The Mayor of Bologna

 

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Italy has been romanticized for centuries, and rightfully so. Florence was one of the most dramatic cities I have ever had the pleasure to visit. The city was overrun with tourists and the line at the Uffizi Gallery was a discordant amalgam of slack jawed foreigners and indifferent Fiorentini, but the streets and piazzas of Firenze brought the Renaissance to the 21st Century. Rome, despite its overcrowding and maintenance shortcomings, has left considerable historical and cultural impressions on even the most hedonistic of travelers. Venice, a glorified cruise port and Epcot Center exhibit, is unrivaled in its beauty. Bologna, the cradle of gastronomy in Italy, is a cooperative of insane, aged communists and social miscreants.

A note of clarification: the man pictured above was never proven to be the actual mayor of Bologna and I will concede that it is entirely possible that this man has never held a public office of any kind.

We arrived in Bologna late in the evening after a short flight from Frankfurt. Most of the restaurants and cafes were already closed by the time our taxi reached the hotel. Having looked forward to the cuisine of Bologna, my wife and I did not want our first meal to be in vain. We searched the porticos of the main streets for a late night trattoria but came up empty. Fearful that we would be reduced to eating a second rate kebab from the nearby train station, we desperately scoured the neighborhood for any place that would be willing to let us sit.

It was not what we had hoped for, but we eventually found a pizzeria across the street from Bologna’s main train station with cheap slices and cold cans of Nastro Azzurro. At a small aluminum café table under one of Bologna’s famed porticos, we drank our beers and ate our pizza as the Bolognesi shuffled by, smoking and chatting rhythmically. It was the typical European train station crowd, some drifters, some young stoners with dreads and patchouli stink, some old timers who looked as if they should be carrying bags of aluminum cans, and local youths of various shapes and sizes. Groups of particular note were the cadres of young men, mostly in their twenties, who consumed the portico lanes walking three abreast. The men seemed to have an unofficial uniform of boots, jeans, offensive cologne, and shiny black jackets. The men had a propensity to stare, a phenomenon I had become accustomed to while visiting foreign countries.

The next day we walked the length of Via Indpendenza, Bologna’s main shopping thoroughfare that leads to the San Petronio Basilica. The basilica, originally designed to be one of the largest and most ornate churches in all of Italy, is a symbol of Bologna’s place in the Italian hierarchy. Marble at the base, San Petronio transitions to drab brick at about the one third mark; leaving a stark, rather disagreeable contrast.

The crowded porticos of Via Independenza are littered with the makeshift seating areas of the cafés and bars that line the street. The Soviet Hammer and Sickle can be found tagged on the portico walls, a symbol of the city’s longstanding communist tradition. The Bolognesi, following the Latin tradition, will settle over a steaming cup of espresso and plow through half a pack of cigarettes without concern. It was in this setting where we first met the Mayor.

Clad in a dusty jacket, with a cigarette resting in the corner of his mouth and a thick mop of unwashed hair resting on his shoulders, the Mayor entered the bar with an outburst of Italian and wild hand gestures. On his face was a pair of unusual fly shade style sunglasses, not dissimilar to the ones Bono used to wear in the early to mid 90’s. After kissing the cheeks of several customers, the Mayor pointed to the man behind the bar and ordered an espresso. Not speaking Italian, we could only assume the Mayor was telling a series of successful jokes based on the amount of laughter throughout the bar. He continued, to the delight of all in the room, until the steaming cup of espresso was dropped in front of him. In one motion the mayor tilted his head back and downed the thick brew in one gulp. His rap with the crowd continued for another minute before he extinguished the butt of his cigarette and bid the group farewell. We finished our cappuccinos and left in search of some of Bologna’s more redeeming elements.

Later in the afternoon we enjoyed a bottle of wine and some light snacks under the outdoor heat lamp of a small bar. As I filled my glass and surveyed the dozen or so Italians seated in our area, I spotted the Mayor walking inside. He greeted the patrons in the same fashion as before and promptly lit a cigarette as the bartender prepared his espresso. He took long drags on his cigarette, nearly finishing it entirely before the espresso was placed in front of him. As before, the Mayor tilted his head back and downed the espresso in a single motion. Without missing a beat, he lit another cigarette and continued to chat with those inside for a few moments before continuing on his way. As he left, the Mayor shouted the punchline to his closing joke through the doorway of the bar and was rewarded with a chorus of laughter.

Despite having just finished a bottle of wine, we made our way to a nearby wine bar to enjoy the customary apertivo, a happy hour in which various appetizers are provided to drinking patrons, free of charge.  A thick slab of mortadella studded with pistachios, wrapped around a thin breadstick, was unquestionably the single best bar snack I had ever eaten. “Bar snack” undersells the free food made available to the hoi polloi in the pubs and wine bars of Bologna. Stuffed squash blossoms, fresh pasta dishes, roasted vegetables, quality prosciutto and local sausages, are all spread across the zinc bar tops of the local pubs; free for anyone to take as they please. One could easily satisfy his evening appetite by shuffling from bar to bar in Bologna, paying for nothing but glasses of Emilia Romanian wine. 

The following day was New Year’s Eve and we got a late start thanks to the wine from the night before. Again we made our way down Via Independenza for a cup of Bolognese espresso. We had completed our guidebook checklist and we were beginning to wonder why we had chosen to spend such a period of time in a city we had no particular desire to visit in the first place. As we discussed the plan for the day, the Mayor sauntered by and walked in the coffee bar two doors down from where we sat. I watched the doorway for what seemed like ages but in all likelihood did not exceed five minutes until I saw him emerge from the doorway, waving back to those inside with a lit cigarette in his hand. The man was everywhere.

After trying in earnest to view and be interested in the unique, rather depressing, brick architecture of Bologna, we decided that it would be best if we just surrendered our cultural pursuits in favor of a cheap pub. It was a long afternoon of wine and Prosecco, with a few bottles of Pellegrino thrown in for sanity.

We had arranged for a late dinner to alleviate the long night of revelry that typically accompanies the holiday. That evening I had my first proper Tagliatelle Bolognese, thereby ruining all future incarnations of the often bastardized meat sauce. I imagined a lifetime of eating in Bologna could easily turn an otherwise temperate man into a seething hyena fueled by espresso and cheap European cigarettes. In truth, both of those things sounded like a fine encore to my meal.

As we walked back in the direction of our hotel, we noticed a crowd had started to gather around a small stage near the base of San Petronio. A local band of inconspicuous rockers was playing a mixture of Christmas music and classic American hits. Between songs I noticed a familiar figure standing in the band’s shadow. I tapped my wife on the shoulder and pointed toward the stage.

The Mayor emerged from the shadow and grabbed the microphone. He was wearing the same outfit we had seen him in all week; complete with sunglasses despite the late hour. He was acting as the band’s sycophant that evening, rallying the crowd with a series of shouts and hearty bellows between hits off his cigarette. The crowd responded in a way that indicated familiarity, though I may have been projecting at that point. The band started to play and as the mayor walked off stage a member of the crowd passed him a beer. Holding the beer above his head, the Mayor roused the crowd a final time before summarily downing the entire bottle.

As the New Year approached we made our way back to the hotel. The crowd in the street began to thicken and the good natured revelry quickly turned to the drunken mischief of malcontents. Firecrackers were tossed at our feet. The roving packs of young men in their shiny black jackets began to dominate the scene. Bottles were broken and the acrid smoke of fireworks filled the air. We retreated to our hotel and celebrated the New Year in front of the television.          

 

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  1. I enjoyed this article. a unique perspective! Thanks for letting me know about on Twitter!

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  2. CM says:

    I appreciate the feedback, I look forward to reading more from you.

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