A question we get often from family and friends back home in the States is “Do you have any friends?” And we are happy to say that we do! Bologna is a good-size city with a population of about 380,000. Many Italians come here from all over Italy to study at the University of Bologna and many remain after graduation to find work. Foreigners come to Bologna for undergraduate study abroad programs, graduate work, Fulbright scholarships, and the like. There’s a John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) based in Bologna, which has a class of about 200 International students every year.
Considering all this, we’ve found it easy enough to meet new people and find friends in Bologna. We’ve largely used our foreigner status and English-speaking skills to our advantage, making friends with other English-speakers or Italians who are interested in learning English (and teaching us Italian). We’ve met lots of great people this way; the only downside with this approach is that we have to make more of an active effort to practice our Italian. It’s easy to default to English when there’s something more complicated to say; I’m sure we’d pick up Italian much quicker if we were completely immersed in the language. (Or maybe we’d have no friends…)
If you’re just starting out in Bologna or looking to expand your social circle, here are some foolproof ways to meet people:
Internations is a group for anyone with international interests. Its members include Expats living in Bologna as well Italians who have studied or worked abroad and speak English. The group organizes an aperitivo (happy hour) once a month and members organize additional get-togethers. The Internations website has Facebook-like functionality letting you view member profiles, connect with friends, send messages, and if you are so inclined, “twinkle” people. Check out a short video from Bologna Internations’ anniversary party here.
International Women’s Forum
As the title suggests, this international group is for women. Members include Expats working in Bologna, women married to Italians, and Italian women who speak English. Many of the women in the group have lived in Bologna for at least 10 years and have figured out the ins and outs of relocating to Bologna, getting healthcare in Italy, and raising children in Italy. Their online guide Bologna Inside is one of the most comprehensive resources I’ve seen on relocating to Bologna and their online forum is a great resource as well. IWF has a group meeting once a month that usually hosts an interesting guest speaker. There are also various interest groups; including an aperitivo group, coffee group, hiking group, book club, dinner club, and professional network; that meet throughout the month.
Conversation exchanges are a great way to meet local Italians. There are many ways to find yourself a madrelingua (mother tongue), or someone who is willing to help you with your Italian in exchange for help with English. I found my first by responding to a flyer that was posted inside an Italian language school. Since then, I’ve been using the Conversation Exchange website. Just sign up for an account and fill out a profile. Then you can search for people living in Bologna who speak Italian and want to learn English and send them a message, or wait for the requests to come to you. I’ve always arranged to meet up with other women and that strategy has served me well (and keeps Luke at ease too).
Besides meeting people in your class, most Italian language schools organize outings for their students. When I first arrived in Bologna, I took Italian classes at Cultura Italiana, which organizes activities for their students like tours of the city, cooking classes, concerts, and picnics. Obviously, anyone studying Italian is a foreigner, so this is a way to meet non-Italians. Most of the other students were in Bologna to study Italian for anywhere from 3 weeks – 6 months. This wasn’t my most fruitful way to make friends since I was interested in meeting people who would live in Bologna long-term (and preferably native Italians), but it served me well during my first month in Bologna: it gave me some social options during those first awkward weeks where we knew NO ONE and gave me the confidence to start speaking Italian in other social circles.
This may seem like a strange way to make friends if you’re not interested in sleeping on couches or letting strangers sleep on yours. It’s less widely known that Couch Surfing’s website has interest groups with messages boards — groups like Bologna, Bologna Trekking, and Bologna Language Exchange — that even local Bolognese use to organize group activities. You can sign up for an account and utilize these messages boards regardless of whether you’re actually hosting or surfing.
The great thing about meeting people by pursuing your hobbies is that you are bound to meet like-minded people that you have at least one thing in common with. I had success meeting fellow hikers through Bologna’s Trekking col Treno Program. Bologna also has a Trekking Italia branch that organizes group hiking excursions (which I haven’t checked out yet). I also met fellow sustainable food enthusiasts by WWOOFing at a farm near Bologna.
See? There’s no good excuse to be lonely in Bologna. I hope these tips are helpful. Feel free to leave a comment if you have other suggestions.
In a nutshell: Don’t worry, Mom, we have friends.