What is it like to start university in Italy? Your bachelor’s is like your second youth, but it’s important to not get stuck there.
Here we unbox universities. A chapter that would have been better not to open at all. Though, the duties of the serious journalist is to call a spade a spade. Or “Ta suka suka” — as the good Luciano wrote in ancient Greek.
Serious speeches about university start at the beginning of the fifth year of high school. It is called ‘orienteering’. Despite orienteering, usually the child of a doctor tries the test to enter the medical department, the child of a blue collar worker becomes a blue collar worker. And this is generally considered the greatest achievement of Italian schools, enough said.
How does this happen? Though formally abolished, classism is still a part of Italian schools. It can be that in two classes of the same school the ‘class’ difference among students is striking.
In high school, students are assigned to a class where they stay in one room and all take the same classes, with the teachers coming and going, rather than the students. Despite the random sorting that should happen to assign students to these ‘sections’ as they are called, often one section can be very uniform: for example, the offspring of the ruling class of the right spectrum all together, while those of leftists or the lesser ruling class and people from the countryside in another. In some famous high schools in major cities it is still the case: there is a high school for liberals, another for conservatives and a clear separation of classes. This always surprised me: teachers are always aware of these ‘class games’ in schools, created by complex powers of a big city.
Anyhow, this shows that the social elevator, the democratizing feature of the school has been lost, or not really sought after. But don’t worry, this is good because it reduces the potential stimuli, business opportunities, and friendship among different types of people to a minimum. So, at the end of the day, the child of a doctor will become a doctor, the child of a blue collar worker will become a blue collar worker themself and everything will remain as it should.
But we are here to describe Italian universities. One thing must be said: they are beautiful. Usually they are in the very center of cities, in old palazzos or palaces. Universities are also serious institutions: there is an exam to enter, with each university offering their own exam, and they require a lot of studying. I remember once I had to study 2,300 pages just for one of them.
Usually, once you start your master’s you know how to navigate the university environment, you have already learned what your courses are about, why you are there, why it is important to go to classes and take notes, why it is a good idea to take your exams on time, why you should study eight hours a day, how to distinguish actual learning from crap, opportunities from smoke, and good people from posers.
But before getting there, there are these three years of turmoil which is your bachelor’s. Let’s investigate what this second half of the teenage years is like.
You enter the university when you are 18-19 years old, with the perspective of staying there until you are 21-22. It is the first time you’ll be living alone, far away from your parents if you are a fuorisede, meaning that your family does not live in the same city as the university.
The first challenge is to navigate the black market of housing as this will be the costliest part of university. The ideal requirements are housing which:
1- Does not make your parents take out a loan.
2- Does not make you live among rats.
3- Does not make you feel like you have to trek across the country to get there every morning.
Once you have found accommodations, you get a shiver of joy. All the craziest youthful dreams become a reality! You can smoke cigarettes wherever, whenever you want, even I-N-S-I-D-E. Imagine a beautiful house in the very center of an old city, and you have five chain-smoker roommates, all smoking with all the windows closed because it’s cold outside. Breakfast, lunch, dinner time are abolished: pizza at 3 am? Sure, yes! Waking up everyday at 12 pm? Yes! Everyday coming home tipsy? Not an issue! Going out every night? The city is your oyster!
Now, you have the time to focus on the real reason you are in this new city: university. Pass exams, go to classes, earn your ticket for a better future, bring home the most prized achievement: a university degree. The piece of paper saying that you are not useless, that one day you will have a title. You will be a doctor — as technically everyone with a bachelor’s is considered a doctor — with an invisible, but permanent, laurel wreath around your head.
At the beginning it is easier to get confused: nobody teaches you where to go, how to figure out your schedule, how the system works. There, you are alone, and the official bodies do not feel you have to be pampered with extensive amounts of practical information. Therefore, you end up forming an alliance with someone else who, for unknown reason, looks more informed than you. How did they get that information? A student in the second year perhaps? Who knows.
Then, after some frustrating attempts, you manage to be in the right room at the right time and you meet your professor: a small figure at the very end of the room. This demi-god, so far away, lofty, detached from the daily worries of the student masses, looks like they just dropped from the highest of the skies. He is a Chiarissimo, ‘Most Enlightened’ — yes, this is his title. You look at him with admiration: “what a brilliant mind he must have.” The professor starts talking: you do not get most of the things, due to the fact that you are far away, or that he is saying things you can’t understand because you didn’t do your readings… but which readings? Were there readings to do? What is the course about? It’s all a deep mystery. And this aura of mystery, which accompanies every apparition of divinity, makes sure that you stay humble and feel little and unworthy for the next few years to come.
After class, you do not want to give the impression to your cool new friends that you are stupid, so you shut up and make small talk with a random Erasmus student (the popular European-wide student exchange program).
The Erasmus student is always smiling, tries to be friendly, and is more confused than you are given that they need to constantly interface with the administration, professors and classmates who do not speak English. You understand that the person in need is the Erasmus student.
You drop them an invitation for dinner: you want to show off your cooking skills now that you have a kitchen all to yourself. You will make fresh pasta — homemade! ¯ a cultural experience that nobody would want to miss.
The evening arrives: you made strozzapreti, and the best sauce to eat them with is ragù (this is Emilia-Romagna, after all, the so-called ‘Pig Valley’): minced beef, minced pork, tomato sauce, carrots, celery, onion, and salt. You have done an excellent job. The best ragù ever, the best shaped strozzapreti you have ever made. Friends are making noise downstairs: it’s time to serve dinner.
You arrive downstairs: you start serving the most important guest, the Erasmus student you just met. You serve him a good sized portion, waiting for the roar of pleasure and satisfaction. He freezes, and looks at you muttering, “I am a vegetarian.”
Disaster! Tragedy! But you have some leftover tomato sauce, and you scramble together a decent veggie sauce. While cooking it, you make a note to yourself: “the Erasmus student will not get another invitation. You do not go to dinners without saying that you are vegetarian first. Plus, this is the PIG VALLEY, where pork and meat are almost a religion, and where only breakfast — maybe — does not contain meat.”
You carry on with the evening, it’s time to go out. To a random bar where alcohol is cheap. You do not sit of course. You just get the alcohol and then go to conquer Piazza Santo Stefano with friends and a guitar in hand.
A few hours later, on the way back home a few people vomit, but you manage to get to your bed. Plates and leftovers are still on the table: the joy of being 19 and carefree.
It is time to wake up, it’s already 11 in the morning. Time to go to the bar, get a coffee, have a croissant and start the day. You walk to the library officially to study, but in reality to meet friends and take smoke breaks. You meet other creatures on the way: dark figures, which you almost graze under the portici, and who whispers to you, “dope? a bike?” You ignore them and carry on.
The library. Busy, full of people! No place to sit… well, let’s look for more books for the other courses, borrow them and escape to the closest copier to commit your first of many crimes against copyright. Innocence is lost. Your criminal record has now been stained forever.
Once done, the day is almost gone, because the library closes at 6 pm. Not a single page of the books has been read, but who cares? After all, exams are so far away.
Eventually, the first exam of university does arrive. The night before was tragic: you went from desperation, feeling like you knew nothing and were a worthless failure to your parents, to a feeling of self-imposed calm. Whatever will be, will be. It is 3 am, you have to be at the your assigned test date at 9. What you have learned, you have learned. Chapter closed and good night to you all!
It is 8, time to wake up, dress, go downstairs, enter the bar and get the ‘breakfast of champions’. It is the only meal you will have for the whole day: coffee, juice and pastry. Why the only meal of the day? Because you do not know if and when the professor will call you, and you have to stay there the whole time; otherwise, you’ll have to take this exam in 3 months time (you can choose to take the test after the course finishes or at any point really before graduating). So, coffee from the machine will be your sustenance for the whole day. In Italy, most university exams are oral exams, or viva voce, and schedules of the exact timing for each student are not published, except in some rare cases.
It is 9 am, you are at the your assigned test date: the assistants make sure that everyone who registered for the exam is there. You do not know when it will be your turn, you sit and wait. Since it is one united group of people with a single ‘enemy’, everyone asks each other questions about the most obscure parts of the syllabus. The questions that the professor will never ask. This psychological torture eliminates the weakest, those who will finally decide to go back home and study more for the exam, and therefore also lessening the waiting time. Suddenly, you hear your last name called from afar: you are called, like when Samuel was called by the Lord in the Temple.
It’s the first time that you see your professor up close and personal. The impact is profound. What an honor that this lofty, super-celestial figure devotes a bit of time to you. Whatever you say now will be heard with the utmost of attention. Good thing you ironed your shirt this morning, let’s hope you will look more in control than you really feel right now.
You sit, you give him your grade book, or libretto, which is empty for the moment. You wait for the oracle to speak: he can ask you whatever he wants from any part of the syllabus in detail, and you have to reply one second after you have been asked the question. In public. University exams are public: behind you are all your classmates. If you study is not a matter of education: it is a matter of pride. You do not want to fail in front of literally everyone you know in this city.
After this grandiose rehearsal of the Last Judgement, you get your grade in your libretto. A number. A number testifying how well you have done.
Now you can leave. You have been found “pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.” The immense pressure you had over the last few weeks is released, the weight of the world has floated off of your shoulders and… Heaven does not open. You feel nothing. You have put in so much effort and in return you just got a lousy number? Then, not too much later, the worry for the next exam surges from the deepest places of your soul.
Is this life? Is this what you have been promised? To put a coin into a machine and extract only a number saying how much you are worth? How can you go back to your parents to tell them that it is not you, it is the whole system which is a failure? But what would you do if you did not get your degree?
Cloudy thoughts cross your mind.
This is what university teaches you at your first exam: You are an adult now.
Up to now, you have been pampered, sheltered from any substantial worry. Now, you have three years of university to accept this new identity of yours, or remain forever in this second half of your youth, as a fuori corso, or a ‘super senior’ because you take longer than normal to finish your degree.
“These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.
No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.” as Dante wrote.
You walk out, and pass in front of a shop window, the adult part of you looks at yourself from the accidental mirror of the window devilishly, with a sadistic smile and a cold voice: “Welcome my dear, I was waiting for you.” You freeze and look at it with eyes wide open.
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