Some days, you wake up in another country. When this happens to me, I just follow the stream of people out of the airport, onto a train, around the central station and then shyly call a taxi to take me to my new home. And this is how I arrived in Milan, Italy.
When I arrived at my residence, I quickly realized that communicating here was going to be more of a problem than I had initially thought. The receptionist rambled off a quick monologue or two in Italian before I was able to shake my head and try to convey to him that I couldn’t speak Italian. This consisted of me saying “Non italiano,” him saying “Non?,” him waving his hand (meaning “none at all?”) and me nodding yes. After we got this figured out, we bumbled through a half hour of me signing papers that I didn’t understand and getting rules that I couldn’t read. That whole thing about all Europeans being able to speak English… not true. However, I’m somehow still alive after a week, so I’ve been able to get food, public transit tickets and such.
I am living in an international residence, so no one in my building is Italian. They are from all over Europe – Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, Spain, Portugal and France. Some can speak Italian (the Spanish individuals usually can because apparently Spanish and Italian are so closely related that the Spanish students can attend courses held in Italian without formally studying any Italian) and some can’t. We communicate with each other however we can, mostly speaking in English or switching between languages, but we have all bonded very quickly over two things:
1. Italian bureaucracy and business hours. I thought American bureaucracy was bad. I was severely mistaken. There are so many unnecessary things that happen in Italy. For example, in my residence, everyone has three keys – one to get into the building (except there is a 24-hour receptionist so we never use it), another to get into our flat (of which there exists only one between three people) and a third to get into our rooms. Completely unnecessary. Additionally, stores and restaurants actually close in Italy at a time in which the store owners can go have dinner with their families. After eight, it’s almost impossible to find anywhere to shop.
2. Fire alarms. My first week here, the fire alarm went off at least once every day, sometimes twice. The first time it happened was at three in the morning. There was no loud noise, just a loud voice on the intercom saying things in Italian. So, I was rather confused. Luckily, my roommate helped me out. Supposedly, the alarms are fixed now. We can only hope.
It’s excellent to be making friends from all over the world and from Italy. It’s interesting to get their perception of the United States. I think everyone thinks that I am super rich and that I spend all of my free time in big cities. No one seems to understand why I would want to spend time in Europe. They say, “You live in America. Why wouldn’t you want to study in America?” And I respond, “Because I live in America, obviously.”
Despite its bureaucracy and its fire alarms, Milan is wonderful. Universita degli Studi di Milano is so beautiful and classical and it feels so scholarly. It is not the oldest university in the city, but the buildings sure feel old (I don’t know there exact age). The university consists primarily of one building that is broken up into sections by outdoor hallways and green spaces. It is one of the most interesting buildings I have ever encountered. My professor is wonderful. He invited me to Italian coffee the first day. He laughed at my reaction when I tasted how strong it was. It was quite strong. But I love how quickly bonds between professors and students form here. All of my fellow students are older than me; most are in their mid twenties. I think this is part of the reason that the students and professors get along so well.
Everything that happens every day is a completely new experience. Riding the tram, applying for a mass transit card, seeing Duomo, accidentally walking into a museum, shopping in Italian super markets, learning how to use Euros effectively. Some of these things I never thought would be a problem, but they are. And everything is a learning experience.
My Italian language course is held completely in Italian, which was a little intimidating at first but is definitely the best way to learn the language. We communicate in the class much the same way I communicate with people in Milan – by pointing and using our small vocabularies to say something meaningful.
I’m getting hungry. I should go find something to eat. Now, if only there was a place open at 8:30 pm on a Sunday….