I stumbled into Milan by accident. Italian culture played no part in my childhood or adulthood for that matter. Ever since I can remember, I had dreamed of moving to New York or London – living in a skyscraper and complaining of the cold and damp climate - in English.
My interest in Italy, in particular Milan, began by accident in 2012. My boyfriend wanted to move back to Switzerland and wanting to continue the relationship, I decided to go to graduate school in or near Switzerland. Finding Masters courses in communications conducted in English was rare enough but finding one offered on a full scholarship was darn near impossible. I found this holy grail in Milan and by the sheer force of the universe, beat stiff competition to snag one of the two full scholarships on offer. I was headed for Milan.
Finding my feet
I flew from Uganda to Switzerland, hoping for a familiar face before I started a new life in a foreign city. I had assumed that Switzerland’s spectacular landscapes were the wildly exaggerated, surreal fantasies of photographers. Not even photography could aptly capture the perfectly sculpted landscapes, the picturesque towns and villages, the breath-taking wonder of the Alps and the sheer cleanliness of the country. I was disconcerted and intimidated by the order and cleanliness – I felt out of place. To Milan, I thought. As soon as possible.
I came to Milan by train from Switzerland. Getting out of the train at Milan`s central station was a revelation. The Milan main train station is magnificent. In my astonishment, like the tourist I was, I stopped to gawk, blocking the flow of people rushing to get out. A young couple stopped to talk to me – and having internalised stranger-danger and not being able to understand a word of Italian, I assumed that they wanted me to get of their way. I muttered a quick ‘’sorry’’ as I pushed my heavy suitcases towards the escalator.
They weren’t working that day – something I would later find out happens a lot in Milan. As I stood there wondering how I would carry my suitcases up what seemed like an endless flight of stairs, the nice couple caught up with me. They quickly figured out that I spoke no word of Italian and offered again, this time in a sort of sign language to help me carry my heavy suitcases up the stairs. I felt welcomed. I was in Milan.
Finding my rhythm
Seeing Milan for the first time was like having all your senses stimulated at once. Just outside the train station were bus touts shouting the destinations of their buses to the hordes of people streaming in and out of the station. There were hawkers selling colourful shawls, flowers and trinkets. And oh, what smells; coffee, cheese, food being cooked and a whiff of something unpleasant - what I later came to realise was dog shit. All this was accompanied by street music, some soft and seductive, other deafening and faintly sinister. It was deeply weird, largely incoherent, perversely beautiful, and even slightly reminiscent of the Kampala taxi park. The chaos and the noise were curiously instantly comforting. I have not had this feeling with any other city before or since. This is a place I could live. And I did.
My school and the first of the three apartments that I was to live in Milan were located near Sant'Ambrogio. A beautiful neighbourhood named for one of the most ancient churches in Milan. The first time I saw the school campus, located in a former monastery, I was reminded of my catholic boarding school in Uganda; the same manicured lawns, the secret courtyards, and the pictures of saints in the corridors and classrooms. These constant reminders of home were everywhere in the city.
After the first class, my classmates and I gathered in a nearby café to get to know each other - this was to become a weekly ritual. Many like me, they were living away from home for the first time. We were all experiencing the same things – loneliness, terror, excitement, homesickness, a foreign language and culture, and no friends. We made quick deep friendships. Marina Keegan, wrote in her famous essay, the Opposite of Loneliness, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together…that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest days.”
That is how I felt on that first week and the others that followed.
I had imagined life abroad to be exciting and glamorous. Although I had been grossly unprepared, Milan was kind to me. It opened me up to new experiences, allowed me to know myself better, to trust in the goodness of strangers, to make great friends in adulthood and to discover a new culture.
Milan was the first foreign city I lived as an adult. And although I was 27 years old, when I lived there, I will always regard it as my coming of age city. What has remained with me, even after living in many other cities since, was how closely it matched my idea of a perfect city, an idea that I didn’t even know I had; a perfect mixture of old and new, beauty and bland, peace and quiet. There is something theatrical about the city, where nothing is understated: people, places, markets, entertainment, and fashion scream for attention. In Milan, it seemed, I had found the first foreign city where I felt at home.