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What are the highlights?

One of my cousins just wrote to me and asked, “What are the highlights of your time in Milan… so far?”

I’ve been mulling it over all day. Hard one to answer. I think the highlights have been mostly little things, little bright moments or little challenges surmounted. Many a gorgeous sight and delicious meal, yes. But also the small communications, triumphant in my limited, but growing, Italian.

A week or so after arriving in June, I was given only an address and told to go apply for a “codice fiscale“, an official financial code. I googled the location, took the metro, arose out of the subway and walked 20 blocks or so to a huge, government building. I entered and somehow figured out where to go, which long line to stand in, what to ask for, what to do with the papers the guy gave me, where to wait, how to know when it was my turn and what desk to approach when my number came up. I answered her questions, in Italian, thanked the woman and walked out with my stamped paper. I could now get a bank account.

After having been here for one hot month, I wandered off to find the Antiques Market in the art district, Brera. I browsed for a bit and in a while it was time for lunch. The restaurants in the very narrow lane had their chalkboard menus posted. The octopus kept enticing me, so I stopped at the restaurant offering it and was seated outside. The neighboring table was one inch away. How can one not talk to people that are sitting just one inch away? Ewa and Piotr are Polish and Polish/German and have been in Milan for 30 years. We talked for 2 hours in a blend of English and Italian; I lost track of what language was being spoken at any given moment in our conversation. Four months later, we are still getting together at their home once a week for practice of both English and Italian. Ewa feeds me well each time and our friendship is deepening. Last week we spoke of women, relationships, work and independence… all in Italian.

Two months ago, while out riding my bike along the canal, I stopped to shoot a picture. At my feet in the grass was an empty coin purse (save for a personal note from 2004) and a ring of keys: apartment, office, mailbox, coffee machine, bike lock and others. Fortunately, one of the “keys” was a digital fob for a bank account; press the button and it generates a new, random number for bank account access. I took the keys home and they sat while I wondered what to do with them. The likelihood of finding the owner?! Slim, but I couldn’t bear to just throw the keys away. Friends couldn’t suggest much. One night, I approached a young, local policeman at the street corner, but I didn’t have the keys with me. He said to bring them to the station or give them to any officer I saw in town. Days later, I had the keys and was glad to see another policeman; when I told him the story, in Italian, he said there was nothing that could be done. I was disappointed, but had one last idea. I took the keys to my own bank, because I, too, have a digital key fob. If they could tell me which bank used the particular fob that was on the lost key ring, perhaps that bank could look up the ID number on the back of the fob. “Of Course!”, my bank teller said, “It’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena“. He looked up the address of the nearest bank office, and I set off walking. I waited for the bank assistant to finish his phone conversation. I explained about the keys, he punched numbers into the computer and called the manager over. They talked, checked various screens on the computer, and picked up the phone. Both the manager and assistant shook my hand as the call connected. After who knows how many months, the guy was getting his keys back, and I was elated.

Like I said, the real highlights have been the little things that amounted to big triumphs. The difference between being a tourist and being a resident is interaction and relationships, and the key to that is language. It pleases me to have built my Italian up enough so that I could HAVE these interactions. I can actually get to know people. THAT is my greatest highlight!

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