After the awkwardness of trying to settle into a new city, a new culture and attempting to master a new language, the second and third weeks bring a much more relaxed and indulgent lifestyle. The Erasmus life in Bologna is purely focused around fun. While we are here to study, classes don’t start until the beginning of October, and a slight arrogance / lack of organisation on my part has resulted in me not signing up for the Italian language course here. (A note to future Erasmus students: doing the CILTA language course here is extremely useful, no matter what your language ability, mostly because it’s a great way to meet other students. However, the fact that I didn’t do it hasn’t stopped me from meeting people through nights out and other social events.) So my second week involved going out a lot, eating more delicious Italian food and exploring the surrounding cities. Bologna is roughly an hour away from lots of small cities: Parma, Ferrara, Forlì, Ravenna, Florence, which makes it a great base for discovering the rest of Italy. The train system here is also incredibly easy to use and efficient. Rather than using that ridiculous system that we have in England, where there are 50 different types of ticket that you can buy, depending on what time you want to travel, which rail cards you have, whether you want to stop somewhere or not. And don’t even get me started on the tickets that bizarrely cost more if you buy a return, instead of two singles, or that are cheaper if you break down the journey and buy individual tickets for each leg of the journey, rather than buying one from your starting destination to your end destination. No, here the price is always the same. More expensive for first class, or for a faster train, but otherwise, the ticket price is always consistent (and relatively cheap, I paid just 16 euros for a four hour train journey up to Alto Adige – but more about that another time).
And all this travelling is definitely worth it. The little cities in Emilia Romagna are beautiful, with gorgeous winding streets, little cafes, old Italian men sitting in the street smoking – you name an Italian stereotype, you’ll find it here. In particular, our trip to Parma is well worth it. We leave Bologna at 11 in the morning, slightly worse for wear after the night before (as always) and, after an hour, we arrive in one of the most hideous train stations anyone has ever seen (which is saying something, as I live in Birmingham). Aah, beautiful Parma. But in actual fact, Parma IS beautiful – once we reach the ‘river’ (which is so dried up it’s just a field), we discover that there’s far more greenery here than in Bologna and it’s a beautiful day, so we are all very happy. After wandering around this gorgeous city in the sun, eating a slice of pizza and soaking up the beauty of the place, we happen upon the main piazza, where there is a prosciutto festival. Yes, Italy is that cool – they have whole days dedicated to prosciutto. We get plates of prosciutto, figs and grapes and glasses of sparkling white wine and sit on the steps of the church to watch the world go by. And what a world it is – that day, Parma was having its annual Palio – a day of competitions and races between the people from the different ‘gates’ (quarters) of the city. The most famous Palio is in Siena, a violent but incredibly exciting horse race. This, however, is more tame – the best part of the whole celebration being the long parades that each gate put on. Hundreds of Italians parade the streets, all dressed up as nobles, peasants, drummers, flag throwers. It’s wonderful, especially as some people are very into it, with their best Medieval face on, and some people look as if they want to kill whoever put them in this peasant costume. At one point we see the young boys who are going to run in the race – they’re dressed in strange red tunics and look very nervous and embarrassed. After a lot of flag waving, drumming and trumpet playing, the real entertainment starts. Along the whole main street of Parma there is fire breathing, sword-fighting, stately Medieval dancing and more flag waving. Unfortunately we can’t stay for the races, but we do manage to glimpse one of the most bizarre competitions I have ever seen: a donkey race, where the jockeys on each donkey are very small children, who look absolutely terrified and are being held in place by adults running along beside them. It’s incredibly dangerous (no helmets, no harnesses and only a pair of hands ready to stop the child’s head smacking onto the tarmac) and most donkeys have escaped and are running amok without a jockey or any sense of direction. I have no idea who wins, or if winning even matters, but it’s thoroughly entertaining. That’s Italy for you – a heavy dose of tradition and culture, that, on closer inspection, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.