Justine Cullinan

The view from the top of the Duomo in the centre of Milan.

This seems a fitting image to illustrate the end of The Milan Plan. Setting aside academics I would say that there is very little I learnt that was brand new.  What Milan did was remind me of a lot that I had forgotten about or taken for granted. It introduced me to a new set of friends I hardly expected to make, it gave me a new appreciation for my home country that I will always love even if my accidental racial make up will prevent it from loving me back, and it over-delivered on my expectations, which are always well above the average. My life and what I get to experience humbles me.


Justine Cullinan

Milan Plan Brain Droppings

I've got six weeks left on The Milan Plan. It strikes me how many small things I've learned on this journey that have very little to do with academics.  Some of them here...

  1. Italian Coffee Culture

The famed Italian Coffee Culture isn't actually about origin (since absolutely no coffee is grown in Italy) and it isn't a culture.  People drink their coffee like shots, seldom sit down and spend no more than 10 minutes from queuing to leaving having drunk their coffee...which to me isn't a culture.  I prefer the American way, despite the judgement that might bring...a big cup, drunk slowly, among friends and those we want to listen to in conversation.

2. European Travel Rules

South Africa is a geographic prison.  It costs a fortune and takes ages to go somewhere.  It is quicker and cheaper (exchange rate considerations included) for me to travel from Italy to Hungary or the United Kingdom than it is for me to fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  This is why we have travel on such a pedestal in SA. In Italy, you can decide to go overseas on Tuesday and be there on Friday.  In South Africa we save up for months and plan years in advance. Who knows what Brexit has started in terms of free-flow people through Europe but simply in terms of distance and cost, European travel rules.

3. Public Transport Etiquette

When you are sharing planes, trains and buses with millions of others then you have got to calm down and stick to some basic rules whether that offends your millennial individualised status or not.  Stand on one side, walk on the other, give up your seat to someone more elderly than you and for pity's sake WAIT until everyone getting off at a stop has actually gotten off before you start getting on.  The Japanese are my heroes in this, not the Italians.

4. I prefer cover charges

In Italy restaurants and bars charge a flat fee per person sitting at a table which is added to the bill at the end of your meal.  They call this the 'coperto' literally meaning cover charge. Some charge more than others but in general it's about 2 Euros.  So each person eating in a group pays for their meal and their cover charge.  This means nobody tips.  Frankly I prefer that system because nobody is left worried about what they should tip or over-tipping because of friends that have opted not to tip because they are being cheap or wilfully lazy in calculating bill maths.

5. Black stockings work

South Africa is not much of a stocking-wearing nation.  I suspect it's because many of us had to wear them at school in Winter. The Italians however really use them to their fullest extent in Spring and Autumn. They go under skirts, capris and cut-off trousers, with trainers, sneakers, pumps, heels and boots.  And they work really well.  We get bored of our jeans or black pants (depending on the casual status of your office) very quickly in Jozi.  I am going to employ stockings to mix it up this winter when I'm back.

Mid-Milan Plan Update

The Milan Plan was a way to take a productive and nourishing kind of break from intensive career and degree pursuit.  Reflecting now two and a half months in (which is officially halfway) The Milan Plan has most definitely lived up to that intention.  It's been a wonderful way to remove myself from my commitments back in Jozi without losing any ground, without giving anything up permanently and without seeming like i'm having some kind of mid-life crises and I don't know what i'm doing anymore.  That book-yourself-into-a-spa-and-forget-your-life kind of getaway just isn't my kind of thing.  I am, whether good or bad, bound to the voracious gathering of achievements and improvements, even if its at cruise control for a period of time.

There are however some things I've learnt that are unexpected benefits. These are some of them:

1 - Age is just a number

I'm the oldest person by a good 8 to 10 years in EVERY class I'm in and NOBODY seems to notice.  Now maybe that's because they expect me to be younger and therefore don't realise until I get into a conversation about having a career and a husband that it sort of dawns on them.  But it doesn't seem to matter to anyone at all.  I have friends 10 years younger than me who include me in all their plans so it's like i'm a student again...without the pressure of trying to find a first job.

2 - SA's educational standard is high

What I need to do to secure a good grade in a course here is a lot less than I would need to do in Jozi.  What is expected here is much less than what was expected at home during my Masters degree.  The standard of education I enjoyed in South Africa is more than competitive on a global stage.  And that's just very satisfying especially when I remember that I paid for my own Masters degree while my parents had to emigrate to pay for my Undergraduate and Honours degrees.

3 - Being a South African is highly exhausting

This is of course moderated by the last few weeks' events in South Africa but the number of issues and the depth and complexity of those issues that we worry about as South Africans far outstrips the average European.  My Swedish, Norwegian, French and Italian friends are concerned about immigrants and tax and that's about it.  Now maybe that's also related to their age...few of them are competing already in the job market or own property...but when I speak about things like being downgraded to junk status or our finance minister being fired I am met with concerned and shocked stares.  For the most part Europeans expect their governments to fulfil their obligations, that their investments will be safe because " the law prevails". That puts my anti-trust sentiment and my highly developed sense of justice into sharp contrast.  Almost to the point where people think i'm aggressive.

Two examples:

1 - The Tram Smokers

Last week I got onto the tram late in the afternoon after class.  It was a full carriage carrying people home from their work day. I picked up (with my minimal Italian) that a woman on the tram was telling a group of youths (literally they couldn't have been more than 15 years old) to stop smoking.  I turned around to look at the group and realised that they were indeed smoking.  So I was of course horrified.  What horrified me more was that they completely ignored her.  They buried their heads in their phones and continued to pass a rolled cigarette to each other.  One kid was giving the lady a hard time but I couldn't understand exactly what he was saying. I felt an over-whelming desire to grab that kid by the scruff of his oversized hoodie and drag him off the tram for speaking to someone older than him with such impertinence not to mention breaking a simple law and a social contract of respect and consideration for fellow passengers.  The only thing that stopped me was my inability to argue in Italian...and I knew i'd come off worse in that fight if I started in English.  Nobody else on the tram said a word.

2 - Air BnB homophobia

Two friends (who are both male) attempted to book an Air BnB apartment in Rome for a few days recently.  When the host found out they were both men she (yes it was a woman) tripled the price, forcing them to withdraw their reservation, because she thought they were gay. That's against Air BnB's own anti-prejudice policy.  So there is an actual formal complaint process you can follow to report hosts like this.  My friends just thought it was hilarious and moved on to other accommodation options.  I was the only person who said they should report the matter.  They didn't care to take the trouble.

So what's my point?  My point is that this would not have happened in Jozi. But I had to think long and hard about why.  This is what I think;

South Africans are used to the fight.  Things don't work, so if you want to get something done you have to be willing to do it yourself.  If you can't trust the system, because it's broken, or it's corrupt, then you have to deliver your own rules and live by them and try to impose a sense of civilisation on those around you or simply refuse to surround yourself with people who don't have mutual respect for each other.  We are a people accustomed to self-regulating our community.

Us South Africans are used to speaking out.  We are used to defending those we love and care about, we use our positions and privileges where we can to support those without power, we are used to fighting back.  We don't simply push things aside and say "That's not my business".  Our country is ALL OUR BUSINESS.

Now this makes being a South African exhausting.  But it's who we are and it's what made us.  So we carry it with us wherever we go.  And as soon as I learn enough Italian to argue I'm going to be dispensing wrath upon youths that smoke on trams or Air BnB hosts that are homophobic with the full support of the laws in place in a country where things generally work better than they do at home.

In the world of academics, at this point in time I have completed all requirements for my Masters Degree.

It’s a Masters in Management: Strategic Marketing. 

I have completed all 12 modules and their related exams, assignments and course-work.

I have completed a thesis/dissertation/research report and handed it in.

I will graduate in July 2017.


Before the Masters journey comes to an end, I am going on an adventure. I am leaving my 5FM family, my dogs, a lot of my wardrobe and my amazingly supportive husband in Johannesburg.   

From the 25th January until the end of June 2017 I am spending a spring semester at Bocconi University in Milan.

I am studying three courses in Milan and applying myself to learning to speak and understand Italian.

That so many people conspired to empower me in this adventure is something that catches me in the throat each time I think about it. My life is a blessed one.  As @bevancullinan says, “Now is all you have.”


Justine Cullinan