Translator's Note

Yammering about Bologna, exchange, and the Italian language

TIPS: University exams in Italy / Bologna

I miss it.

I miss it.

So. I’m all returned now, and as was foreseen but not hoped for – ended up severely neglecting my exchange blog. ‘Tis a small price to pay for the generally spectacular time I was having in the final months of my semester abroad in that beautiful city of mamma Bologna.

~the things you need to know about exams in Italy~

  1. They vary.
  2. The system is malleable.
  3. They are different to the exams you do at home.

Perhaps the greatest difference for me was the fact that the examinations were primarily spoken – a thing I had never done before, let alone in Italian. I did have to sit some preliminary written exams for my subjects, but those experiences were pretty generic, so for the purpose of this post I’ll be talking about these most-foreign oral examinations.

~the things I can recommend doing for optimal exam experience~

1. Attend classes / Have a rapport with your classmates. Often the method of examination will not be 100% decided upon at the beginning, and professors will give updates throughout semester before beginning lectures. If you go to your classes, you should also make yourself known to your professor (chances are that if you’re Australian, they’ll warm to you, which is always a plus). If you miss a lesson with some crucial information, you’re better off having at least one person from each class as a friend on Facebook, or have some sort of contact for them. Moreover, it’s an ideal way to meet people with a legitimate reason beyond ‘YOU’RE ITALIAN LET’S BE FRIENDS PLZ’. Often you’ll find that you’re all in the same boat trying to understand exactly what the exam will cover, where it will be held, and other various expectations. It’s an effective, though at times frustrating, source of solidarity.

On a side note, some professors have a reputation for being either “Erasmus-friendly” or quite the opposite. If you can glean this from lectures, the professor themselves, or your classmates, you may have enough time to switch classes so you’re not expected to do the extensive readings and have the flawless language skills of the local students.

2. Register early. At Unibo, exams can function in a ‘first come, first serve’ style, where students register online, and the appello – the chronological order of registrations – often becomes the list that the professor uses to assess students. Find out when the registration opens for your exam, and stay up until midnight to be at the top of the list. This has two benefits; firstly, you can potentially avoid waiting in the corridor to take your exam for six hours, and secondly, being first improves your chances of the professor being in good humour.

3. Arrive early.

This should go without saying anywhere in the world, but if you miss the first emergence of the professor from their office, it’s likely that you’ll end up being scheduled last. It’s also a good opportunity to bond with other students, have some good conversations and maybe peruse what other people have prepared (this turned out to be crucial in one certain case for me).

4. Have broad expectations/bring a book.

I had a total of three spoken exams. They were all different.

Here were the variables:

  • Office setting / classroom setting
    • Two of my exams were conducted privately in the office of my professors. This was ideal and not very scary, although I didn’t know what to expect in the exam itself.
    • The other, however, was as some people had warned me – conducted in a large classroom in front of every other student waiting to sit their exam. This was a terrifying prospect when I arrived, but thankfully my professor decided she wanted to exhibit her exceptional English and so I was fairly sure that not many people understood our exchanges.
  • Rate of “Erasmus-friendliness”
    • In one of my exams I was expected to have known the primary book we had studied in a fair amount of detail, and to be familiar with specific obscure terms relevant to the course. There was not much allowance for my second-rate Italian, but thankfully I passed – perhaps this was the friendliness/foreign allowance in itself.
    • In my two other exams, I was given high praise for having made a genuine attempt to learn Italian – let alone learn the course content. One of my professors had a working relationship with some colleagues from my home university, so I was asked if I knew any of them – and that was almost the whole extent of my exam. 28/30. In another exam, the professor was thrilled that I’d taken an interest in her course, and didn’t even mind that I’d done some readings in English. She said, “I appreciate this kind of passion and enthusiasm for my subject, and even though you couldn’t answer all my questions fully, I’m going to give you full marks because I want to encourage you. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.” Suffice to say it was the best exam I had, and probably my favourite one for all time. She also said some incredibly generous things about my level of Italian, which always goes down well with a language student.
  • Time spent waiting to take the flippin’ thing.
    • It is always a good idea to register first online. Stay up till midnight. Do it. But even if you do, it won’t guarantee that you’ll go first. Sometimes professors will be contrary, and decide to arrange the day alphabetically, or sometimes they’ll be assessing several courses on the same day – as happened to me – and it could be hours (it could be six hours) of sitting in a corridor outside the office before they even get to your course. Thankfully I was still first on the list for that one, so I didn’t have to wait even longer than six hours.
    • At other times, I just went straight in and was done by 10am.

Signore e signori, I hope that was helpful. Please feel free to ask questions and I’ll see if I can be of any help.

Happy exchanging, everyone! 🙂

Mediocrity creeping in

I get a considerable high after establishing a new routine. Such has been the case this semester abroad, except the high was greater & more dramatic. I think I’m now in the fabled ‘three month slump’, brought on by a bit of a trying week.

So, for transparency’s sake – a compiled list of things that haven’t gone all that well this week.

  • Time zones. For some reason, pressing matters always seem to come up at 2 am Sydney time.
  • Study anxiety. Studying is hard in a second language. It’s also been difficult trying to navigate the vague nature of course assessment here, and the different things one hears from different people. I guess I’ll only be able to report on my findings once the exams themselves have happened.
  • Exhaustion. Saying yes to everything became a habit at the beginning of my stay – it seemed like the best way to get involved and meet new people. This week I’ve been humbled re-discovering my limited human capacity in the form of forgetting appointments and having to turn down invitations to take some time out. Perhaps the extrovert thing is a front???
  • The Cold Hard Truth(?). The Italian lady I live with here in Bologna has the ‘tell it like it is/no holds barred’ attitude you may have heard about. After I messed up a reflexive verb, she said “Your Italian really hasn’t improved at all,” looking puzzled at my subsequent devastated expression. I don’t think she’s entirely right, but the woman has a point. The real Cold Hard Truth is that language fluency is not going to happen in 6 months at this rate, and I am, in fact…human.

However! Some upsides / consolations:::

  • I have been utterly blessed by new friends in my timezone who ‘speak my language’ in both a literal and emotional sense. One such friend also has fantastic music recommendations, an added and not unappreciated bonus.
  • The process of studying has been made bearable by quality companions and rainy afternoons spent in cafes and secret university hideouts with an ancient ambiance which simply cannot be found in Sydney.
  • I had to speak for a few minutes to a group of older Italians earlier in the week, and afterwards they all reassured me that my Italian was ‘great’, some going as far to say that I spoke better than they did. Granted, they were clearly exaggerating and my words were pre-planned, but it was still a much needed encouragement.
Study buddy hangout.

Study buddy hangout.

I am going to seek to improve my grammar, as tempting as it is to retreat into a state of self-pity and defeat. If anything, negative feedback ought to remind me of my goals and spur me into trying even harder. At the end of the day language learning is not easy; it’s humiliating at times and requires a lot of patience. But reflecting on the (patient) Italians I’ve gotten to know here solely through that language, I’m reminded how valuable language skills are, and how far I’ve come since starting out with those first few verb conjugations at the very beginning.

Keeeeeeeeep going, folks.

Making friends in Italy

Bologna University's Orto Botanico.

Bologna University’s Orto Botanico.

Or, “You’re Not As Terrible As You Think You Are”!

My contemporary history class is a strange one. It’s the biggest class I’m taking, and it’s mainly full of young men in their first year of university, many of whom saunter into class like it’s some kind of punishment. It’s a little bit intimidating, especially when people regard you as some kind of affront to their education. That is, until they offer you a butterscotch halfway through a lecture, and you realise your perceptions are a little skewed.

I’m slowly learning not to trust my instincts when it comes to  the vibe I get from strangers in Italy. A scowl is not necessarily aggressive – it seems to be the default mode of behaviour around non-acquaintances – like a Resting Bitchface, but for the entire population.

Here are 3 guidelines for your ventures into the world of Friend Making:

  1. Always say something.  If you can roll your R’s, you’re already off to a great start. “Ciao” + handshake = foolproof formula.
  2. Always say you’re Australian. It’ll help. Unless, of course, you’re not. 
  3. Always be forthcoming. Frank honesty is a currency much appreciated by the Italians, I’ve learned – if you say ‘CAN WE BE FRIENDS’, chances are, they’ll oblige you.

Suffice to say that things are going well, and I am very, very glad to be here in Bologna.

pleasant surprises in Bologna

these may or may not be my only struggles to date 

  • getting sassed by a history professor in regards to my ability to take his course: “francamente, mi sembra prematuro…” Yeah, your “cordialmente” isn’t fooling anyone
  • organising classes in general~~~having to craft one’s own timetable~~~
  • emotionally dealing with waking up surrounded by medieval architecture everyday
  • actually taking care of myself in the most basic of ways
  • sympathising with Bologna’s relatively ‘high rent’ after living in Sydney where I don’t even pay rent
  • trying to explain to family that yes, my classes still haven’t started and it’s okay that I go on impromptu trips to Lake Garda

<3 indeed

Nothing ever happens here

See here: new song and video just released by aforementioned Italian band Abiku.

Fun fact: these guys followed me on instagram the other day.

In terms of everything else, it feels like everything always happens here. It’s a bit exhausting.

Incasinata / in the chaos of it all

Probs not a heaps accurate depiction of a brothel, hey.

Last week I was taught a new word: incasinato/a.

The word, I am told, stems from the word brothel. It means to be disordered and chaotic. In the brothel.*

The word is quite apt for the month before embarking on exchange. My instinct is to blog about this in a very specific sense, but I think out of all the exchange blogs I’ve read over the years this is perhaps one of the most common experiences.

It is so easy to rage at bureaucracy and get caught up in the incremental hurdles that continually appear.

It is again, very easy, to fall back into old patterns of anxiety – losing sleep and shutting down those thought patterns which render breathing exercises and lone games of scattergories necessary.

If one is to get by, they must adopt a broad perspective – or an entirely irrelevant one.

A European city beginning with J is Jena.

These last few hurdles are probably not the end of the world.

Maybe exchange will be like leaving one brothel for a rowdier one – I don’t know. But the moments before such an adventure ought to be treasured, not endured.

I am simultaneously excited and scared. This is nothing new.


*There is some discussion to be had, I imagine, on the social implications of this word. I wouldn’t want to start any such discussion for the fear of being very ignorant. But please, feel free. And then link me.

’60s style Italo-pop

Thank you to Roma Pop Fest 2014, who have been raising my awareness of some great Italian artists of late.

This song, La Gelosia  (‘Jealousy’), by Wow recalls 1960s pop in a very good way, and the video of past San Remo performances only enhances this.


Translation Tuesday…on Wednesday…

Translation Tuesday: from SOFIA ALWAYS DRESSES IN BLACK by Paolo Cognetti – Detergent plus fabric softener plus ironing and starch: a providential sedative that helped her to stop her sobbing in no more than thirty seconds..

I love reading translated fiction, especially when it’s done particularly well. This is also from Italy, which furthers its appeal. I hope you enjoy.

(PS, Asymptote Journal in general does some amazing stuff, I had the pleasure of attending one of their events in Sydney earlier this year. Some wonderful people doing some wonderful things. Stop by.)

The sky in one room

Mina’s version of this song, Il cielo in una stanza, was one of the first tools I found for bettering my vocabulary and knowledge of Italian music. The original version is by Gino Paoli (who wrote it) and is rather beautiful, especially if you’re partial to sweeping ballads from the ’60s.

Here the song is covered by a band I’ve been listening to lately, Abiku, who are from Grosseto in Tuscany.

The lyrics have some interesting imagery, and I even tried to do a quick translation to put up here. There aren’t many lyrics, but just the one go made me realise how terribly burdensome attempting to carry meaning across can be especially with the comparatively low level of comprehension I have of Italian. All my attempts were extremely literal and frustratingly…wet. For me, the song has quite a surreal quality to it (what with all the ‘infinite trees’), but everything I put into English sounded overly sentimental and shallow.

In reality, I have no idea what Italians think about the lyrics. Evidently the song itself has some popular appeal, having been covered so many times. But I’m completely ignorant to any widely held attitude to Paoli’s words, specifically. Are they the reason people love the song? It sounded beautiful to me before I had any vague inclination of what it meant.

Regardless, I’m sure I’ll maintain my own sentimental attachment to Il cielo in una stanza, just as I’m sure it will continue to rouse interpretations in the future.


The most unoriginal choice?

I’m leaving to live in Italy for six months later this year, and the place I’ve chosen is Bologna.

Most people I’ve spoken to don’t know of Bologna when I tell them that’s where I’ll be studying. In one of my history classes last year, the lecturer did a case study on Bologna, and as an experiment, asked those who had traveled to Italy to raise their hands. A large portion of the class did, this being a group of about a hundred students. Out of that number, only two people (including me) had been to Bologna–it is simply not seen as a worthy stopover by the majority of tourists. And yet, as the lecturer went on to point out, Bologna is one of the most important cities in Italy. Such remarks made me reflect on how utterly original I was for getting off the beaten track.

What makes Bologna historically significant is it boasts the world’s oldest “university” institution. Of course, it is outdated by ancient schools across the world which can be fairly regarded as prototype institutions, but the bolognesi had the foresight to claim the universitas word, forever springing them into that number one place (of which I’m sure Oxford is very covetous). Establishing such a place secured them some highly influential people in their midst, for instance the scientist Galvani, who you may recognise better from the English word we have from his name: galvanisation. I remember seeing his statue for the first time when I visited Bologna some years ago. My greatest association with galvanisation at that time was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I had a rather anxiety-ridden relationship to, as it was one of the texts I was tested on in my final exams. I didn’t enjoy the text very much, but thankfully being reminded of it was interesting rather than traumatic.

So effectively, Bologna being the oldest uni means that people have been ‘studying abroad’ in Bologna literally for centuries. A while ago I was approached by a Frenchman in the park who asked me about my life (no, this doesn’t happen often) and he asked me specifically if I was going to study in Bologna, calling it “that famous university city.” So, evidently, not everyone is quite so clueless about this place I’m going to. A good friend of mine is studying there at the moment on the exact same program, and she’s not the only one I know of. The more imminent my exchange becomes, I am meeting more and more people who know someone who at one stage studied in Bologna.

I suppose the real question is whether the unoriginal choice is necessarily a bad one. I’m inclined to say that it’s not, especially as in this instance Bologna toes the line between being an urban city and an un-touristed one, a factor which appeals to me a lot. The question which then follows, is whether it is possible to have an authentic Italian experience in such a popular exchange destination. And does such a thing exist?