Living in Italy is great, but it’s not always ‘la dolce vita’
Living in a new culture presents challenges and surprises. Mary Catherine Holcomb, writer, teacher and seasoned expat is now living in Milan, Italy. In this article, she shares her views and insights on her new culture with a touch of lighthearted humor.
Living in Italy
Aperitivos, flowing wine, beauty all around – you must be living the dream, right? This is a question I get asked pretty often, and yes, I can agree that I am rather fortunate to have this chance to live abroad and experience another culture (since I did just zip to Florence for the weekend.) However, relocating to another country – especially to one where another language is spoken – is not always rainbows and sunshine. But, besides the normal and expected challenges like learning another language, adapting to a new currency or even meeting new friends, let’s look into the deeper more pressing topics like: why are places not open?!
Easy Milano contributor Mary Catherine Holcomb in Tuscany
As a south Louisiana native, I am no stranger to heat and humidity (think outdoor sauna at 6am), but, and this is a huge but: I have always had an air conditioner. I moved into an older building (albeit a beautiful, spacious and beautiful one) that has no air conditioning or heating system. I moved here in September, so I have not had the lucky chance of experiencing a heat-filled summer in Italy equipped with no AC just yet, but I am already sweating just thinking about it. Another effect of being a south Louisianian is that cold weather is quite rare, so imagine my horror when I was told I couldn’t manage my heating but the building was controlled on set times! Through chattering teeth and under layers of clothes, a mental note was made to buy more winter clothes and invest in a portable air conditioner. On the other hand, I can also book a quick trip to the south of Italy to warm up in those winter months or take a quick dip in the water to cool down in the summer months in one of the nearby beautiful lakes. I’ll gladly accept a few chattering teeth for that give and take.
Milan has an excellent public transportation system but tends to run on it’s own time schedule
As an international educator, I have had the opportunity to also live in Tokyo, Japan last year. If you have ever been there, you know firsthand how top-notch their public transportation system is. I can count on one hand the amount of times the trains may have been late (as in by a few minutes.) Let’s just say, the transportation system here tends to run on “Italy time” (as in always several minutes late.) That being said, between the buses, metro system and the trams, it is easy to navigate your way around most cities. But if you dare to take the risk to get into a car, buckle up and hold on tight because you have unknowingly stepped onto an amusement park ride. The tense driving atmosphere is a complete 180 degrees from the typical “calm, let it flow” type of Italian lifestyle. Coming from no public transportation in Louisiana, the Tokyo fast life terrified me at first, so on the flip side, the train system here is just right (I will keep you posted on the drivers though.)
Piggybacking on late trains, as an American I am used to most places being open when the sun comes up or earlier and remaining open until almost midnight or later. Here, it could be anyone’s guess if the store on the corner decided to open today, or if the local gym closed unexpectedly on a Tuesday at 1:45pm. OK, that is a slight exaggeration, but not by much. My former bank opened at 9am and closed at 12pm, and then reopened from 1-4pm. How is a working person supposed to actually go to the bank? Forget about having holiday hours; all bets are off on that one. And if you like to plan a restaurant outing at an earlier time, hold off on that because many restaurants do not open until 7 or 8pm. I know that Americans eat dinner earlier than several other countries, but to not have the option to even go to the restaurant earlier is amusing to me. But guess what? Even though the restaurant may not be open, you can always take part in the popular and ever-coveted aperitivo! I have quickly realized this restaurant business of not opening until later may not be as big of a sacrifice as I first thought …
Toilets and I have a tense history – mainly the act of flushing the toilet. Besides navigating the transportation system in Tokyo, I also arrived in Tokyo with the fear of the toilet. Would I have to squat into a hole? Why is the toilet seat heating up? Well, add not knowing how to flush the toilets to that list. After I thought I had flushed my confusion with toilets, in walks Italy. Example one: older buildings (including mine) have toilets with handles that you have to “close” and “open” in order to flush. Since I am used to automatic toilet handles, there have been quite a few times I have walked away without closing the handle only to question what that loud noise was that has been running for five minutes (whoops.) Example two: do you see that little button hiding on the floor in the corner? Well, silly me, I should have definitely known that I had to step on that in order to flush the toilet. But, I didn’t. I pulled a string – twice – only to find out that was the emergency indicator and had to laughingly tell the waitress who came to my aid that I was indeed okay and did not need assistance. Example three: the button on the wall. After I thought I mastered the flushes and no toilet could defeat me, I encountered the third (and hopefully final) way to flush a toilet. At the four-minute mark of searching for the flush, I looked at the wall – and lo and behold, it was there. Again, silly me, because why not look at the wall for the perfectly sensibly-placed flush?
Traveling and relocating to another country is filled with a plethora of perks and a handful of downfalls. All of the plans in the world cannot fully prepare you for unexpected challenges. However, navigating the downfalls and figuring out a solution just makes the transition to a new place even sweeter.
Article by Mary Catherine Holcomb for EasyMilano.com
Featured photo by Skylar Michael
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Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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