Edited by Jeff Zeberlein
It’s Wednesday afternoon, French class is over for me, and Tesea is about to get out of Arabic. The SAIS classroom is brightened by warm sunshine, which only means one thing.
As we search for Movi bikes on the street (electric, of course), our peers compliment our Wimbledon-worthy outfits and point at our rackets protruding clumsily from our tote bags.
The journey begins. Biking to the only two free courts in Bologna, we take in the charm of the warm-toned Italian streets and curse the uneven cobblestone threatening our bikes’ stability.
Arriving at the park, we bike through the fields of grass and freshly bloomed cherry trees until we get close enough to spot whether we’ll have to queue that day. Given that it is mid-afternoon, and the locals are home eating lunch with their families, we quickly secure a court. To our right, two men are playing in wool hats and fleece gloves. As Tesea likes to say: “they’re dressed for the season, not the weather”.
Upon second glance, one of the men is actually our friend Alessandro—a charismatic Italian local who knows more about southern California than the average Californian—playing against someone who could pass as his grandfather. Alessandro is losing.
Tesea and I exchange our ciao’s with the men as we begin to warm up. After several impassioned sets, we began to realize our anomaly status among the Italian men. Alessandro warned us once in passing about the “tennis mafia”—a group of Bolognesi men who dominate these courts. Tesea and I were definitely not Bolognesi men. We were two young English-speaking girls from California with mediocre tennis abilities. Indeed, the local high schoolers that hang around and watch us play never cease to remind us of this reality. There are few other instances in life where fifteen-year old’s have been so intimidating.
Today, we invited our classmates to join us for doubles. On the court, we quickly discover that our friend, who was self-described as an “absolute beginner,” is actually nationally ranked in his home country. What typical SAISer humility.
Our most reliable third partner, let’s call him Felix, joined us and undoubtedly enhanced our image at the courts with his prowess. Now our team includes two Americans, a German, and a Canadian struggling to maintain a rally. Glares from the tennis mafia playing next to us speak louder than the Italian words we cannot understand. Still, I get the impression that we are starting to grow on them. Our hopeless tenacity is endearing to the mix of locals who now crowd around our courts and watch us play in amusement.
Every journey to the Giardini courts is an adventure. Sure, the exercise is great, but at the end of the day, the butchered Italian-speaking, amusingly ambitious tennis-playing, and hours of intimate conversation while queuing on the wooden park bench make the experience worthwhile. From debating international treaties to profound theories of existentialism, those wooden planks have heard it all.
For Tesea and I, tennis days in Bologna have become a sacred tradition; something we initially bonded over, and now look forward to after long hours of class. Maybe one day the storied tennis mafia will invite us to play with them, but, until then, we will continue being the spirited Californian girls who dress for the weather and squeeze in two hours of tennis in between language class and the library.