Rebecca and Zachary Weinberg, Langone MBA Class of 2014

Both of us stared out the window in a euphoric gaze as the plane left the ground. “Andiamo a Milano.” This was all the Italian we knew as we embarked on the 9-hour flight to Milan on a Sunday afternoon in late August.

A husband and wife team. We’d made it through the GMATs, business school applications, and 2.5 years of classes together.  We had both just left our full-time jobs, our cozy apartment, and the rest of our commitments behind, and this was to be the culmination of the long, intensive journey to get our MBA degrees.  We were determined to make the most of it.  With three months ahead of us as full-time students at the SDA Bocconi School of Management, and given our relative ignorance for what a full-time course load entails (having been Langone students), we were headed into new and unchartered territory. Our expectations were high: explore the countryside four out of every seven days. You always have to have a stretch goal, right?

Well, 160 lbs. of luggage , a crazy train ride, two taxis and multiple ascents to a 5th floor walk-up later, we had finally made it. We were a 12 minute walk to school, had a main tram line to the center Duomo on our street corner and a ‘Giaponese’ restaurant at street level. I mean, can it really get any better?

The next day came school. The schedule was as follows: two mini semesters of five classes each for a total of 6 hours of class a day from 8:30am-2:30pm, Monday through Friday. We would be earning 15 credits and taking 10 classes. It was intense!  And not just in the academic setting. Aside from slowly adjusting to having free afternoons and evenings (read: multiple class readings, many assignments, and an insane amount of group work), grocery shopping required quick thumbs on Google Translate, tram rides were wrought with “mi scusi” and dinner could only begin with “menu inglese, per favore”? It was already Friday and at this point our stretch goal wasn’t looking all that promising anymore.

Fast forward ten weeks. It’s Sunday afternoon and we have just spent the last 72 hours exploring the most breathtaking views on Italy’s famous Amalfi coast (if you’ve never heard of it, take a moment to Google some pictures). We hit the towns of Positano, Ravello, Sorrento, and Praiano, and were now headed back to the mainland to catch our 5 hour train ride to Milan. Our little Fiat 500 puttered along the snake-like coastal road, with Zach’s hand and foot continuously maneuvering the manual transmission as we took each hairpin turn in stride.  Italian Top 40 playing loudly on the radio (we can already sing along), windows rolled down, blasting the horn with every curve, and fearlessly squeezing between oncoming buses, motorists, Vespas, and pedestrians without ever losing speed. Suffice it to say, we were officially assimilated.

All told, in three months we visited Lake Como, Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna, Bologna, Parma, Modena, Varona, Padova, Mantova, the Cinque Terre, Rome, Venice, Sienna, Tuscany, Torino, and of course, the Amalfi Coast. We figured out rather quickly that missing a Friday here or a Monday there was really just our personal expression of embracing Italy’s laid back and relaxed culture. And boy did we eat well.  Each region had its especially unique food. In Sorrento we drank limoncello, in Cinque Terre the pesto can’t be beat, in Mantova the sweet potato-stuffed ravioli will make you salivate, and the list goes on and on. The one constant throughout all our culinary adventures was the coffee and it was so unique that it deserves some analysis.

In Italy the coffee culture is a little different than in other parts of the world, namely North America. Whereas we are accustomed to a ‘grab-and-go’ mentality, Italy is fluent in the ‘slow-down-and-enjoy’ approach. For one, there is no such thing as a disposable hot-cup. At cafés, you order your coffee at the bar and then drink it standing before you continue on your way. Additionally, if you order a latte you will receive a warm cup of milk. And heaven forbid you order a cappuccino after 11am – you will be immediately pegged as an ignorant tourist and will have lost all the respect that you may have inadvertently gained. Italians drink Espresso with a capital ‘E’. It can take some getting used to, but their brew of coffee is the purest you can have. In fact, in one of our classes we had the opportunity to visit the La Cimbali company (pronounced ‘chimbali’), one of the first espresso machine manufacturers in the world. We will spare you the technical details about the bars of pressure and the brewing process of the barista, but you have never had a better cup of coffee in your life. Tangy, full of flavor, and never with a ‘kind-of burnt’ taste in your mouth. So coffee was a pretty distinct part of our Italian cultural experience, and at least one of us has returned to NY a true coffee snob.

We were two of four Americans in the entire program, and it was an absolute cultural immersion.  Our peers hailed from all over the globe, and it was fascinating to have class discussions with such a wide variety of international business perspectives.  The program itself was centered on the topics of innovation and entrepreneurship and as part of that, we had the chance to visit and hear from many different Italian companies about their struggles and successes in this area.  It was eye-opening to learn about the challenges companies face elsewhere in the world, and made us feel quite privileged to be studying and working in the US, where it seems growth opportunities are more plentiful.  We will be taking these lessons learned with us as we finish up our last semester at Stern and continue on in our personal and professional lives.  Armed with a lifetime of amazing memories and crazy experiences to treasure, we look forward to the next chapter.  We certainly are the better for it.

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