This is neither my first Letter from Bologna nor the last; but it is the first from me that will be followed by who knows how many others, but not by my return to my sweet Frisco (as we are not supposed to call it).
In this first ex-pat note, as in most of those to follow, I will take up some personal matters and go on to broader questions, dealing with Italy and/or US and global matters.
So here we are, and, although exhausted by the flight and the screw-ups at connections, etc., we are pleased to be here.
Bologna (where I live) and Modena (where I work), my two main hang-outs in Italy, are not just not in the USA; in some ways, they're not just being in Italy. Like many other spots in this lovely country, both have their own identity — not just Italian, but bolognese or modenese. Among the many things they share with most of Italy, are the processes and content of eating. (In this regard, see my commentary on "The Italians" of a few years ago [in And It's Each for Himself..., 2001]).
It is often difficult to know whether the bolognese like to eat so much as an excuse to talk even more, or vice versa. Whatever. The process is to be at a table with as many loved/liked ones (at the same time) and to take as long as possible, the minimum being 4–5 hours, made more than tolerable by really good food and wine.
Last Sunday serves as an example. We (including our new little dog Albertino) had lunch with a large handful of friends at a very good (but not very expensive) spot a few steps from our apartment. We began 12:30 and ended at about 6:30 — just in time to grab a taxi and get to dinner at another friend's house — two different gnocchi's, a salad, and four cheeses, a marvelous red wine, and several ice creams. Then, finally, home to bed.
All of that while, nearby in the main square of Bologna (with its statue of Neptune, huge, naked of course, and situated just so the spotlights on it cast a shadow of his you-know-what on the adjoining library wall). Bologna is the San Francisco of Italy (or vice versa), in terms of its politics (it is seen as the buckle on the "Red Belt of Italy"), and its being the most comfortable for whatever sexual life one lives; and as well, it's where the first western university emerged (in the tenth century). Bologna's unofficial motto translates to "fat and wise."
Exhausted though I was, I gave my first class a few days after our battered arrival. All of Modena's university buildings are old, the youngest being eighteenth century. My class was on the fourth floor of such a building in a large auditorium: no elevator, no microphone. Almost, after 90 minutes, no Doug — in that they almost had to carry me out at the end, gasping for breath.
Since then I have had a ground floor, with mike in place, to strut my stuff.
Although my class is officially a seminar, there are about 40 students, in their second university year. In my teaching here over the years, two characteristics stand out: (1) the students are better- educated than their U.S. counterparts, and (2) they are very shy about speaking up in class. It usually takes me five or six meetings to get any questions and discussions. And then they are very good. The class this year will be two semesters focusing on the materials we have been discussing in our San Francisco classes recently: At the Cliff's Edge (now fully available in a new and finely version on this site, edited by our computer whiz Michael Slaughter).
A nice story: Attending last week's class was a student from three years ago. He had just gone through his tesi exam. A tesi is what we call a thesis, and, in Italy, after four years of university classes, one must write a substantial thesis (easily the equivalent of a master's thesis in the USA), and defend it in front of an auditorium filled with moms and pops and friends, answering the questions of a platoon of profs.
To my study, this week, after his tesi exam, came one of my students from the past. He had written an excellent thesis on the impact of world war on nearby Reggio Emilia (his home town). I remembered him well, because of his tesina (term paper) in my class. It was on "The background and nature of free jazz." (What kinda crazy course was that, Prof Dowd?) Michele was/is himself a classical french horn player; now a member of a regional orchestra and working for peanuts. I learned a lot about "free jazz" from him; he says he learned a lot about what's wrong with the woild from me. Mutual fan club.
As for that "woild": Italy's part in it couldn't be as foul as that of the USA: of course not, it hasn't the power. But it's in trouble — as are, I hasten to add, all of the nations of Europe. All of the economies are drooping, all of their governments are rife with unresolvable (by them) conflicts of all sort; all of them are increasingly faced with rising racial/religious/cultural conflicts which none of them has the power/inclination/ability to resolve, whether violently or peaceably. Meanwhile, to one degree or another, all of them are caught up in the need to get into always deeper do-do with the USA (economically, militarily...) or to find some ways to work together to become increasingly independent of the USA. None of them has found ways yet to avoid further entanglement or to work toward genuine independence from the USA and cooperation with each other.
In consequence, as a steady look at the news from Europe will show, there is not a single government in Europe which is not made up of eternally squalling, feckless, and unstable equivalent of U.S. House and Senate and White House.
Concerning all of which, more in my next epistle. Meanwhile, as I write, Albertino is gnawing at my feet and at the computer wires, signifying either hunger or anger (or both).
Love and kisses,