I'll Take a Double Shot of Being Uncomfortable Please
I can't believe it has already been a month that I've been in Milan. It still feels surreal! I have definitely encountered a big learning curve since I've been here and I am ready to learn more. There are 5 cultural and environmental elements that have stuck out to me that I would like to share.
OSU has the COTA and the inner campus bus system, but to navigate Milan properly, you need to understand the ATM system. This system is responsible for the tram and metro lines. It makes it fairly easy to get into the city and to Bocconi University. The first day I got here, I attempted to take the tram to Bocconi and took the correct tram, but in the complete opposite direction! Took me an hour to get to where I actually needed to go.
In order to ride the tram or metro, you have to buy a ticket to ride the tram or metro every time you ride or you may get fined, because they do random checks. I highly suggest looking into getting an ATM card and paying for it monthly. It took me sometime to adjust to traveling around this way, because I am so used to walking to campus or driving around. It has been interesting learning and adapting to a different mode of transportation for every day life. Another recommendation for future exchange students is downloading the Transit app and ATM app. The Transit app shows you the most efficient travel routes to your destination and gives you the details of which transportation to take. The ATM app is helpful if you need to buy a quick ticket instead of buying one at a ticket office.
2.) Personal Space
I am Greek so I am used to talking close and being affectionate to people I know. But for someone not used to these mannerisms, it can be uncomfortable. Trust me, I have had my fair share of awkward encounters while studying here, but it's how you learn!
One thing I have noticed that most friends greet each other with kisses on the cheeks. Doesn't matter if it's guys or girls greeting each other. The country is a very affectionate country whether it's friends or couples, it is very apparent. Another thing is that the ATM system can get very busy, so sometimes the tram to school is packed like a sardine can. You just have to be used to standing close to strangers. This is the same for most restaurants too. The spaces and tables are usually small and you feel like you are sitting on top of each other.
If you're a type A personality and constantly on the go, you're going to need to learn to chill in Italy. You can still be a planner and organize your life, but rushing to class, events, or wherever is not a thing. Compared to the US, the people here are much more relaxed. For instance, it's not really a thing for people to eat while they're walking, even if they're late. Eating is a time for relaxation and the Italians believe you should take time to sit and slowly eat your food.
The timing of things is also pushed back later than US timing. Lunch is usually in the late afternoon like 2-3 pm as opposed to US time of 11-1. There are also times for "siesta" or relaxing periods. It is not uncommon for businesses to close after the lunch rush and not reopen until the evening. Most night life and going out for dinner isn't until at least 8 pm as well.
This has been a bit of a change for me, but I have honestly enjoyed the slowed down pace of life. It makes me analyze how I was living my life back at Columbus, and most of the things I rushed around to or worried about things that weren't important.
4.) Grocery Shopping
When you first arrive in Italy you are overwhelmed by a lot of things. While you are settling into your housing and surroundings, you should definitely go to the grocery store. It can be intimidating at first if you're concerned about the language barrier, but most people understand some English or they get the gist of what you're trying to say. Buying groceries also helps you save money instead of going out to eat for everything.
I live in Arcobelano Residence (a university dorm) and there is a grocery store that is less than 5 minutes walking distance. First thing I noticed is that the shopping carts are different. They are basket-like with 4 wheels that you can pull with you or carry if that is what you prefer to do. I also learned later on you are allowed to roll the carts back with you to the residence and leave them outside once you have unloaded your groceries. Another difference is certain fruits and vegetables you have to weigh and label yourself. The first time I went, I brought bananas and apples up to the cashier and they couldn't scan them because I didn't know that I had to label them myself. One big difference is when you are checking out, they will ask if you want plastic bags and you have to tell them how many you want because you have to pay for them. They are super inexpensive, but I suggest getting a reusable bag to make things easier. I personally just roll my groceries back with the cart, but almost everyone uses reusable bags.
I can't speak for other residence halls, but if you end up in Arcobelano, you probably will need to buy cooking materials. I had to buy a fork, a spoon, a plate, a pot, and a pan. If you end up buying pots and pans, you NEED to buy ones that use induction. I accidentally bought the wrong ones, but the workers at the grocery store were nice enough to let me return them. It is a good investment to buy cooking ware because it will help to save money and cook instead of eating out!
If you love pizza and pasta, you are in the right place. My one piece of advice pertaining to food while studying abroad is treat yourself. If you're a health nut there are ways to eat healthy or workout, but don't forget to just enjoy yourself. The culture and social aspects of eating is big in Italy.
An important food aspect is apertivo. Almost all restaurants have one in the evening. They usually start around 8 pm and go for a few hours. You pay about 10 euros and you get a drink and unlimited small food plates. It is a buffet style, so you can help yourself to as much as you want. When you first arrive in Italy and start meeting people, apertivos are the thing to go to in the first 1-2 weeks. I strongly recommend going to as many as you can because that is where I met a lot of the other exchange students.
My one true love here has been the coffee. If you're a coffee fiend, Italy will be heaven for you. Back home, I usually just drink a lot of black coffee. The big difference here is the espresso, or caffes. The first time I ordered a caffe I was really confused because of how small it was. I absolutely love the caffes now, and I don't know how I am going to go back to black coffee in the states. If you want a larger drink, you should order a cappuccino or order a double caffe (cafe doppio). If you are in dire need of regular black coffee, you can order an caffe americano. I don't recommend it because it is not as good as a caffe. If you order a cappuccino, it is not really proper to order it after 11 am because it is considered a "heavy" drink. Of course they'll still serve you if you do, but it's just a small custom I've heard about.
A big thing to note with coffee places is that they are called "bars" so don't be alarmed if people ask you to go to the bar on the corner at 10 am. People stand at an actual bar and take their time sipping on caffes hence the name. My last comment on coffee in Milan, is that this is where the CEO of Starbucks was inspired to revamp Starbucks, so there is a Starbucks Reserve in the city center. You should definitely go and check it out if you have the chance!
Some places I recommend to go try are Luini (panzerotti) and Cioccolati Italian (gelato). These places are pretty popular, but I honestly have not dined in the city center a lot. However, two apertivo places I recommend are Yguana Cafe and Maya. I have been to a lot of apertivos and I feel that these two offer decent food and drinks for the same price as everywhere else. Around campus, I highly suggest Dahlia's Lab, Il Fortino Milano, and Napulenga. Dahlia's Lab is a cool cafe to hang with friends and do some work. It does get very busy around lunch time because a lot of students go there, so sometimes it is difficult to do work there. The pricing is decent and the food is delicious! Il Fortino Milano is where I go to probably twice a week to do work and grab food. It is very inexpensive and a quiet place to work. You can get an "American" breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, cafe) for 5 euros which is amazing and good if you're a little homesick. If you love pizza and are starving on campus, Napulenga is the spot. It is a small place, but they are very quick. You can get a good size pizza for 8-10 euro! I have been a few times and love it every time! There are many good places to eat around campus and Milan. You just takes time to taste test them.
There are many more cultural nuances and at times it can be overwhelming, but it's part of the journey. You're going to be meeting a lot of people and learning a lot of things when you first arrive. It is all overwhelming, but in a good way. Don't be afraid to be uncomfortable because you are going to mess up and there is no way to avoid it. Don't be like me on my few first days in Italy and being too scared to order food. The Italians are very friendly people and have a beautiful culture. All I can say is get used to being uncomfortable and be able to laugh at yourself because the whole trip is a learning process.