Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Milan
Moving abroad is undeniably exciting, but it can also be confusing - surrounded by a new language, different culture, and informal rules that guide behaviour. Here are some things I wish I knew before arriving in Milan, and I hope, after reading this, it will be a little bit easier for you to navigate the thrilling experience of this beautiful Italian city.
THE ESSENTIAL VOCABULARY FOR ORDERING COFFEE
Order a latte... or a glass of milk?
It's not a myth that Italy takes its coffee culture seriously. I won't lie, it's fantastic. You can barely walk down the street without seeing people drinking their espresso. However, it can quickly feel overwhelming when it's time for you to order. For example, when requesting a latte, you are asking for milk. Instead, try asking for a macchiato if you want an espresso with a splash of milk. Or, order a cappuccino for equal parts of espresso, steamed milk and milk foam. And for everyone who loves an excellent iced coffee when those hot summer days roll around – try caffé shakerato, which contains espresso, sugar and icecubes shaken and strained into a glass.
What you get when ordering a coffee (un caffè)
Ordering coffee in your home country might mean something else in Italy. For example, coming from Sweden, I would expect a relatively big cup of brewed coffee with the follow-up question, "would you like some milk in that?" In Italy, it's different. Ordering a coffee (un caffè) will get you an espresso shot, no more and no less. If you want a double, ask for caffè doppio. The espresso is an all-day-long beverage from morning until evening; it works as a pick-me-up between lectures and helps digest the heavy carb-loaded dinners. In other words, you will learn to love it.
Don't order a cappuccino after 11 am (unless you want to feel like a tourist)
Not only the language counts when ordering coffee in Italy. One of the unwritten rules is that cappuccinos are for breakfast. The point is that the rich milk content will, according to Italians, mess up your digestion. So, if you want to feel like a local and embrace the Italian way - avoid ordering your cappuccino after lunch.
Dinners are consumed…later
Of course, it depends on what you are used to. But if you commonly eat dinner any time earlier than 8 pm, you will most likely be the first customer entering the restaurant. I learned that going home to cook dinner at 6 pm was a joke to my Italian friends. By the time my evening was coming to an end, theirs had just begun. Instead, these early evening hours are dedicated to the famous aperitivo.
Aperitivo could be described as an evening drink to work up your appetite before dinner. However, you will soon learn that it is much more than just going out for a drink or two. In Italy, it is part of the culture itself. You get together with your friends and by ordering a drink during the dedicated aperitivo hours (generally between 6 - 8 pm), you will also be served lighter snacks and finger foods to nibble on. It's all about the shared experience, the sociable aspect, and how you find yourself forgetting about the original dinner plans.
The Italian "bar" is interchangeable with "café"
You might associate the word "bar" only with alcohol, but this is not the case in Italy. Instead, an Italian bar is a versatile place with a changing atmosphere depending on what time of the day you enter. In the morning, you can find people eating the quintessential Italian breakfast (cappuccino e brioche). Later during the day, you see students drinking coffee in-between classes and buying lighter lunches. The typical food in the bars includes panini, focaccia and sometimes options of pre-cooked food. Then, after 6 pm, most bars turn into a place where you and your friends can sit down and enjoy the aperitivo.
Prepare for the “sit-down-and-eat-fee”
I remember being shocked looking at the receipt after having had breakfast in a bar soon after arriving in Milan. I couldn't figure it out - what was it that I was being charged extra for? I learned it's called servizio al tavolo, and it means table service. In other words, some bars will charge you an extra fee for sitting down at a table to drink your coffee. So, try it the Italian way! Drink your coffee over the counter standing up whilst engaging in some friendly small talk with the bartender.
UNWRITTEN SOCIAL RULES, CULTURE AND LANGUAGE
Get ready for the greeting with two kisses
If you are like me, used to greeting people with an awkward handshake or a subtle nod, moving to Milan might slightly shock you. The general rule of thumb is to give two kisses on each cheek (first on the right side, then the left) for more formal occasions. These formal occasions would include people you just met or perhaps a friend of a friend. One kiss is enough for a less formal situation, such as greeting your friends. However, note that this is something that differs amongst Italians and where they come from too. I try to stick with the general rule and simply pay attention to what the person I'm greeting does.
It's not just "ciao"
When you start learning the Italian language, it will be one of the first things you recognise: the word choice matters depending on who you talk to. Being aware of this before moving to Italy can be very helpful to avoid being rude (even if you don't intend to). Instead of ciao, say buongiorno in the morning and midday. Use this to greet the cashier in the grocery store, a professor you meet in the hallway, or - as a general rule of thumb - anyone older than you. In the evening, simply replace it with buonasera. Of course, these are just two out of many ways to greet people, and there are other aspects to learn, such as the different ways of saying "you" (the informal tu and formal lei). However, simply keeping this in mind when starting to speak Italian and not generalising your ciao to everyone you meet is a great starting point.
You will come a long way by simply trying
Locals highly appreciate it when they see that you are trying to speak Italian, even if you might not speak it perfectly. So, taking the time to learn some of the basics before moving to Milan is very useful. I would suggest downloading any language app just to get started. Even though most of them offer a paid subscription, it's important to stress that plenty of apps do the job without paying for anything extra (such as Duolingo or Busuu). Another way to familiarise yourself with the language is to change the audio of your favourite Netflix series to Italian and keep the subtitles in your native language. In this way, it will be much easier when you start learning the language!
"ATM" is not a cash machine/automatic teller machine
When you hear someone talking about an ATM in Milan, they are most likely referring to the Milanese transport system (Azienda Trasporti Milanesi) and not a place where you withdraw money. Instead, the word bancomat is used for automatic teller machines in Italy. Also, remember to watch out for commissions that may be applied when withdrawing money!
Prepare to get lost a few (many) times
Università Cattolica's campus is beautiful, but it is also BIG and consists of multiple buildings spread out in different areas of Milan. Sometimes, the main building (Gemelli) feels like a maze of floors that I'm still struggling to navigate. Before making my way to Milan, I wish I knew that you certainly need to consider some extra time in the morning when arriving on campus to find the right classroom. Also, a little reminder is to always check the iCatt app before finding the classroom because sometimes there are last-minute room changes (so you don't waste time trying to find the wrong classroom). Don't forget to look at the various maps placed around campus, which list the lecture rooms (aula) and indicate the direction. Also, see this as an opportunity to practise your Italian by asking the Janitors on campus or fellow students about directions - they will be happy to help!
But at the end of the day, Università Cattolica campus in Milan is a great place to get lost. Built by the Benedictine monks in the 8th century, there is history right around every corner. So while trying to find your classroom - you may stumble upon some ancient ruins. g. There is even a classroom located underground, where you will be mesmerised by the lingering history right beneath your feet (literally).
Finally, even though there are some things I wish I knew before moving to Milan, and all of them cannot be covered in this article, it's important to underline the charm of just figuring it out as you go. Let it be a part of the adventure since you cannot predict everything ahead of you. By embracing the surprises with an open mind, I am sure you will come to love the city of Milan, its people and all of its quirks.