A year and a half later, I am still in Milan. I mentioned in my previous article that the Italian fashion capital was starting to grow on me, and it still is. I realize that said last article may have seemed slightly disillusioned, not to say angry, listing a series of annoying things that sometimes get to me, as I try to adapt to my Italian life. According to Siobhan’s four stages of homesickness, I must have been experiencing Irritation and Hostility. I have now reached the fourth stage of homesickness, or as I see it, of adaptation, called Adaptation and Biculturalism. But Italy is not so bad, or it wouldn’t be such a praised destination for tourists from all over the world.
Italy offers so many spectacular landscapes, from deep blue seas to white-top mountains and rolling vineyards and it has such a rich past that it would be silly to mention but the negative aspects of it. In the past year, I have visited the narrow streets of Parma, where I tasted slices of savory crudo ham and cheese. I’ve discovered the orange and red arches of Bologna, I got lost in the streets of the fruit and fish markets behind an impressive duomo. I’ve gazed in awe at the windows full of hanging hams and salamis, and at the counters presenting wheels of cheese. I have WWOOFed in remote farms in the countryside where I would open the wooden shutters of my rustique room before the sun was up to a misty purple and green valley worth a million postcards. I have picked, sorted out, cleaned, boiled and turned chestnuts into the tastiest chestnut jam I have ever tasted. I’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner the tastiest local products like jam, creamy cheese, smoked ham, salami, cherry tomatoes, truffle cream, cold meat of so many sorts, local wines that felt like a mouthgasm and I can only feel sad for anyone who hasn’t experienced Italian food. Mac and cheese are not even remotely close to the thought of actual pasta and cheese. Are you mouthwatering yet? I have taken very hot trains in the summer to dive in the warm Tuscan sea on the Argentario, before washing out the salt with one of the many wonderful Tuscan wines at a local restaurant. I have traveled the famous Chianti roads to stone-colored hilltop villages such as San Gimignano, Volterra and Certaldo and enjoyed the warm evenings of the summer months in the countryside. I have taken the Riviera train between the ancient fisherman villages of the Cinque Terre, only to be amazed by their colorful houses hanging from sheer cliffs. I have escaped the excruciating hotness of July in Milan to Garda Lake and to the lovely town of Sirmione, its towers and crystal clear waters. I have traded the ghost city of Milan in August for the fresh air and the radiant slopes of the Valley d’Aosta, between sky and earth.
Milan offers such an amazing geographic position to explore most parts of Northern Italy, may it be for a romantic getaway in Tuscany, for a wine festival in Piemonte, to go skiing in Alto Adige, or for the carnival of Venice. I chose Milan because it was, in my inexperienced mind, a city of opportunities. I guess I wasn’t so wrong. Should you go an hour or two east, west, up or down, you are sure to end up in the narrow streets of a charming village with a duomo on the market square, by the shores of the famous Great Lakes and their beautiful flowery villas, facing the hills of some Barolo vineyard or randomly walking into the annual truffle festival of some remote Piedmontese village. Add to this splendid country an equally lovely weather, sun most of the year and mild temperatures in the winter – except higher up in the mountains, this goes without saying – and you now understand why Northern Italy appeals to just about anyone. Life away from the big city is good. And Italians know how to make the most of it.
This brings me to another interesting topic which, in my opinion, deserves at least a whole paragraph, or more: the Ô so famous dolce vita. More than a name, more than a way of life, it is almost a religion here! Never have I seen a country where people take a 4-hour lunch break to go to the sea and take a nap. Never have I seen people so focused on their well being, on their physical appearance and on their personal pleasure. If you don’t see how physical pleasure has got anything to do with the common notion of la dolce vita, read on. To begin, and this is going to surprise a lot of you, I’m sure… Italians spend a lot of time, money and attention on their physical appearance. La dolce vita begins with cultivating the body and the mind, by leading a stress free life, by looking good from head to toe. Literally. The Italians in Milan understand that frowning stretches out their skin and gives them wrinkles, that being tanned looks hot, and that keeping fit is key to looking good. And looking good is key to feeling good inside. So they go to the gym. A lot! They go to the salon, they get their nails and hair done, their shirts ironed, their shopping delivered and they have cleaning ladies. Italians also pay a great deal of attention to their alimentation, to eating healthy, pleasuring themselves with good food and good wine, allowing time to digest and never cutting back on their sacrosanct lunch break. Italians like to please their palate but would rather eat out than at the office. As opposed to other economically buzzing cities worldwide, Milan’s restaurants, salad bars and coffee shops are filled with working men and women who unmistakably always order an espresso, or a traditional gelato, before going back to the office. Italians understand that sleeping an extra hour in the morning can be more productive in many ways. Is it common in your country to start work between 9:00 and 10:00 am? Italians have learned not to mix pleasure with business. Also, work can sometimes be adapted to fit one’s needs and duties to his or her family because, as everyone knows, the Italian society is based on family and social relationships. At the end of the day, Italians leave all work-related stress at the office and go home to their family or go out for a well-deserved apertivo. It’s no wonder that this great active metropolitan is also the number one place in all of Italy for the aperitivo. In a few words, the aperitivo is a way for you to have a cocktail and to dine at the same time. Remember, the average Italian will always try to avoid bringing the stress outside of the office. So, grocery shopping, peeling vegetables and washing the dishes? No, thank you. That’s where the apertivo comes in. By paying between 5 and 10€ on average for a cocktail, one gets to enjoy countless sorts of food, from buffets spreading over 3 levels to plates always full of cold meat and cheese, from sushis buffets to fancy hot parmigiana and risotto, and don’t even get me started on the numerous baba, tiramisu, gelato, cakes and muffins. All they have to do then is sit, have a spritz or a Moscow mule and have at it.
Another side of the dolce vita is that Italians get the hell out of the city every chance they get. It was decided, somehow, by some higher power, that everyone working in Milan would go on vacation in August. Some companies actually close for the entire month of August. At times it can get downright scary. I remember walking in the streets on August 15 and seeing parking spots in the city center! Between the 13th and the 16th of August, Milan literally becomes a ghost town. The stores are closed, all of them (yes, even the Chinese!), most companies, schools and institutions are closed and everyone who has a house in the countryside, or who knows someone who knows someone who has a house anywhere outside of Milan will spend Ferragosto there. It’s also that, la dolce vita: replacing the noise and pollution by some farniente, the beach and some ‘me’ time whenever possible. Staying out very late to enjoy the cooler temperatures in the evening also seems to be a national sport. Go to work later, have lunch later, go home later. Yup, it’s like that.
In Italy, when you do something respectable enough, people want to encourage you or tell you how much they appreciate who you are or what you’re doing, so they tell you how brave you are. Bravery is on every mouth, every hour of everyday, should you know the person or not. You’re always brave! Brava, bravo! As opposed to other Germanic languages where some extra politeness applies, Italians are quick to use the familiar tone with just about anyone. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the flattering “ciao bella” and its cousin “grazie cara”? What’s wrong with a little compliment to lighten your day?
So maybe Italy has a highly unstable government, a bureaucracy that will make you want to bang your head against a wall, and corruption around the edges. And maybe Italians can be loud, undisciplined, boisterous, self-important, flamboyant, corrupt, sexist and macho. But they’re also fun-loving, elegant, sensitive, humorous, warm-hearted, hospitable, convivial and excellent cooks. If you manage to focus on what lies at the heart of the Italian society, a love of life so spontaneous and contagious it will make your head spin, you will see how easy it is to just embrace it rather than pester about all the futile, practical things that poison our everyday life – that is, unless you want to do business with an Italian. At the end of the day, what matters is that you end up spending a warm evening at the terrace of some colorful bar, waving off a summer day with your aperitivo in a hand and your Italian friends by your side. If you are ready to embrace the Italian way of life, however different it may be from what you know back home, its legendary good-hearted people will show you how extraordinarily simple it is to enjoy a moment, an evening, a diner and the company you’re in. Quindi, per l’aperitivo stasera, chi c’è?