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MILAN

‘It takes time’: Foreign residents on what it’s really like to live in Milan

As Milan has ranked both highly and poorly in recent liveability surveys, we asked the city's foreign residents to share the truth on what life is really like there. Here's what readers of The Local told us - as well as insider advice if you're thinking of moving to Milan.

Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.
Is it possible to enjoy life in Milan as a foreign resident? The Local’s readers weigh in.Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

After Milan was once again ranked in the bottom five in an annual survey of the best and worst cities to move to as a foreigner (this time coming in second-to-last place), we decided to create our own survey asking our Milan-based readers for their thoughts on what life in the city is really like.

The responses were mixed: a little over half of respondents were broadly positive about the quality of life in Milan, checking the ‘life’s fantastic’, ‘I’m grateful to be living here’, or ‘no complaints’ boxes.

Just under half said they have had a difficult experience of living in the city, with around one in ten actively hating the experience.

On an individual basis, readers had plenty of useful insights into how the city ticks and how to get the most out of living in Italy’s economic capital.

Here’s what you had to say about the best and worst parts of living in Milan – as well as your advice for people weighing up whether to make the move themselves.

‘An amazing strategic location’

Those who give Milan a thumbs up appreciate its convenient geographical position and cosmopolitan feel.

“I have Italianness where I want it, and the efficiency, modernity and access of an international-level city when I need it,” says Kate, who’s lived in Milan for a bit less than a year.

READ ALSO:

“It’s a cosmopolitan city but it is still small enough to feel manageable,” agrees James Appleton, who moved to the city in 2020. “Things tend to work, and it’s in an amazing strategic location.”

In particular, residents highlight that the city’s close proximity to nature means they can easily take weekend or day trips to a range of scenic destinations.

“Geographically it is in a superb position, near the mountains and the sea,” says resident Melanie, who has lived in Milan on and off for forty years.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan.

Lake Como is just a short car journey or train ride from Milan. Photo: Anjuna Ale on Unsplash

“It’s amazing to be within an hour train ride of so many beautiful places outside of Milan,” agrees Veronica Policht, who’s spent two living years in the city.

And if you fancy going further afield, it’s also well-positioned for making international trips.

“The airports are very accessible and I really like the convenience of Linate for travel within Europe or to the UK. I think Milan is easily one of the most accessible and navigable cities I’ve ever lived in (I’m from Sydney and have lived in Hong Kong, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo),” says Nicki, who’s lived in Milan for two years.

READ ALSO:

‘World class’ public transport

Another highlight of life in Milan, say readers, is the excellent public transport system.

“Milan’s public transportation is amazing, honestly world class,” enthuses Veronica.

It’s “very easy to get around, great public transport and bike lanes and easy to walk everywhere” seconds Nicki.

The city tends to gets a bad rap for its appearance compared to places like Florence and Rome, but several readers said they find Milan an attractive place to live. 

And when it comes to food and culture, many of you agree: Milan’s is second to none.

James cites Milan’s “food and drink options, its beautiful and underrated centre, its modern architecture” as some of city’s best qualities, while Veronica appreciates the “many cultural opportunities available”.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life.

Pre-dinner aperitivi are considered a highlight of Milanese life. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

“The food, aperitivo, architecture, parks, and art,” are all highlights for two-year Milanese resident Joshua; and Steve Geddis, who’s lived in the city for four years, agrees that there’s a “huge range of restaurants, constantly lots to do.”

So what’s not to love about Italy’s economic capital?

‘The pollution is awful’

Two negative aspects of life in Milan consistently cropped up in reader responses: the high cost of living and the elevated pollution levels.

“One of the most polluted places in Europe” is how former Milanese resident Laura summed it up, and Veronica agrees that “the pollution is awful”.

According to Paul Pontecorvo, who’s lived in the city since 2006, it’s particularly bad in the winter: “the period between Jan-Feb with no air moving and smog is dreadful…you feel it in your lungs.”

Residents say the high levels of pollution is one of the worst things about life in Milan.

Residents say the pollution is one of the worst aspects of life in Milan. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

Several respondents also warned that unless you’re on a reasonably high salary, you might not earn enough to take advantage of all that the city has to offer.

“Cost of living and taxes drastically outpace average income making it difficult to do much beyond survive,” is the gloomy assessment from Kurt, who’s lived in Milan for four and a half years.

READ ALSO: 

Isibor Sunday, who has lived in Milan for four years, characterises life in the city as: “Working like elephant eating like ant.”

The high cost of rent is seen as a particular culprit when it comes to draining funds: they’re “too high and rising” says Veronica.

“Even after the pandemic housing prices are unreasonable, especially for students or anyone who’s salary is based on a fixed nation-wide standard (like university staff).”

And if you’re considering buying your own place, “the cost of buying a house is almost as bad as London but requiring a bigger deposit,” warns Steve.

‘Rainy and grey’

Other bugbears?

For an Italian city, Milan has a cold and rainy climate that some denizens find particularly unpleasant.

“It’s rainy and grey in November – it’s definitely not a Mediterranean climate,” says Kate.

Readers say Milan’s grey and wet weather leaves a lot to be desired.

Readers say Milan’s smog and weather are major downsides. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO/AFP

“The weather is awful,” agrees Marta, who has lived in the city for two years.

If you’re coming from northern Europe, though, it’s likely to be no worse what than you’re used to. “It can be a little damp in November, but only by Italian standards!” says James.

The traffic and driving culture is also considered a drawback: an “over-abundance of drivers make the streets dangerous, ugly, and stressful,” says Veronica.

Charlie, who’s lived in Milan for 14 months, agrees: “FAR too many cars and everyone thinks the pavement is a car park.”

READ ALSO: Ten things you need to know before moving to Italy

Then are some facets of the city that aren’t all that bad in their own right, but that may disappoint new arrivals who have certain preconceived notions of what it can offer.

A few of you noted although Milan is cosmopolitan for Italy, it’s less international than other global hubs.

“Don’t expect such a cosmopolitan hub as London or NY or even Paris,” was the advice from a new resident who’s lived in Milan for five months.

“It pretends to be international but it is not at all and even integrated, speaking the language and having friends there it never gives you the feeling of living in big city like London or Paris,” is the scathing review from one ex-resident of four years.

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is?

Milan: not as international as it thinks it is? Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Says Melanie, who first moved to the city four decades ago: “It has improved and become more international but the Milanese do have a small town mentality!”

And those who think Milan’s status as Italy’s most modern metropolis means they won’t have to deal with the country’s infamous red tape are in for a rude awakening.

“The bureaucracy is as bad as anywhere else in Italy,” says James; while Adam Rugnetta, who’s been a resident for five years, identifies the bureaucracy as the worst part of living in the city – though adds that “it’s the same in the rest of the country.”

Making the move

What guidance do our readers have for foreigners looking to make the move?

Make an effort to learn the language, before and after moving, was the most commonly issued advice.

Not only is the ability to speak Italian almost always critical if you want to find a job with an Italian company, “it makes a huge difference to understanding everything about the culture,” says Melanie.

“Try to speak Italian, even if you’re bad, people will appreciate the effort either way and probably reply in English most of the time,” advises Steve.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents.

Learning Italian will ease your transition to Milan, say residents. Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Several readers suggested exploring different neighbourhoods of the city and being open to moving around until you find the one where you feel most comfortable.

And with rents as high as they are, Veronica even suggests looking outside the city for accommodation: “Really consider if it’s important to you to live *in* Milano proper or if you could be happy living in a surrounding suburb and commuting to work.” 

Some respondents pointed out that you can feel isolated in a big city like Milan, and it’s not always easy to make friends.

With that in mind, it’s important to take the initiative when it comes to finding a community.

“Be open and outgoing, speak to people, and if you want to make new friends and don’t have school age kids, get a dog!” is what Lulu, who’s lived in the city for five and a half years, suggests.

“Join clubs for expats, the local gym, book clubs, toddlers groups etc, it will be easier for you,” says Melanie.

And if you’re new to the city and struggling?

“Don’t worry about hating it all at first,” she says cheeringly. “It takes time!!”

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LIVING IN ITALY

How to adopt a pet from an Italian animal shelter

There are a great number of cats and dogs in Italian shelters, and an urgent need for more people willing to adopt. Here's how people in Italy can give them a home.

How to adopt a pet from an Italian animal shelter

Many people are open to the idea of adopting a rescue dog or cat, but find the idea of doing so in a foreign country overwhelming.

While adopting a rescue animal in Italy involves some time and paperwork, in all it’s a fairly straightforward process.

Corinna Epifania has worked in animal rescue organisations in Italy for 35 years, founding the adoption charity Salva la Zampa (‘Save the Paw’) in Gaggiano near Milan in 2012.

Chiara Collatina volunteers at the Ponte Marconi public kennel in Rome, which is run and financed by city authorities. Last year she adopted her dog, Teo, from the shelter.

The Local spoke with Epifania and Collatina about how people in Italy can look into adopting a rescue pet, what the process involves, and how those who aren’t able to adopt can help in other ways.

Yuri the dog with Salva la Zampa president and founder Corinna Epifania.
Freddy the dog with volunteer Helen Wilson. Photo: Corinna Epifania.

The need for rescue pet adoption in Italy

The Italian animal rights group Lav estimates that around 80,000 dogs and 50,000 cats are abandoned each year in Italy, despite the act being a crime punishable by or up to one year in prison or fines of €1,000-10,000.

The peak period for pet desertion is over the summer holidays, when around 25 to 30 percent of abandonments occur.

A significant number of dogs are also abandoned in Italy during hunting season (around September-February), when hunters get rid of hounds and gundogs that are too old to work.

Epifania says that Salva la Zampa has become known as a place that will take in ageing hunting dogs. Demand is particularly high towards end of the season, as hunters don’t want to invest resources in a dog they think will no longer be useful by the following season.

“With hunters we cannot have put them on a waiting list and say okay, now we don’t have the money to help you,” says Corinna, explaining the organisation fears that the dogs risk being shot in the meantime.

“We can’t say no, we are obliged to take them.”

The organisation says that with the cost of living crisis adoptions are down this year, as people who might have considered taking in a rescue animal have to prioritise basic necessities.

This means that while their ideal maximum capacity is 15 dogs, Salva la Zampa is currently caring for 25, pushing the organisation to its limits.

In the larger Ponte Marconi shelter, there are usually around 150 animals at any one time; as soon as one dog is adopted, a new rescue takes its place.

Unlike those at Salva la Zampa, most of the rescue animals in the public shelter are abandoned dogs found wandering the streets without collars or microchips.

Collatina says that she spent a year preparing to adopt Teo, then six years old, after he “stole my heart.”

Chiara with her rescue dog Teo.
Chiara with her rescue dog Teo. Photo: Chiara Collatina.

“He is an exceptional dog; respectful, has never soiled the house or been naughty, is affectionate and adores children and elderly people,” she says.

“I don’t know his past, I only know that in his cage he was in pain and was very thin. Today he is a different dog: calm and very, very grateful.”

How to adopt

Wherever you live in Italy, you’re probably not far from an animal shelter; a simple search for a canile or rifugio per animali in your town or city should bring up multiple results. 

You can browse profiles of the organisation’s animals first to see whether any of them seem like a good match, or just visit the shelter and meet the animals there (in most cases you’ll need to make an appointment).

When signing up to adopt, most reputable shelters will ask you to fill out questionnaire asking for details about your living situation, household size and lifestyle, so they can identify the right dog or cat for you.

Epifania recommends always going through an organisation, as they will have built up a picture of the animal’s personality and history and can make sure the adoption stands the best chance of success.

In the past, for example, she says there have been cases of adoptions falling through when someone in, e.g., Milan takes in a stray dog from the south without considering whether a city apartment is the right place for them.

“I cannot give a very active dog to a couch potato, because the dog will get nervous and maybe destroy their house because he wants to do things,” says Epifania.

Similarly, “if I have an old person, I must give him a dog which he can take on the leash and walk without falling on the ground because the dog is pulling him down.”

Freddy the dog with volunteer Helen Wilson.
Liquirizia the dog with Emanuela Bianchi, vice president of Salva la Zampa. Photo: Corinna Epifania.

Salva la Zampa is unusual in that a high proportion – around 80 percent – of its animals are adopted internationally by families in Germany, as well as Belgium, Holland, Austria, and Switzerland.

Epifania says she decided to branch into overseas adoptions due to the high number of pets needing a home in Italy and the shortfall in the number of people looking to adopt.

For these cross-border adoptions, the prospective owner is not required to visit the Gaggiano kennel in person, but one of the organisation’s partners on the ground will inspect their home to make sure it’s suitable.

It’s common for rescue organisations within Italy, too, to conduct checks on the home of the person taking in one of their animals, both in the weeks leading up to and following the adoption.

For in-country adoptions, Salva la Zampa requires candidates to come to the shelter in person at least once – sometimes multiple times – to build a rapport with their new pet. If the people adopting already have a dog, they’ll ask them to bring it to the shelter to see how the two animals get along.

Paperwork

All dogs in Italy must be microchipped and placed on the national canine registry as a legal requirement (for cats this is required only in certain regions); failure to do so could result in fines of up to several hundred euros.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about microchipping your pet in Italy

Dogs in shelters will have already been microchipped by a previous owner or the rescue organisation, but you’ll still need to submit a ‘passaggio di proprieta’ to register yourself as the new owner.

This requires both you and the shelter to sign a document that is then filed with the local public health authority (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, or Asl) confirming that both parties agree to the transfer of ownership.

Many shelters also require the new owner to sign a certificate of commitment promising to take good care of their pet for the rest of its life.

In some public shelters like Ponte Marconi, the official completion of the transfer is put on hold for 60 days in case the adoption breaks down and the animal is returned to the shelter. This is a last resort, and not a standard occurrence.

Chiara with one of the dogs at Ponte Marconi.
Chiara with one of the dogs at Ponte Marconi. Photo: Chiara Collatina.

While the shelter will have given the animal a full health check, new owners will need to register their pet with a local vet and make sure they remain up to date with vaccines, passing on any medical information provided by the shelter.

International adoptions like those handled by Salva la Zampa require the preparation of an EU ‘pet passport’ that allows the animal to travel within the bloc.

The organisation then registers the transfer with the EU’s TRACES system, submitting the animal’s passport number and details, the name of the sending organisation, the address where it will be dropped off, the dates of travel and the estimated duration of the trip.

Adoption fees

Animal shelters in many European countries impose adoption fees, and the practice is now standard in Italy for those adopting from private shelters.

Salva la Zampa asks for an adoption free of no less than €200 from new owners in order to support the work of the organisation.

Publicly-run shelters, by contrast, won’t tend to request an adoption payment. Ponte Marconi does not ask for any fees, says Collatina.

How to help without adopting

If you’re not in a position to adopt, you can still be of great value to an organisation.

Volunteers are always in high demand in both public and private shelters.

“Obviously, the more volunteers there are, the more often the dogs have a chance to get out of their cages,” says Collatina.

Epifania says that Salva la Zampa is particularly keen to recruit young and/or tech savvy volunteers who can help with its social media accounts and raise awareness of the organisation’s work.

In terms of financial help, donors can assist private shelters like Salva la Zampa by donating through platforms like Wishraiser or Teaming, links to which can be found on its website.

Donors can also remotely ‘adopt’ a pet by paying a monthly sum for its food, shelter, and veterinary expenses. Sponsors who do this can visit ‘their’ dog in the shelter and take it for walks when they want.

Finally, taxpayers in Italy can donate money to an animal rescue charity by naming it as their ‘5 per mille’ (Italy’s Gift Aid equivalent) choice on their tax forms, meaning a small amount proportion of your tax money will go to them.

As a public shelter, Ponte Marconi doesn’t accept financial donations, but can receive blankets for the dogs.

Collatina says one of the main ways people can help is by both raising awareness of the need for adoption and dispelling myths about the types of dogs that are best to adopt.

“Often requests are made for puppies because people think it’s easier to train them or get them attached, but this isn’t true,” she says.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the power of adopting an adult or elderly dog; dogs that were raised in kennels and have never had a family, dogs that lived for years with the family they loved so much that then abandoned them, or dogs that grew up with violence and have never known love.”

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