Milan probably isn’t the first city to come to mind when you think of Italy — who could go without visiting Rome or Venice? I’d been to Italy before to visit family and more tourist-friendly spots, but the longest I’d ever stayed in the country’s second largest city, home to around five million people, was three hours on my way through to Switzerland.
After completing a study exchange in Central Italy, visiting family in the south and spending a few days with a friend in Veneto, I found myself on a packed train bound for Milano Centrale where I was going to spend two weeks with a friend and her family over Christmas.
Whenever I’d speak to Italians about how I wanted to go back to Milan and explore the city, they’d always tell me I was stupid, that i milanesi are cold and rude and the city is grey, industrial and dirty. In other words, I was going to have a shit time.
What I found when I got off the train couldn’t have been more different. I saw a warm, thriving, clean (okay, so it was a little gritty but who doesn’t love a bit of that?) and internationally connected yet very Italian city. The streets were open and bustling, old palaces and galleries stood perfectly maintained next to colourful apartments and busy shops. People were out in groups, hopping on and off the iconic trams and visibly enjoying life.
What surprised me most, however, was how seamlessly I could blend into a city completely foreign and new to me. In Australia we have this idea that Italians have dark skin and dark features, but as a half-Italian with a German father whose origins are in Berlin, I didn’t inherit many of those dark features from my mother. Milan is a multicultural city in the north close to Switzerland, France and Austria where it’s not uncommon for people to have blue eyes, orange hair, or like me, light to dark brown features.
It’s a strange feeling being able to fit into a place you’ve never been. Usually when travelling overseas you’re an outsider, you know you don’t speak the same language, look, or even dress the same way as many of the locals. In Lombardia with my friends, however, I felt like I could simply slip in to the city and explore without being treated like a dumb, English-speaking tourist which was ultimately a huge benefit since I was in the country to learn Italian in the first place. I was given a more intimate look into the local culture and language — something that isn’t often granted to tourists.
Sure, we did some things only tourists do. We climbed the Duomo and took corny pictures of the cityscape from the rooftop, but we also went to quarters most visitors would never step foot in and enjoyed the Italian lifestyle the Milanese way. At museums and galleries like the Museo del Novecento, I was spoken to only in Italian; when ordering espresso at coffee bars nobody initiated conversation in English; on the streets I was often asked by Italians which metro stop we were at or for directions around town.
It was only after people heard my accent that they would either shit themselves at the thought of having to speak English or they’d look me up and down wondering how someone who looked like them and could speak their language seemed so different.
Fitting into a foreign place is strange but great. You get the benefits of constantly practising another language, people don’t treat you differently because you’re a foreigner, you meet and talk to people on a more personal level and you don’t have street vendors pushing crappy umbrellas in your face because it’s about to rain — ‘hi sir special price just for you’. The city took me in with open arms, my friends made sure I experienced as much as possible and I did it all just like a local Milanese.
Words and Image by Daniel Zander