Chapter 18 : My Friends in the North

Last weekend saw me take a friendy trip up North to see ma buds Ellie and Hannah in Bologna and Parma. With planes working out too complicated, I decided to risk the enigmatic night train – previously avoided due to the new ‘trust no one’ attitude that I’d adopted for personal safety reasons.

Still, I felt that there was little that could go wrong in booking a ‘women’s comfort carriage’, and when I arrived at the station it was pleasantly full of friends and families saying their goodbyes, which put paid to the image I’d had of a pitch black deserted station with a mafioso leaning against my carriage drawing on a cigarette.. (you can see how my time abroad has really opened my mind, can’t you?)

By using it once, I feel the word ‘comfort’ may have been overused in the description of my carriage, which consisted of the arm rests being raised on three day seats and a blanket and pillow in a packet placed in their stead. Still, I am so tired from the week that it actually looks pretty inviting. The train creaks into action. Fourteen hours. That’s the longest train in the world. Still, it could be worse – leaving at 9.35pm, my train arrives in Bologna at 11.30am the next day – the woman opposite me, headed to Milan, won’t get there til 3pm.

I was lucky to be sharing with a very nice lady and I did manage to sleep for most of the fifteen hour journey – until our bed things were unceremoniously collected at 9.15am that is (we were assured that usually they collect them promptly at 9, but they gave us a lie in as it was Sunday). There was even a little cubby hole with a mirror to do my make-up the next day, although it was furnished with a particularly lethargic movement sensor light, so while I apply my mascara with one hand I am manically waving around with the other. Doesn’t make for the smoothest application.

I ate well on the train. I had broken my fast with my cake bar and banana when I awoke, then my bunk mate woke up and offered me more. After a few seconds of polite refusal that I got the feeling were being interpreted as a rude refusal, I gave in and had a second breakfast. Then a third when she offered again half an hour later. All this journeying and eating, I could definitely be a hobbit.

Bologna and Parma, unlike most of the cities that I’ve been visiting recently, are places that you might actually plan a holiday to from the UK as a normal holidaying type person. Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe, and is full of both those big, wide streets that I loved in Turin and the narrow, ‘explore me’ ones you can find all over Rome. I am ashamed (or proud?) to say that I didn’t bother with anything particularly highbrow during my one day visit, although we did explore a lovely cluster of medieval churches and head inside the San Petronio for good measure. I have to admit I was rather jealous of Ellie’s European chic coat/glasses/bob combo (I only have one of those things!!), which is probably what led me to break my New Year’s resolution while still in January by buying an ‘interesting’ black dress from COS – we reasoned that these sort of pieces must be invested in in the sale.

Other highlights of the day were food and friend based – enjoying a delizioso cappuccino with Ellie and Hannah on the terrace of the best coffee shop in Bologna, then following the pair round Tiger with increasingly wide eyes as Ellie convinced Hannah that no, she couldn’t live without a set of five heart-shaped sponges and Hannah convinced herself that no amount of craft materials would be sufficient for the time being.

In the evening, after a few spritzes/mojitos and a seriously amazing aperitivo, we said goodbye to Ellie and hopped on the train to Parma, where Hannah is living and working for the year. Only we couldn’t hop back off at Parma, because none of the three doors we tried would open to us, and despite some well-meant yelling at an innocent passer by on the platform, we were forced to take a detour to the next town along and then casually hop on the train back, as if that was how we’d planned it all along.

I feel like now would be a good interlude to say that Bologna and Parma were cold. It’s about 14 degrees in Reggio Calabria, but it feels a lot colder than that. (Whenever I talk to locals about it they say that it’s the humidity that gets to your bones – I always thought humidity made a place warmer but I do kind of see what they’re saying – it’s a weird cold feeling that locks in place and is difficult to shake – not helped by the fact that my apartment is sans heating). But, anyway, I though Reggio was cold, Bologna and Parma are pretty much in British climes at the moment, and I was hopelessly unprepared. I didn’t even bring a coat back to Italy with me, so Hannah kindly leant me the cosiest snuggliest Norwegian jumper and I marched happily round Parma as if I knew it would be this chilly all along.

Anyway, as Hannah is a working gal these days, I had Monday morning to myself to explore Parma, which was lovely. Parma reminds me of Cambridge a lot. People go everywhere on bicycles, you stumble across lovely hidden buildings wherever you go and the place is overrun with independent bookshops and cafes, such as ‘La Pulcinella’ (the puffin) where we enjoyed another coffee before lunch.

In the afternoon we met up with Mariana, who is working in Reggio Emilia (dammit should have gone to Emilia Romagna) for lunch and a mosey round. We had a look in some charming but confusing antique vintage shops (charming in that everything in it incited an ‘ooh’ from at least one of us, confusing because none of us could figure out how they made enough money to still be here) and had another coffee (sensing the tone of the day?) in a lovely chocolate shop, although I nearly spat it out again when the bill came to €15.50 just for mine and Hannah’s share!! We were sitting opposite a mother and son, the former having bought the latter a cream cake, which provide endless amusement as he proceeded to sink his fists in the oozing cream and try a little misguidedly to bring it to his mouth without spillage.

In the evening we met up with Peter, another english language assistant from Parma, and we went for a pizza (prosciutto di Parma style, of course) and a few drinks. It made me wish that I had been placed in a more studenty area – again, Parma seemed to have managed that diversity of people that I feel is lacking where I am. Even so, I felt that lovely familiar ‘home’ feeling when I stepped back off the train in Reggio on Tuesday, not least because it was about 10 degrees warmer. Heading to Lucca next weekend, where a quick google tells me its a miserable 1 degree. I’m going to need to buy a coat.


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