Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting a (social) life

Kristen Larson is a SAIS Bologna student who serves on the Student Government's External Relations Committee. She is from Seattle and a graduate of Georgetown. She studied in Milan for a year while in college and at SAIS is pursuing a concentration in International Law and Organizations while working on her Arabic. Co-president of the BC Gastronomica club, Kristen discusses the social scene at the Bologna Center. She can talk about prosciutto for hours.

The best part about the SAIS Bologna social life for me is that in 30 years I will be able to open my photo albums from this year and say with nostalgia, “Ah, yes, remember when the Secretary of State dressed up as Santa Claus and serenaded the incumbent Prime Minister of Belgium with a heartfelt rendition of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’?” And other scenes that can be less safely described in a blog.

They say that students who come to SAIS Bologna are a self-selecting bunch: hard-working, talented and prepared to appreciate all that living abroad has to offer. A scan of the library at 10 pm on Tuesday is proof we are committed to our studies. A visit at 10 pm on Friday shows we can also enjoy life outside the Center.

"Bored” is an adjective that I have retired from my vocabulary. Call it “making friends,” “exploring the cultural offerings of Bologna,” “networking” -- my daily planner has never been so thoroughly covered in pencil. This has been true since the first week in August when no one had Internet service or cell phones, yet somehow we managed to show up at the same restaurant at the same time.

 BC Gastronomica at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Tuscany
Most evenings begin with an email from one student to the entire class with a proposal: a run to the hills outside Bologna, a bar crawl in the centro storico, ice-skating before class, a potluck dinner, a guided tour of prosciutto and mortadella vendors at the central market. And these are just examples from last week.

Group activities -- be it a quiet dinner out, a major concert (Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire are the two most recent bands to descend on this town) or a quick trip to the neighborhood gelateria -- tend to morph into all-school affairs. While it would be a stretch to say that I am friends with everyone, I know the names of all of my fellow students. The gatherings are international affairs. At the last party I attended, I recall speaking English, Italian, Arabic, Spanish and some of my pathetic German. And that is absolutely normal.

Some of the most fun I have had at SAIS has been at official functions held at the school: guest lectures followed by receptions, an Austrian-style Christmas party held at the SAIS caffè, a 14-turkey Thanksgiving dinner in the lecture hall. Many other activities are led by students: driving to Chianti to dine at a famous butcher shop, grape-picking and lunch at a local winery, watching fireworks in Piazza Maggiore on the feast day of Bologna’s patron saint. In February most of the class will bus to Vienna to attend the annual Austrian ball hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Turkey time at SAIS Bologna
It can be equally fun to explore on your own. Every Monday and Wednesday night I don a heavy white robe and attend a judo class with fifteen Italian men. My roommate attends free Italian classes around the corner from our house. In September, a crew of SAIS students headed to nearby Parma for the International Festival of Prosciutto. In October, several students rented a car and drove to Turin for the Salone del Gusto, the biannual food festival of the Slow Food movement. Last weekend, I took the train to the Italian Alps for a conference where I made dozens of contacts in Italy, Europe and the U.S. government, not to mention several other graduate students in my field from around the world.

Kristen enjoys prosciutto
in Parma
We have already developed certain habits that will be difficult to shake next year. We greet each other with “Ciao!” and prefer “Va bene!” to “OK.” We have grown accustomed to the coffee break in the middle of our two-hour classes when we  forget for a moment about International Law and trade gossip and sports stats with our professors. We Americans note that we are talking about American football when we are not talking about soccer. We are all wondering with some concern where in DC we are going to be able to gather with our classmates for a glass of prosecco at 4 pm on Wednesdays.

As for sleep, I can do that in two days when I go home for the holidays.

Kristen Larson (BC11)

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