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“Fencing was my oxygen”

“Fencing was my oxygen”


Joey Roberts

The Maastricht first-year students of 2020/2021

His grandmother died last summer, “the best cook in Italy”. Sad but determined, the Italian Giovanni Bava left his birthplace Asti to come and study Economics and Business Economics in Maastricht. His studio in Maastricht is the second home for him ever to live in.

Name: Giovanni Bava
Study programme: Economics & Business Economics
Moved out for university: Yes, studio in the city centre
In 5 characteristics: open, determined, sensitive, talkative, inquisitive
Nationality: Italian
Lowest point 2020: Grandmother dying.
Highest point 2020: Being admitted to the UM.

“Bring a sweater with you. Due to the COVID-19 measures and the much-needed ventilation, windows in the editor’s office have to be open, so it’s chilly”, was the advice given to Giovanni Bava. It did not fall on deaf ears: he is wearing a thick SpongeBob hoody. The choice of a hot drink is a likely one too. “Tea please,” he says. Tea!? An Italian who doesn’t drink coffee? “No, no! I do drink coffee,” he laughs. He has a Moka coffee pot in his studio, for on the cooker. “They make the best coffee. But what I call ‘coffee’ is an espresso in the Netherlands. They are gone in a flash. When I’m going to be somewhere for longer, I prefer to drink something that I can sip.”

In addition to his coffee pot, Bava also brought a rapier from Italy. He is a fervent swordsman and duelling without his own sword is out of the question. “As a young child, I was always playing with ‘swords’ – made from sticks. I thought the film ‘Zorro’ was very impressive.” It was my mother’s idea to start fencing. “I was sold after the first lesson.” He fenced for ten years both in local and national competitions. “My father drove me from one end of the country to the other. We would talk about school, his work in the family vineyard, preparations and eating the right food before a competition. We would take turns in choosing a song. He chose a lot of Italian music. As well as rock: Pink Floyd, for example. I would choose rap. We also played games. My father knows a lot about lorries. We tried to guess what type was driving up ahead of us. I recognise most of them by now.” In the last year of secondary school, Bava had to quit his favourite sport; his school grades were not the best. “Very painful, but I was determined to pass that year,” he says. “Fencing was my oxygen. But if I hadn’t focused on school, I wouldn’t be studying in Maastricht now. So it had to be done.” By now, Bava has picked it up again with the fencing club at Maastricht University.

Missed opportunity
His mother encouraged him to go to the UM. Emigrating was an opportunity she missed out on herself. Bava: “She once left for the United States, but returned after a month. Times were different then. It was more difficult to communicate with friends and family. I was already accepted at an Italian university, but my mother said that I should also try Maastricht, because I had always been enthusiastic about it. I talked about it a lot at home because I felt that problem-based learning would suit me. I know myself, if it is purely theoretical, I will study less. PBL forces me to keep up. What we are learning now, we immediately apply to practical examples. In addition, tuition fees are low here. I would pay about eight thousand euro per year in Italy.” The choice of Economics was made years ago. His older cousins studied that too. Bava always listened to their stories with a sense of curiosity. Ultimately, he wants to work at his family’s vineyard: allow the business to grow and in doing so help the economy of his country. “But before I return, I will work abroad so I can learn more about the world of food and drinks. When I complete my study, I could return to Italy and work for my father, but then I feel I won’t have earned it. With a study and experience abroad, I will really be contributing something.” 

Ya nemnogo govoryu po russki
Since he and his brother were very young, they went abroad for a month almost every summer to learn English. “Switzerland, Ireland, Canada and even India. English education in Italy is not great.” Bava also learned some Spanish and French. “But most of all, I would love to learn Russian. Ya nemnogo govoryu po russki. It means: ‘I speak a little Russian.’ I have a number of Russian friends, whom I met during my time in Vancouver and Switzerland. I am intrigued by the language. It is so different to my own. I think it would be fantastic to be able to speak with them in Russian.” Bava will start on a course of Dutch at the UM in October.

Aggressive teacher
Bava is an easy speaker, who talks a lot and makes contact easily. That wasn’t always the case, he says. At primary school in Asti, the city where he was born and bred, he was quiet, introvert. He had a group of friends, but he lost them because of a conflict with the teacher, which forced him to change schools for the last two years of primary school. “She could become very angry. For example, about my sloppy handwriting or if I dropped something from my desk. Then she would shout and place us in the middle of the class and make fun of us. After a while, it became too much. Together with two other children I went to a different school.” A difficult change. It was hardly possible to make new friends. Those were two lonely years.

That all changed at secondary school. He speaks with high praise about the director. “He didn’t just want us to do our schoolwork, but also grow as people. You saw that, for example, with the school trips that he organised. A sailing camp in Sardinia. ‘As children we thought, great, a boat trip,’ but now I see that it was much more than a fun trip. Co-operation is crucial when you sail. When we came back to our camp at the end of the day, we had to do everything ourselves: food, cleaning, et cetera. I learned a lot from that.”
The director also had them sit in a ‘C formation’. “Normally in Italy, the pupils sit in rows facing the teacher. The philosophy was that by doing things his way, you had more contact with others. Even if it is only eye contact. I soon had lots of friends.”

His brother took a year off after secondary school and went to  Canada to improve his English. He liked it there. He is now waiting on a visa so he can start his study of Economics. “We are close, my brother and I. We used to argue quite a bit, but since we are older, we talk a lot. About everything; you name it and we talk about it. About computers and phones, for example. He is an Apple fan, I like Android. We speak with each other at least once a week. He always has the best ideas for birthday and Christmas gifts. He remembers everything. For example that special watch from the nineteen-sixties that caught my eye.”

50s watch
Watches, he has a lot of them. “I am interested in how they work. Some are so complicated. Often, they are so precise without use of any electricity; just coils and cogs. Fascinating.” He usually does minor repairs and cleaning himself. His most favourite watch at the moment? “I have one from the nineteen-fifties. Bought it at an antique market in Turkey.” It cost about ninety euro, says Bava. “Not terribly expensive, but there is no need for that. It is all about the story behind the watch. They are often from old watchmakers’ businesses that closed down a long time ago.” He wears his 1950s watch now and again. “I find them more special if I don’t wear them too often, then I feel so good.”

Also very important for the Italian: food and drink. His father taught him how to cook. They spent hours together in the kitchen. “My father grew up in the countryside,” says Bava. “Close to where food is produced. My father is very passionate about it and knows a lot. He always took my brother and me to special shops and farms for the best products, or to speciality restaurants.” His father had learned how to cook from his mother, my grandmother: “The best cook in the whole of Italy,” Bava laughs. She died this summer. “She had had Alzheimer’s for twelve years. We didn’t expect it to last much longer, but it is still sad when it happens. I really looked up to her. She was a very caring woman. She worked for the Red Cross for years. Whenever there was an earthquake in Italy, she was one of the first to go there to help. An inspiration for me. She was sick for the best part of my life, but I still remember well the years when she was healthy. She was a sweet grandmother. We often went to her house for delicious lunches. When she became ill, she went downhill very quickly. Then at one stage she couldn’t talk and she didn’t understand us anymore. Then we enjoyed it when she smiled.”

There is another important woman in his life: his (now ex-)girlfriend. She is studying Medicine in Italy. “Things have not been going well between us,” says Bava. “Every couple has their problems, not enough time, but it seems like the distance is making it worse. And then it is also very difficult to solve these problems by phone. We recently decided that it is be better to break up. It was me who brought it up, but we were both thinking about it.” He looks down when he speaks of it. They met in India two years ago, where they both participated in a volunteer project. He looks up again: “A school had just been built. We painted it. A tough job, but when you see those happy children, then it is so worth it.”

Who are they, the first years of 2020?

Who are the new first-year students at Maastricht University? What are their dreams, their plans and their expectations? And how are they doing this year? Observant will follow five new students this academic year. We will interview them several times: in autumn, in the winter and, finally, in May/June.



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