Thursday, August 30, 2012

Entering uncharted waters

Natalia Drozdiak is a dual Belgian-American citizen who grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, graduated from Bard College in New York State in 2010 and wrote for a German political magazine and Reuters News before starting SAIS Bologna this month.

Natalia has chosen European Studies as her concentration at SAIS.

"The continent is entering uncharted waters," she  wrote recently. "Europe is undergoing massive political and economic changes and will continue to do so over the next decade, making the continent one of the most interesting areas of study in international relations at the moment."

We asked Natalia, who arrived in Bologna ahead of pre-term, to write about her first impressions.

I stepped off the train in Bologna to a desolate ghost town: window shutters tightly closed, store windows boarded up and only a few stragglers -- maps in hand -- braving the steamy mid-day heat. It was ferragosto -- Italy's national holiday on the 15th of August -- so all was as expected.

I stumbled to my bed & breakfast in a half daze but promptly forgot my heat headache as soon as I looked up at the streets that I will be calling home for the next ten months.

I was enthralled by the caramel and peach-coloured buildings that are bolstered by shady stone porticoes. Almost all of the walls of these attractive buildings are defaced with graffiti. In most cases this might detract from the city’s beauty, but in Bologna it seems to add some sort of quirky charm.

As I continued to drag my mammoth suitcase through the hot streets, I pondered what the artists intended to invoke when they had scrawled “bla bla bla” and other, more vulgar slogans on the ancient city walls.

The next day I headed for the campus center where I met classmates taking advantage of the air conditioning and Internet connection. After building quick bonds over our backgrounds and our shared hunt for an apartment, a group of us spilled out into the sauna-streets and made a beeline for the nearest gelato vendor.

On our walk over, we noted familiar city-street odors  mingling with the smell of garlic wafting down from open windows. Passing by caf├ęs, we noticed well-heeled men pounding down shots of espresso while standing at the bar -- only to enter a cell-phone store hours later where we were greeted with service as slow as molasses.

Later that afternoon, we bid each other good-bye as a classmate and I made plans to take a field trip to Modena the following day.

I met my new friend in front of the campus center the next morning, and we took off for the main train station. On our way, we made a pit stop at the fruit stand around the corner for the day’s provisions of peaches and water. To thank us for our minute purchases, the shop owner served us slices of cool melon, and we sank our teeth into them just outside the store.

After bumping into at least a handful of already familiar faces on our walk through town, we caught the train for a 20-minute ride to Modena.

Back in Bologna by sundown, my peer and I sauntered down to Piazza Verdi where we met colleagues over a few glasses of spumante on tap. We’ve known each other for only a few days, but already the entire group was joking around like old friends, talking about everything under the sun from the city’s best pizzeria to our different takes on the euro-zone debt crisis.

The most animated exchange, though, occurred later that evening.

“Supply and demand, Mohammed, supply and demand!” I heard someone exclaim behind me. I twisted my head to observe the dispute and was convinced I had landed in a special group of people when there I saw my classmate haggling in Hindi with an Indian man over the price of some useful junk he was trying to sell him.

All of this in only the first week. I can’t help but imagine what the rest of this year might bring.

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