Disclaimer: I will highlight differences in the Italian cultures and compare them with cultures that I am familiar with. These comparisons won’t always be favourable and will be pretty judgmental on my part. I have lived here now for 20 days so no doubt I will be missing a lot of information to make these calls. This post is for my reference as much as it is for anyone else viewing it as are most of my posts.

Before describing anything about Italy I think that I need to make an important distinction that most Italians make themselves. As you will know if you read this blog, I work in Milan and Italians from this area make the distinction that they are Milanese before they are Italian just as we Scots often do. My best guess is that the origin of this goes back to history when Italy was a number of different states lead by different feudal leaders but it’s also worthwhile noting that, unlike different Americans who claim their states but are often very similar to anyone who isn’t from America, the people from different areas of Italy are very different.

As such, most of my comments will be directed towards the Milanese, whom frankly, I really don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some very nice Milanese individuals but for the most part, they’re not very friendly. There’s very much a sense of town mouse, country mouse. If you are a Milanese person reading this and it doesn’t resonate with you, blame your fellow city-dwellers.

Before I weigh in with the sledgehammer though, I want to say that the city of Milan, the place itself, is really great.

For starts the transport system is fantastic. There are usually at least 2-3 different ways to get to one place, whether it’s by one of the 3 Metro underground lines that spiral around the city, on one of the trams – vintage style or new; both are just as functional, or through the vast network of buses around the city, you will probably be able to get on your choice of transport for where you want to go very quickly. By comparison, the Japanese transportation links are more of a maze and very expensive or are shamefully unrepresented in rural areas. In Milan a 30 euro travel card will take you anywhere within the city’s boundaries for a whole month and even outside it up until a point. Can you imagine if they implemented that philosophy across rural Scotland rather than a 90 quid monthly restricted ticket like they have now with zone cards?

Then you’ve got the multi-cultural aspect of the whole city. If I had only spent my time around the central area where the Duomo cathedral tourist attraction lies, I might not have noticed how truly ingrained the sense of multi-culturalism really is here. As you move out around the city centre, you notice the different people of different heritages all around – and not just in pockets either: Turks and their families with restaurants and bars, chinese areas but no specific China town that they needed to declare like they sometimes do in other cities, Jewish people with their skull caps and long curly hair mixing with Africans: it truly feels like an European Union city. As you move to the boundaries of the city you can see pockets of travelling Romani people flitting around the skirts of the city where there are more parks and countryside. Milan is generally as welcoming to other cultures as it is the native Italian just as their Roman forebearers were after their initial enslaving of other cultures, when former slaves could attain the same standard and level as the native aristocracy.

Unfortunately, Milan is the London of Italy meaning snooty, overpaid people, fashionistas who think barging down the street is an acceptable way to behave and housing prices that mean strangers share apartments with one another and lead paranoid and insular lives. A part of me doesn’t blame them: you really don’t want to talk to anyone in the street here. There are a lot of people out to steal or trick tourists, unfortunately, most of them black, which I’m sure leads to stereotyping. Beggars come onto trams and the underground, playing bad music on violins and accordians and generally get up in people’s faces much more than would ever be acceptable in the UK or Japan.

But then Italy, as a whole, seems to be a country where if you can get away with something it’s generally done on mass. If you’re a football fan, you’ll probably know how the Italians are famous for cheating. Then of course there’s the government, which my students regularly complain about due to the level of blatant corruption. One is a lawyer who deals with banking corruption, the others just bring it up in conversation whenever they can.

Going down to a less obvious viewpoint, at a local level even I, as a new visitor to the city, could see how this, “we’ll do what we like and get away with it” mindset effects day-to-day life. In my first week here I went to a Burger King to avoid having to speak Italian and waited 30 minutes amongst the massive throng of people – had they queued I imagine it would have went down a lot quicker and with less tempers flaring. Then there are the rules of the road. Thankfully, I don’t drive since Italian drivers just cut others off when they like. There aren’t as many traffic lights as there are pedestrian crossings, which means if you walk most of the time like I do, you have to pretty careful; sometimes drivers will stop, sometimes they just won’t bother. The number of parked cars on pedestrian foot paths is another testament to this mindset. There are times when I have wondered how Italy even functions on a daily basis, never mind as one of the main players in Europe.

Of course, sometimes Italy just doesn’t function. These days are typically known as one of two things: “Holidays” or “Sundays”. Today is the former of the two and trying to get anything done on these days is almost impossible. Transport grinds to a near halt as you rush to get your shopping done at supermarkets or other shops that close just after midday. Typically the natives spend most of these days at church and then together in groups of friends or family and either spend time doing hobbies like playing sports together, eating a lot of pizza and ice-cream together or sitting chatting together. Next to football, sitting on park benches is the favourite national past time. Well, that and dog walking.

Italians love dogs. Where we Brits are generally much fatter than our dogs could ever hope to be, in Italy, the opposite is true. Anything bigger than a pug is overfed until it’s eyes are permanently blotched red and a permanent slobber ensues. A dog walk isn’t so much as that as a waddle. After 5 minutes of “walking” most dogs have to take part in the nation’s other past time on a park bench or at their owners’ feet.  Toy dogs, at least in Milan any how, are generally speedy little trotters that spend most of their time inside Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbags when they aren’t wiggling their feet forward with delighted little expressions on their faces. The other location of choice for dog walkers is around specific dog areas or “Area Riservata ai Cani”. If such a area existed in space-conscious Japan, you would probably pay a fair amount of Yen for the privilege to use it. Truly the Italians do love their mutts.

They’re not really cat people though. The first enounter I had with a cat was one I saw around my temporary residence. The second was the sound of what I can only presume was the cat’s kittens meowing regularly to the point where I thought the meows were a ring tone for the first 30 seconds. That was in central Milan, where I guess most people keep their felines indoors. Even here in Segrate, on the outskirts of central Milan, I’ve only seen two cats compared to the multitude of bleary-eyed, sumo pooches. Another indication of the city mouse, country mouse factor at play in Italy.

The other distinction I would make about Italians, particularly the Milanese is the strong sense you get of there being a divide between the young and the old. It’s stark from the moment you step off the metro; you walk into this old, yet bustling city, with churches, castles and cathedrals around every corner, cobblestone beneath your feet and ivy-covered houses in residential areas.

And yet all of it is covered in spit and graffiti. Since I’m from Glasgow, I wouldn’t normally point fingers at a nation of people who want to redecorate their buildings with scrawls of their names but here, it’s everywhere. It’s almost like everyone and their little sister picked up a can and decided, “This gothic building isn’t pretty enough, I’ll write my name on it in bright pink.” You can find graffiti about almost every topic from your usual name-writing, to political beliefs, witty jokes to sprawling pseudo-art pieces. It even comes in different languages. I was surprised to understand a lot of it as a good chunk of the stuff is written in English.

Then there’s the spit. Oh, christ it’s horrible. It’s a horrible habit any way but at least in Scotland people keep spitting to outside where the regular rains will wash it all away. Here though, ugh! It’s like it’s in fashion! Maybe the people who do it do so to emulate their football idols, I really don’t know, but there’s nothing more galling than stepping down into the subway after an 11 hour shift and having to stare at a spit pile as you sit down and wait for the train to come… Thankfully the time difference between trains is only 2-3 minutes or so.

For the most part it’s the younger Italians, with the bravado, increasingly outlandish hair cuts and gang-like mentalities that engage in the spitting. I really don’t know about the graffiti as I’ve not caught anyone in the act of it yet but I suspect it’s done by the same demographic. Contrast this with the older generations that I teach and spend hours working to keep the declining Italian economy going, you can’t help but wonder what went wrong… You see the older generations going to church in their Sunday best, like little Emperors and Empresses and wonder how they let their kids get away with so much. Nor their leaders for that matter.

Every day on the Passante, a train line heading outside of Milan, I pass a graveyard of trains, all rusted and brown When I pass it, it feels like an infinitely long minute as the train carcasses stretch on for what feels like forever. I get off at a small, un-signposted train station and pass through a dusty industrial area, smothered in graffiti and walk 5 minutes into the lovely little neighbourhood where my apartment is and I wonder, what is the future for these people? Will they be able to keep their dogs so fat in ten years? Will the bravado of their gangs of spitting teenagers be enough to keep them afloat? Will the older generations continue to put up with their shit?

Then I think back to the UK and it’s not so different after all.

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