How language defined my first week in Bocconi

The day I arrived in Milan, on the 27th of August, it hit me: in Italy they speak Italian. It’s information I knew, but at the same time didn’t; for some reason, it wasn’t as present as it should have been when you are currently moving to Italy.

After having seen so many movies about the college experience and heard so many fantastical stories about life abroad, I had managed to create an idea of what my first week abroad would be like. I would arrive and everything would fall into place; in the first week we would have welcome activities, counsellors would take us by the hand and guide us towards our new best friends for the next three years, and the city would immerse us in its familiarity.

To no one’s surprise, this idea of mine dissipated in the ride towards Milan by car. My back was hurting really badly after having taken a literal “wrong turn”, and it was causing me a lot of pain. After thinking that maybe going to the doctor wouldn’t be such a bad idea, I told my parents about my back pain, hoping they would know what to do and who to call to make me feel better as they always do, but this time, not even they knew. Which doctor to go to in Milan? How did hospitals work? How would we communicate with the medical staff?

I was mad. But now the question was: how do I manage to sound mad in Italian?

After that was solved, there came the next step towards my formalisation as a resident in Milan: il permesso di soggiorno. After having entered three post offices to ask for the forms to request my permit of stay, it became a bit frustrating not knowing how to play the game. When we went the next time, at the time they had told us to go, they still didn’t have the papers. And the lady that worked there was being anything but helpful. I was mad. But now the question was: “how do I manage to sound mad in Italian”? I didn’t know what words to use in the context, and by the time I would say the grammatical structure I was constructing in my head, my anger would have been neutralised. I still tried, but it didn’t get me very far.

“I think it wasn’t so much not understanding, but rather, the feeling of not being understood.”

That was the one time. But the time I very much realised I had moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language was my first weekend here. I had met a friend, who was Italian, and I ended up going to her house that Saturday night. She told me she had another friend over visiting, and so I was excited and prepared to socialise with two Italian girls; everything was under control. When I arrived, there were, not two, but five Italians and me. At first, I didn’t think much of it; of course I was nervous because it was the first week and I felt the pressure to make friends, but I told myself it was just meeting new people. I knew I could do it, until suddenly, the conversation converged to Italian. I froze. Out of all the possible ways I thought I could mess up that interaction, not even being able to interact and speak with them hadn’t been in the realm of possibilities. Although my friend tried to make them speak English, in a span of minutes, the conversation would circle back to Italian. I wasn’t mad at them for not speaking English, because I understand it is natural to feel more comfortable in your own language, and specially, in your own country. I understood. And I also understood most of what they spoke, but between translating their conversation in my head and thinking of a response, they were already two topics ahead of me. I think it wasn’t so much not understanding, but rather, the feeling of not being understood. It was as if I was muted, and nobody but myself would ever hear what I had to say because I didn’t know how to manifest it in words.

I spoke enough Italian to order in restaurants, pay in supermarkets, and get an ATM card, but I couldn’t be myself in Italian.

Through the next weeks I tried to meet as many people as possible, and we had every opportunity to do so through the hundreds of aperitivi organised by the student associations. I would speak English with internationals, or start by asking the question, “sei italiano?” and if the answer was yes, I would introduce myself in Italian and very swiftly after, change into English. I met many people from various backgrounds and they were all really kind, sharing the same experience of moving to a different country and chasing their dreams. Often, I found that I was one of the persons that came from further away, (and I’m not trying to exaggerate, one of our course directors literally said that Peru was the nationality furthest away from those present in our course). People would ask me how I got in Bocconi and how I found out about this university, and then I realised that I was in fact, very far away from home. Since a lot of Peruvian teenagers from the context I lived in would go away for college, I didn’t see it as something out of the ordinary or at least not something strange. I had studied my twelve years of school in English, and had the opportunity of doing international programs and exchanges; to me, we were already living in the “globalised paradise” that is the 21st century.

“We shared a common second language, but we didn’t share a culture”

Again to my surprise, this bubble burst quickly when I realised that although we have access to so much of the same media, entertainment and opportunities, our cultures still largely define how we experience the world. Although we can speak the same language, English, which gives us a common ground to communicate, the way we were raised, the experiences to which we were exposed, the way we value friendships, the way we love, they all diverged. We shared a common second language, but we didn’t share a culture or the specificity that being fluent or native in a language grants you.

That is when eventually, and at first not on purpose, I started meeting the other South American kids. This was surprising to me, because before coming to Milan, I had almost made a promise to myself that I would not look for friends that came from the same continent as me or that spoke the same language. I wanted to pride myself on only having international friends and proving that I could fit in this international environment.

However, I started feeling a bit homesick, or not necessarily homesick, but just overwhelmed with the fact that everything and everyone was different from what I had grown up with. I wanted somebody to joke with about not understanding Italian, or to complain about clubs not playing reggaeton, or share the awe from the beauty of Europe, or be shocked by the fact that we could finally walk alone at night. I felt like my reactions would not be fully understood by somebody that had a very different description of what “home” felt like. And again, to no one else’s surprise but mine, the South American students were actually a pretty good audience for these comments, as they had the same thoughts I did. Having people understand and share how I thought made me feel so lucky that I thought about it as if I had found a loophole in the “living abroad” experience where I could be transported back home. I could even speak my mother tongue, Spanish, in which I am most myself; in which I know all the expressions, in which I write poems, in which I say “I love you” to my parents. 

I feel that just like I was trying to find my safe place in Milan, or the feeling of “home” in a foreign city, everybody tried to do the same thing. Which, to be honest, shouldn’t have been surprising, because if there is one thing in life we always look for, it is feeling understood.

Everybody found this space differently. For example, my roommate who is half Italian and half American felt: “being around Italians makes me feel like there are people who understand my background, as my parents are Italian, but being around my international friends makes me feel understood in the new experience I am living”. And my Romanian friend told me: “I approached any friendly face, regardless of nationality, but indeed, I had the tendency to talk more with the students from Balkan countries. I attribute this to the fact that we have similar cultures, traditions and lifestyles, and subconsciously, I felt understood by them.”  

“Words from every language that cannot be translated into other languages, making the images and lifestyles that these words represent, unique…”

And of course, sharing nationality or culture or language doesn’t necessarily make you compatible with someone, but it is a useful starting point when you move away from home to start a new life and need to make this strange place remind you of “home”. For some people, there might be other characteristics that might help them feel more at “home”, like sharing passions such as sports, music, books, etc. But it is undeniable that language and culture are pillars that shape our own essence, and sharing these, especially in a foreign context, can make you feel like others understand the world that operates in your head. And there is empirical evidence of this, such as the fact there are words from every language that cannot be translated into other languages, making the images and lifestyles that these words represent, unique to those that grew up with a specific culture.

As time passes, I’m sure that Milan will keep feeling more like my own, and not just the city I study in. And thanks to my amazing friends, I feel like this task is underway, as they make me feel like I am loved and understood even fifteen hours away from home. I’m sure we will keep on meeting new people and making new friends, and perhaps, language and culture will not play as big as a role as it did the first few weeks, and the experiences I share with these new people will be the decisive factors of these friendships, and that’s part of the process of settling down in a new place. However, let’s never forget how important language can be in how we express ourselves and the way we see the world, and let’s be grateful that each of us has a unique perspective that we get to share with others.   

Whoever makes one feel understood, one should always treasure that feeling and never feel guilty for allowing yourself to feel at home, because it’s not the easy route, there truly is no easy route for starting over.

by Aranza del Alcazar