My exchange in Milan in 2013 was a life-changing experience, despite how crass or cliché that might sound. As a third year architecture student with a myriad of possible career paths and interests, the semester studying in Milan helped me crystallize what it is I really love about architecture. And where else would be better for that than Italy? I could go on about all the amazing things you can do, see or eat in Italy, but I’ve found that such lists really don’t give an accurate impression of what an exchange can really be like. After all, a semester abroad isn’t spent between monuments and postcards, but with the random and serendipitous events that stick in your memory.

I studied at the Politecnico di Milano, a relatively ‘new’ university, under the auspices of their devoted exchange program. The greatest upside to this sort of arrangement was that we worked and interacted with people from all backgrounds and cultures, and also had a slightly more tailored teaching experience. My courses were ‘officially’ taught in English, but I made the effort to improve my Italian and speak to friends or professors in Italian where possible. This meant that my exchange was very much taught in two languages, and I could not be more grateful! The curriculum and methodology for teaching architecture in Europe is completely different, and so this exchange really let me try out a few ideas and courses that simply are not options at home. While organization and pragmatism aren’t exactly Italian strong suits, I found the teaching staff warm and approachable and have made friends with both staff and students alike!

My accommodation arrangements were rather unusual in that I rented a bedroom and bathroom off an Italian couple and they let me lead a private life. We would chat occasionally about the weather, politics or my work but this really offered me a secure base to travel and explore from. In the teaching semester I travelled every second weekend [with small trips often in between] to places like Paris, Copenhagen, Prague, Berlin, Barcelona and cities throughout northern and central Italy. In every city I bought a guide book, tourist map, a comfy pair of shoes and set a cracking walking pace to try and cram these amazing places into three and four day minibreaks! While I had visited a few of these cities before, returning with architectural pursuits in mind was a revelation and I would strongly urge every architecture or artistically inclined student to explore the classical treasures of greater Europe.

I could ramble on forever about the various things I did and saw, but a few experiences stick in my mind, such as:
• Getting caught in a storm and hiding under a garage with a group of German pensioners just outside Florence, only to discover I was huddling under a house lived in by Frank Lloyd Wright
• Strolling along the Champs-Elyseés with a friend from Australia in search of a croque monsieur at 2am for no apparent reason
• Misreading a map in Barcelona and hiking up the [relatively small] Montjuic to reach a military fort overlooking the whole city
• Stacking it on a bike in Copenhagen while trying to work out whether a building was ‘brutalist’ or just ugly with another guy from UQ Architecture
• Going to an AC Milan match at San Siro stadium and hearing tiny little Italian kids use some of the most elaborate curses I have ever heard

Like most exchange students, I really enjoy rambling on about all the things I did and saw, and what I remember most about my exchange. Nevertheless, some things discovered about Milan, Italians and the Milanese include:

  • The Italians are never in a hurry. They may look it, they may say it and they may curse vehemently when their metro is a few minutes late, but nothing happens very efficiently in Italy. So if you are struggling with bureaucracy, just do as the Italians and take a coffee break.
  • Even if you live on campus, you have to get a metro pass! The paperwork may be a pain, but unlimited travel around the city for $20 a month is unrivaled, and really gives you freedom to go and do as you please. Though keep in mind that metros stop for a few hours leading up to 6am, so that 7am flight out of Malpensa or Linate airports might require an expensive taxi or a long walk to the train station at 4am!
  • Aperitivo [What most people translate as ‘happy hour’] is like a student’s ideal meal: For less than $10 you get a drink/cocktail/wine of your choosing plus a buffet of ‘nibbles.’ Keep in mind this is Italy, so that means miniature pizzas, breads, pasta, salads, cured meat. And you can refill your little plate as much as you like until the food runs out.
  • If you plan on travelling, check out the smartphone apps a lot of cities produce for tourists. Things like Berlin Metro maps on your phone to basic phrases in Czech can be incredibly handy. For flights, Skyscanner is unbeatable! You shouldn’t necessarily book through the app, but it is the easiest way to find cheap flights and plan out your trips in advance saving a lot of money. For entertainment and concerts, try [An Italian ‘arts’ app for most of Northern Italy] or Bandsintown [Tracks who is on tour where and matches against your iPod].
  • Milan really doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do tourist wise, but after you’ve knocked off visiting the sights in the tour guides I still believe it never gets old having a gelato and sitting outside the Duomo! If you are interested in visiting lakes dotted around Northern Italy, then Lago Maggiore is your best bet. It might be harder to get to than Lake Como, but some of my favourite memories in Italy involve that lake!

In short, exchange and architecture just makes sense! Even if you don’t want to live it up with the crazy Italians and their amazing food, I would strongly suggest an exchange just to see what else it out there. I don’t know much about what other degrees are like, but architecture seems to vary massively throughout a world and I think sampling different styles and methods while gorging on pizza, pasta, gelato and aperitivo is an amazing use of a semester!

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