Milan So Far§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: December 14, 2005; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 623

Russell Dyer in Milan Snow

As for Milan, I’ve only been here since the end of October. I took one course in Italian in college a few years ago. While I was in Boston, I met with a tutor, a professor from Harvard who teaches Italian there three times a week for about six weeks to prepare me. A large percentage of the population in Milan speak English, but most not well at all. I can’t count on them. Many and perhaps even most of the locals with which I interact, speak absolutely no English. So, I’ve had to learn quickly. I’m no where near fluent yet, but then again this is my first language besides English that I’m attempting to be able to speak fluently. If you already know another language besides English, you may learn quicker than me. One thing I can say for the people here who don’t speak English, they are very pleasant about my deficiencies and are patient with me. I must sound perfectly awful to them, and yet they hang in there with me. When I tell any of them that I’m a writer, they look at me like I’m insane. They seem to assume that I write in Italian — as if that’s the only language. Some have even asked me if I write in Italian. It’s amazing.

The city has the busy feel of New York, but it’s not as congested as New York. There is a gruffness sometimes on the streets, but they soften quickly. They seem to try to run me off the road when I’m walking across the street or riding my bike, but if I look their way as I cross, they stop for me. If a street narrows when I’m on my bike, they slow down and patiently follow me until the street widens again so that they may easily pass. They never blow their horns at me or curse me. It’s nothing like NY or like movies of busy Italian cities like Rome with scenes of abusive drivers — they do drive rapidly and seemingly chaotically. But, they’re quite civil.

On my web site at this point there are a very limited number of photographs of Milan. I have been so consumed by work in part, but mostly by getting started in Milan. Setting up my apartment has been quite a challenge. Acquiring items such as light bulbs, plumbing fixtures, cleaning supplies, furniture, linens, and everything was initially a significant struggle. There are no Walmarts or shopping malls around here. Instead, there are many small family run shops. What’s worse is that stores maintain absurd hours; it’s very un-American. Generally, they’re open four to five days a week. They open some time in the morning before I wake up, and close around noon for one and one-half hours to three hours for lunch and a nap, I assume. Then they re-open for an additional three to five hours. Most are closed on Sundays and usually one or two other days during the week. Some have one day in which they close at noon and don’t come back until two days later. Some have days when they just don’t open until four or six in the afternoon. It’s hard to know when to go to a particular store. Store hours must be approved by the city based on labor laws and based on the hours of other similar stores in the neighborhood. It’s socialistic here in subtle ways — designed to protect the worker, even if the owner is the only worker. It’s also difficult to figure out where to go for certain needs because stores usually have metal rolldown shutters over their window fronts. It’s for security, but as a result I’m not always sure what a store contains when its closed. They have signs over the store front that is visible, but when I first started living here, I couldn’t always interpret them. The upshot of it all is that in the beginning I would have to roam the neighborhood looking for stores which sell what I need (sometimes walking past a store which may have what I need and not knowing it), and then try to guess when they might be open since the shutters hide their sign with the hours of operation (which involves returning several times to a store to catch them when they’re open), and then try to explain my needs to the shopkeepers with my broken Italian. If I’m lucky, I find what I need and get it with less than five trips hunting for it.

In fairness, though, I should point out that Italians conduct their business and other activities much as I do: seemingly sporadically and haphazardly, but in a way that some how makes sense to them. As a person who is not dependable in the American business sense, I depend on others to be dependable so I don’t have to be. It was very frustrating for me at the start. When I was a teenager, people used to ask me, If we all acted like you, then where would we be? I now know the answer: We would be in Italy.

Anyway, one of the points of this last part, is to offer my excuse as to why I don’t have many photographs of Milan yet. However, it is my intention, starting this week (of course, the week is almost over), to begin setting aside time each week to do some sightseeing. I have a guide book to Milan and plan on going through it and finding something to visit each week, and then actually following through with my plans.