This is about life in the city of Milan, which I now call home, how its culture differs from the rest of Italy, and how it changes in August. For more about the Italian holiday period of Ferragosto, I wrote another post all about it.
I am writing this sitting on the floor of my apartment in Milan, where my clammy legs are sticking to the mercifully cool stone tiles. It’s nine in the morning.
What’s that parable about the poor mouse (or maybe a frog?) who’s swimming in the pot of cold water and doesn’t even notice when he starts to be boiled alive, because the change is so subtle? Well, this apartment in August is my boiling pot, and I am its frog.
Here’s what I mean: When I leave the house in the morning, usually to spend a few hours in air-conditioned Italian-learning bliss before coming home at midday, I spend the afternoon and evening just trying to recover. In a hot apartment, trying to cool off from my hot commute, trying to forget the damn air conditioning.
But when I just never leave the apartment, I boil slowly – almost pleasantly. My body temperature rises, nearly unnoticed, with the heat of the day, without trying to fight back.
The radio said this should be the hottest week of the year in Milan.
It’s also the unofficial beginning of what I call the annual Great Milanese Exodus. Apparently 30% of Italians take a trip in August (again, according to the local radio news). It’s like the annual Great Chinese Migration (I’m making up these terms) for Spring Festival. Although I’m sure the figure is higher than 30% here in Milan, because no Italians come here for their August vacations, they just all leave.
Unlike most of Italy, Milan is not clinging to the coast of the Mediterranean, resting on the shore of a lake, or perching high in the mountains. This time of year more than ever, it’s a place to escape from, not a place to take refuge. But thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of Milanese flee to beach towns and mountain villages all over the country this month. No one comes to Milan.
No one, that is, except a few tourists from Northern and Eastern Europe who didn’t get the message about August in Italy.
Or maybe they wanted to see the city without crowds and traffic, which isn’t a bad idea, but they’ll definitely find their restaurant choices limited, as many of best ones close for the season. I’m not sure if there are really tourists right now, or if they just stand out because everyone else is gone. Now, it’s all tall blonds looking at maps and pouring sweat.
The real Milanese, the ones who were born here, go to their vacation spots. Everyone else goes back to wherever they came from – in that way, too, it’s like China’s Spring Festival, when everyone goes home for a long visit with family. (Although it’s hard to find a real Milanese person in Milan at any time of the year. Where have they all gone? No one knows, but everyone here is from somewhere else. Milan is one the most culturally diverse cities in Italy.)
The final week of July in Milan feels like the final week of school when you’re a kid.
No one is focused on anything. You can smell vacation in the air. Everyone is talking about it, you overhear it in conversations everywhere you go. People are still here, but they won’t be for long. They’re all scheming their escapes, which most people booked months ago.
The fruit guy at the market was so happy he was almost literally throwing free produce at me. A lemon, a sweet onion, an eggplant, bouquets of sage and mint.
“I don’t want to see even one tomato left!” He told me gleefully, while filling my reusable bag with roughly 14 zucchini, after I’d asked for 5 or 6.
He was going home to Egypt for a whole month – not an uncommon thing to hear in August. If your vacation is 14 days, people say, “Oh, only two weeks?” There must be something wrong.
July is the second sale season for shopping in Italy, after January. Almost everything is half-off, if you can just be bothered to walk down the street to the shops.
As I was leaving a boutique last week the shopkeeper said, “buona vacanza!” Have a good vacation!
I hadn’t told her I was going on an August vacation. She didn’t ask, “So, do you have any plans for a trip this summer?” Or, “Can you believe this heat in Milan! I’m going to up to the mountains next week to cool off. Do you have any vacation plans?”
No, no. It’s just assumed that people leave Milan in August. “Buon weekend” and “buona giornata” (have a good day) have just been replaced by their seasonal alternative.
Time off in Italy is not a casual decision. August vacation is an institution (it’s actually literally institutionalized).
Just like how most companies close for a week for Christmas (the Pope does live nearby, after all) they also close for at least a week or two in August every year.
During this first week of August in Milan, it feels like the city itself is only still here because it has to be. The emptying and quieting has been happening gradually all summer, as the people living in mostly un-airconditioned apartments (like mine) flee the heat of the plains.
(Milan is in the middle of a big, flat plain called the Pianura Padana, which gets bitter cold in the winter and piping hot and humid in the summer. Like Eastern Montana, but with more espresso and fresh mozzarella.)
It would be a mistake to think this happens because Italy is all about la dolce vita – the sweet life, taking it easy, not worrying and never working too hard.
This is not Italy; this is Milan.
Yes, Milan is in Italy, but it has a jarringly different culture and purpose from the rest of the country – where the concept of la dolce vita might actually still apply. This is not where people move after they retire to live a life of art and wine. This is where people come to work. Mostly young people, from all over Italy and from other countries. They flock to Milan.
As far as I’m aware, it’s the only city in Italy where people are consistently in a rush; they wear black, and being grumpy is part of the culture.
But even in Milan, all that stops in August. Or at least it slows down. It all gets less intense, because in this heat everything is already too intense. There’s no room for more drama, but there is, suddenly, room for all of us. There are no more traffic jams, parking becomes easy, lines at the grocery store dwindle, people stop getting haircuts and stop worrying about the little things. Milan suddenly feels like it fits.