When the teacher at my Italian school in Bologna introduces the subject for the day and I start laughing, it’s hard to explain why.
I’ve just arrived from the train station, about 30 minutes by foot. No matter what, I’m always late. The 7:56 train from Faenza is worse than me when it comes to leaving on time; it arrives in Bologna no earlier than 8:33 (more like 8:38) and the grammar class begins at nine. No reason to take the earlier train — it leaves at 7:29 and supposedly arrives in Bologna at 8:21. This train is always late, too and secondo me (the Italian version of IMHO), 10 minutes earlier in Bologna is not worth more than 30 minutes in my nice, warm bed.Once the train dumps us all out in Bologna (before it heads back to Faenza), we move like a massive school of fish. It’s hard to miss the fact that as winter approaches, so does everyone’s gray and black wardrobes. Italians tend to dress en masse, so they can be a dreadfully fashionable yet homogeneous bunch. In wintry, functional Dillon, Colorado, I used to stand out for wearing a dress. Now I blaze forth as the quirky American that I am, the only person wearing a bright orange shirt.
The staircase up to ground level is completely obscured by brown hair, swinging arms, legs in black ripped jeans straight from the nineties, and an army of Kånken backpacks made by the Finnish company Fjallraven. The theme of Fjallraven’s website seems to be a snowy wedding between a Portland hipster and a lumber-sexual. I trudge up with the masses, listening to snippets of conversation between flocks of teenagers on their way to school, business men waist deep in conference calls and women yelling into their phones. Of course, everyone Italian on a phone is gesturing as if the person on the phone could see them. Typically, I get accidentally chopped or backhanded at least twice before I reach street level.
Piazza delle Medaglie d’Oro — the train station’s face — is undulating with humans, taxis, bikes, scooters and buses. Before we all try to cross the street without getting taken out by each other, it starts. I see the first of many spots that taps my memory bank on the shoulder and says, “Are you awake? Sylva’s not. She needs coffee.” My memories don’t seem to care about time of day; they’re like vampires, roaming through the darkness of my thoughts, hunting me down.The thing about returning to the same area time and time again (the region of Emilia Romagna, the towns of Faenza and Bologna, for example) is that I’ve built up a history. This history includes a great armful of memories that encompass the whole palette of human emotions. And at this point in my already full, eventful life, those memories include people who are no longer in it. Like Tyler. Anne. Lisa. Alain.
But the light is changing ahead of me. I’ll be even later if I don’t sprint to make it halfway before the little yellow man on the signpost turns red. My laden backpack protests, swinging side to side like a fat man’s paunch. Luckily for me, I’m not trapped in place like the yellow man is, so I don’t time to for my eyes to linger on the bench in front of the station, under the halfheartedly waving flags. It’s hit by a big, bold ray of sunshine, right where I waited for Alain and his dad to pick me up last summer. And where Lisa picked both of us up this spring on our way to Venice.Safely across the street, I cut through the circular building that houses a round inner courtyard flanked by cafes and restaurants catering to the commuter, the traveler. The waiters at the pizza restaurant/cafe in the entrance give me a half-smile. They don’t even try to entice me with a menu anymore, they’re so used to seeing me zip through groggy and applying headphones.
Before I know it, my feet are taking me up the steps to Parco della Montagnola. These steps are the inwardly curving kind, like the foyer of someone’s mansion and a bruised white like a relentless coffee drinker’s teeth. I know why my feet took me there: the leaves are falling like little pieces of gold through the mottled light and the ones underfoot are delightfully crispy. As I make my way through, the park benches are already filled with Bologna’s finest drug dealers. Somehow, they all manage the same lazy slouch, as if there’s a TV in front of them with something really, really boring on.
Today I’ll skip the non-stop foot traffic on of Via Indipendenza, lined with shops announcing the latest sales and cafes flanked by a sea of pastry flakes. I’m headed for the budget pizzerias, the tattoo shop tucked away in a corner of an old castle, reasonable Osteria dell’Orsa, usually with a cloud of students stuck to it like flies on Scotch tape. But it’s too early for that now.
In the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Bologna’s hidden canal. It’s dwindled to a trickle now, as if the arrival of fall scared the moisture out of it. Although I don’t see how that’s possible; the ever-increasing fog threatens to infest every corner with a thick ream of humidity. Of course it was Alain who introduced me to the canal; he took me on a grossly romantic night tour of Bologna once… Right now there’s a fake blond in stilettos yelling into her cell phone, leaning on the wall overlooking the canal, gesturing with her free hand as if she’s in front of an orchestra.Turning the corner, there’s the pub where Alain and I sat late one night. Under this pinkish-peach highway of portici, we talked over pints of beer and watched University students party like it was their last day on earth. This was long before he decided to be a student again himself and move north to Bolzano or swiftly exit stage left like a retiring Broadway actor. Hearts change, lives change, that’s just the way it goes for all of us.
A million years ago, I learned about the five classic stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but I didn’t know that when someone abruptly leaves our lives, it can feel like they died. Then those stages show up like poltergeists and you’re obliged to run around after all of them shutting cupboard doors and hoping they’ll leave soon. It felt like that with Tyler, then again with Lisa, then Alain. People say “you’ll get through it” but I never believed them until I did. And did again. And again. Except now it’s a bit clearer what the choices are. First, resist the past, try to move through life like it’s snow and you’re one of those cats that isn’t having any of that cold, white BS. Or channel this bad@$$ feline:
I’d rather be like this second cat… after a definite WTF moment, it left fear behind and treated what came next like a whimsical game of exploration and joy.Obviously a bit lost in thoughts, I arrive in Piazza Verdi, in the madly beating heart of the University District. Here, I like to slow a bit, letting my eyes wash over the scene. There’s a grimy bar accompanied by a miniature copy shop squished in the corner. Today there’s a slightly vampirish woman with bluish black hair and red lips sipping an espresso next to a punk rocker in sunglasses, hunched over his espresso cup like the secret to infinity is within. Two thin, disheveled Italian girls — like walking chopsticks — flip their hair and try very hard to not look like they spent the night in Piazza Verdi. There’s also an impressive assortment of trash for a Wednesday morning. Most of it is alcohol-related and all of it is being herded into a dumpster by a pinched man muttering through the cigarette perched on his lip like a baby pigeon.I pause at a light next to a hippy-looking type in baggy turquoise pants with two dogs on a handmade leash. Here, Via Giuseppe Patroni (which to me sounds like a spell in a Harry Potter movie) changes to Piazza Aldrovandi. Here is one of my favorite sections with vine-shrouded, funky cafes and forest green stalls nudging the curbs. This one’s full of fresh fruit and vegetables and the stern woman who runs it reminds me of an eastern block mobster’s wife. The next holds a slew of fresh fish and I can smell it before I see it. There’s another with clothing I always have to ignore because the wares are too cute and if I touch anything, I’ll have to buy it. And then a sandwich shop where I occasionally pause on my way back to the station for a mozzarella e salame piccante con crema di carciofi. When I glance over, the guy behind the wooden counter grins at me, as he does every day I end up on Aldrovandi.
The next moment, I see an advertisement for Cremeria Funivia, one of two cremerie in Bologna that are always duking it out in terms of the word “best.” The other is Cremeria Santo Stefano, around the corner from my school on Viccolo Posterla.
I just missed the light on bustling Strada Maggiore. Here I pause; if I go right, I’ll be at Le Due Torri (the two towers) teetering in the very center of Bologna. Tyler and I climbed one once and took a million pictures. Of course, I prefer the one that’s leaning because, well, the other one is a little bit too perfect, you know?Waiting, I’m watching the cute bearded biker across from me watching me watching him. The sun is shining and I’m comfortably in a t-shirt, but he’s in a down jacket, like most of the other Italians around me. And since I’m still trapped at the light, I’m also trapped thinking about Cremeria Funivia. But not about the delectable rum and dark chocolate flavor I tried a month ago with my friend Daniel from, from language school. No I’m thinking that’s where Alain took me, in the midst of showing off Bologna so that I’d fall in love with it, too. But that’s exactly why I took Daniel there. And wanted to take my American friend Katherine, but we never made it between going out til 4 or 5 a.m. and sleeping until 4 or 5 p.m…I’ve come to terms with the fact I can’t escape the memories, so why try? For example, the only available airbnb Katherine and I found was a literal minute’s stroll from the apartment Alain and I rented together in late May. I also took Katherine to Ristorante Pizzeria Scalinatella, where Alain took me for a last romantic dinner, for “the best pizza in Bologna.” I have to say, the pizza was really hard to beat.
“It’s cool that you want to go back to these places,” Katherine said, glancing up at the tower teetering above the restaurant. “A lot of people would be like no way, I can’t go there, I used to go there with my ex.”“This is exactly why I like to go to these places again,” I said, stuffing my mouth with pizza like an 8-year-old stuffs Halloween candy in a pillowcase. “I’m rewriting my experiences.”
Like when were joined at Scalinatella by my blond-haired, beautiful Russian language school friend Dasha; the three of us ladies got plenty of special attention from the manager, Luca and the wait staff. His family was dining next to us — two adorable children, their mother and the ever-hungry dog. We made friends with all of them. Luca treated us to a special melon liquor and took us out for a drink down the street after the restaurant closed. From drinks with Luca, Katherine and I headed to the bar where we’d dance in the corner under neon lights until 4 a.m., gulping bright blue shots with names like “Wacky Weed.”I started writing this blog nearly two months ago and I was using the writing as medicine, or a tool. It’s had several lives by now as my thoughts cleared and I edited out the anger and the questions started to answer themselves. So why share it now? Because heartbreak and inner struggle are universal languages and vulnerability is not only more rare than it should be, but a think of beauty.
The light changes and I cross, zigzagging over to narrow Viccolo Posterla; in the distance, I can see the arch of ivy tickling the door of the language school. When I arrive, I put my hand against the button and hear the bell ring inside; the click of the door announces my normal, late arrival. I check the list to make sure my class hasn’t moved and walk past several students speaking in French, wrestling the coffee machine. I show them the button hiding on the machine’s dusty spine and run up the stairs, opening the door to Blue Room at exactly 9:14 a.m.So now, let us zoom out, enough to where I begin to see this whole experience — the divorce with Tyler, now dating Anne, the friendship breakup with Lisa, splitting with Alain — will teach me something. Has taught me something. Now, a little more, where I can see that each heartbreak is a price I paid for the privilege of loving someone. And a little bit more, where my life takes on the husk of a puzzle. Instead of being wary or frustrated or discouraged by the disarray (pieces scattered everywhere!), I’m fascinated, curious and falling in love with this mad, magical world a little more each day.
So, when the teacher at my Italian school in Bologna introduces the subject for the day and I start laughing, it’s hard to explain why. The subject is a creature called congiuntivo, a tense that’s more of a verbal mood. It’s tricky, but simply stated congiuntivo is mainly used in subordinate clauses to express doubt, uncertainty or personal feelings. So, more or less everything. Dasha and I had a good laugh over our cappucci during the break — after meeting the beast known as congiuntivo, we realized we’d been speaking more or less incorrectly (or at least, in a less educated way) for at least four months.
If I would’ve learned congiuntivo four months ago, I would’ve completely missed the cosmic irony. I’m finally learning the part of the language you’re supposed to use when you’re unsure of everything at a time when I’m completely unsure of everything. Therefore, if writing in Italian, I would not use congiuntivo because I’m sure being unsure is exactly where I need to be.