Milan and its annoying habits

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Piazza del Duomo

When you decide to become a citizen of the world, to move to another country and experience life from a different point of view, things change (duuh). You become a different person: you reevaluate everything, you cast a different look upon all those little things you may have taken for granted before like organization, time, structure, human behavior, long-distance relationships, social integration and most of the time, you adapt. The act of decentralization, but more specifically, the act of relocation to another environment from the comfortable to the challenging, from the known to the unknown and from the old to the new is quite understandably a very big step to take.

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Milan city center, end of a warm afternoon, early spring

Besides the obvious, such as looking for a rent, interviewing for jobs if you haven’t found one before moving, sorting out the administrative bullshit (however necessary), this new country of adoption becomes everything that matters to you and you start noticing things. I, for example, have noticed many things in Milan, Italy: order and discipline seem to be just words, rules seem to be largely overlooked, interest and politeness seem to be self-directed, and time seems to have a whole different meaning here. Understanding the importance of adaptation, resourcefulness and open-mindedness has never been so crucial. Roughly, this is what I want to share with you. But I have to warn you that this is my very personal opinion after only 8 months spent in the fashion capital, so you my Italian friends, who are getting ready to read this long blahblah of mine, please don’t take offense at what the eyes of a foreigner can see. This article is absolutely NOT a way for me to empty a very heavy load of negative feelings or to go all shrink-patient on you, but merely to share my very personal views on what I am going through. Eat, Pray, Love and the dolce far niente is not all there is to Italy even if it is still an amazing country to live in. My experience is unique as it is mine, yours is unique as it is yours and in the middle, we may just agree to disagree on how I, you, we perceive this city, its people, its habits and its way of life.

Piazza della Scala, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele
Piazza della Scala, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II

Milan seems to be, in my mind, a distant cousin of Paris and this, to many levels. For one, it is, like Paris, a city of opportunities and thousands of Italians have flocked to that New World from all corners of Italy. It may very well happen that most Italians that I’ve met in Milan so far originally came from Puglia or Calabria, Firenze or Trentino. Another thing that should be mentioned is that one may not meet the warm, friendly welcoming attitude that we generally expect from Italians because Milan, just like its French cousin, is a busy city, where people mind their own business and hurry along. Many times I’ve heard the words ‘snob’ or ‘haughty’ when referring to Milanesi people. Be it as it may, one thing is for sure: Paris and Milan definitely share a lack of order and structure when driving is concerned. The orange light usually means ‘speed up’ (and sometimes, so does the red light), ‘give way’ or ‘yield’ usually means… nothing, parking spots can be found anywhere, and I mean, literally anywhere, stopping in the middle of the road just for the hell of it is considered normal, blinkers are nonexistent and New Delhi has nothing to be envious about as far as honking is concerned.

Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II
Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II

But more generally, a lack of order and structure seems to be the daily routine outside of crosswalks too: waiting in line sometimes proves to be pretty tricky, punctuality is nothing but a word, answering the phone is overrated (and I speak here for doctors and administrative institutions), letters and packages frequently get lost (… or do they?), strikes are announced almost every week and, this part really grinds my gears, people can NOT make room for you to get out of the subway or the tram. They agglutinate in front of the doors which makes it sometimes really tough to get out. Dude, if I can’t get out, you can’t get in either!

Milan city center, end of a warm afternoon, early spring
Milan city center, end of a warm afternoon, early spring

Also, I haven’t quite managed to put my finger on what makes most Italians in Milan so characteristically unsympathetic but I think that it can be summarized as follows: most Italians that I’ve encountered in Milan (and I’m not talking about those working in the crowded city center roughly spreading from the Duomo to the Forza Castle where being friendly with customers is a job requirement) have adopted some sort of attitude that ranges from fatality, hopelessness, selfishness, boredom to a lack of interest for everyone and everything. According to the various areas of the city, add to that mix an obvious lack of education or public-spiritedness and you’ll get, in average, the usual no ‘hellos’ or ‘goodbyes’ in stores, no ‘thank you’, no rush to take your order, no attention when you’re talking to the seller/waiter and, that goes without saying, no smiling.

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Lake Como, upstate Lombardy on a bright and shiny day, December

Just yesterday at the store under my apartment, the cashier managed to undermine my very good mood just by being so excruciatingly disinterested, not putting any effort into realizing I was there, not looking at me while uttering the only 2 words that came out of his mouth, not answering my ‘buongiornio’ and ‘grazie’ (obviously, my politeness was out of place and I kept my ‘arrivederci’ and my snarky comments to myself). The tone of his voice and his tired eyes would’ve driven an entire team of happy world cup supporters to suicide.

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Lake Como, upstate Lombardy on a bright and shiny day, December

Now I’m not saying that all Italians in Milan are like this, far from it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met my fair share of lovely people with whom I was more than happy to exchange bits of actual conversation, and people have also managed to surprise me by being simply very well-behaved, very forthcoming and very friendly (I even did get a bunch of smiles) and sometimes all of the above at the same time. I just felt like mentioning the bigger propensity to meet rude, I-couldn’t-care-less folks in Milan than … well, that’s the point: I can only observe, judge and compare with the two countries I actually lived in, being Belgium and America. I can’t exactly compare Milan with the bunch of other countries I’ve travelled to, backpacked to or lived in for a short while as I then considered myself more as a tourist rather than as an actual expat. If I was pretty quick to notice the very polite and friendly attitude of the Icelandic people I met while circling the island, or if I was quickly struck by the distant and cold, borderline aggressive attitude the Indians showed me when I was backpacking in northern India, it took me a while to notice the latent disinterested behavior I now get to witness everyday in Milan. After the bewilderment and the excitement of the first few weeks in a new country have gone, there comes the real deal

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From Como, up on the hill at sunset.

Edit: I’ve just witnessed the reverse situation: a very nice older cashier was being polite and 3 clients in a row completely ignored her, didn’t even bother to say a single word. There is no justice. Hello-thank you-goodbye? Anyone? Am I really that old-school or has politeness lost all its value?

But enough of my thoughts on the particular case of Milan. Relocating to another country means adapting to its way of life, to new schedules (that bit is pretty convenient for me as Italians do like their beauty sleep and their lunch hour), to new habits, to overpriced rents and to all those little things you’d never think of. Patience becomes your best ally, colleagues your closest friends, time is distorted between skype calls and national holidays, and romantic sushi diners with your lonely self become very enjoyable. You start getting new habits and favorite places, you do some research on what’s hot and what’s ‘in’, you take part in events, you accept new challenges as they come along like going to City Hall to become part of the system or dealing with trying to make friends.

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WWOOFing around Emilia-Romagna on a fantastic bright and sunny day in the Fall.

Eventually you realize that the transition can get tough, but you already knew that, didn’t you? For a time, you find yourself stuck in between two worlds, the old one where everyone envies you and wishes you luck, and the new one where friendships are hard to make. You also start questioning your old life, everything and everyone you left behind. How did I make friends before, outside of university and partying? Will my friends be there if and when I return? Of course you feel blue when old friends invite you to weddings and parties on Facebook, of course you miss your family and you wish they were there, but that’s just the beginning. As time flies and as you settle in and become a more active part of this new city you’re in, you start living to the fullest, going out, embracing that choice you made not too long ago. That change is happening right now! No time for the past, you take the plunge and make new memories as you go along. And before you know it, you have two lives, two ‘homes’, two sets of friends, two cities you know and appreciate.

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Backpacking around Le Cinque Terre, Liguria on a very warm end-of-summer day, October.

Ever felt like you were leaving home to go home? When you go back to your country and stay with friends or family, (because inevitably, all your belongings are now packed in someone’s basement), that familiar smell and that comfy couch you like so much? That feels like home! That’s your town you’re going back to! Driving around is easy, you know the place and the good parking spots. There will always be someone to welcome you with a drink in your favorite bar just like your friends will always be happy to meet you for lunch. You’ll be like ‘yeah, let’s meet at 7pm there’ and you’ll know where ‘there’ is!

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Backpacking in Le Cinque Terre, Linguria: Riomaggiore, on a very warm end-of-summer day in the Fall.

And yet, it struck me last month when I flew home: everything is different. A new ‘beer’ bar has opened and has become the new place to be, that old pizza place you liked has closed and is now a hair salon, even that fountain with the statue is gone and that spot where you liked to park is now a square with benches. Life’s not waiting for you, mate. But then, when you leave to go back to your new host country, it’s like going home all over again. The subway, that new place you found online, the sound of your keys when you open the door, that familiar smell and your new habits, that’s home too. And you know that soon enough, you’ll go out for an aperitivo with your new ‘crew’ and that you’ll enjoy an afternoon in the park followed by hot sunset with your new friends. Yeah, it’s all that, being an expat.

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Backpacking in Le Cinque Terre, Linguria: Riomaggiore, on a very warm end-of-summer day in October.

The bottom line is that being new in Milan was tough at first (and it still gets tough at times), but Milan is starting to grow on me. I love Italy, the high quality of the ô so flavory cuisine, the good wine and the pasta, the aperitivo, the amazing architecture, the way Italians run away to parks and to the countryside every chance they get, the slower pace, the late lunches and the warm evenings. I have fantastic colleagues, most of them italians, and I’m starting to understand and appreciate their italianness more and more. If the price of my new life means having to face some inconsiderate locals every now and then and having to maneuver around some difficulties when they come up, I accept that. The more I embrace my new life, try to understand the system and connect with people, the more it grows on me. After all, this is fucking Italy!

I guess I’ve made my point by now, leaving your old life behind to start a new one teaches you a hell of a lot of things, from patience and taking a step back to being a little more human. I’ve learned to treasure what little time I get to spend with my family when I go ‘home’, and I’ve learned to force myself, every now and then to step outside of my comfort zone. I now understand that making plans months in advance is both necessary and really hard. I now speak Frenglitalian and my conversations often include words of Italian, French and English. And I understand that being alone sometimes really means … being alone.

Here’s for my latest journey tale, I hope you enjoyed it. New memories await, ciao!

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Backpacking in 5 Terre, Linguria: Manarola.
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Backpacking in 5 Terre, Linguria: Riomaggiore.
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Backpacking in 5 Terre, Linguria: Riomaggiore.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. hubin says:

    Vraiment super, ça donne envie de prendre le premier avion pour l’Italie et de prendre le temps de visiter!

  2. Colette says:

    Arrived in Milan in 1990 to get married. Much of your experiences are true in those first 6 or 7 months. After 4 years there, hubby and I muover to Padova…and I miss Milan! Sure people are busy and work hard and finding a true Milanese is difficult, but is that any different from Chicago or say New York? Moving to a smaller city like Padova you find more disorganizzati on and less openness. I have been lucky brother in Milan and in Padova…i have a great set of friends and i cope with the craziness. Best advice tho is to not take refuge in foreigners, make a real effort to be part of the italian local community!

  3. Qi says:

    It’s require time to fall in love with Milan! I moved here in 1999 and left in 2009 for an experience in Asia and moved back in 2014… I missed Milan! I can say I lived in many cities around the World and Milan is my favourite! Hope you will be able to understand it! We all need time to know better a person and this is the same for a city! Good luck!

    1. sarahvds says:

      It does require time and I’m in no rush. It’s starting to grow on me, give it another few months and I’ll probably be hooked! Thanks a lot for reading me! 🙂

  4. Chiara says:

    So true!
    (A Milanese girl that lives in Paris since 3 years)

  5. Now I really want to move there! Only visited once but I loved it – and what you say about being an expat…so true!

    1. sarahvds says:

      Thanks Chiara and Laurence, I’m glad to see you identify with some of the crap that I say haha! Thanks for reading girls 🙂

  6. christian says:

    J’ai tout lu, et même que j’ai compris. Donc tu deviens milanaiso-liégeoise ou l’inverse ! j’ai bien aimé ta façon de voir les choses comme elles sont et on sent dans tes mots un changement de behavior et de façon de sentir les choses. Not so easy to be an expat . you’re like sting : a legal alien in Milano.
    de plus les photos sont superbes.
    bises ma grande. see you soon.

  7. Luciferasi says:

    IMilan is indeed a difficult city. But one of the reason for some of it’s dwellers’ attitude might be that it always suffered a bit of inferiority complex. Milan is large and there are more jobs opportunities, so it attracts, as you noted, lots of people to other parts of Italy. Because they come not by choice but by need, they often bring a hostile attitude with them, made in equal parts by stereotypes and obvious remarks. “Milan is ugly, nothing like Rome/Florence/Venice/Whatever!”, “how can you life without the sea!”, “Ah, in [my 5000 inhabitants place] everything is much cheaper!”, “tomatoes here are tasteless!”, and so on. This attitude rarely changes with an increased knowledge of the city, because they don’t allow themselves to know it better and to appreciate it. You said relocating is to adapt, well, these people don’t. If I have to think to a major flaw in my fellow Italians, is that they don’t adapt. They rarely include new data in their social and life imprinting. Some of them obviously can, most cannot.
    As such, the Milanese always had to put up with people coming here to work but often without a hint of gratitude, always with this feel of “I’m here because I must, but I’ll scram as soon as I can”. You have no idea what I heard on Milan during my life. And you have no idea what it means, often, to go to other cities and to say you’re from Milan. You immediately become “the smug workaholic fashionista”, and it doesn’t even matter whether you’re dressed in Prada or H&M. Now, I will not deny that part of the myth of the Milanese being uneducated smugs has quite some roots in reality, as the city enjoyed a moment of glory in the 80’s, where money seemed to come out of the woodwork and many uncultured people got really rich, as seen in countless comedies. But that moment is long gone and life is not a comedy, so maybe some people could stop a bit and try to do what you suggest. Adapt. They’ll surely find a warmed side of a Milano.

    1. sarahvds says:

      Beautifully put, and very enlightening! Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on that!

      1. Luciferasi says:

        Thanks! As a CouchSurfer host I do my best to give people the best possible memory of Milano. Most of the time I manage to, sometimes it’s a lost cause, but hey, that’s life!

  8. Leeloo says:

    You’re only a few hours ago from Friuli which I invite you to visit with me a few days in summer! Warmth of the people of the country 😉

    1. sarahvds says:

      Oh absofuckinglutely! I’ve always wanted to go travel around that area, I was just waiting for the right moment and the right person 🙂 A thanks for reading me love!

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