Already once before, when I moved from my native Serbia to Chicago as an adolescent, did I adjust to a new culture. This time around, my move from Chicago to Milan, Italywas more difficult because it happened when I was 26.
Learning a new language now is harder than it was when I was 18. But, understanding what influences the behavior of Milanese (no matter if you approve or not of their actions), musing over your own character and gradually trying to go against it by acting differently, is another ballgame altogether. Comparing the actions of Milanese to those of Americans, and getting angered and frustrated by the actions of Milanese.do not even let me go there. Waging that battle when you know straight ahead that you can only lose it is useless. So, I decided to sit back, relax, and open my mind.
I moved here in August of 2011. I had just married my Italian husband and I was expecting our first child. Our baby girl Mila was born in March of 2012. Now, you need to understand something about my character. I can often be stubborn and close-minded – I am fearful of new experiences, more often than not I have a one-sided view of things, and I like to judge the actions of people without even trying to understand what caused them to act a certain way. My character is a recipe for disaster when adjusting to life in a new country. But, along came Mila, and few weeks after her birth after plenty of trips and falls, a change came in my character.
Most Italians are curious, or as I used to call it, nosy. I no longer call it nosy, because I now understand their curiosity and have partly mastered it myself. Here are a few tricks to it: act like you are interested, ask questions even if you think the answers do not matter to you, listen,and observe their hand gestures and their facial expressions. Each of these is very useful and can help you adapt to life in Italy. By learning the rules of the conversation game, I learned to sneak through the loopholes in the Italian system. For instance, I was able tofind how and where to play tennis without becoming a member of the club and how to attend Italian courses for free.
In some instances, you will not only need to be curious, but you will also need to be insistent if you want to accomplish your goals. Such was the case when I called to book doctor or dentist appointments. I made many callsand hardly ever got responses. Trying to find work was simply agonizing. People I wrote to were untouchable and self-important; they put up a whole show of how successful they are and of how usefultheir actions are. I see examples of such attitude often.Daily, I see a gallop of tenpolicemen talking loudly while blocking the entrance of my favorite coffee shop. All are in immaculately clean and ironed uniforms with gelled hair and moisturized faces. I think how instead of parading, they should be working.
Appearances matter all too much in this part of Italy. So does creativity, spontaneity, tradition, reactiveness, cheerfulness, and impatience. And for those who rebel against the tradition and history,there are street walls and opportunities for graffiti. While the policemen sip their coffee, rebels are causing damage. One of the most interestingpieces of graffiti comes with the drawing of a chubby policeman and a title next to it “Shootme and I will do it all over again”. The second one placed right next to the schedule of museum exhibitions for the month of December says “Stop making sense”. One rarely sees this type of rebellion in the U.S.
Then, there are thosewho do not do graffiti,butnevertheless lack patience and respect. For such people as well there are opportunities in the streets of Milan. Why not shut the door right in front of a mother with a baby in a stroller? Or who minds if youoccupy the street passage that is already too narrow whileshouting, waving, and talking on your phone all at once?
Luckily for me, there are people who mind. Like me, those people notice this behavior, analyze reasons for it, and ultimately learn to live with it. For Milan will simply never be Chicago and Milanese differ from Chicagoans. Those who still live here mind the actions of rascal Milanese youth or of impatient and disrespectful adults the same way they would probably mind something about life in Chicago.Those who never left the city have their reasons.
Notable is a remarkable contrast between the attention people here give to their appearance and the understatement they give to their city. True Milanese men and women dedicate their time and money to look beautiful. Fare unabellafigurais an Italian concept that encompasses immaculate taste for clothes. Also, it reflects the spontaneity, ease, and cheerfulness as the Milanese roam the streets of their city. Only Italians can put a check next to this concept -us foreigners can never.
But, get past the appearance and one will easily notice understatement. I see it in people’s clothes which are expensive yet refined, delicate, and subtle. I see it in storesof family-run butcher shops, hair salons, bakeries, and fish mongers. People owning these shops are proud of their creations,yetwhen communicating they come across as witty and humble.
I really cherish the understatement that I come across in Milan, though I see that most Milanese do not share my opinion. Or perhaps they do. On weekendsthere is less traffic in the city because some people go to the nearby ski spots or to the lake district. Despite some acquaintances here insisting that I should leave Milan during the weekend, I stay. I consult some guides on Milan,but with no luck. They all mention the mastery involved in construction of the Duomo cathedral and Milan’s financial city beat. I put those guides away and let myself wonder the streets with my husband and with Mila. And, God,do I see plenty every single day. My list runs from beautifully decorated villas, to tasty restaurants, botanical gardens, tennis courts, gardens with flamingoes…I admit that from theoutside these places often do not look hopeful. But, explore and be curious and you will see and learn plenty.
I see and learn so much that I simply have to sharemy experience with my Milanese acquaintances. When they hear my story, they shrug and say they had already seen the place I describe. And, so I learned a catch in the conversation game here:it is a form of understatement. Most Milanese donot share their knowledge about the city, either because they do not want you to benefit from that knowledge or because they have fear that if their favorite location gets too much traffic,its quality will go down. And so they tell you to just go away during the weekend as there is not much to do here. They know that is not true and I know so as well. I catch myself falling for this understatement gimmick times and again. Nevertheless, I refuse to act the same way. Instead, I share my knowledge about the city and will continue to do so.