For the past few days I've wandered, eaten, and drank my way through Bologna. I arrived on the morning of the 31st of January, by 11pm the UK had left the European Union. Yet nothing has changed—the grace period will continue until December—my passport is still valid, my money is still valuable, the Earth hasn't shifted but things do feel a little further away.
A number of the bartenders and bakers I've chatted with have mentioned friends and family living in the UK. They've all spoken, with a degree of incredulity, of the difficulties these people have faced while trying to retrospectively justify their existence to the Home Office. Yet everyone genuinely seems to believe this is all simply in error, and they apparently still place trust in the British government to sort it out—I didn't want to dash their hopes.
I find this optimism strange as Italians are well aware of institutional sclerosis, corruption, and fascism. A few days before I arrived, there had been an election which threatened to remove the region's centre-left governor. In the run up to this event the movimento delle sardine were packing themselves into the city's squares, armed with banners and cardboard fish, as a protest and show of force against the right wing Matteo Salvini and his Lega Nord, who promised to 'crush' the city. A prospect only narrowly avoided.
Over the past few years, Bologna has become a temporary refuge for many of the vulnerable migrants who reach Italy's shores. Walking around, I was met by a number of Ghanaians who were glad to have found someone with whom they could speak English. They complained of the difficulties they overcame in reaching Europe, and the racism they faced once they arrived. They spoke of wanting to earn money and return home, or of continuing their journey further, perhaps to Germany, Britain, or Norway.
One man asked when the UK would be leaving the EU, I said we already had. 'Well then, you're just the same as us, you can't stay here', he replied with a distinct sense of irony. He carried on, 'People aren't bad. Italians aren't bad, Africans aren't bad, Americans aren't bad. But Africa is bad, America is bad, Europe is bad, the politicians who stop us and divide us are bad'. I'm still not quite sure how he managed to find it in him to extend solidarity to the same people who refused him justice.
Over the centuries, Bologna has managed to acquire a number of nicknames: La dotta, la grassa, e la rossa. Learned, for its university, the oldest in western Europe. Fat, for its rich diet of mortadella and tortellini in brodo. And red, originally for its earthy terracotta roofs, latterly for its communist tendencies. As I sat in a late-night prosciutteria, chewing over greasy, salty porcetta alla Toscana, I thought over this again and again. Learned, fat, and red—a good motto for a good life, we ought to inscribe this on our banners.