Past Lives Abroad: Milano

It’s been 7 years since I arrived in Milan. I had traveled on my own internationally, but this was the first time I was to live abroad. Even after planning and preparing, reality came up quick when I sat down on the plane. It was a potent mixture of intense anticipation of the unknown and pride of assuming responsibility for myself. Like most enriching adventures, I had no idea what I was in for, and I didn’t appreciate it all until it was over.

I’ve found that there is no better way to get to know myself than by trying something new, something that scares me. Knocking yourself a bit off balance and mastering where and how you land is an essential skill. These life experiences have helped me prepare to face other challenges–challenges that may not even seem directly related–with a confidence in myself and my instincts.

Milan is often called “the least Italian of Italian cities.” This is somewhat true. It’s dirty metropolitan. Hyper sophisticated with a keen culture, there’s a harshness to it that appeals to me, but is not typically what comes to mind when you think of Italy. However, the best way to get to know Milan is to live there. If you stay long enough to notice, you might share one of my favorite things about Milan–where the quaint comes in through the cracks–reminding you that it is still Italy, after all.

I lived in an apartment with four other American students from my program (oh hey, BBs!). Our apartment had high ceilings, a piano in the living room, a balcony looking into the courtyard, double glass doors, and so on. This was far more special than my college accommodations. Sometimes, we’d hear the retired opera singer practice from across the courtyard.

There is music everywhere in Italy, starting with the language. Everyone sounds like they are singing when they speak. The clean lines of the northern Italian dialect trills around the corners of the Cathedral, echoes through the open archways of the Centrale railroad station, and runs through Parco Sempione.

Everyday things were done differently in Milan. There wasn’t a Starbucks in the whole city, obviously. We’d run across the street from school to grab a €1 cappuccino and a “brioche,” the devious bastard brother of a croissant (brioche dough rolled into a crescent). Things, especially food, are good and cheap in Italy (although the dollar wasn’t doing well, so €1 wasn’t as thrifty as it felt). Food isn’t fast. Even at McDonald’s, nobody is seen with a to-go cup of coffee or a sandwich on the run. The very Italian traditions around and pride in food and family ran deep.

I found a special form of family in my apartmentmates. As we grew into our own adulthoods, we grew together. These girls with whom I cooked pasta, laughed uncontrollably, took the creepy overnight train to Rome, danced on tables, was vulnerable or sick in front of…they’re as important as the experience itself. That was the most unexpected and wonderful gifts I got from my time in Milan.

Other lessons I learned:

  1. While you are boiling the pasta for dinner, throw and egg in and hard boil it for tomorrow.
  2. Make friends with locals. This is the key to a unique and authentic experience getting to know a city.
  3. Do something completely on your own. Travel somewhere, sightsee, sunbathe. Take yourself out and get to know you.
  4. Don’t wear your earphones everywhere. Listening is a huge part of learning a language.
  5. Most people are cool and willing to help out if you’re respectful. 
  6. Read everything you can. Read the signs. You don’t have to understand everything. Read the back of your shampoo bottle in the shower for more exposure and to make the most of your day. Maximize.
  7. Talk to anyone who will engage (without being creepy). Free education! Learn how to fuck up and have someone correct you. Ask for directions instead of looking at your phone first.
  8. Hold onto your stuff and don’t be someone’s target. One lesson I’m proud to say I did not have to learn was how to get a new passport abroad once it had been stolen. I’m not saying it’s dangerous, but it’s not Disneyland.

Lonely Planet has a good list of popular things to do in Milan, which I will not try to reproduce here.

My recommendation: visit Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, the former studio of legendary Milanese furniture and industrial designer. You don’t have to be a design devotee like me to get a kick out of this trip. I had the privilege of visiting and photographing the studio with my professor Bob Tyson and sculptor Mauro Staccioli.




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