Thank you, Milan. You’re just another city.
The question people ask me the most is, “How is Milan?” or the slight variation, “What is Milan like?”
The truth is that Milan is just another city. There are hundreds of cities in the world; they’re the areas of most concentrated population. So if Milan is just another city, what’s the point of coming here? If you’ve been to one city, what’s the point in seeing the rest?
The beauty in traveling to another city is the simultaneous realization of how similar, and yet how different the city you’re familiar with is to how this particular city is in reality. Many things are exactly the same, for the most part: the subway systems (or metros) and taxis operate much in the same way. Same with the busses. Then you begin to notice some slight culturally significant things in these areas. A group of Italians standing around a coffee vending machine during the morning commute. A 24-hour tabacco shop. The fact that most shops are closed on sunday. The absence of people wearing sneakers. One time, at a coffee shop, my friend and I witnessed a short, middle-aged woman barge in at 9AM, order a globe sized glass of red wine, chug it in one sip, and walk out. Nobody batted an eye. This was common.
You yourself get offered a beer or a glass of wine every day at lunchtime. Aren’t people who drink before nighttime drunks? Around the block from my house, the priests and nuns smoke cigarettes and drink wine after mass. This would not fly in America, and this is why it’s necessary to leave one’s home country at least once in their life—to witness a way of life that does not coincide with your own constructed reality and preconceived notions of the world. It shatters what you think you knew. This is Italy, and it existed in this same way before you came here.
One particularly jarring difference is in the treatment of women in public, as well as in private. In America, these are hot button issues that many fight over every day. In Italy, it’s a bit different. Public displays of affection, or PDA, are the common way. It’s fairly normal for a guy to approach a girl on a train and try to talk to her; sometimes not taking no for answer. With large age gaps, it can be rude to ignore someone completely or not hear what they have to say. In America, we respect personal space. If you want to be left alone to your book on the metro, you’d better bring a pair of headphones.
Not to pass moral judgement on another culture. You can’t expect to go somewhere thousands of miles away and have every social cue be the same. You need to adapt to something you don’t always necessarily believe in, and this is probably the most frustrating part of being abroad. It’s also where you learn the most, funny enough. One area where it’s necessary to adjust is in schooling. The class structure is very lax—teachers don’t hunt you down or take anything personally, or check up to make sure you’ve done a single one of your assignments or readings. Then grading is incredibly harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it feels like teachers don’t care how you do. I walked with my teacher the other day and talked about our different memories of 9/11. Another teacher, a professional actor, gushed to me about how upset he is with the state of current theatre productions in Italy. It’s not that they don’t care—this is just how things are for them. You can either leave class in frustration or go up to their desk after class and ask them a question. It’s all your choice. They can’t raise your hand for you.
Now we come to the language barrier. What other way can I put it? It’s horrifying, yet once again, it forces you to put every word, every skill you’ve learned in the language you’re learning to the test. It’s worth it. I spoke solely in Italian today when I ran errands. In the beginning of my time in Milan, it was just a “si” or “grazie.” Now it’s asking for help, describing what I’m looking to buy, commenting on the state of things. It’s a work in progress, but once again, it’s the kind of progress you can make by resolving to try. The one thing most people don’t learn how to do is to apologize to someone when you didn’t understand them, or when you just can’t progress further in the conversation. “Scusi, sono americano. Non ho capito.” (Excuse me, I am an American. I didn’t understand.). People appreciate your humbleness, your try at assimilating to their way of life first.
If you walk into a shop, a store, or a government facility and try to speak English only, don’t be surprised when you get some sideways glances and a bit of a standoffish aura. Remember the times in America in which you were frustrated someone was speaking solely in Spanish to you. Remember what it was like when they at least tried to speak in English. Now, I have the utmost respect for the countless immigrants who come to America and really do assimilate themselves as best they can. What’s it say about Americans, when they expect to go to a whole other country in the world and expect signs, menus, and people to communicate in English? These are the same people annoyed with multiple language options in America.
Overall, Milan is just another city. It’s taught me so much, though. I could write a book on how much it’s taught me. I probably will someday. Thanks, Milan.