Interview with Bologna author Mary Tolaro-Noyes

Author of Bologna Reflections, Mary Tolaro-Noyes is an American writer and Bologna enthusiast. She first came to Bologna twenty years ago to study Italian and has continued to return to Bologna every year since then, collecting stories and reflections of her Italy experiences. It was a joy to interview Mary as she shared with us her thoughtful and deep insights of Bologna and explained the fascinating development of her stories.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and where do you live now?

I was born in Florida, but I grew up in Vermont with all my Sicilian relatives, my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. That was my world in this little town. Now I live in San Francisco with my husband.

When was the first time you came to Bologna and what was your first impression?

I first came to Bologna about 20 years ago. My first impression was very mixed because I arrived at the Bologna train station. I had been to Italy before and had been to the train station in Bologna but it never really inspired me to come here. Yet I wanted to learn Italian in Italy where I could actually be with Italians and have to use the language outside of the classroom. I had already studied grammar, but I really needed to practice conversation.

In the end, I decided to come to Bologna because I had an old friend that I had studied Italian with whose family was in Bologna, but also because I had spoken to a Professor from the University of Florence who happened to be doing a conference in Berkley. I asked him “Where should I study Italian if I really want learn to speak?”. He suggested Bologna or Ferrara because I would have to use the language. At that time in Bologna you had to speak Italian outside of class. If you wanted to milk, you had to ask for “latte”. There were no supermarkets, just these little botteghe. So it was a wonderful place to study.

My first reaction when I came was “Where am I?” because I was met at the train station by this Signora (who is now a really good friend of mine). She took me to this temporary apartment because another student had not yet left the apartment I was supposed to be staying in when I arrived. She brought me to this place near the train station and she said “Don’t tell anybody you’re here”. The whole thing was very mysterious. When she left me there, I looked out the window and I saw this waterway going by and I thought, “Where in the world am I?” because I had expected Bologna to be an ancient medieval city.

When I finally did get to the center of the city my next reaction was “Wow this is dark…This is not sunny Toscana. This is different”.

How do you think Bologna has changed since you first arrived? Do you think it’s still a good place to learn Italian?

I’ve been coming to Bologna for 20 years now. Every place changes over that many years…When I came initially speaking Italian was very important. There were no tourists to speak of. On Sunday there would be European tourists or Italians from other cities who would do the Sunday excursion. I didn’t meet another American, although there were a couple of British people. I spoke with Japanese or German or other European students mostly, and Italian was the common language. Everything we did together, we had to struggle with in Italian.

Now I would say you can get along much better with English. There are a lot more tourists and students. Most of the foreigners that came here initially were either business people or students. A lot of Americans didn’t even know where Bologna was and some still don’t! I think now when I come to Piazza Maggiore it’s the same but it’s also different. It’s full of lots of different people but it’s still the place where everybody goes and walks around and chats.

Piazza Maggiore Bologna

The other thing that’s amazing is that there are so many places that are open now that weren’t before. When I was here years ago, I had to keep going back to certain places in order to get in to see some frescos or see a painting or to experience this oratorio that I had been told was marvelous but that you had to go there at the right time when there was somebody to open it up for you, so you could look at it in the dark, basically.  Now so many of these places are just part of what’s available to see. That’s a big change…I think for the positive.

Of course there’s much more graffiti now, but Piazza Verdi has always been the way it is. People complain about it, but you know what? It’s its always been like that.

Yes, I agree. I like some of the graffiti!

Well it’s part of it. It’s a living city. I don’t want Bologna to become a dead city that’s a destination like Disneyland. I want it to be alive. And when you want a place to keep evolving then you have to give up to gain. So it’s a tradeoff.  

Bologna is light slashed
By twelfth century towers,
Casting shadows on life’s surface,
Shadows whose shapes
Can hide the hidden treasures of the past,
The promise of today.
Bologna is colors
Seeping into the consciousness,
Until the world is shades of ocher and gold,
Violet, rose and gray,
Russet and the red of
Tiled roofs and clay bricks.
Bologna is porticoed, serpentine forms
And jagged fragments,
Layers and veils.
Bologna is seductive, gentle.
Bologna is . . .

— Excerpt from Bologna Reflections by Mary Tolaro-Noyes

What is it about Bologna that has “seduced” you?

I’m very susceptible to my various senses: the visuals, the sounds, the smells. Looking back, for me one of the things that really captured me is the colors here. The rusts, the ochers, the various shades of reds that you can’t even explain. There’s not an English word to describe them. It gives Bologna a warmth. It’s not a city that has a lot of hard stone; it has the red bricks that were used to build the homes and the palazzi (palaces).

There’s also the shape of the porticos. The porticos add an amazing sensual experience for me, even after twenty years of taking walks under them. The shadows and light changes the whole experience, depending upon the sun or what street you happen to be on.  

And then the people and the piazzas. Just go to a piazza and there’s always something. I love to people watch, particularly because I’m by myself a lot.

In Bologna, you have to enjoy looking at pieces and enjoy putting it together. In order to do that it takes time, and seduction takes time.

Yes, you’ve written a lot in Bologna Reflections about the colors, the people, the “patchwork” of the city.

Yes and I love history, and the history is in pieces. You have to use your imagination. I read a book I used as my guidebook the first time I came called Aprilocchio by Eugenio Riccòmini. One of the things he writes in his preface is that in an ancient city you have to ignore the ugly and the dirty and pretend that you’re in a museum. You have to open your eyes – apri gli occhi – and look up and down and all around. That’s what I learned at the beginning when I came to Bologna.

Living and moving around in an ancient city is a little like going to amuseum. If you open your eyes, thousands of beautiful images will besiege them, flow inside and keep you company. And even if the banalities and the ugliness of the modern city encroach, it does not matter. The contrast will only heighten the beauty.”

— APRILOCCHIO by Eugenio Riccòmini


Bologna Colors

You call your book an “Uncommon Guide”, which is really different from other guide books about Bologna. People pick up a guide book and they expect to get a Rick Steves or Lonely Planet book, but you chose a different path. Why and how did it develop this way?

Well I think guidebooks definitely have their place! I never expected or intended to write about Bologna, let alone end up with a book about it. It didn’t start out with a plan in mind to explore and expose Bologna to the world!

It all started on my second time studying in Bologna. I was having trouble with my computer (it was in the early days of the internet) and my husband, being the technical person in the family, had discovered that in Bologna, an internet service had just opened up. So he got me set up with them but of course, in those days you just didn’t download the program, you used a modem and you hooked up on the telephone line and all these complicated things. I was having a lot of problems with it after the installation so I kept going back to the service and saying  “It’s not working! What’s wrong?!”.

I spent a lot of time there and discovered that they were trying to put up a website. They asked me if I would write about Bologna from an American point of view for their site. So I said, “Okay, sure!”. I thought it would give me something to do when I’m here besides just studying Italian. So I started writing about Bologna in English and I asked them If I could just write about what interests me and they said, “Sure, do whatever you want!”. The first thing I wrote about was the porticos because I wondered, “Why are they here?”. The next thing was Piazza Maggiore, then the University, the canals, and in the end I had all of these stories and I just kept going. I have copious notebooks filled with absolute details of encounters with people…. I like to show how much those people shared with me so that I could learn about the city. I’ve always been interested in the people that live here and to learn about the city from their point of view. I’m an outsider and I’m not so interested in the tourist’s office point of view as much as I’m interested in that of the Bolognesi.

I love art and I love history so it’s an ‘uncommon guide’ because its not a book for just anybody planning a trip here because they are not going to find what they should eat, or what hotel they should stay in. I talk about the monuments but in the context of the city and the people from the city. It’s for someone who wants to have a deeper understanding and not everyone travels with that.

I think it’s quite a timeless piece. A normal guidebook needs to be updated every year, but with your book you could reread it over and over again and it would still have significance.

Yes, because of the history. I have decided though that I want to do an update. Some of the stories couldn’t happen anymore because some of the places I write about are now open to the public. I didn’t have to ask this little Signor Veronesi to give me a tour of the Oratory San Colombano because it’s open to the public now and all restored…. So I want to add some updated information about the idea that you can’t expect to come to Bologna and expect to have that same experience.

Maddona del Terremoto by Francesco Francia

Maddona del Terremoto by Francesco Francia

Do you think your book has influenced any of the restorations or public openings?

I don’t take any credit at all for that. I think that Bologna understands the wealth that it has to offer and over the years restorations have been going on constantly, there’s always something that is totally unavailable to see because an extensive renovation is going on. It takes a long time for them to work on edifices that were constructed in the middle ages. I don’t think that my writing has encouraged the commune to do any of this.

I do know that La Sala Ercole – where one of my favorite frescos is and where I had to ask permission to enter it because it was full of offices way back in the early 90’s –  I know that they were just totally amazed because people were reading my website and the story about this fresco by Francesco Francia and they were going there to ask to see it.  When I would came back to Bologna and go there, the people in those offices would say, “Are you the writer who has all these people coming here to see this fresco?!” and I said, “Well I guess so!”. So that’s the only thing I know for sure that influenced people. Now they hold special exhibits there and it’s all empty of the desks and cubicles, though I doubt that my writing had anything to do with it.  

Do you have any advice for the Bolognesi?

I think that the Bolognesi are very critical of their city. They always ask me, “Why Bologna? Why not Florence or Venice?”. My advice always is to see the beauty that’s here and what you have and to feel good about it, as a Bolognesi. Another thing is that I think we all need to work together to promote the city.  

You also recently published Gathering Chestnuts. What is this book all about?

It’s a collection of stories that were set in Bologna and the province of Bologna, in the mountains and the hills. I have a spiritual connection to the mountains and the nature of Bologna which I think is connected to growing up in Vermont. I had all of these stories and I was in contact with the people from the province and the region. So I decided to gather the stories and put them in a small collection by themselves. The stories are all based on an experience I had with someone that gave me something: something inside myself, some information, someone who answered a question for me or helped me grow as a person. It was my thank you in a way to these people…

You have a theme of writing about people and particular charachters. Does this always happen to you or do you feel more connected to people here in Bologna?

I’m always affected by meetings that I have with individuals no matter where I am. I’m not always necessarily inspired to write about them though. I have many many stories that come from all over Italy, not just Bologna. Many in Rome and Sicily, almost every place I’ve been. I have wonderful stories based on these encounters of these individuals that I’ve met. There’s definitely an Italy connection and it’s probably connected to me growing up in this town with all of my Sicilian relatives and this feeling of belonging. I’m always searching for myself and I find myself most when I’m here.

Yes, I know what you mean. I sometimes feel more inspired when I’m in Italy than when I’m at home in the U.S..

Right! I’m a stranger here and I have more time to think. The experiences are new because it’s a different culture, but it’s familiar to me because of my grandmother. It’s very much lacking now in my life, other than when I’m here. I have a wonderful family, but I don’t feel too connected to the people and the society as a whole. Italy for me is interacting with people. People are outside, people are in the cafès. They don’t go and work at the coffee shop bars, they go there to have coffee and talk with their friends.

Excerpt drawing from 'Bologna Reflections' of Palazzo Pepoli  by Philip Noyes

Excerpt drawing from ‘Bologna Reflections’ of Palazzo Pepoli by Philip Noyes

Do you ever try to bring that culture back home with you?

I do, but it’s very frustrating. Everybody goes to North Beach to the cafes because there’s free wireless and everybody is on their computer or phone. Even if they are sitting at a table with a friend, they are both on their computer. I’m sure there are other possibilities, but I don’t see it often. It’s not like that here.

Yes, I mean we’re sitting at a library that’s full of people and everybody is talking to each other! 

So any future projects?

The project that I’m really devoted to now is gathering the stories based in Sicily when I first found my family and first brought my parents over and introduced the American family to the Sicilian family. The book will be a collection of these stories up to a year or so ago and my learning to understand Sicily, the place that my grandparents were from.

The second project that I’m trying to work on in recent years is related to the history of women in Bologna. I find it very interesting that women who had jobs in Bologna weren’t necessarily married or working in a convent, they were part of every layer of society. I don’t know if it will be historical fiction or in another format. My inspiration will come as I continue my research

My third project is to do an update on Bologna Reflections because I don’t want people to expect that they would necessarily have the same experiences that I had twenty years ago, but it’s still valid as a resource… 

One of the questions I always like to ask people is that if you had to describe Bologna in one word, what word would you choose?

I discussed this with my husband this morning and I said Tom, “What can I say?” because I don’t have one…He answered, “Oh absolutely, home”.  And this is from my husband who is in San Francisco, but he understands it. I probably wouldn’t have said that just because I would have felt bad saying that my home was here in Bologna, and he’s there in San Francisco, but since he said it, I’ll say it. I mean home for me is always where my husband is, absolutely, but I think the reason why it’s home is that when I arrive in Bologna I start breathing in a way that’s just totally different. There’s a physical reaction to arriving in Bologna for me that I can’t really describe other than I take a big sigh and I say, “I’m here”. It’s a spiritual place for me and I think we all search for that place in our lives. I’m lucky I found it.

Bologna Canal

Advice for tourists visiting Bologna?

I always tell people to plan on staying at least two or three days or longer to see the monuments, the towers, the churches, and to make sure they do two things: save time for a long walk under the porticos to just walk and meander, and save time for going to one of the piazzas and sitting there with an aperitivo or caffè or glass of water and watch the people and life in the piazza. Don’t just run from place to place and have a list. Fit in a walk and leisurely hour sitting some place.

What’s your favorite Bolognese dish?

This is really hard for me because I’ve been lucky enough to eat mostly in homes with my friends where people make me homemade lasagne bolognese and tagliatelle and gnocchi. I guess the pasta would be my favorite food group, but it’s hard to say because there are other things I like as well. If I had to say anything I would say I love when I’m in Bologna going to Trattoria Anna Maria and having some pasta. It doesn’t have to be anything particular there. It can be one of her specials or just a plate of tagliatelle with ragù bolognese, because I still get the sense of Bologna in that place. You can eat good pasta in a lot of places, but I feel like I’m in Bologna when I go there. 

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

You asked an interesting question earlier about why I write such intimate stories.

Why do I write these personal stories instead of fiction or something else? I think it’s because of my looking at life as a journey. I’m really touched by these moments along the way where I feel I grow as a person. These things really affect me a lot. I like to write with passion about whatever I’m writing about. I can’t write otherwise.

I guess I write for myself just as much as I write for the audience, I just need to write and these stories are what I need to share. I also learned a long time ago when I was exploring writing from a writer that wrote in the first person, which can be very difficult because it can seem very self-centered and patronizing writing about yourself using “I”. She helped me understand how important it was writing in the first person to keep in mind your reader and try to make the reader feel that they are the “I” in the story. They don’t see you, they’re actually experiencing the event or the moment as you. So that’s what I try to do. These are all human interactions that we can experience but sometimes we don’t even notice them. From the feedback that I’ve gotten I think I’ve managed with certain people to touch that cord, which makes me feel successful as a writer.



6 comments on “Interview with Bologna author Mary Tolaro-Noyes

  1. Best article/interview I have read about an Italian American’s experience of experiencing herself in italy.

    • Haha that is so true. I love that about Bologna – it really makes it a livable city, as well as a great place to learn a language! Although I love a little Disney World adventure sometimes too…