I live by the idea that when your life gets predictable, you truly need to do something crazy to remind yourself you’re still alive. This is what caused me to come home one day and inform my parents that I had booked a flight to Europe over winter break. As I decided it was time I broke off from the little world I took for granted and chose to step out of my comfort zone, I got on a plane with my best friend and started my six-week journey in Milan, Italy. It was something I definitely needed to do. I had started to feel like I was forgetting who I was, as my whole life began to revolve about university and work.
Being brought up with an Italian background, my family (and extended family) found the idea of two 19-year-old girls traveling from Australia to Europe on their own quite foolish. We were too young. Too naive. And sometimes too impulsive. We usually came up with ‘brilliant ideas’ as my mum often sarcastically referred to them. So it’s safe to say that by the time I was on the plane, I was well aware of how the one-legged gypsies would rip my handbag from me, taking all my money and leaving me for dead on a street corner. This proved to be a major exaggeration like many other stories heard from friends of friends. But as critical as I was for their false belief, it was a great way to remind me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Home was miles away and I was required to follow gut instincts and solve any problems that arose on my own, with the help of my previously mentioned best friend.
Upon arrival in Milan, with my handbag zipped tight and secure against my side, we began our exploration of one of the fashion capitals of the world. It’s not hard to believe that we both fell quickly and quite hard for the Italian city. A vivid memory for me was getting off at the train station for the Duomo, Milan’s most prominent church. My best friend and I had made a game of racing each other up the stairs of train stations in Milan, pulling hair and pushing each other to be the first to reach our destination. As I ran up the stairs to the piazza, turning around to brag about my victory, my best friend’s expression will forever be etched into memory. As she gawked at something behind me, I turned to see the Duomo towering over us on this warm summer’s day. The hustle and bustle of locals and tourists, the surrounding cafes and restaurants, and the extravagantly detailed church in the background made falling in love too easy.
This was where I spent the remainder of my days. Whilst many find themselves shopping their hearts out, I sat on the grass lawn for hours soaking up the sun and watching the crowds walk by. Men, women, children, policeman, and—how could I forget—the African men that wander around the piazza placing colorful string on your wrists, then requesting a donation. As someone who had fallen for their charm once, I enjoyed watching other oblivious tourists fall for their tricks whilst those aware of their notions would yell ‘non voglio, non voglio’ (I do not want) until the African men would walk off in search of another target.
Dinner was spent every one of the four nights at a small pizzeria near Centrale Stazione, which provided traditional Italian pizzas with thin base and minimal toppings. Along with the great food, came the great service. The entertainment included watching this small family-owned restaurant work to communicate with people of all nationalities to try one of their pizzas.
As the days stretched on, we decided to take a little train trip to Lake Como. Lake Como consists of a set of small towns outlining a beautiful lake and surrounded by picturesque mountains that look like a painted backdrop. The spur of the moment decision meant we found ourselves on a small suburban train heading through vast fields of nothing. A little bit more research might’ve meant we didn’t fear for our lives as this train continued to take us further and further into nowhere. It wasn’t until we got off the train that I realized we had found one of the not-so-hidden gems of Italy’s north. We wandered around the south side of the enormous lake for a few hours, enjoying gelato and taking in the breathtaking views of the mountains that appeared to be closing in on us from every angle before jumping back on the train for Milan.
Being in Italy in the middle of the semi-finals for the European Cup definitely had its advantages. Getting off the train at the Piazza di Duomo, we discussed possible places that could be showing the Italy vs. Germany game. Walking up the steps to face the Duomo once again had us in awe as we were faced with thousands of people, patriotically dressed to watch the game on the big screen set up in front of the church. That was an experience in itself as the crowd roared when Italy scored on both occasions. The atmosphere was on fire, literally, as flares lit up the crowded piazza and chants rang out. I strongly recommend everyone experiences the sensations of being in the European city during the World or Euro Cup, even if you’re not a soccer fan. And don’t expect Europeans to serve you at food outlets whilst their national team is fighting for a place in the finals. Although considerably different from anything I have experienced in Australia before, it was rather shockingly entertaining to observe the cashiers at Burger King stop serving the crowded shop to watch the game on a small television in the back. It was that night that we realized that we never wanted these memories to fade. So we began recording our memories on the back of postcards of every city we frequented.
So as I slowly began to adapt to the European way of life, which consisted of iced coffees, warm weather, and a laid-back lifestyle, I had already learned one important thing. Embrace the culture, the way of life, and, as they say, ‘when in Rome…’ so that when things don’t go your way…laugh. That’s all you can do.
- Talk to the locals. Venture out. If you’re young and looking for a place to party in Milan, ask the taxi driver to take you to Corso Como. This street is filled with bars and clubs that provide you with a taste of the European party scene. Everything from dancing on bars to cheap shots to gorgeous Italians on holidays from all over Italy. And not too many tourists.
- Experience traditional Italian food for a good price by leaving the city center and eating at small restaurants outside the tourism zones. Try the little pizzeria next door to the McDonalds outside Centrale Stazione, Milan. The precise address is Piazza Duca d’Aosta, 12, Milan. Exceptional food and service from the family-run restaurant.
- Don’t stick to the city. Get on a train to one of the lakes in the Northern Province. Lake Como was picturesque, but if you’re after less tourists and a place to swim, people I met later on my travels recommended Lake Garda.