‘Negative covid tests in hand, we entered a city in lockdown’

Charlotte Waldron writes about her Erasmus experience in Milan during the pandemic

The Duomo at sunrise  in Milan. Photograph: iStock

The Duomo at sunrise in Milan. Photograph: iStock

 

A year on from the devastation the Covid-19 Pandemic brought, Milan is quietly optimistic. My Erasmus experience, spending five months living in the city this Spring, showed me the famous resilience of the Italian’s up close. It taught me that life experiences, like studying abroad, can still be forged in the midst of a crisis. I learned that moving away, even during a pandemic, has incredible benefits. Although my Erasmus experience was far from typical, it was a decision I will never regret.

When I first learned I would be spending a semester studying with Bocconi University in Milan, Ireland was gripped by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. I returned from work, elated by the news that I would have this opportunity. Never did I consider that Covid-19 would still be in our lives a year on. My decision to embark on Erasmus was fraught with uncertainty. Initially, I wondered whether the University Erasmus Team would allow the programme to go ahead. Then, I wondered whether I could deal with the challenges that moving away from home for the first time in a pandemic can bring. I left Ireland along with five others on the 18th of January. I was nervous but hopeful that I was making the right decision. In time, I would learn it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Negative Covid tests in hand, we entered a city in lockdown and initially stayed on the outskirts of Milan. Yet even in the red zone lockdown, you got the sense of the character of the city. I am a coffee fanatic and formed a fast friendship with the local barista. Although we were only living in our first accommodation for two weeks, we were welcomed by the people we encountered. I had assumed we might be treated with suspicion given our limited Italian and Irish features. Instead, we were a source of town gossip I suspect - but treated with the utmost kindness.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele- Located in central Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is home to the world’s most luxurious brands. It is Italy’s oldest shopping gallery and a must-see attraction in central Milan.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele- Located in central Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is home to the world’s most luxurious brands. It is Italy’s oldest shopping gallery and a must-see attraction in central Milan.

By the time we moved into our apartment in central Milan, the region had moved first to orange zone (in which non-essential shops are open) and then to yellow zone (where bars and restaurants are open). The timing couldn’t have been better. We were finding our feet in a city that was eager to feel alive again. Bocconi University was reopening its doors for limited in-person classes, while the majority of learning remained online. As a student who had completed every class online since the pandemic hit last year, I was over-the-moon at the thought of experiencing in-person learning again. As many have realised, online classes are no substitute for the college environment. University is about far more than your degree subject matter.

It is about hanging around with classmates after a lecture is over. It is about laughing until your belly hurts about something embarrassing your friend did in the club the night before. It is about the comradery and friendship that university brings. The isolation experienced by young people as a result of online learning has had a profound impact. I feel incredibly privileged that Milan gave me the opportunity to escape that.

It wasn’t all plane sailing. Some creativity was required to make friends during my time in Milan. The Erasmus Student Network- usually the hub for making friends while on Erasmus- was an aspect of our experience that could not flourish in the online environment. Instead, we reached out to others we had heard were studying with Bocconi for the semester and living in Milan. We encountered French girls and fellow Irish students and formed a close-knit circle. While we missed out on making the wide network of friends that Erasmus usually brings, we formed incredible bonds given the unique experience we were having.

Our days were spent wandering around the city, sometimes vintage shopping in the famous Ticence district when the budget allowed for it. When the sun was out, we spent afternoons lounging around in the many parks scattered throughout Milan and drinking Aperol Spritz when it took our fancy. Evenings were spent along the Naviglio Grande Canal, the centre of student life in Milan. Nights often ended early, as we were under curfew from ten pm, but we returned to the apartment for karaoke and dancing. Life was simple and yet wonderful.

Towards the end of our stay, we were lucky enough to be able to visit Rome, Florence and the Amalfi Coast, as the Italian Government lifted the ban on inter-regional travel. The lack of international visitors meant we were exposed to a side of Italy rarely seen, a country without tourists.

Visiting the Vatican: St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, usually packed, is surprisingly quiet in this photo. Charlotte Waldron pictured walking towards St Peters Basilica, in the sunshine in late May
Visiting the Vatican: St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, usually packed, is surprisingly quiet in this photo. Charlotte Waldron pictured walking towards St Peters Basilica, in the sunshine in late May

Rome, usually bustling with people ready to take in the beautiful historical sites, was unusually quiet. The Vatican was vast and peaceful, with very few visitors present. As we wandered around a deserted Colosseum and Roman Forum, able to see the ruins up close, I realised I would likely never get to see Rome like this again- truly empty.

My Erasmus was an experience like no other. While we missed out on some Erasmus rituals, we still had a life changing five months living in Milan. We have had a different experience to anyone who came before us. Yet, I believe we were privy to the Italian spirit in a way we would not have been had we embarked on Erasmus in normal times. We have seen a side to the Italians we would not have seen. When we entered a short 4-week lockdown on the anniversary of the first wave in March, we were exposed to the resilience famously displayed by the Italians up close.

In many ways, we have seen the real Milan, defiant in the face of unspeakable tragedy and quietly optimistic that the world is moving past this pandemic. My experience living in Milan during these unpredictable times has allowed me to look at situations in a different way.

It has taught me about myself and others. It has showed me how the world reacts to different events and yet life keeps moving and we all have to adapt within it. My decision to study abroad in Milan this year was the best decision I have ever made.