by Scott Allen
Some days Claire would teach in the mornings and I would have afternoon and evening classes and I would get up and walk with her in order to not stay in bed all day. We were beginning to feel that we had moved to Italy only to work. There wasn’t enough time off to travel, and anyway we were too broke, still converting dollars to euros to pay rent. We each made a thousand euros a month, but our first checks were half that and we were living in an expensive short-term apartment for half our combined income. We had found it outside of the city center with a forty minute walk to the school.
During our first few weeks there the apartment was cold at night but in the day the weather was mild and we could enjoy the bright colors of the city while we walked to work and walked all around town trying to find a place to live.
One morning I jogged with Claire to the viale where we kissed a quick goodbye. I watched her run briskly with her heavy teaching bag beside the busy street towards school until she was out of sight. It was bizarre to see her disappear into that utterly foreign scene. This side of town, the northwest corner, had been heavily bombed in the war and so had ugly, modern architecture, and the light mounting in the sky made little difference on the drab walls and sooty streets and walks. I turned south to find the square with the help of a map we’d gotten from the friendly women at the Ufficio Turismo the day before. I walked there amidst the buzz of the morning commuters on bikes and scooters and the swelling crowds of the bus-stops as the sky above cycled though every shade of pink. It felt good to walk, to be free of a car and to travel at a speed where one could notice everything.
It was twenty minutes or more before I arrived in Piazza Maggiore in time for the first rays to shine down the long boulevard, where Via Ugo Bassi changes its name to Via Rizzoli, part of the famous Roman Via Emilia, from which the region, Emilia-Romagna, gets half its name.
The road crosses the Po River Valley, from Piacenza to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The main square sits just south of the road and I was lucky to catch the sun peeking between the two ancient towers, the famous Il Due Torre, a few blocks down. One tower was twice as high as the other and they stuck up into space in the middle of the city with its major streets shooting out from there like bicycle spokes. I clearly remember the sounds of my shoes moving across the stone piazza and the honking breaks of the busses in the already thinning traffic. The city greatly restricted automobiles from the medieval center so that besides the viale circling the town where the ancient walls once stood, the streets were surprisingly empty, and at that hour when the people had found their posts in the offices, banks, cafés, bookstores, and markets, the morning became still and the streets seemed swept clean. I felt fresh from sleep and was determined to experience the day before I had to catch a bus in the afternoon out to Imola, a neighboring town ten or fifteen kilometers down the Via.
This morning in the piazza I sat on the steps of the library and watched the colors change in the square and wrote in my journal which I carried in my old leather backpack which had held up so well through a decade of daily use.
To my right sat the great Basilica di San Petronio towering over the square, its lower façade glowing in great white marble slabs over layers of steps. The top half was gothic criss-crossed brick and it was only much later that I learned that this duel church face was not intended but that the project had been underfunded and the façade left unfinished some centuries ago.
In those early days the face of the basilica glowed filling the entire square like a bowl of light. But the day came quickly when the north facing church remained in shadow. I would sit on the steps on the opposite side of the square observing her face month after month, reading and writing and watching the light and the people and waiting for the sun to return. On one of those gloomy days, I caught a man in a suit contemplating the basilica just as I was.
I noticed the grand fountain of Neptune and his four erotic mermaids glowing from sunlight pouring beneath the arches of the fortress-like Palazzo del Podestà and could feel those first rays of sunlight on my back through the button-down cowboy shirt and down vest and blue jeans I was wearing. I was fascinated by my shadow then and snapped a shot of it against the fountain in that place that felt utterly bizarre compared with all my experience of life before then.
Seeing my shape on the stone outlined in light like that was proof to myself that I was, in fact, present. I was living literally a world away from everything I had known in life and felt anonymous as you are in relation to a film you are watching. Time seemed to thicken as I felt that I could easily forget everything I’d known till then up to and including my own name. I walked in a waking dream and the few people I passed seemed to me as unknowable as ghosts.
I needed to get my morning taste of that wonderful Italian version of coffee and wanted to find the city’s best cafés, a desire I always have wherever I live, and I had heard of a café from our colleague Rachelle, an American who had married an Australian of Italian descent and who had taken up permanent residence in Bologna. I found the spot on my map that she had marked in red ink and wound my way through the narrow back streets past steep churches including the Basilica di San Francesco with its windows of thick colored glass and, hovering beyond the fence near the sidewalk and the apse of the great church, three freestanding thirteenth century marble tombs containing the remains of some noted lecturers and legal scholars, Rolandino, Odofredo and Accursio. Claire and I had passed by this way a few days previously when we had been frantically searching for an apartment to rent and she informed me, having had previous experience travelling in Europe, that those strange monuments were tombs, containing actual human remains. It’s fascinating the way that cultures treat their dead and I was delightedly shocked that these men now some seven centuries dead should be entombed out in the elements with buses and pedestrians continuously flowing by.
I took my time walking to the café, stopping to inspect the many historical placards, using my little English-Italian dictionary to penetrate their meanings, and trying to remember the locations of anything I found interesting so that Claire and I could return to it later: a hidden trattoria down an alley with vine-covered walls and unlit lanterns bookending its sign, a birrieria advertising dozens of French and Belgian beers. It was in the windowed doorway thorough the bar’s half opened gates that I saw my reflection that morning. I felt relief from that first familiar sight since Claire and I had said goodbye for the day. I looked at my clothing and my hands wrapped around the straps of my backpack and tried to wrap my mind around the idea that I was actually living in this city, thousands of miles east, and thousands of miles west, of home.
Scott Allen is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. He welcomes your comments on “Bologna Morning” at scottderio[at]gmail.com.