Experiences in Milan

As we continue to look back at experiences students had last spring, let’s turn to Linjiang Han, a Commerce major who studied in Milan, Italy on the UVA Commerce: Third Year Core: Universita Bocconi program to finish off her third year. In this post, she writes about her thoughts from during her second month in Italy!

One of my biggest challenges since coming to Italy is the use of clothes drying racks instead of dryers. I asked around and realized other European countries also use drying racks. When I lived in the United States, I used to wash my clothes once every two or three weeks. After coming here, I must wash my clothes every week because of the lag time for my clothes to dry as well as the small size of the washing machine.

Another difference is that the grocery stores and product container sizes can be much smaller than they are in the United States. I find this to be a fact that is rooted in culture and not likely to change. In the stores, there is also not as many selections as I am used to and prices can be higher due to the cost of living in Milan and the euro-to-dollar exchange rate. I try to save on expenses by finding less expensive restaurants and places to buy food in bulk.
Not only are the grocery store prices high, but also restaurant prices. While you do not tip in Italy, there are sitting fees that are essentially mandatory tips. These sitting fees are generally €2.50. Once, I thought I should save money and ate a small meal that was €4.50 only to realize the sitting fee costed over 55% of what I ate. To get around this problem, especially when I’m traveling and prices can sometimes be exorbitant in the first place, I will eat at cafes or small establishments where there is no sitting fee. However, when it comes to eating authentic Italian food, especially ones specific to a region, I am willing to pay more money for it. In the following photographs are some of the local foods I’ve eaten: Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (Squid Ink Pasta) from Venice and Polenta e Osèi (Polenta Cake) from Bergamo.
Related to food, another challenge I encountered when I came to Milan was the late dinner time because of aperitivo. Since then, I have fully adjusted by to it by eating lunch at a later time or eating a snack around lunch time. After coming to Milan, I have realized that not only is my body affected by meal times, but that many Italian businesses tend to take a lunch break. Even at the university’s help desk, there is a three-hour window in the middle of the day when it is closed. Therefore, I am now accustomed to checking hours of operation if I want to go someplace close to lunch time.

Additionally, everyone places great efforts in sorting out trash in Italy. For example, we have five different trash bins in my apartment with one each for plastic, paper, glass, organic waste, and miscellaneous. In addition, personal bathroom trash must be taken out by each occupant that day. I was not used to taking out the trash every day, so it was an initial challenge to remember every day.

I have been exploring Milan by going to different neighborhoods/bureaus of the city. When I went to the northwest part of the city, I was surprised to find a Chinatown. I later asked around and discovered there is a large Chinese population in Milan. After my realization, I asked some Chinese speaking locals about their immigration and was informed they immigrated to Italy when the economy in the country was good and particularly because they already had friends in Milan. This really resonated with me because I immigrated to the U.S. from China. Beside is a picture I took when the Chinese New Year was approaching and I saw there was a lot of decorations in Chinatown. On Chinese New Year, there were so many Chinese gathered that could cause someone to think they were not in Italy anymore.

Unfortunately, I have had more practice speaking Chinese than Italian since I came to Italy. My Italian is very poor and I also cannot roll my r’s. Some Italians assume I cannot speak Italian because I am Asian and they are correct in this case. Once or twice, people have greeted me with “konnichiwa” or “nihao.” The most Italian I have used is to order food to the lunch lady or the basic phrases such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” However, I shall endeavor to learn more Italian while I also explore more of Milan.

My exploration of Milan includes going to its different museums. From my visits, I learned a lot about the history of the city I’m currently studying abroad in.  For example, in Milan, there is one central canal with many restaurants known as Navigli. However, in one of the museums, I learned Milan was once more like Venice with many canals but, due to industrialization, most of the old canals were covered over by concrete and Navigli now remains the only main canal in Milan. While I thought this was rather tragic, I am glad Navigli is still around as I often go there for aperitivo and enjoy the view (seen on the left). I believe that anyone who lives in Milan must have seen this beautiful view as they pass by Navigli.

Through walking around Milan and sometimes taking spontaneous routes and detours, I am becoming more attuned to the pulse of the city. I believe by the end of my experience, I will feel like a real local rather than just a student who attends one of its universities.

A big part of my goal for coming to Italy was not just getting to know Milan, as I wrote about in my last blog, but the country itself. By going to other Italian cities besides Milan, I have been able to see the part of Italy that’s less business-focused. In smaller towns like Bergamo, an hour away from Milan, the pace of life is slower, though definitely not lackadaisical, in which Italians take time to eat meals or sit in a gorgeous park to read. On the other hand, in cities like Venice where tourists outpopulate the locals, many of the locals I find are around retirement age and often keep to themselves.

I believe I am learning more about Italy, not only through a third-person point of view of traveling, but also interacting with local Italians wherever I go. In Venice, I talked to a local who actually spoke Chinese to me, a huge indication of the number of Chinese tourists who visit the city, and we discussed the city itself. He told me about the pollution of the canals that is not only caused by tourists, which I had previously assumed, but mostly because of the wastes from nearby plastic factories. When I brought up how the U.S. would usually fine such companies to clean up the waste, he replied that the red tape of the system means that these factories wouldn’t really be fined. I found this topic really fascinating because I don’t think I would have researched something like this before going to Venice and I got to see Venice beyond all the touristy canals and through the lens of a local.

Currently I have traveled to six different Italian northern cities, most of which are close to Milan. My travels have provided me the opportunity to practice Italian. Since Bocconi is an international school and my classes are all in the English, I don’t meet many Italians at school. When I go to stores and shops, I use very basic Italian phrases such as “how much.” Through my travels, I seek to gain a better understanding of the Italian lifestyle and culture that are shaped by the country’s history and geographical location. Later this semester, I hope to visit more Italian places, both cities and small towns, in my efforts to become more educated about the country I am living in.

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