Posted by: 4initalia | October 1, 2009

Race for the Cure Bologna

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure raises breast cancer awareness and money for research. One of the five European events was held in Bologna on September 24, 2009. Italy held two other Komen races, in Rome and Bari.  If any country has an interest in maintaining the health of breasts, it’s Italy. Mother Nature would be proud that Italy is out front in protecting such an impressive natural resource.

Bologna is only thirty minutes from Modena by train, but to get there required a 90-minute transport trifecta of private enterprise, public transit and brute force. On Sunday morning, Modena’s busses don’t run, so we took a cab to the train station, and then a train to Bologna. In front of the Bologna train station, the bus stops are meticulously labeled for each of the routes. We confidently waited at the designated stop for our bus, Number 33. Of course that bus pulled up on the opposite side of the square, and we had to run like lunatics to catch it. How Italians maintain their cool in the face of incessant institutional anarchy escapes me.

In Bologna, a bus ride requires a one euro coin. Bus company employees board the busses, checking for tickets. If you don’t have one, it’s a 30 euro fine. Depending on whom you ask, children ride free, but a child of ten, twelve, or thirteen pays full price. Alex is thirteen, but his height and feral red mop push him well past the child fare mark. With only two euro coins between us, Andy and I were prepared to renounce Alex to the authorities, who would agree that he really needs a ticket and a haircut.

Andy already had his t-shirt and race number, but we needed to get to the race early to get the rest of us in gear. Within minutes, we had our shirts, racing numbers, and heavy burlap gift bags stuffed with free samples. Alex’s and mine were loaded with mouthwash and tanning cream. Annalise’s had fun kid stuff and black licorice that tasted so much like tar I actually wanted to use the Listerine.

Andy had signed up for the noncompetitive race, because competition brings out the best in Italians, and who wants to deal with that? Competing with a spandex-clad Italian engaged in any sport is like lining up against a Ferrari in a Formula 1 car race. Recently the Italian leader of the Renault Formula 1 race team ordered a Renault driver to crash his car, so another Renault driver could win. You certainly wouldn’t want that kind of thing in a mini-marathon.

Around tennish, the noncompetitive racers ambled over to the starting line. A gun was fired, and several minutes later, we shuffled forward. Apparently we all were competing to be the last to start the race.

Eventually Andy and the kids bolted for the finish line, leaving me to hold their effluvia. I used to run seven to ten miles a day, for no apparent reason. But before Alex was born, I snapped my calf muscle during the Boulder Bolder 10K, and whenever I run, it threatens to tear again. So I was happy to walk the course.

And oh, what a course. The race started in the Giardini Margherita, a park that looks like the parks at home, except it was full of gorgeous people speaking Italian and wearing amazing shoes. The walkers moseyed out of the park and strolled along streets lined with porticos, some of them covered in frescoes from the Middle Ages. Above the portici are arched and shuttered windows lined with finely etched columns right out of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. The sidewalks beneath the portici are softly colored and polished marble, but at eye level the walls blare with graffiti. I hardly notice, I spend most of my walk time swivelling between the portici frescoes and the fabulous shoes.

We made our way along Via Santo Stefano. The street meanders sinuously and the buildings lean companionably together, so as you walk you drape Bologna on your shoulders, like a scarf.

We passed familiar Bologna landmarks, like the Neptune Fountain, where the gloriously muscled God of the Sea holds his trident high above his surging torso, bulging thighs, and manly buttocks. Neptune’s flagrant masculinity sneers at steroids. Below him, at the base of the fountain, luscious mermaids cup their breasts, and their cups literally overflow. These ladies raise breast awareness every single day.

After Neptune we ambled past Bologna’s Wall of the Partigiani, a display of two thousand photos of men and women who gave their lives defending Bologna from Nazis and Fascists in World War II. There are walls of such photographs all over Italy.

Minutes later, we reached Santo Stefano, a cluster of ancient churches, the oldest built in 460 A.D. One of the churches has a dome that’s not covered with paint or plaster, so you can see how a pile of rectangular bricks becomes a smoothly curved hemisphere.

Between the churches is a roughly cobbled courtyard. In the spring, graduating students gather here to celebrate with friends and family. Graduates wear wreaths of laurel leaves that fluttter with ribbons, placards that announce their degree, and silly and risque costumes. They pop champagne corks while beaming parents look on. One afternoon we watched a group of friends hold a jousting match, with cardboard horses, swords, and a giggling maiden who dipped her scarf to begin the contest. I think she won.

We passed the tombs of four professors who taught law in Bologna in the 13th century. The tombs are carved marble sarcophogi, set on high thin pillars, and carved with pictures of students from eight hundred years ago. Italian law students told me it takes a very long time to get an Italian law degree; some of the original students may still be working on it.

Parked at an angle, a row of sleek motorcycles awaited their next adventure. On the cobblestones a silver Ferrari napped in the sun, throwing off daggers of light from polished chrome and paint so rich the finish simmered.

We passed the Torre degli Asinelli, one of 100 defensive brick towers that warring Italian families built in the Middle Ages to protect themselves from other warring Italian families. The tower has more than 500 rickety wooden steps that are best climbed in the swelter of August with two kids who think that plummeting three hundred feet to their deaths, or making their mother think she will, is a good way to pass an afternoon. Next to the Asinelli is the Torre Garisenda, a leaning tower that Dante mentioned in the Divine Comedy.

As I walked, I thought about a question casually asked by one of our students: Was I walking in anyone’s name? That’s a painful question, because cancer runs in my family, and it kills my relatives relatively quickly. My grandmother survived two years. Before she died, she endured surgery, chemo, a colostomy and radiation, her thin skin cold against the icy metal of the radiation table. My mother was diagnosed with arthritis in her hip, but afraid of a death like her mother’s, she ignored her steadily worsening pain. She had exploratory surgery, but her hip had already rotted away from cancer. Ten weeks after my mother’s diagnosis, we held her funeral. My cousin Cornelia had a normal ob/gyn exam in March, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April, and six weeks later, she was gone. My grandmother lived to be eighty, my mom died at sixty-four, and my cousin at forty. And yet I have friends who have fought breast cancer and won.

I’ll walk in everyone’s name; I walk because I can.

And I walked through paradise. We looped past San Petronio, on the Piazza Maggiore, a hulking beast of a cathedral whose grandeur was designed to rival St. Peter’s in Rome, but before construction was complete the Pope cut off funding, leaving its striped pink and white marble facade unfinished. The exposed red brick of its upper half looks rough and lumpish, like a coarsely knit sweater. We doubled back past the Via dell’Archinginnasio. Tucked into two streets here are a fish market where the fish glitter like Maseratis, and vegetable and fruit stands, where the produce glows in crystal shades of amethyst, magenta, vermillion, and sunlit lime.

There were no water stations on the course, but in the last stretch, a runner stood on the sidewalk, sleek and cool in white. He looked back and stretched out his arm, like a water bearer at a marathon; he was offering a drink, and a smile, to his wife. She laughed as she passed and grabbed the tiny porcelain cup: he held out a drink of espresso.

At the end of the race I found my family. We stood with hundreds of other racers to celebrate. The loudspeakers played Melissa Etheridge’s Race song, “I Run For Life.” Above the crowd pink and white balloons bobbed and swayed against the clear sky. We all cheered for the race winners, whippets in their twenties who would no doubt walk off the stage and light up cigarettes. The announcer asked everyone holding balloons to release them at the same time. Fumbling for my camera, I missed the moment. But I won’t forget a step of that lovely walk, on behalf of the family I lost, for my friends who won, and for the women who today and tomorrow will benefit from breast cancer research.

We all win, not because we walk, or run, but just because we live. Congratulations to you, too.


  1. Hi Andrea,

    Loving your blog!

    I just filled out the choice application for Ellen to go to Lakewood next year. I think it’s your home school, but if you’re interested in IB for Alex for next year, you probably need to get in touch with the IB Director, Dorsee Tucker,, sometime soon.

    I look forward to seeing you and hearing more about your adventure when you return!

    Kathy Moss Bradford

  2. Hi we are from Denver coming to Italy in two weeks to visit our son.Is there a hotel in Bologna that u would reccomend? Thanks, Janice

    • Hi Janice –

      I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Bologna, so I have no recommendations for hotels there. We’ve stayed in some great places, in Rome, in Venice – and I could recommend some places there, and in Modena – but not in Bologna. I’d be totally happy to recommend some fun places to visit in Bologna, though! And I’d recommend that while you’re in Bologna, you visit Modena. It’s fabulous, and very easy to reach by train.

      Have a wonderful time!


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