Today’s Comment of the Week: Advice for the Study Abroad Student Headed to Bologna!

Wonderful Reader Corra22s, commenting on Object #12 – Tickets to the Premiere, writes:

As a current twenty-year-old soon-to-be studying abroad in Bologna (a whole year early!), I really enjoyed your reflections and your hilariously illuminating recount of class relations.

I was wondering if you could give me any advice or suggestions for doors I should try to find. As you said, there are so many! (I’m still TWENTY.) It’d be fun to have a place to look forward to finding, a challenge of sorts.

TWENTY! She’s TWENTY! (You’ll understand the importance of this if you read the story.)

Okay, Corra22s, the first thing to say is that you are indeed a very lucky person, because studying abroad in Bologna is one of the very best things a person could ever hope to do. And the second thing to say is that advice from old people like me to young people like you is pretty much always annoying because it always boils down to the same basic thing:

Live like a young person. Not like me now. Live like me then.

Or put another way:

I wish I could live now like I lived then.

Or put another way:

I wish back then I lived MORE like I lived then, because I’M OLD NOW AND I DON’T LIVE THAT WAY ANYMORE.

We old people could save our breath (which we need! how many gasps do we have left in these creaky lungs of ours!) by just saying this:

You are young. Enjoy being young. I am not young.

You probably already learned this at your high school graduation. Right? “These are the best years of your life – enjoy them!” It’s well-meaning and kind but you’re left thinking, “Well, great, but what does that MEAN? What do I DO?” Right? Did you think that? “I’m my age no matter what I do. But HOW DOES THAT HELP ME MAKE CHOICES???”

And for a long time I thought those were just things that people said, kind of like how at funerals people say, “Please accept my condolences” because they’re afraid to say the things they’re really thinking, which is more like “Oh my god, they’re putting your FATHER into the GROUND? HOW HORRIBLE FOR YOU! I CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT THAT MUST BE LIKE. HOW ARE YOU MANAGING TO STAND UP???”

But that’s not exactly right, in the case of this advice telling young people to enjoy themselves, or to keep an open mind, or to live life to the fullest. People aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. They just don’t know what it is. And so maybe they tell you something about museums and artwork and food and how great it will be to make friends and pretty soon they’re back to the general advice about living life to the fullest and keeping an open mind and before long they’re talking about themselves again. I AM NOT YOUNG. YOU ARE. BE YOUNG.

Helpful? Maybe a little. I suspect you already know how to be young. In case you don’t, it’s all true: keep an open mind, live life to the fullest, plunge in, try new things. Go to museums, enjoy the food, fall in love, make a lot of friends. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Now let me shift to another story because it will help me tell you the advice I really want to give you. And in case you’re bored or impatient, let me say that yes indeed I have an idea for a door for you. In fact I’m somewhat astounded that you asked for one, because of all the wondrous things Bologna has, a particular special door is at the very top of the list. Don’t worry. I’m getting there. But first, the story!

I found myself at a crossroads at one point in my life, having failed miserably at everything I wanted to do. I had not gotten off to an auspicious beginning. For eighteen years I lived in the same small room in the same small house in the same small town. I had never been out of the country (well, okay, one trip to Canada) and had never even been on a PLANE. Somehow I made it to Chicago, which served as a kind of slingshot for me. Then I did my year abroad in Italy (a plane! I took a plane!) and soon enough I was traveling around the world and before I stopped to catch my breath I had been to a million different places and had had all these addresses and jobs and a smattering of graduate school on my resume and before long a wife and a baby on the way and suddenly…I WAS NOT YOUNG ANYMORE, whether I liked it or not. There is such a thing as numbers, and numbers go up, time travels in one direction  (in this universe anyway) and none of us lives to be a thousand and there are some statistics you cannot fudge if you have a baby on the way. And at that point my patchwork of jobs just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

(You might face something like this someday. But that’s not the important thing right now. I’m still telling the story to get to the real story. Just a little longer…)

So I needed a job. What could I do? I could read and write and show up on time. And I tested well. Law school! Of course! And my baby would have shoes on his feet and diapers on his bottom and whatever the hell else babies needed. There was just one problem. I had gone to college with a lot of friends who had already gone to law school.

And every single one of them hated it.

They all gave me the same advice. DON’T GO. They hated their jobs, they hated their lives, and they all saw me, on the other side, free as a bird (that’s how poverty looked to them, such was their misery), and they all thought they could rescue me from this terrible misstep. And as well meaning as they were, all they did was depress me, because although it was almost certainly a misstep, it was the only step I had.

I was like one of those guys in the movies who runs out some door and finds himself standing on a little ledge. The door closes behind me, and now I’m standing on six square inches of concrete with no path forward. There’s no bridge. And storm troopers are about to shoot. I need to step onto the invisible bridge. To save my baby. (I realize I’ve just mashed up something like five movies from the 80s but either you have never seen them or you’ll think I’m senile, which I can live with either way, so I’m going to leave that sentence as it is.)

And then I talked to one friend who was a lawyer and who actually did kind of enjoy his job. An inspiration! But more than that, he gave me some advice that was so effective that I’m going to use it as a template for the advice I’m going to give you.

When you’re in law school (he said), everyone is going to complain about the exams and the professors and the Socratic method, and they’ll all be worried about the jobs they’re going to get or not get. Ignore all that: don’t worry about those things, which you can’t change anyway. What you should do is enjoy the chance to read the cases and think broadly about the law, and enjoy engaging with it on an intellectual level, because when you start working you probably won’t be asked to do that much anymore.

After that, you’ll probably work at a firm (he also said). And everyone will complain about the hours, and the drudgery, and the inhumanity, and the belittling that you suffer. And all that’s true. But you can’t change it. Instead you should enjoy the period where you have the resources to get things done well and really do good work. You’ll never produce work product of such a high quality as you will when you’re at the firm, because you won’t ever have resources and time like that again.

You see how this works, Corra22s! I’m sorry to say it, but you will probably not be able to study abroad forever. It will be a period in your life—a wonderful, magical period, hopefully—but it will end. And so you should enjoy the parts of it that will be special, and tune out the parts of it that are frustrating.

Let’s apply this to Bologna itself. Everyone who’s been to Italy for two weeks and can’t see past the end of their own nose will say the same thing: Bologna! Why not Florence? Why not Rome? Why not Venice? THOSE are the Italian cities to visit!

And of course, those are all great cities that you should visit if you haven’t already. But don’t spend your time in Bologna wishing that you were living in Florence or Rome or Venice. Those cities are flooded with TOURISTS, and you aren’t going there as a tourist, you’re going there as a student. And Bologna is a fantastic place to be a student, if for no other reason than it DOESN’T HAVE ALL THOSE TOURISTS. This means you can meet real Italians who aren’t exhausted by all the foreigners trampling through their piazzas and crowing about gelato. The Italians will be excited to meet you. They’ll be warm and friendly and eager and you should enjoy that for all it’s worth, because you’re not going to Disneyworld’s version of Italy – you’re going to the real place, with real people, and that will be one of the best things about it.

And while Rome and Florence and Venice are all amazing and gorgeous, Bologna has its own special beauty. Bologna has a medieval feel that none of those places have. The porticos, the Piazza Maggiore, the Seven Churches…well you’ll find all those places whether I tell you about them or not. But what I can tell you is that you should enjoy them without wishing that they were canals or the Duomo or the Colosseum.

And for everyone who sort of pities you because you’re only staying in Bologna, or who says they’d like to visit you but they wish you lived in, say, Florence, you can point out how close those cities actually are and isn’t it nice that you can take a train and get from Bologna to Florence in ONE HOUR. I don’t know where you live, but that is about the length of a daily commute in many parts of the world (like mine).

I think I’ve prattled on long enough (old man’s privilege!) so I’m going to summarize here and then give you one very specific piece of travel advice about Bologna. The door I promised at the beginning.

Here’s the general advice: Don’t let yourself be so distracted by what you’re not doing that you fail to enjoy what you are doing. Let the others have their Paris and London and Rome and Florence and Venice. You’ll probably have all those places too, someday. And for now, you’ll have Bologna, which is a very special place if you let it be. Others will think they own those places, but they won’t really get inside them the way they think they do. Bologna will be different. Bologna will let you in. Bologna will be yours.

And then one day, after you’ve been in Bologna for a while, long enough that you think you really know the city and you have seen everything it has to offer, find a friend or two and go for a walk. I suggest you do this after a good meal, where you’ve eaten well and had a good conversation and the weather is fine and it has gotten dark while you were inside the restaurant.

Close the meal with a toast to your friend Jacke. (Okay, you don’t have to do that part, I just threw that in out of vanity and nostalgia and because I wish I was part of what’s going to happen next!)

Wander down to Piazza Verdi, and from there follow Via de’ Castagnoli to Via A. Righi. Just before you hit Via Indipendenza, turn left on Via Piella and walk about a hundred feet. Keep your eyes on the wall on your right, and eventually you will see a window with a little wooden door. Yes, a little wooden door, elevated off the ground. Just placed in the wall. Eye level.

It’s very important that you do not Google this in advance, because you will spoil your surprise.

There you are. On the street. A little wooden door stands in front of you. What’s it doing there in the wall? What’s behind it? A statue? A painting? A little man selling grappa? All I can tell you is that it will change everything you thought you knew about this city. And it will show that yes, even though Bologna is smaller than other cities, and less famous, and less attractive to tourists, it has very magical properties all to itself, but only to those who are willing to do more than just pass through on their way from one place to the next.

You will have to find out. You will have earned it. So that’s what you should do: find that door. Ignore everything else around you. I’m telling you this will all be worth it, you just have to trust me, but you won’t need to trust me once you’re there, because you’ll know in your heart that it’s the right thing to do. Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind: that you’re open to new things, that you’re looking for adventure, that you’re ready to enjoy the quiet magic of seeing a place you thought you knew transformed into something else.

Reach out. Put your hand on that little door.

And open it.


No spoilers in the comments please! My thanks and best wishes to Corra22s, and to all the about-to-be study abroad students. You can of course go back to read Object #12 – Tickets to the Premiere (in which I set forth my thoughts about being TWENTY in Italy, and my disastrous attempts to craft a Broadway musical with my friend Roberto) or check out some of the other posts in the 100 Objects series. What else…oh yes! My book The Race also has a trip to Rome as part of the mix. You can buy that for three bucks (e-version) or five bucks (paperback). Or send me an offer to review it and I’ll send you a copy for free. Not a professional reviewer? Not a problem! You can leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads or your own blog or Facebook page or wherever else you prefer. My other book The Promotion is also available in a similar deal. But that one is a little crazy. Ah well. I try, readers, I try, I try, I try.

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8 thoughts on “Today’s Comment of the Week: Advice for the Study Abroad Student Headed to Bologna!

  1. Your comments about youth made me think about college. I had so much fun as an undergraduate (fun for me included my feminist group and attending lectures) but I wish it was easier for everyone to continue to take college classes (graduate or undergraduate) throughout adulthood. It seems like some courses could take on an entirely new life with the real world experiences adult students have.


    1. Great point. As with other kinds of diversity, having different ages and work experiences among students is very valuable. Discussion classes thrive on different points of view.


  2. I’m so glad you liked one of my blog posts, because that led me to discovering your incredible writing. Cheers to a post most excellently written.


  3. So true what you say about Bologna letting you IN. And you will have the opportunity to learn Italian, because they will speak Italian to you in Bologna. Not American English like in Florence. And it is so beautiful.


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