This was the very first time I crossed to the other side of the pond (the Atlantic Ocean). All my previous travels to date have involved the western hemisphere. Based on previous experience, I was expecting much more paperwork when I entered the country. As opposed to Canada, or Mexico, or Argentina, the Italians just let me into the country after showing a passport. No questions about how long I was staying, no forms to fill out, and they didn't care to ask what I was bringing into the country, and were very pleasant about the whole thing. The closest thing I can say about anything they probably cared about was that while everyone was standing around the carrousel at the airport waiting for our luggage, there were a couple of drug dogs roaming around. Anyone who has ever had problems with customs before, can definitely appreciate the ease of this. Especially if you don't speak the local language.
Speaking of language. I took the time to learn a little Italian before I arrived there. It was definitely worth it, as I started off asking everyone I interacted with if they understood English (in Italian of course). A very small percentage of people respond in the affirmative. Then I apologized for my extremely small Italian vocabulary, and off we went, with a few Italian words (ok, to be fair, more than a few), lots of hand gestures (it is almost impossible to speak Italian without using your hands anyway), and some charades. It worked flawlessly, but I can only assume that is because of the few Italian words (I'm not good at charades). It definitely helps that they knew what I was trying to tell them (where, when, how, eat, drink, taxi, money, etc...). Also, at least in the airports, and most of Central Station, all signs are in Italian and English.
Everyone was very pleasant about the whole thing, and its was fun for me, but I saw some people around the airport and central station getting very frustrated with the whole thing. I met a very nice Russian couple (ok, I guess they were Russian, they were speaking Russian) on the plane who were definitely having problems. I couldn't communicate much with them, but I did ask if they spoke either English or Italian, and they answered no to both. Eek...Since I had to meet someone at a specific time, I wished them a nice day, and left them to meet their fate.
I visited many places in Italy, however as Milano was my entrance and exit city, I spent more time there than anywhere else. Besides, it is a really neat city. It doesn't get nearly the travel press as other cities in Italy, so I will push it a little here. They say all roads lead to Rome, well that may be true, but all trains and airlines lead to Milano. This is the place to travel from.
I managed to meet my friend from South America (Paula Pratolongo) there (she somehow managed a 4 month work assignment paid for by the Italian government, and she jokes that Argentina is 3rd world. If that's what is takes to get a 4 month paid vacation to Italy, call us 3rd world anytime) , who has once again picked up yet another language fluently (Italian. She claims its similar to Spanish, and I can see that, but there is a big difference between understanding a language, and speaking it. Trust me, I understand many things I cannot say. The human brain is amazing at filling in the gaps in information), but I didn't really need her this time (although she came in handy from time to time. Thanks again Paula! If you can find one, I definitely recommend getting your own personal translator), as I prepared and learned the language myself (I am not nearly as proficient, although I had no trouble with hotels, taxis, metros, customs etc.. I will not give up till I am fluent, even upon returning to the states. Even though, Paula is still better at it than I am....grrrrr). That still puts her two languages ahead in language skills, which, if you know me, doesn't sit well. I am an a fairly competitive person. It was funny however, being able to switch back and forth between English and Italian throughout a conversation, with a few Spanish words thrown in for good measure. He-he-he...talk about really confusing the locals. Just wait till I get back to Buenos Aires, I can't wait to hit those Italian restaurants. I'll see how really Italian they are.
Central Station (Stazione Centrale) - Wow. That place is incredible. Words cannot describe it. Just like the name implies, you can get anywhere from Central Station. The number of people, the mix of cultures, the incredible bustle, the size of the place, the architecture. You have got to see this place in person. And you probably will if you come to Milano, its almost impossible (ok, it is possible, but I would not recommend it) to get from any airport and not pass through Central Station on some form of transport.
Trains - I love trains. Unlike the states, they are cheap here (cheap being a relative term). Want to get from Milan to Venice at 110 mph in 1st class? 29 Euros. You can drop the price by going slower and in 2nd class, but at that price, why bother? Same thing all over Italy. Florence to Pisa? 5 Euros. I love trains. And they run frequently. Using the Milan/Venice example, every 2 hours, either way, there is a train leaving.
Taxis - Forget them. Waste of time and money (unless you are allergic to walking). The subway (metropolitana) system is phenomenal, and the trolleys are cool. I love the metro. That probably comes from spending my entire life at or above sea level. I can't get enough of it (1 euro per trip, or 3 euros for unlimited trips for 24 hours, other options are available as well, like a 10 trip booklet, that I highly recommend you buy and keep for emergencies. Even though its not supposed to happen, you can find yourself in an unmanned metro station, and all the vending machines are out of tickets just before the last metro of the night). Buy a good map as well, sometimes stations close inexplicably for incoming traffic, just drop-offs, you need to know where the next station is.) Just remember, unlike Buenos Aires, the town that truly never sleeps, most public transportation shuts down at midnight (There are a few busses that still make rounds, and good luck finding them), and finding a taxi is no where as easy as in Buenos Aires. Bring an umbrella, heck, bring 2 (if you don't know why, you haven't spent nearly enough time in the rain). It rains a lot in the winter. I like winter. Cold is good. Cold and wet is bad.
I have been told (by some of the Italians) that I am by far (in their opinion), much more adventuresome than most Americans they meet. It probably helps that I have absolutely no taste for anything alcoholic that is American in nature. Just about everything I drink at home is imported. It also helps that long ago, I adopted the "When in Rome......" philosophy of visiting a place (and that was before I was interested in visiting Rome). That, and my biology allows me to eat and drink absolutely anything without any side effects.
Television, movies and radio - No English here. Absolutely everything is either dubbed over in Italian or was produced that way (Funny thing...."Finding Nemo" in Italian...I can't stop laughing. And you thought the seagulls were funny in English). The one thing I can tell you is that the television game shows almost always have lots of scantily clad, very young women (sometimes with an active role, sometimes just as decoration). As the night moves onward, they wear less clothes, and you definitely don't want your kids to have access to the remote past 11 p.m. While I have seen similar things in Mexico, these people broadcast in the open things that you would normally only find on satellite in the U.S. If you don't know what that means, just trust me. Don't let the kids watch past 11 unless you are very liberal with their education.
Cell phones - GSM coverage like you have never seen before. And just about everyone has one. They also did the system correctly here. All incoming calls are free for the cell holder, the person calling them is charged for the call. Of course I am a phone geek as well, and I did not get the typical non-resident deals, your mileage may vary. Land lines and pay phones are incredibly expensive to use here.
Euros - They make me laugh as well. The smaller notes are physically smaller than the larger notes. And while the paper notes are all standardized by denomination, the coins are minted in different provinces, and each province is allowed to customize one side of the coin to their liking. Must be to drive the coin collectors nuts, or it could be some bizarre scheme to get more apparent euros in circulation.
The Duomo - Ok, again....The Duomo. This place deserves an entire page or two dedicated to it, and it already gets plenty of press, so I will describe the piazza surrounding it instead. I will tell you one thing however, go see all the other churches first, because after you see the Duomo, it puts everything else to shame. You find yourself saying, "Yeah, that's a nice statue/relief/etc, but I've seen the Duomo in Milano." The piazza around the Duomo is a big strip mall to end all strip malls. And you will be accosted by people of all sorts, from beggars to people selling books (I can't tell you what they were, I am VERY good at getting rid of them). But they are aggressive, VERY aggressive. And if you can't be as cold as me, then your best bet is to claim "Non parlo italiano" (even if you do), if they start speaking in English, try asking them if they speak Russian (I can't put an example here, most people can't read it, and I can almost guarantee you don't have the correct character set.) Also in the piazza is the Galleria, which is spectacular in itself. Here (and around it) you can find shops of all sorts, and some of the best and worst food you will ever taste in your life. The best food around Duomo (taking price into account) is the panzerotti by Luini. For 2.2 euros (I believe it to be the best deal in Milano), you can get one, and its worth a trip to Milano just for one (either that or London, they have Luini there as well). The worst food around the Duomo (at any price) is Spizzico (Italy's version of McD's or BK), and one cold rainy night when I was taking pictures of the Duomo (the gargoyles spit water, ok), I made the mistake of eating there, and the pizza they serve is beyond mere words to describe. I think I would have been better off eating my shoes, or a live pigeon from the piazza, or just about anything (although I have been told by the locals it is just what I ordered, they "claim" they have "good" food there. I have my doubts)..
These people know how to build a bedroom. The windows have these cool external blinds that I have not seen before, that block out light in the way that only a 1/2 inch of solid wood can. They can be opened, or lifted out of the way completely, but when you want to, you can make a room pitch black in the middle of the day. I have got to get me some of these, Or move to Italy, Either one.
Unlike the other countries I have been to (the U.S. is included in this list), you can acquire absolutely anything you want here as far as food goes. Want American coffee with chicory (from New Orleans)? How about Yerba Mate (from South America)? No problem, the local grocery has both, although you may pay dearly for them. It also seems odd paying more for Diet Coke (Coca-Cola light) than I do for a decent bottle of Merlot. You know me, I'm cheap, guess which one I buy? You can tell I am all broken up about that. And my friend Rendell would just die down the Nutella like things isle. Goat cheese here is much better than in the states (is seems "fresher", and is more creamy and easy to spread that what I find in the states). Even though I say you can get anything, the general grocery experience could not be more alien for an American than a trip to mars would be. Everything is similar but slightly alien. Its difficult for words to describe in this limited space, you have got to experience it.
Prices in general - A little higher than the states. This fluctuates with the value of the Euro (which at this time is worth more than the Dollar). I have been told that Milano is one of the more expensive cities, well, after visiting many cities in Italy, I can tell you that it is about average for any city you would be willing to travel to (Venice, Florence, Rome, etc.). Although once you find your way around (see Luini's above), you can find cheaper prices. As a rule, you pay more near the airports/train stations. I have had long discussions several people (foreigners in Italy) who were completely turned off by the cost here. Get real people, if you are truly bothered by a few cents on the Dollar or paying dearly for a Diet Coke, you have no business traveling at all, let alone traveling internationally. What were you thinking?
Its a great country, I loved it. And there are very few problems that can't be rectified with the application of a few Euros (of course that concept works world wide). But seriously, if you don't have the ability to speak Italian, at least make sure you have a good sense of humor (one that includes finding humor in laughing at yourself). Either one will suffice, having both makes for a very nice trip. If you don't have either, you shouldn't bother coming here.
This site was last updated 01/26/04