Sunday, March 19, 2017

Barfing in Bologna

On Wednesday, February 22 I arrived in Bologna, from Firenze.

Bologna Italy map


On my first evening I had an hour or two before dark, so I left to do some wander walking, map in hand. I took note of some markers along the way, so I could easily find my way back: "WIND" store under the arches. Got it.

Except when I took a few turns to come back a different way than I’d headed out, I quickly got turned around. Why? Because, as I quickly learned those first hours in Bologna, practically all the sidewalks are covered in arches! (Plus WIND is a chain store all over.) Oh, and also my map disappeared—that was the clincher. I really don’t know what happened to it.

I eventually found my way back before it was too dark, only stopping to ask someone the direction of the train station. I’d reasoned that worst case scenario, I go to the train station, because from there I could easily walk the 5 minutes to the hostel, as I’d done a few hours earlier. 

My direction intuition won again that evening, and I didn’t have to go all the way back to the train station! I got another map from a different hostel worker the next morning, and later in the trip painted this postcard for myself to remember Bologna and its covered walkways:

Bologna watercolor postcard


A day or two before heading to Bologna, I'd secured a HelpX gig on a farm near Dozza—which I would begin the following Tuesday. So the next day in Bologna I bought two sweaters and a pair of sweatpants from a market (5 euros total!) because I thought I’d be cold, and wanted some “scrap” clothes for the farm work. 

I went back to the hostel right away and washed them in my dry bag, along with other laundry that needed to get done. Hung wet things on the head and foot of my bunk bed, as there was no where else to hang stuff:

Later on I added another item to my wardrobe: a grey, cotton wrap scarf on clearance for 1.99 euros. It was definitely cooler in Bologna in the mornings and evenings, and my light beach scarf wasn’t cutting it. 

For lunch I went to this take-away pasta place highly recommended on Trip Advisor. It was 7 or 8 euros for take-away tortellini bolognese, which I ate at the bar across the street where I got a glass of wine. This was dang good pasta!

Eventually I wandered to this plaza (below), where I saw a sunny spot to sit and sketch while I still had daylight. 

I didn’t know what exactly I was sketching, but it looked interesting to see tombs up in the air like that. Near the end of my painting, a guy came over to smoke. When I noticed his presence, he asked if he could look at what I was painting. Of course!

He was Italian, from Bologna, and we talked a little bit—in English and French—as I finished up the painting. 

His French and English were somewhat broken, so communication wasn’t the clearest, but he was a poet. He also said that work was hard. It was fun to talk and meet people this way, not needing to do anything but sketch in public

After a while though, silence resumed, he smoking and me sketching. The sun was getting lower and it was getting colder—perhaps 5 o’clock. I packed up the paints, that part was done, and considered heading back to the hostel.

But my hand grabbed for the pen and I put a few finishing touches on the painting, dragging out the encounter a little bit longer.

Then suddenly, he broke the silence.

“Do you want a coffee?” he asked.

“Okay,” I responded, mostly curious to find out how one made a living as a poet, and to escape the cold by going indoors. (I must make it clear, before you start connecting the dots that were never there, that there was no romantic interest here. Yet it was very much a serendipitous human connection.)

We start to walk, and then he says, “My friend has a bar nearby, we can go there.”


We walked in mostly silence to Cafe Urbana on Via Urbana, until I broke it with “What is your name?”

“Gabo,” he said, short for Gabriel. Then I told him mine. 

The friendly cafe owner, Andrei, greeted Gabo when we walked in. Gabo ordered two coffees, which are tiny espressos. 

While chatting a bit more, he asked if I'd be interested in doing five illustrations for a poem/story he'd written. In fact, he said, I think I have it with me—and proceeded to pull out and unfold worn paper where his two-page poem had been printed. [As of today, I still don't know what the poem is about—his friend will try to translate it—but I would try doing this if the story lends itself to visuals I can imagine. Why not?]

Perhaps a half hour into my cafe visit I met David, a Texan/Italian with quite the life story. He recounted immigration woes (he has two children in the United States but he's not allowed to enter the country because of paperwork his father hadn't renewed back when David was a young teen), an attempt at entering the states through the Canadian border, and his struggle to find a job in Bologna—eventually befriending the people in this cafe and landing a part-time gig when a previous worker left. Doesn't pay much, but it's better than nothing. 

While heartbreaking, it was humbling to be consumed in someone else’s story, someone else’s struggle—a lesser-seen side of USA’s immigration/travel laws.

Later on Chiara (pronounced: Kiara) and her boyfriend Leo (short for Leonardo) stopped by, also friends of Gabo and the cafe, as they live across the street from the cafe. Chiara gave me some great recommendations of what to see in Bologna, and I helped her with a few English questions. (She’s studying for a test.) Chiara told me that one of Gabo’s poems had made her mom cry. It felt so good to be hanging out with locals and to see so easily that they were real people with friends and families.

Gabo, David, Leo, Chiara

Near the end of the night, Andrei started preparing a bag of sandwiches and pastries for Gabo and I. He said he’d have to throw them away otherwise, as closing time was at 7 p.m. (It was past 7, but since people were around, he'd kept it open nearly an hour longer). Andrei put lots of things in both bags. Lots. I’d also deduced by now that it was quite likely Gabo might be homeless. So I took just a few and left the rest of the stash with Gabo.

Andrei said they were staying open later the next day (Friday), and I should stop by any time after 6 for aperitivo (you pay maybe $5 for a drink, then get to eat from a buffet of snacks during the aperitivo, which could serve as a dinner.)


It rained most of the morning, which wasn’t a problem at all being in Bologna, as again, practically all of the sidewalks are covered! I'm honestly curious how umbrella sales compare between Bologna and other Italian cities.

My scarf wasn’t cutting it for a head/ear warmer, though, so I bought a thin, teal hat at the big market for 2 euros—the second addition to my belongings on this trip. (It's hardly left my head since!)

From 6-7 there was an aperitivo night at the hostel to celebrate some festival or another. I went, and quickly learned—by all of the candles—that it was an hour of lights out, a festival about saving energy or something. 

I had a spritz and a few little snacks while talking with two people who work for the hostel. I learned that the hostel is part of an organization involved in many social projects. So the two people I was talking to work with gypsies, refugees, and other minority groups in Bologna. The offices on my floor in the office are used for this work, and refugees work in the hostel.

That evening around 10 p.m. I was having a fun time talking with a new arrival, an Italian from Rome (art history graduate) staying just for the night because he has a class in Bologna on Saturdays. We were talking and talking, then he got up into the top bunk for bed, and we were still talking some—then BOOM all of a sudden I felt really nauseous and unwell. I gave short answers and soon asked if I could turn out the light. 

I tried to fall asleep, but it was too strong. It was like—and apologies for describing this—when you burp and get the tiniest hint of vomit flavor? Yeah, that happened. But I thought I could just sleep it off.

The heating in our room made decent background noise (which for me made it easy to fall asleep—apparently it was keeping the Korean guy awake at night), but it shuts of automatically at midnight. A minute after I heard it go off for the night, I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom next door. And as soon as I got to the toilet, I started hurling. 

Oh my gosh, this isn’t happening, I thought. 

This is happening. 

Once, twice, three times my body shot out the acidic contents of my stomach. I could have done a fourth and final hurl, but stopped at three and caught my breath. I flushed the rank smell down the toilet, half-assed-ly rinsed my mouth out in the sink, and returned to my lower bunk in the room where I passed out.

I never could have predicted that turn of events...

(And don't worry mom, this was nearly a month ago—I'm very healthy now!)


I somehow still went to breakfast on Saturday morning, not wanting to miss this perk that was included in my stay, not able to turn down “free” food (even though I wasn't feeling hungry...). Breakfast ends at 9:30, so I was up at the “regular time” to eat down there. 

I hung around in my room at the hostel several hours afterwards, though, trying to sleep more and rest.

I felt notably weaker walking around that afternoon, slower than my usual pace. I happened to wander to a place that Chiara had told me about on Thursday night—a church up on a hill which offers views of the city.

 By the time I got back to my hostel that evening, I knew I'd be in for the night.


I took it easy on Sunday as well—though still got up for breakfast, then hung out in the room for several hours before venturing out. The only item on my agenda that day was to visit San Lucca, another place Chiara had told me about. 

She’d said you walk and walk and go up lots and lots and lots of stairs, but then there’s a beautiful church with a nice view of the mountains behind the city. Stairs? Views? I’m in!

On my way out of town, I stopped in the main plaza for a bit to watch the children celebrating Carnevale. All month—including my days in Rome and Florence—I'd randomly see little girls in fairy dresses, walking around plazas with their parents, throwing confetti.

Today many more children could be seen in various costumes, throwing confetti:

Then I continued on, out of the city towards those stairs. And boy, was she right about the stairs. While Chiara originally described it, I had thought to myself, there can’t be that many stairs… but while climbing up, it did feel never-ending. 

You get to the top, turn, and there’s another long stretch of stairs and ramps upwards.

Get to the end of that stretch, and there's another. And another. And another.

And at the top?

I ate tomato/tuna sandwiches that I made up there on a bench (mostly because the ingredients needed to get eaten), then sat on the ground and painted the mountains.

No interactions this time, though I was very absorbed in what I was doing; it’s interesting how each sketching session is different. By the time I walked back to Bologna, that was my day.

When I crossed back through the center, I saw the remnants of the celebration that had taken place while I was up on the hill:


I was feeling almost back to normal, but still a bit unwell on Monday. I wasn't too hungry, but was determined to have lasagna bolognese before I left Bologna, and this was my final day.

In the afternoon I was out and about when I happened to walk past a free Wi-Fi spot and received an email from Gabo. He was going to the cafe at 4 p.m., so I could meet him there if I got the message. I decided to go, got an iced tea and painted the Bologna postcard (which I shared at the start of this post) while Gabo was outside checking his emails with the wi-fi.

It wasn't nearly as exciting as my first visit (much silence with the poet), but it was nice to observe the regulars come, and to sort of feel like an insider in this random cafe in Bologna.

Before leaving I was able to grab a photo of Andrei and Gabo—and even saw Leo when he popped in for a bit.

I left around 6, wanting to prepare and rest up for my farm stay the following day. I bought two ginger sodas on the way home, plus honey spice bread and a few other snacks. Gabo had invited me to watch him work/perform at 8 that night, but I knew I’d be in for the night once I got back to the hostel.

I drank one of the ginger ales that night, and packed the other for my farm stay—just in case.

I had a good feeling about my HelpX gig. Not only were there great reviews from past guests, but my hostel had this sign hanging downstairs, with Dozza listed as "one of the most beautiful medieval villages in Italy":

On Tuesday morning two girls in my room were up at 6:30, so I was also up early for my final breakfast and train ride to Imola, where I'd be getting picked up by Victoria.
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