The Top 10 Most Surprising, Interesting, and Culturally Relevant Things of My First Month in Italy

The view from the Bolognese countryside.

So, I'm currently studying at L'Università di Bologna in Bologna, Italy for the semester to finish up my Italian studies, so for your literary pleasure, I thought I'd share what I've found to be most striking in terms of acclimating myself to a new culture and a new country for the first time. Enjoy!

1. First things first: food.

Olive Garden has done all of you a disservice, my friends. Garlic bread really isn’t a thing here. (Shocking, I know.) Neither is spaghetti and meatballs (though meat sauces, like with tagliatelle alla Bolognese, do exist). Fettuccine Alfredo is yet another myth for authentic Italian cuisine. Also, forget about chicken ever being on pasta (*gasp*), though for some reason, seafood is acceptable. Speaking of chicken, don’t go to Parma and think you can find chicken Parmesan. It doesn’t exist, though melanzane alla parmigiana does, if you want authentic eggplant Parmesan, though it is more common in the South. Many of these dishes that we think of as Italian were created in the States after Italians immigrated and regional practices combined and melded into what is more aptly referred to as the Italian-American cuisine we all know and love. (And I bet this history lesson has you starving right about now.)

2. Wine is incredibly cheap.

However, I do not advise buying the generic brand at Coop or any of the other supermercati if you want something tasty. (Yes, there is an Italian equivalent of what in the States would be a Wal-Mart brand of wine. It was a euro for a liter.) I learned this lesson the hard way. 
However, even if you wouldn’t care to drink it, you can still cook with it! Frying up pancetta in vino bianco to make spaghetti alla carbonara earned me several nods of approval from my roommates.

3. Speaking of spaghetti alla carbonara... 

The sauce is made by whisking together grated cheese and eggs. You do not cook it in a pan, which is why when I cooked it over the summer in my apartment in Bloomington it turned out horribly, in terms of both taste and texture. You boil your pasta and add the sauce after you’ve removed the pasta from the heat and drained it; the heat from the pasta cooks the eggs, and using a stirring motion will prevent the eggs from scrambling. Physics is indeed useful.

4. Italian Bureaucracy

The entire Italian bureaucracy, in the words of a wonderful Italian woman who has also lived in the U.S., is about as fast as the American DMV. Furthermore, in terms of actual speed, people actually do window shop in this country, so walking behind two people taking up an entire three meter wide portico while looking at the newest window displays for Fendi and Prada is not something you want to do while running late for class on the other side of the city center.

5. Speaking of classes...

They do not necessarily begin and end on the hour. On Mondays, I have a language course from 11am-1-pm, Dante’s Literature and Criticism from 1-3pm (see the horrendously thick volume below that I must have read by the end of November), and Contemporary Italian Literature from 3-5pm. However, each class typically starts 10-15 into the first hour and finishes 10-15 before the end of the second, giving students time to go from one lesson to the next, or perhaps, grab an espresso or a panino before booking it to one’s next lecture. 

6. There’s also no centralized campus

So one learns the city pretty well out of mere necessity, as the departments and offices and classrooms are scattered about the city. The city and the University have lived side by side and grown over nine centuries. It’s a fact that will make you geek-out when you look at how many different styles of architecture exist here, and even more so when you look at how the rulers have changed throughout the centuries, from the Etruscans, to the Celts, to the Roman Empire, to Germanic tribes, to the Byzantine Empire, to the Holy Roman Empire, and then the Papal States.

7. Train tickets can be horrendously expensive

(always remember that international exchange rate; the dollar is on the losing side). Depending on the time, place, and type of train, you could get a seven-euro ticket (with a 5am departure) or an eighty-euro ticket during peak travel times. The same for flights, as European airlines are much more efficient than their American counterparts. Beware of workers’ strikes, however; you don’t want to be stranded alone in Florence for a weekend. Or maybe, you know, you do.

8. The weather is unexpectedly similar to Indiana, aside from the lesser degree of snowfall.

Well, kind of. It’s October and incredibly humid, but the temperatures are no longer in the 80’s. Temperatures are also a challenge at times, as in Celsius, 20 degrees is similar to 70 in Fahrenheit. Not only in terms of the weather, but also in terms of baking.

9. Speaking of heat...

Italians are, like other European countries, very energy efficient. My apartment has a water heater one must turn on by turning on the gas, turning another knob so the gas can enter the heater, pressing said knob, and then holding a button until the pilot light ignites. You then turn it off after your done to conserve gas. The same process for the stove, except in this case one uses an actual lighter, unlike the automatic ignition gas stoves we love in the U.S. I took cold showers and didn’t eat anything that needed to be cooked for four days until I finally understood how the gas functions. I also had to find a barbecue lighter to light the stove; trying to use a cigarette lighter did not prove to be a good option, given how often I kept burning myself. Thank goodness the oven is electric.

10. Being obviously American is a struggle, as you can’t help it.

Many people will speak to you in English, should they know the language, due to your appearance, your accent, or your grammatical woes. And they will continue in English even if you respond in Italian. However, there is a lovely point when tourists come up and ask you for directions, and you get really excited because you think that they think that you are actually Italian. (Or they’re really desperate for directions.) That is, until you actually have to provide them with functional directions. When you can do this, it’s a wonderful feeling. The linguistic and geographic knowledge required to do this fluidly are so satisfying after a few weeks of being hopelessly dependent on Google Maps. And when actual Italians ask you for directions, it’s even better. And if you want to meet new people, being lost (or at least acting as if you are) works rather well.

And if all indeed lost, find some wine and some gelato and enjoy the sunset over a vineyard. Like this.

For info about the Bologna Consortial Studies Program, check out these links: 

About The Author
Ian BeverPsychology, English, Italian major, creative writing concentration, philosophy minor, Class of 2015

Hi! I'm Ian and I'm currently a senior at IU majoring in psychology, English (with a concentration in creative writing), and Italian, and minoring in philosophy. I'm also a member of the IUB chapters of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Pi Eta Sigma/Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, and IUB Psychology Club. You might have also seen me around campus working as a Technology Center Consultant for UITS, but at the moment I'm spending my senior year abroad in Bologna, Italy and Canterbury, England.

After graduation, I plan on pursuing an M.S. in Human Computer Interaction Design and ending up wherever that may lead.

Sometimes I can be clever and amusing, so I hope you enjoy sharing my experiences here at IU!