There is something to be said about being woken up by ringing church bells, something comforting, in a city that is slipping away from who I am.
Waking up in the heat is familiar and so are the sights but the way people go about their business is not anymore. I return home after dinner at my mother’s, (they way she fries zucchini blossoms is still unparalleled) and the bus is jam-packed as if it were rush hour: a woman in a chador with three children in tow smiles at me, three Moroccan youths are dressed to the ninth for a night on the town, the Singhalese man talks rapidly on his cellphone – hardly anybody speaks Italian. Walking from the bus stop, I see people spilling in the streets, surges of small crowds, mostly young in age, congregating outside pubs and bars and osterias, each group identifiable for a uniform or a creed or some other common ground.
My sister’s apartment is located a stone’s throw from one of my favourite churches, Santo Stefano, otherwise called the Seven Churches, a sober and magnificent example of seven different architectural styles, accumulated over the years, as way back as the 1300s. Of the seven chapels built as a Russian doll, the one that always took my fancy is the hexagonal Romanic one, with pillars around a stone reliquary, at the moment empty of any sainthood. It’s outside Santo Stefano that I am approached by Babakar, a Senegalese young man selling useless and cheap wares. His toothless grin is sincere, he just craves for some conversation, in any language, French, English, Italian. He gives me a tiny a bracelet “because you look like Shakira” (uh?), knowing I will not be able to resist the offering of a euro or so. My two euros apparently also buy me a small red and yellow elephant with a chipped foot.
At 4.40 on my first morning in Bologna, I open my eyes and am wide awake. I patiently wait for dawn to make an appearance and, with only three hours of sleep, I start wandering the still empty streets, stopping at an ATM (lovely called Bancomat here which, with the word “matto” meaning crazy, it conjures images of banks run amok).
The coffee shop, or bar, where I settle on breakfast, as my sister espresso machine spews out an undrinkable concoction, is called Colazione da Bianca and is a wide and trendy store with a long array of pastries. I am the first client and the man behind the counter asks me if I am on my way to work. “No, I am actually on vacation”. Why are you up so early? Good question but long story, as I sit with a cappuccino and croissants at one of the outside tables, nose buried in the newspaper. Around me, an old man rummage through the garbage can, some people placidly hurry to work and the first customers slip in and out of the cafe.
As I roam the streets with the shops still closed, the air not quite hot or humid as it will be in a couple of hours, I see my surroundings more and more with the eyes of the tourist. In the ensuing 4 hours of aimless walking, not even trying to look for old hangouts, I see the signs of a city that, if always intellectually curious, it has now taken that curiosity to a new series of opportunities. Along Via Zamboni, the heart of the University citadel, students idle about and I peek my head into St. Cecilia cloister, never seen before: hanging pots of flowers soften a corner, two crates of vegetables are lying around – is there a vegetable garden in the back? – an old man sweeps the floors and a small poster advertises a classical concert that night.
Pushing my way deeper into the University quarter, I come upon Palazzo Poggi, the once palatial home of a prelate that, in a reversal of roles, is now an astonishing scientific museum, filled with wax didactic reproductions of every known organ, every possible type of pregnancy, wax cadavers with removable organs for faux autopsies, old maps, and all kinds of unexpected scientific instruments. A reminder of the greatness of this University and its medical school, which has been going strong for the last 900 years.
Inside the City Hall building, an amiable woman helps me restore the wi-fi account I opened last time I was here – I can use three hours a day at no charge, either inside their offices, around the main square or at any of the public libraries. How civilized is that? The city I grew up in was a staunch bastion of Communism for many decades and, withholding all political judgment, I have to admit that public services have always run well and continue to do so, in the generic chaos that is Italian bureaucracy.
to be continued