Following a long and rocky flight from Newark, I made my first impressions of Italy. Even from riding barely an hour from the airport to the hotel in Milan, I noticed large differences in the physical aspects of Italian culture compared to American culture. First, the architecture is very unique with its clay roofs and juxtaposed old and new style buildings. Second, many things in Italy are smaller than their counterparts in the US: the streets, the cars, the parking spaces, the hotel rooms. Finally, though the United States has a reputation of large serving sizes, the Italians sure enjoy large several-course meals, which I found out the hard way.
Having been to Mediterranean Europe before, I was expecting to see clay roofed houses, and I was not disappointed as we drove down the highway from Malpensa Airport to downtown Milan. Each building, from the small cottages to the large villas, had this iconic red roof, something that we are hard-pressed to find on the East Coast because of our icy climate. As we moved into the city, the buildings began to vary from this mediterranean style. Some buildings were made of old red or tan brick while others were steel and glass skyscrapers. I learned from our guide Luca that many of the old style buildings come from the period 1940 – 1980 when the city tried to rebuild its infrastructure following the reign of Mussolini and the destruction of World War II. The more modern buildings, on the other hand, come from 1980 – present as Milan tried to become relevant in the global economy. In many cities back in the States, we do not see this much variety of architecture styles so close together because many of our cities expanded once steel was invented. This illustrates how history can shape the appearance of a city.
Another observation I made was about the size of several things in Milan. Walking through the streets of Milan on the way to lunch, I noticed many of the streets were unusually small, only one lane wide with parking on either side. The parking spaces were also disconcertingly short, such that I would not be able to navigate a normal sized car into the boundary. This is okay, though, because the Italian cars are smaller than the SUVs and minivans of America, so they are more adept at fitting in these spaces. Since the city of Milan existed long before the invention of cars, when they came into use the city was not completely suited for them. Instead the Italians now must navigate narrow one-way streets. Again, the history of Milan defines the physical city and the lives of Italians today. I finally noticed that our hotel room was smaller than I would expect in the United States, even in crowded cities like New York City. There was a room only slightly wider than our bed and a bathroom just large enough to turn around in. I believe this economical use of space speaks more to the thriftiness of Italians rather than the effect of the history of the city.
At the restaurant we had our first genuine Italian meal. With expectations defined by Olive Garden back in the United States, we were understandably blown away by the taste of the food. Besides the taste, the meal was striking because of the volume of food presented to us. We followed our bruschetta appetizer with a large plate of pasta covered with chunky tomato sauce, and this alone filled us up completely. To our surprise, the cameriere brought out three heaping platters of meats for our table of ten. We struggled to try each of the cuts, let alone finish the whole plate. This experience showed me the tradition Italians have of spreading large meals over many courses. This is different from the way we have large meals in America, which is to have all foods out to sample during one course, possibly followed by dessert. I will be happy to continue eating the Italian way, but next time I know to pace myself.
My first impressions of Italy in Milan showed me that the city has a long history that still affects daily life in the city. America doesn’t have as long a history, so many of our cities do not tell as rich a story as Milan does. In the next couple of weeks, I am excited to see how Italy’s history manifests itself in the architecture, food, and other observable aspects of the culture.