I met Gaetano, Roberta and Simone on the second day of my History of Italian Film class. They showed up late and sat near me in the crowded lecture hall and during class I got the sense that they, like me, were not captivated by the drone of the professor dissecting in detail how government spending in the 1920s contributed to the rise of Italian cinema as fascist propaganda under Mussolini. They seemed normal and friendly, like me.
After class I saw them standing in a circle near the door of the building, like a rock in a flood of students clamoring from confines of academia into the early evening. I had a lighter in my pocket but I asked them for one anyways, introducing myself. Roberta told me to come with them for a birretta and we’ve been friends ever since.
It turns out a birretta is just a beer after class at seven. We walked to a bar and drank them in the street under a slight warm drizzle. I got to know them each of them and I met some of their friends who walking by stopped to talk. They come from all over Italy and are different in ways that show the cultural differences throughout the country, which was not unified until 1861 and still hangs on to the traditions of each region or small town.
Gaetano comes from the south, near Naples. He grew up with Mt. Vesuvius in his window and like most Napoletanos has dark brown hair, beard and eyes. After a year studying economics at a university in the south he transferred to Bologna to study art, music and film. He tells me the south of Italy is much different than the north; the people are more traditional, and change comes slowly. As a young person, he says, it is better to be in a city like Bologna, where the atmosphere is more progressive and there is a blend of people with plenty of fun things to do.
The rain had slowed but the air and pavement were still wet. We walked to a different bar in a more upscale neighborhood where one of their friends had a small concert with a mic and guitar. We stood outside and listened through the open window, Roberta bought a glass of wine for nine euros and was mad about the price. After a while a waiter came out and told Simone stop smoking so close to the window, this is a nice restaurant and they didn’t want to smell his smoke. When he went back inside Simone rolled another cig.
Whenever I see Simone on the street he is always walking fast with earbuds in. He comes from Milan, the capitalist capital of Italy, and gives the impression that to him Bologna is a small city. He’s tall with close-shaved blonde hair and deep-set blue eyes, the lines shaved into each eyebrow give him a slight menacing semblance, but I know him well enough to know that he only is ever anywhere to have fun. He loves electronic music and going to festivals, it seems like every weekend he is heading to Milan or Torino to dance at his favorite clubs. From that first night he declared us fratelloni and promised to show me a good time; he has never let me down.
It was getting late and I was hungry, but I didn’t want to leave: you never know what happens late if you go home early. Instead Simone, Roberta and I walked to Làbas, a social club organized by students with strong anti-fascist tendencies. Many students here are proud socialists; during the years of fascism, Bologna was one of Mussolini’s strongholds and since the end of WWII a strong anti-authority spirit lingers on the graffitied streets. Làbas organizes concerts, events and protests throughout the city, but that night there was just a jam session.
The concept was simple. In the back of the concert halls there was a table with plastic plates labelled ‘vocals’, ‘guitar’, ‘keyboard’, ‘bass’, etc. If you want to play a part, you write your name on a slip of paper and leave it on the plate. Every ten minutes they call off a new name for each part and the chosen go up on stage and play together. I don’t play so I sat in the back with Roberta, watching the music from across the smoke-filled room.
Roberta is the most fun. She’s short with lots of energy, she rocks black high-tops with a leather skirt and jacket and usually has a bottle of wine in her purse. She is from Sardinia, an island far off the west coast and like most Sardinians she has light brown hair with green eyes, between them, at the top of her nose are two small holes left from a piecing and always hanging from her ears are big gold hoops. She grew up in the hills near the beach and calls everyone she meets bello or bella. She doesn’t speak much English and gets frustrated when I can’t understand her, but by late in the night when her bottle is almost empty she is speaking mostly in Sardo, her native dialect, of which I can’t understand a word.
I see them all about once a week, we go out after class or meet in a piazza. I follow along as they go around Bologna, chilling on benches, on the steps of the cathedrals or in the middle of the street. They show me where to find the best concerts, where to buy wine on tap and where to get food late at night. They have introduced me to other students from different parts of Italy and I have learned a lot about what it’s like to be an Italian student. Overall, it’s pretty fun.