It’s about time for another installment in this series of blog posts… the city has changed, the country has changed, the language has changed. This is culture shock, big time.
This week marked a full month in Milan, and the end of the first fortnight of classes. It also marked a pronounced period of culture shock for me. In a sense, that’s a good thing, since the sooner it comes, the sooner it passes. However, it has meant that this week has been tough mentally and emotionally. And to cap off the week, I came down with a head cold over the weekend, making it that much tougher to write.
As for the various previous entries in this series of blog posts, to start, here’s a list of things that have been challenging about coming to terms with the new culture, things that have been tough to face, and have been the source of frustration.
The Slow Pace of Pacing: The poet JC Inman may have been talking about the vacationing residents of Canberra when he penned the line “five wide at holiday speed”, but it’s an apt description of what it’s like to walk along a street in Milan. People simply walk much slower and as many abreast as possible, meandering along the thin sidewalks. For someone like me who walks fast, with a destination and a purpose, it becomes a source of stress very quickly. The most intriguing thing is that the Milanese tell me that compared to most cities in Italy, *they* walk fast.
Loitering: Sometimes it’s hard to tell when people are still walking, because they are walking so slowly. But many times people will have come to a complete halt in the middle of the sidewalk for no apparent reason, and often in the most inconvenient spot. It’s a common occurrence to see people blocking entryways and chokepoints whilst carrying on a conversation, oblivious to those trying to get by.
Smoking: Speaking of loitering at entryways, often it’s done with a cigarette in hand. Smoking is still ubiquitous here, and due to the lack of laws regarding smoking in entryways, and inexplicable choices on behalf of Università Bocconi with respect to building design (every building seems to have only one usable entrance), navigating to classes means pushing through a sea of students puffing away as close to the door as they can get. A suit can go from dry cleaned to smoke-soaked in under five seconds.
Personal Space: On a similar note, navigating that sea of people means pushing through. Not being a touchy–feely kind of person, this makes life awkward. And in queues, people will push up behind you to a level that is uncomfortably close, often actually pushing against your back. It’s unsettling.
Disorganisation: Of course, that’s assuming there is actually a queue. If there is an Italian word for queue I am not sure it gets much use. Most things are a scrappy, push-your-way-to-the-front affair. It seems also to reflect a general lack of strict organisation in most things. Rooms for lectures will change at short notice, and timetables are fluid, malleable things. As yet, I have no indication of when my exams will be beyond a vague, two week period in December, and two of the courses I signed up for went and changed their name on the first day of class. This is apparently normal.
Politeness (or the comparative lack of): Texas has spoiled me. All the “Thank Yous” and “God Bless Yous” and general awareness of other people’s needs has made things difficult having now left. If you hold the door open for someone here they look at you oddly, as if nobody has ever done it for them before.
Gyms (or the comparative lack of): That’s not strictly true. There are, in fact, gyms in Italy. However, virtually none of them open before 9am. The concept of the early morning workout is entirely alien and met with incredulity, as if nobody in their right mind would even be awake at 6am, let alone getting some sets of squats in. This situation ultimately led to me hauling a dumbbell set and a pull up bar two miles from the nearest sports shop to my apartment, just to be able to stay in shape (which to be fair, earned me a very nice cup of gelato).
Measuring Cups: Okay, this last one’s kind of trite, but it has been a little confusing in the kitchen department. Measuring cups simply do not exist. Everything is done in grams, which is pleasing because of the metric system, but when all my recipes call for quantities in cups, there’s tricky conversions involved all over the place. Not even IKEA have been able to help – their measuring cups aren’t sold in the Italian market.
Not breaking the pattern of the previous entries however, here’s the part where I expound on the positive aspects of Italy, and there are plenty. Here’s a selection:
Espresso (and Baristas): It’s ubiquitous, it’s cheap, it’s magnificent. Hardly surprising that the home of espresso produces good espresso, but it’s a positive shock as to how consistently good it is. Even the vending machine stuff is drinkable. Not that you would, because for a few cents more you can have the real thing, poured by a barista who works fast and is organised, in stark contrast to everything I have said above about disorganisation. The baristas are on the ball all the time.
Pastries for Breakfast: Also cheap are the lovely variety of sweet pastries served at every espresso bar. Despite being filled with chocolate or covered in sugar, they count as breakfast. Or at least that’s what I am insisting is the case.
Aperitivo: A Milanese institution, designed to fill the gap between the end of work and the beginning of dinner. You pay for your drink, and get unlimited access to a buffet. Depending on the place, this can range from cut up panini that wasn't sold at lunch, to dazzling arrays of antipasti, salads, and mixed grills. Apparently it’s gauche to treat aperitivo as a substitute for dinner, but when you’re a poor student it’s hard not to.
Gelato: They’d make it a breakfast food if they could. So many flavours, so little time.
Language: Despite the lack of time, I’ve been continuing to learn Italian as much as possible. Duolingo turned out to be reasonable for laying the groundwork, but nothing succeeds like actual practice and actual conversations. And here, Italy has been surprisingly good. In general, people are responsive if you at least try to speak in Italian, and they’ll even help you practice your Italian if you ask.
Public Transport: For all the aforementioned disorganisation, the train system (and public transport in general) is good quality. It may lack the exacting, bordering-on-OCD precision of the Swiss system next door, but things run close enough to schedule to be fine if there’s a connection to be made. Unless there’s a strike, as happened this weekend. But they do post those in advance, which is decent enough of them. In all, it’s definitely a step up from the Washington metro, that's for sure.
Parks: Despite Milan being an incredibly dense city of apartments, there is still space for parks. Some may only be the size of a basketball court, but they’re there. It seems that every time I go running I find a new one, an oasis amongst the buildings.
The Maze of Streets: Speaking of which, there are so many streets to wander down and then find your way again. You can get off the beaten path quickly and not lose much time to where you’re going. You never need to take the same way twice.
That’s all I have for now. I think what makes this entry different from the previous entries is that I am not wholly optimistic at this stage of the game. I’d love to say that despite the foibles and the challenges, I love being in Italy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful and I’m not ungrateful to be here, but I can't help but think that maybe this country and I just aren’t compatible. My own desire for order, personal space, and walking quickly may just override the love of the food, coffee, and beautiful places. I’m hoping this is still the culture shock and that this feeling will pass. Time will tell.
In any case, there’s homework to get done… I guess some things appear to be universal across all cultures.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
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