A few months ago I decided to make some changes in my life and, having recently acquired Italian dual citizenship, the first change was of scenery: I came to Milan! It's been a month now and I've been surprised at just how different a place can be when you're thinking about living there, rather than just visiting. A few things I've learned:
1) Italians physically cringe when you mispronounce something. Every time I slur a consonant or close a vowel that should be open, stutter out of insecurity or put emphasis on the wrong syllable, it never fails – the person I’m talking to (the cashier at the grocery store, the barista making my cappuccino, the teller at the post office…) tightens their shoulders, their head hunching in and one eye squinting. Such a look of pain that you’d think I had just scratched my nails across a blackboard.
2) Cheese makes a great dinner. Who knew? All you need is some well-made, fresh cheese, perhaps a bit of honey, and you’re home free.
3) Respect your elders. Yeah, yeah, we all say it, but in Italy they actually do it. Like, everyone. You will not see anyone under 40 sitting down on a bus or tram, in the post office or – well, anywhere, really – when there is someone over 60 standing up. I’m trying to get out of the habit of daydreaming on buses or being too caught up in my book or phone while waiting for my number to be called at a service office. I’ll suddenly hear the people next to be offer up their seats and realize that there are several older folk standing around us, and me totally oblivious. The elderly also expect this sort of cordiality, too, though. One day I was coming back from an interview on the tram, staring idly out the window, thoughts lost back in the meeting room, when I heard a loud, high voice right next to my ear, “SEI INCINTA?” Are you pregnant?!
I started, broken out of my daydream. “SEI INCINTA?!” Are you pregnant?!
I looked around and saw a very old woman holding the pole attached to my seat. I could feel the eyes of the people around me, judging me for not having offered to give up my seat (but I honestly hadn’t noticed her! I swear she hadn’t been on the tram when I sat down!). She opened her mouth to say it again, “SEI – “ and I quickly jumped to my feet.
“No, no, mi dispiace – prego!” I walked away sheepishly, the color rising in my face, as she sat down.
4) Simplicity is key. The best meals I’ve had in Italy have been ridiculous in their simplicity. The most striking clothes and shoes I’ve found have stuck out because of their quality but have been, in design, incredibly simple and functional.
5) Dress appropriately. I had only brought one pair of brown walking boots and one pair of black rainboots to walk the city in, figuring I could buy other shoes when the weather warmed up. In the States, I always got compliments on my rainboots – people seemed to just see them as “boots” and so I wore them no matter the weather, if I needed a comfortable black boot.I quickly learned that Milan is not the States.
Three weeks after I arrived I was standing at a bar waiting for a cappuccino, wearing my black rain boots, when a middle-aged man walked up to me – he looked like a college professor to me for some reason – and asked me, “É previsto la pioggia?” Is rain in the forecast?
It didn’t click for me and he repeated himself. “No,” I replied, a bit confused. “Penso di no…” I don’t think so…
He waved with one hand down at my feet and only then did I realize he was commenting on my choice of footwear.
I went shoe shopping the next day.
6) In a different country, even the most ordinary things – going to the supermarket, a trip to the post office – can be overwhelming. Like, of the panic-attack variety. It’s obvious that there’s a system in place, but heck if I know what it is… That’s why I now hang back a little bit whenever I go into a new place, scope it out, watch what other people are doing, even if it makes me look like the creeper in the corner. Much less embarrassment – and way fewer panic-attacks – that way.
7) Italians make it their job to find you a job. Every person I’ve told that I’m looking for a job has reacted the same way, whether it’s our second or third time hanging out or whether I was just introduced to them three minutes prior: they stop and think. I mean really think. Then they suggest someone that might be able to help or that I should talk to, or they offer to send my resume somewhere, or they tell me about a job opening they heard about and that they’ll find out more and email me (which they DO!), or, if all else fails, they stand there thinking hard for a few minutes and then apologize for not having any leads for me. And then they think some more and promise to reach out to me if they can think of anything. And they’re sincere. In the States, when you tell someone you’re looking for a job, most of the time they say “good luck” and change the topic.
8) It’s all about the ingredients. I don’t care what I used to try to cook in the US – the easiest meal is so flavorful and satisfying in Italy solely based on the quality of the ingredients. It makes the biggest difference in the world.
9) A vacation home sounds like the way to go. I’ve met quite a few people who’s families have a vacation home. Some of them only use it for a month out of the year, others visit it every weekend. Having had the privilege of visiting one such home in Valtellina over Easter weekend, I can tell you having a special place away from everyday stresses, a place that’s every bit as much of “your own” as your week-day home, gives your mind a break and your soul the rest it needs to start the week fresh and full of fresh fervor. I’m still not sure about the economics of it, but I’m determined to figure it out!
10) Use the congiuntivo properly and even if you’ve only said one sentence, Italians will compliment you on your language skills. The congiuntivo, or “subjunctive” in English, is usually the last tense someone learns when studying Italian as a foreign language. It’s considered a bit more “elevated” – or at least, it shows that you most likely studied the language formally rather than just picking it up on the street. If you say one rather simple sentence using it, though, Italians will immediately compliment you on your language skills, having heard you say nothing else. (I’ve gotten really good at pulling out a simple sentence or two when an opportunity presents itself… the compliments make me feel better about my otherwise lacking speaking skills)
Jessica is a travel enthusiast and entertainment executive living in Los Angeles. Her independent travels through Italy have inspired her travel blog, OneDayInItaly.com