself—and has introduced me to a number of other interesting people: Luca #1 plays music and is loaning me his extra guitar while I’m here. Luca #2 accompanies me to the gym, where we help each other learn our respective languages. Davide, Maria, Massimo, Giacomo, and a few others have also woven their way into my Italian friend circle. The woman who runs the vintage shop down the street, her adorable dog Zene—who I can pet when I miss my own puppy—and Max, who serves me coffee every morning, round out my group of Italian acquaintances.
Speaking of dear Max, he’s easily become one of the most vibrant characters of my daily life in Bologna. An older man, probably in his late fifties, Max sports a protruding belly, a balding head, and kind blue eyes that sparkle behind the glasses that slide down to the end of his nose. Every morning when my four friends and I stumble sleepily into his café, he knows each of our orders by heart and recites them to us as if we were his oldest, dearest customers. Max wears a crisp blue suit on weekdays, but on Saturday and Sunday, he breaks out his sweat pants, pullover sweater, tennis shoes, and scarf—the universal European accessory—for a look that I like to call “Relaxed Max.” Since my friends’ classes as well as my own have begun and we’ve gotten on different schedules, I’ve started going to Max’s café by myself more often, and have fostered a special, more personal relationship with him. All a tad jealous, my friends assure me that I’m clearly his favorite, making me absurdly happy. Sometimes when I’m sitting by myself at the bar, drinking my cappuccino and eating my brioche alla marmelata, Max will look over at me and stick his tongue out teasingly as if I were a small child (admittedly, I do usually react like a small child would). He also gets quite a kick out of the fact that I hail from Hawaii, attend school in New York, and now live in Bologna; Max sometimes brags to fellow café patrons about his “favorite customer’s” worldliness.
I have this theory about Max: he might be Bologna’s biggest mob boss. Only based on a handful of evidence, the theory seems to make sense—in a ridiculous sort of way. One day as I sat alone drinking my cappuccino, I overheard Max giving another customer extremely detailed instructions. I was only half listening until I heard Max say something about a car, followed by his setting a pair of car keys on the bar and pulling out 300 crisp euro notes from a much larger wad of bills folded in his suit pocket. After taking the keys and the money, the customer left the bar quickly. In addition to this suspicious scene, Max’s sons, who are roughly my age, provide the only hired help in the bar—clearly, he wants to keep the business in the family. Further, a café could provide a cover for a number of secret operations! Or maybe I’ve just watched one too many mafia movies.
Another character involved in my Bolognese adventure, I like to call Stalker Steve, whom I met one Saturday night in a bar while I was out with some friends. The encounter was as innocent as any: he bought me a drink, I watched him like a hawk to ensure that he didn’t Roofie me, he walked me home, and that was that—the night was completely unremarkable. Stalker Steve, however, saw this night as the beginning of a love rivaling that of even the most melodramatic Hollywood films. A few days later, I attended an art show to which Stalker Steve had invited me, making sure to bring a couple friends for safety and support. After the show, my friends and I went out for a drink with Stalker Steve and his two buddies. As we walked to the bar, Stalker Steve began proclaiming that he was falling in love with me, that he couldn’t stop thinking about me, etc. Seeing as we’d only known each other for less than a couple hours, I started to get severely creeped-out.
After that night, I decided to ignore Stalker Steve until he got the hint that I wanted nothing to do with him. Unfortunately, he never got that hint. Instead, Stalker Steve took to bombarding me with calls and texts. I finally replied, stating my discomfort with the situation and my insistence on not seeing him again. Mistakenly thinking that the whole situation had disappated, I returned home from the gym that night to find him waiting for me in the hallway of my dorm. I took him outside, told him as forcefully as I could—in both Italian and English—that I didn’t want to see him anymore, and commanded him to leave me alone. To this, Stalker Steve meekly replied with pathetic attempts to once again profess his love. I later discussed the situation with the building’s doorman, only to discover that Stalker Steve had waited for me for over two hours. I instructed both doormen—both of whom are named Guido—to threaten to call the police if Stalker Steve returned, and promptly blocked his phone number.
The most unfortunate outcome of the Stalker Steve fiasco was that it robbed me of the comfort I had just started to feel toward living in Bologna, replacing that sense of belonging with anxious fear. Stalker Steve returned to my dorm once more early last week with a bouquet of flowers, but thankfully Guido #2—the older, angrier Guido—directed him to leave. I don’t know what exactly Guido said to Stalker Steve, but it must have had an effect; the last time I saw him, as I was out having lunch with friends, he rounded the corner, seemed genuinely shocked to see me, shot me the most hurt look I’ve ever seen, and quickly ran away. Though I’m sorry he feels crushed, I don’t place the blame on myself; his own illusions and misguided feelings ultimately broke his heart.
If I’ve learned anything from the Italians, I’ve learned that when you feel an emotion bubbling up inside of you, you should wave your hands violently in the air and scream in the street until you’ve sufficiently expressed yourself. Whether that emotion is one of sadness, happiness, or anger, you should sing an aria about it and think of nothing else but that one feeling. Just as is true of the Opera, you can conflate even the smallest things to seem like the end of the world. Considering this, perhaps I’ll retain a bit of my American perspective and reason to prevent myself from falling in love with the next person I meet on the street—Stalker Steve, take note.
Perhaps we Americans can never experience the world with the fiery intensity that the Italians do, but perhaps we’re also better off because of that. The Italians seem to view life collective rose-colored glasses, romanticizing every aspect of the country from the art and architecture to the food and the landscape. This is not without good reason, for all of these features of Italy are just as beautiful, romantic, and delicious as depicted in movies and books. I can’t yet tell whether this passionate outlook on life ultimately hinders or helps Italian society; for now, I’m sure of my happiness as a semester-long tourist in this rose-tinted world, eager to experience the romance of walking down small cobblestone streets on my way to class, eating my lunch with a glass of wine, and feeling the daily euphoria of my new Italian life.