What I Miss About Italy

unconscious (?) irony: a shop in downtown Milan displays this antelope head next to a photo of Brigitte Bardot, who, retired from acting, is a big animal rights activist

Since I moved (back) to the US earlier this year, a number of people have asked me what I miss about living in Italy. It’s a hard question, and part of my agenda for this trip was to try to answer it. Yesterday provided me with a mini case study on the matter.

Although you can find individual items discounted year-round, Italian retailers are allowed, by law, only two big sales periods during the year, in early January and early July. The exact dates are determined by local government, and this year the Milan sales began January 3rd. After a fairly disastrous Christmas season, and in a very gloomy economy, both shop owners and customers were looking forward to this.

I wasn’t – I hate crowds and am not a big fan of shopping, so this was a nightmare scenario for me. But my business wardrobe needs updating and I wouldn’t have any other time before I leave for Dublin Monday. So I headed off to Milan, where at least I could look forward to also seeing friends.

Enrico drove me to the Lecco train station, arriving with five minutes to spare for the train I wanted to catch. Usually five minutes is plenty of time to buy a ticket, stamp it in the “obliterator”, and get on the train. But only two of the three ticket windows were open – apparently this period up to the Epiphany (Jan 6th) is a semi-holiday for the railways, so they were short-staffed. Both open windows had longish lines which would take longer because people wanted to discuss their travel plans in detail.

Usually you can buy “kilometric” (25 km, 30 km, etc.) tickets from the newsstand in the station, but they were out of the 50 km ones I needed for Milan. I poked my nose into the line at a ticket window to ask if it would be possible to buy a ticket on the train.

“Sure you can,” said the railway employee sarcastically, “if you also want to pay a 50 euro fine.”

I had to run to another newsstand down on the corner to get the !$!#@$@# ticket – all of 3.60 euros’ worth. Then run back, stamp it, and get on the train, which left the platform two minutes later. And no one ever came to check that I even had a ticket.

The train was middling clean and decent. Toilet paper in the bathroom, but no water to flush or wash my hands. Graffiti on the seats and walls. The real problem, however, was the heating. It was on, but not strong enough to cope with a very cold day. I was wearing a heavy sweater and sat with my coat over my knees, but still felt cold throughout the hour-long trip.

I arrived at Porta Garibaldi, one of Milan’s train stations, and had to take the metro to get to my friend’s place for lunch. I’d need to switch from the green line to the red, which I should logically do at Piazzale Loreto. As I was waiting on the platform, I heard a garbled announcement (in Italian only) about trains not stopping at two different stations, including Loreto, due to “works.” I couldn’t understand enough to know whether this would affect me, but thought: “This must be a pre-announcement referring to some other day. They surely wouldn’t be blocking stations today, of all days?”

They would. The train sailed through Loreto station without stopping. There were men laying tile on the platform on that side. Passengers who needed to get to Loreto had to go to the next stop and catch a train back in the other direction (the platform on the other side was open). This on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, at one of the prime stops for Corso Buenos Aires, a favorite shopping area. For work that could have been done in the middle of the night when the Milan metro is closed anyway. Probably there are rules preventing the tile guys from working after hours. Score: union rules – ten; customer service – zero.

I reached my friend’s home and had a lovely lunch with him and others. Then I finally, reluctantly, tackled my shopping. I was supposed to meet Ross downtown, which required taking the (now even more crowded) metro. Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, a large pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of Milan, was wall-to-wall people, many of them with lit cigarettes wafting smoke into my face. I saw two well-dressed young men who had stopped in the middle of the street to enjoy a snack of freshly-roasted chestnuts, and were casually dropping the shells on the ground.

Ross and I shopped for about two hours, an activity I find exhausting under the best of circumstances. And there is nowhere to sit in Italian stores. Italian retailers don’t seem to have grasped the idea that a tired shopper, given a chance to take a load off her feet for a few minutes, might feel refreshed enough to hang around and spend more money.

As the shops began to close, we made our way to the home of another set of friends for dinner. Enrico had come from Lecco with the car, so at least we didn’t have to wait in a cold station for a train to get back.

The summary of the day is that I was glad to see friends and spend time with my family, but the rest was non-stop hassle. Which pretty much sums up my feelings about Italy at the moment: there are people here I’m glad to see (which, for me, is true of many other places). Other than that, there’s not much I miss about living in Italy.

10 thoughts on “What I Miss About Italy

  1. AntonyM

    So… you have friends in Italy, have written about it extensively, translated songs, run this site, ecc, and you won’t really miss it because:

    You had to run around to buy a train ticket (although in the end you got on the train in time)… You were cold on the train and there was no water to wash with… And your metro stop was closed so you had to go two extra stops (one down, one back).

    A difficult day in a major city anywhere in the world. Now that you’re over it, you REALLY won’t be missing Italy? That’s IT??? I suspect you have more to say on this subject.

  2. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    There are a number of other reasons which, as you suspect, I’ll be going into. Primary is the fact that I want more/other from my working life than, say, teaching English.

  3. bnitz

    It’s easy to get out of sync with the local life especially when the rose-tinted glasses of a tourist have faded and you’re trying to pack years of good experiences into a short visit. Your Milan experiences sound very familiar, the difference between labor-focused and customer-focused service becomes become glaringly obvious after a trip to anywhere where things just work. U.S. and Japanese customer service is difficult to top, but if Milan has middling clean toilets in its train stations it’s well ahead of the pack. I’m glad to hear that you are happy and settling after more than a decade abroad. I’m looking forward to reading more about any culture shocks and your perspective on parts of the world with or without the rosy shades.

    Also, thanks for visiting, helping with video blogging and stress testing Ultra Workstations

  4. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    The Italian hassles go on and on… two days after the day recounted above, I had to go from Lecco to Bergamo to catch a Ryanair flight to Dublin. To spare Enrico an hour-long drive each way, I planned to take a train. Got there in plenty of time, but the board already said “Cancelled”. Trains to Bergamo only run once an hour, and the next one would be too late, so Enrico had to drive me.

    Went into Milan again yesterday to see a friend and meet Enrico to drive to Monza for dinner with other friends. Crossing a street – with a very evident pedestrian zebra crossing – I was cut off by an SUV. Gave the guy the finger as he swept by me (and looked straight at me), then saw, on the sidewalk opposite right in front of the crossing, was a vigile [traffic cop]. He lounged against a wall, standing under an overhang out of the rain.

    “Wasn’t that illegal?” I asked him, gesturing to the car that was now barreling away. He just gave me a well-articulated shrug. The answer was clear: “Yeah, sure it was illegal, but do you seriously expect me to stand out in the rain to do anything about it?”

    I do so appreciate this courteous service from a public servant whose goddamned wages I pay! (Being one of the few idiots in Italy to actually pay all my taxes…)

  5. Lincoln

    I totally understand what you are saying. These seemingly common and “small” problems are actually syptoms of much bigger and deeper systematic issues. I can relate very well.

  6. Ilaria

    Hi Deidre'(???????)
    I thought that as an American educated/liberal oriented person you would have paid the train ticked without not even thinking about it. But just because you’re used to pay for any public service (e.g the train service, which I guess doesnt come for free, but would cost a few $$$ to run if I am not wrong) and not just because you expected that someone on the train, once taken and therefore used, would have asked to see it.
    Or am I wrong?
    Ilaria

  7. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I did in fact buy and stamp a ticket that day, as I did for every train trip I ever took in Italy (or bus, or metro). My point was simply that I had to go to a lot to hassle to do the right thing on this particular trip, and it irked me that I could have saved myself the trouble, not bought a ticket, and gotten away with it – as so many people do every day, which is part of the reason Ferrovie Italiane is short of money!

    Similarly, I always paid all my taxes in Italy. How many Italian citizens can say the same?

  8. ABC

    There are many things you should miss about Italy:
    1) there is a train system and It’s pretty cheap,
    2) your friends were relaxed and kind with you,
    3) people tried to help you in every possible way,
    4) nobody pointed out your way of speaking, your accent, your Italian knowledge and staff like that,
    5) for every ride that you took, nobody was so cheap to ask you for gas,and people were always available to bring you everywhere,
    6) you could invite yourself at a friend’s place,
    7) the quality of the products that you both in Italy is 1o thousand times better than what you could buy in the states,
    8) in Milan you are in the heart of Europe, surrounded by an infinite number of different cultures,
    9) if you walk around one block in Milan, you see more culture and history than if you travel all over the US.
    10) Italians are very empathic,
    I could go on forever, but this is really not the point. The point is that if you are a sensible person, you’ll miss Italy – trust me

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