Milan - drop the attitude!

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Flag of Italy  , Lombardy,
Saturday, March 5, 2011

OK - where do I start? I'll begin by saying that Italy and I - we don't get along. We never have. Whenever I travel around Europe I can always count on Italy to have something waiting for me. Usually it's a dodgy old man waiting in a station who tries to take something from me but normally it's in the form of a bad vibe or a series of unfortunate events that almost have me wishing I never set foot in the country. I'll admit that the problem is me and I'm aware of the fact that I arrive with a certain level of negativity which doesn't really help. There's something about me that seems to attract trouble when I'm here. Only this time, I've come with an open mind. Or so I thought.

I arrived at Milan airport after having spent a wonderful week in Barcelona, in a fantastic serviced apartment right opposite the school and in the middle of some of the best tapas bars in the world. Now it was time to confront Italy once again. As soon as I arrived at the airport a woman who was on my flight came up to me when we'd disembarked and she gave me her seven year old son. So not only do I have several heavy suitcases but I also have a kid. She asked me if I could escort her child to the arrivals gate where his father was waiting for him as she had to transfer to another flight. I've had every situation thrown at me in Italy. Now I'm having someone's kid thrown at me - and I don't even know them.

Any way, this kid is a pleasant little guy and we start chatting as I go and collect my luggage from the carousel. When he asked me what I'm doing in Italy, I told him, "I'm hoping to be able to speak Italian as well as you can". At that point he said to me, "Oh, I'm not Italian. I'm Spanish. Italian is my second language". Great. A seven year old who looks like one of those kids from the Nutella commercials and he's fluent in both languages. There goes my self esteem. We found his father and I made my way to Vigevano, a small city outside Milan, to meet a friend.

The European thing to do, it seems, is to give me a phone number so that the onus is then on me to make contact when I arrive. Most of the time my phone doesn't like the number and I can't call them. Then I have to hope I have change for a public telephone and also hope the phone accepts coins, isn't vandalised and after all that, I have to be able to understand them on the phone. You know what? Let's just agree to meet at an arranged time so no phone calls are necessary. Done. Let's meet at the station at 17:47 when the train arrives. Easy. Did I write 17:47 in that email? I actually meant 7:47pm which is 19:47. My friend waited and waited, and then thought I'd stood him up. So he caught up with some friends instead.

As it happens, trains are hardly ever on time in Italy and I should have known that. Telling someone to meet me at precisely 17:47 is ridiculous in Italy. This is not Germany. However, I was the first one out of the airport (with the Nutella kid) and I was on a train much earlier than I'd planned. Even though my earlier train was half an hour late, I was still early. Does that make sense? So, I decided to quickly jump in a taxi and leave my suitcases in the hotel with twenty minutes to spare before I had to be back at the station. On the way back to the station I got lost (I walked) and turned up a little after 8pm. But it didn't matter because my friend Giorgio had left hours ago, thinking I was there two hours earlier. It was a major stuff up and it was totally my fault.

Eventually I was able to get through to him and we met up, went out with a friend of his and had some pizza. The following day I went back to the station and I headed into Milan, which is only forty minutes away. I'd learnt my lesson from keeping a friend waiting and I made an effort to be two hours early for my host family, where I would be staying for a week. I wanted to make a good first impression. I don't mean turning up at their doorstep two hours early, no. That would be terrible. I made sure I was in the area two hours earlier. Now, in most major cities that wouldn't be a problem to pass the time for a few hours but in Milan on a Sunday almost everything is closed. I eventually found a busy cafe' that failed to acknowledge my existence for half an hour and as I was in no hurry to leave or to walk the streets with suitcases in the cold, I wasn't complaining. Eventually I thought, "this is beyond a joke. I'm going to walk into the kitchen and make something myself". When I finally got the waitress's attention she looked at me as if to say, "how dare you ask me for a menu". Ah, Italy. I'm back!

Speaking of jokes, I sometimes think the whole of Italy is playing a joke on me. It's a very warped sense of humour. The type of place where if I were to slip and fall on the street, everyone would be in fits of laughter. More so if my ankle was broken. So I'm naturally wary of asking directions from people, for fear that it might be yet another joke on me. I just don't understand the logic here and there's something terribly unwelcoming about being in a restaurant or station here, where common sense just doesn't prevail. Is it just me? I mean, hundreds of movies are filmed here. Surely it can't be all that bad. Can it? The streets seem to move around just when I think I know where I am.

The school where I'm studying is good. The teachers are great and typically Italian. Loud, comical and full of drama. Ironically, my home stay family is located in central Milan, in a really nice neighbourhood, whereas the school is in the suburbs. Normally it's the other way around. The school is in a campus full of students from different colleges, mostly design schools, and many of them remind me of that movie Zoolander. If you've seen the film you'll know what I mean. Wanna be models. As for the home stay family, that's a different story altogether but I'll try to summarise it as best as I can.

Bear in mind that Italian is actually my weakest language so I'm a little bit vulnerable here, compared to being in Paris or Barcelona. Like the other two schools, it's very intensive and for some strange reason they've put me in the advanced class. I understand everything that's going on, but it's not my level. I know my weaknesses and I'm not an advanced, proficient speaker of Italian. They seem to think I am. When I arrived, they said, "ah, the famous Wayne is here". Please, don't say that to me. I'm already paranoid that this whole country is out to get me or play a huge prank on me, and now I'm famous? Well, that explains it. So - back to the home stay family.

As I've explained, the course is intensive and it's in a language in which I'm not too confident. Then I have to deal with all the struggles of getting things done here, ordering a meal and every other ordeal that is usually quite convenient elsewhere. Then I have to head "home" to my Italian family. I have a small bedroom with my own bathroom which is separate from the rest of the house and to use the kitchen (breakfast and dinner) I must first knock. I have to wait until the mother and son have first eaten (the son is about my age and I'm no spring chicken) and then I have dinner with the father, and that's where the hardest part of the day begins.

Each evening, after hours of study and homework to complete, I sit at a table and I endure hours of interrogation, scolding, lecturing and discomfort. During the meal there's plenty of wine and if you've ever seen a drunken uncle at a wedding reception, you'll know what I mean. Each mistake I make in Italian is met with scoffs and shouts, along with comments like "you sound like an idiot" or "do you realise how stupid you sound? You make no sense at all". It's actually quite humiliating and I dread this time of the day. It's like a boot camp. I sense that I'm not welcome by the mother and son who don't speak to me. Maybe they've seen his behaviour before with other tenants and they're possibly embarrassed by it - I don't know. But you know what? My Italian has improved dramatically. The evening usually ends in a game of chess over a few glasses of grappa and all is well - until the next evening.

Several evenings later, towards the end of the week, I decided it would be better not to eat with the father as I sensed quite a bit of tension in the house. I left a note for the mother to let her know that I'd be eating out and not to worry about preparing meals. This caused an uproar in the house and the following morning the father demanded an explanation from me. I had to be honest with him. I told him I'd prefer to go out and eat instead of join him for dinner each evening as it was a bit uncomfortable. I couldn't lie. In fact, I was lying by saying it was a bit uncomfortable. It was extremely awkward. Well, that was the last nail in the coffin, so to speak. After that announcement, the rest of my stay was predictable. Never provoke a crazy person. It just goes downhill from there. By the following day I was out of there.

All through the week, weird things were happening. On my way to school, I would see people who looked like the crazy old man and I thought I was being a bit paranoid. Then one day, after returning to the school from my lunch break, it happened again. I saw an old man pacing up and down in the doorway of the school and I thought to myself, "why do I keep seeing people who look like my grumpy old drinking companion? Oh my God. It really is him!" He was waiting for me to return to class so he could continue our discussion. I was enraged. How could someone do this? In front of my teachers and classmates? So before he could see me, I turned around, went back to the house, collected my luggage and checked into a hotel. According to the school administration staff, he was turning up to school and checking up on me regularly. That didn't make any sense at all, and rather than try to work out what type of person does something like that, I decided it would be better to spend my last two nights in Italy in a hotel, instead of buried under a crazy old man's apartment.

I can't say my week in Milan was awful and I met some interesting people. The teachers were fantastic and the school was very supportive of my awkward situation. On one occasion they helped me hide in a classroom when the old man came to look for me again. I'll keep in contact with the teachers and fellow students - especially one of my teachers who is incredibly sexy (I hope she doesn't mind me saying that). On the last day of class, one of the students brought in bottles of wine and we had a little party which was concluded by a complete operetta from one of the students who is studying to be a classical opera singer. Her voice was so powerful it stopped the whole school. It was absolutely mesmorising. By the end of the week my Italian had improved tenfold and I owe it all to my two teachers and the crazy old man who pushed every button during my stay. I don't recommend anyone else stay with a demented old alcoholic in order to improve their language skills, but if I'm asked if my week was productive, I would have to say it was.

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